AN: I should mention that this isn't really my fandom and I don't actually know the canon all that well. It is, however, skywalker05's fandom and when a friend requests birthday fic the only thing to do is to spaz around for two months and then write frantically to make up for lost time. Happy late birthday!

Quote comes from Josh Ritter lyics.


Proper Protocol for the Destruction of

"A man burning at both ends…
I regret the things I've done
Bitter words and fiery tongues
And letters burned to smoke and then turned to wind."

I.

Shepard makes it through the crushing ruin of her ship but can't see the path in front of her for the rubble and the smoke. Fire watches her from every damaged corner; it seems incongruous to have smoke in space, but it's there nevertheless. Shepard is a soldier's daughter, she was raised on false gravity and piped-in air, she's more comfortable standing in spacecraft than she is on the open ground of Earth—but still it strikes her now that all a spaceship does is suspend. She's in a little bubble of safety, surrounded by the void. The world she's always trusted is a fabrication of melting steel.

The Normandy is burning.

The hull's been cut in two, the sides pierced and pot-marked, the escape pods released full of fleeing crewmembers. The ship lists drunkenly in the black nothing, though 'list' is a ground-term with little sense here. There are no directions that will fit. Within the ship, those hallways still intact are littered with fallen bulkhead plates and the echoing screech of alarms.

Shepard strides through the wreck, her breathing loud in her ears, reflected back by her oxygen-pumping helmet. Though visibility is low she walks with her shoulders squared, the confidant commander following the orders she gives herself.

Quickly, through smoke and ruin.

She finds Joker where she expected to find him: hunched over the main console on what was once the bridge. Now it's all smoke and blaring sensors and the flicking panic of orange caution lights. In the cracked expanse of the main viewport she sees nothing but black. A dull-tin computer voice warns in her ear that suit oxygen levels are at fifty three percent and falling.

"Joker," she says. He doesn't hear her, so focused is he on his fingers as they fly over the flashing screens. (He told her once that every one of those fingers has been broken at least a couple times. He told her once that as a little kid, constantly shattering bones and constantly in pain, he'd deliberately snapped a finger—his way of meeting and taunting the pain directly, rather than be stuck dreading it day after day. He told her once…)

"Joker," Commander Shepard says again. "We have to go."

"No," he says, distractedly, and maybe it's only her helmet that's obscuring his voice, making it strange.

"The Normandy is gone, Joker." She tries to say it kindly. "We have to get out of here before what's left explodes."

"I can still fix her, Commander, I know I can. Just give me a little more time."

"There isn't any more time. Come on. There's no point in dying along with the ship." Shepard puts a hand on his shoulder, careful as always. Whatever great machines within the ship's coiling body allow for gravity have been damaged—perhaps in the initial shock, or perhaps the fire's reached that far down—and she feels oddly weightless as she touches him. Her bones are drifting beneath her skin.

But Joker isn't swayed. "You don't understand, Shepard," he says, voice thick and low with urgency. "She's mine. I have to save her."

And this is the point that makes Shepard pause: these are the words she must seek out. The right ones will lead Joker out of his extra-padded chair. The right ones will let them both flee the destruction, alive and together. The right ones will let them seek their survival on some different ship, instead. Joker presses his shoulder back against the warm flesh of her palm and waits.

"She's mine," he repeats softly. "I can't just let her go."

Too late, Shepard thinks. There's nothing you can do. You're mine and I can't just let you go. She thinks all these things but doesn't say them, and later she'll regret that—any one of them could have been the best option, the right choice. She'll regret it because she's the Commander, his Commander, and yet with the Normandy falling to bits around them she lets them all down and says the wrong words.

"The Normandy's just a ship," she says. "We can replace ships, not people."

Joker stiffens under her grasp. His fingers, stilled for precious moments, once more dance across the flickering console screen. "No. You're wrong."

"Joker, we need to go-…"

Warning, chirps a computer alarm, somehow still working in a bridge split damn near the middle, warning. Structural integrity at thirty three percent. Warning. Life support systems failing. Warning.

Warning, Shepard's body screams out. It's cowardly for a leader to think that way but she's only human after all, flesh and guts instead of glass, instead of batteries and pipe. "Joker," she says, desperate now because she chose wrong in her words and there's no way to take them back. "Come with me. That's an order."

"I can still fix her," he murmurs, and in the end he's made a choice of his own. "If I can reroute the main…" His voice trails off.

"We'll die if we stay here. You know that!" And so what if he does? He's accepted the risk. Then let me stay with you, she pleads, but in the stiff hunching of his shoulders there's no space left for her.

Warning, says the computer voice, structural integrity at twenty five percent. Warning. Life support systems…

"You'd better go," says Joker without turning around. "Before the last escape pod leaves without you."

"I won't—"

"You're the hero. Just get out of here."

Shepard stares at him, scrabbling beneath her helmet. Of their own human impulse her feet begin to shuffle backwards. There's no stopping it: all she can think is that he looks so very hunched and small, in that extra-padded chair surrounded by debris. Warning, the computer voice is saying when she reaches the doors onto the bridge and stumbles backwards through them.

Commander Shepard of the Normandy makes it to the last escape pod, but before she can reach it a great explosion rips through the ship, constrained by the force fields, silent in the void of space and all the more eerie for it. The ship jerks, and all the bits twisting and shattering and melting away come together. The explosion, as she thinks later, after she's been pulled into the pod's safety by her loyal crew, is more gasp than roar.

All this really means, then, is that there's no blast to watch as her escape pod drifts away. The Normandy has already been reduced to fragments of scrap. She stares at where the bridge should be, but there are no directions that make sense here.

The other crew members in her pod waited until it was almost too late, so as not to abandon their commanding officer. She suspects she should feel some sort of gratitude for that. But she's always been so good at going cool under pressure.

"What course have you set?" she asks, and turns away from the small viewport, putting her back to the grave.

(In the coming years Commander Shepard will be decorated thrice more for valor in the heat of combat. She will attract attention from all sorts of interesting organizations, though never one headed by a hologram-phantom—there's no need for him to come out of the shadows with Shepard alive to do his bidding unaware. And there's no need for his organization to prove their strange research on rebuilding human life; in fact, after a time they drop the research altogether, as Shepard goes about her business as hero.

In the coming years Commander Shepard will keep herself apart, lose as many crewmembers to fading friendships as to geth. She'll constantly request transfers to new ships because nothing ever assigned to her feels like it fits. In the coming years she will talk to herself, late at night in her room on whatever ship she happens to be in charge of at the moment, and she will guess at the right words with computers hissing warning in her ears.)

II.

Joker presses his shoulder back against the warm flesh of her palm and waits. "She's mine," he repeats softly. "I can't just let her go."

He waits. They are both waiting. But Shepard, who hates to stammer, stays silent as her thoughts fumble for the right words. She's no longer sure they exist. Oh, if she could only convince him to leave…

When she fails to say something, though, Joker simply smiles. Usually his grins have something of a sardonic edge, but now he looks so sincere, so understanding. He brings his hands together, cracks the knuckles of his fingers. He doesn't appear upset at his commander's lack of words.

Then he sighs. "Hey, as long as you're standing here pulling the attractively worried boss-lady routine, how about manning that console to the left? I think it still works. If there's someone else routing power to life support I can try to…"

Warning. Structural integrity at thirty three percent.

Shepard finds her voice long enough to ask, "You think that will work?" Without waiting for an answer she moves over to the indicated console, finds it operational despite a crack running sideways across the screen. "Can you fix all this damage? It was a direct hit, you know."

"Tell me about it," he mumbles back. "The bastards."

Silence as they both work. Shepard ignores the voice in her ear announcing the limited air supply. Joker growls, hits his console with the palm of his hand as if sheer force of personality will get it to follow his orders. Shepard isn't having much more luck on her end.

Warning. Structural integrity at twenty five percent. Warning. Life support systems failing.

"We know that, goddamn it," he snarls. "Come on, baby, work with me!"

"Hey," she says softly, "if you still want to evacuate…"

"You think," he asks without looking at her, "the last escape pod's still here? How loyal were your people, Commander?"

"To me or to the Normandy?"

Shepard chuckles when she says it but still Joker turns around in his chair to give her the most strained gaze she's ever seen him wear. In his eyes she can read his dilemma: he can't leave the ship, she can't leave him, and he cannot choose between them though not doing so means death. Shepard recognizes his apology at forcing her to be the one to decide. Perhaps he expects her to be angry…all she feels right now is the warmth of his concern.

"Don't worry," she says, the calm commander once more, "we can both—"

The ship groans, then, and gives a great lurch. There's a horrible clatter from the depths, as metalwork and bulkheads and expensive equipment crash into each other in the sudden, dramatic shift. Shepard damn near falls out of her chair, has to grab onto the now-entirely-broken console for balance. "No good," she says with a quiet hiss to the words, "The console's shot, Joker."

She watches Joker turn his head and look at her (is he smiling?), watches his lips form words, perhaps the words she couldn't find herself. But what those words are is still a mystery, for in that moment the Normandy gives one last gasp and the flames soar up from the innards and all the directions flee. The main viewpoint shatters. In the shattering Shepard can see her reflection, and Joker's, split into shards.

The floor underneath her feet buckles. The computer voice screams warnin- one last time and then wires snap and it cuts off with a screech. The various force fields turn themselves off carefully, as if following proper protocol for the destruction of spacecraft. Amazing the ship has any gravity left to offer at all—

(They can't bring her back because her lingering in the bridge for as long as she did put her too close to the final explosions, too close to the remnants of ship's gravity, which sent metallic splinters in all false-directions. They can't bring her back because there isn't enough to bring back. The universe adapts, and the creatures fighting within it adapt, and even if humanity does lose in the end there's nothing to suggest the victory is gone. It's only been given to others.)

—Shepard isn't quite conscious enough for the final dissolution of the Normandy, and the final plunge, but she knows Joker is close. In fact she thinks she sees him, but whether he's reaching for her or the ship she can't be sure.

III.

Joker sighs. "Hey, as long as you're standing here pulling the attractively-worried boss-lady routine, how about manning that console to the left? I think it still works. If there's someone else routing power to life support I can try to…"

Warning. Structural integrity at thirty three percent.

Shepard finds her voice long enough to ask, "You think that will work?"

"I'm telling you, Commander, I don't care how bad the damage is, I can fix it if I can just reroute power to…." And he's off, spouting techno-babble in a dozen hues. Shepard considers herself more than familiar with how the Normandy operates, but what Joker's talking about is beyond even her. It's intimate knowledge she doesn't have.

Joker and the Normandy. Joker is part of the Normandy. Shepard imagines him pressing callused fingers against the walls, whispering the ship back to health, and is oddly jealous. What claim can he have to a lot of metal craftsmanship? With limbs rendered untrustworthy by oft-broken bones, has piloting become his way of walking? Are the shudders of the dying ship actually Joker's stumbling, awkward gait?

She can't answer the questions and she can't find the words. But Commander Shepard, this Commander Shepard who has experienced life with her shoulders squared, is not one to wait for ceremonies to complete. She's the darling child of the Alliance because she acts, though said acts may cost lives or friendships or the stability of entire civilizations. Shepard moves now, across the bridge, focusing on the many flashing warning lights so she doesn't have to focus on Joker's face.

She doesn't worry about words. She doesn't worry about Normandy techno-babble. She reaches Joker's chair, grabs him mid-sentence by the shoulders, pulls upwards. He's many things (an amazing pilot, a grouch, a more-than-just-crewmember-but-not-always-friend) but he isn't physically strong enough to resist her. He can't be. All those fragile bones.

She pulls him, struggling and cursing, from the pilot's chair and across the cracking floor. He swears at her, at the ship, at the goddamn sonuvabitch Collectors touching my ship, goddamn it! but Shepard is resolute. They're both safely in the last escape pod by the time the final explosions tear the Normandy apart.

Joker presses himself against the narrow viewport, disbelieving, shoulders hunched, untouchable. "I could have fixed her," he cries, somehow not seeing his own potential death in the death of the ship.

Shepard, who does not count on words to get her what she wants, is silent.

(So they both survive, and go onto other spaceships and other wars. Joker continues to serve under Shepard and for a time things seem normal, unconcerned. But one night on their new ship something or other breaks, a minor mishap but still something that leaves Joker disgusted. "Piece of crap," he says. "The Normandy wouldn't just break for no reason." He is, of course, forgetting the constant repairs needed on that ship, as they are on any craft in use.

"Well," says Shepard. "It shouldn't take long to fix." She is preoccupied, considering other matters, such as the matter of who it is she serves over. With this latest ship came a crew she knows nothing about; Tali and Garrus and the other markers of the Normandy have long since drifted away, one by one, because they all agree the atmosphere has changed under Shepard even if they can't quite say how or why. Shepard's status as a hero has become tarnished over the past years, though she's done nothing to deserve the rust. She's never lost a fight and yet, unbeknownst to her, Cerberus has begun searching for other heroes, to save or resurrect.

"It shouldn't have broken, period."

"It's a spaceship," she says, still sidetracked. There are crewmen in her brig—quite a few crewmen, actually—and yet she can't put faces to names. "It happens."

Joker is on his feet then, furious with an anger as old as the Normandy's death. "It isn't anything," he snarls. "Why do you keep saying that? She wasn't an it!")

IV.

Joker and the Normandy. Joker is part of the Normandy. Shepard imagines the two together so often that it's hard to imagine them apart. He looks strange, standing in the hallway that leads to what was the bridge: strange and small and easily broken. The helmets hide both their expressions, though, so the real pain is saved for later.

By now Shepard has found the words to save her pilot. He's left his padded chair on those crooked legs and stormed across the floor of his own will, ignoring the buckling and the licking flames. In fact he stamps his feet. Hurting what he's losing: Shepard's sure there's pathology involved in there somewhere.

So by now they're both in the hallway outside the bridge, the last escape pod close by, and everything is as it was meant to be. Soon Shepard will lose her grasp on the Normandy, and Joker will watch both his loves killed in front of his eyes, and later Cerberus will bring them both back, exactly as they were yet imperceptibly changed.

Except.

Except the final explosion, when it comes, is just a bit bigger, or else just a bit smaller. Perhaps it's delayed by a millisecond or pushed forward by the slightest bit. Perhaps Shepard is standing differently, or perhaps Joker is too close by. Whatever the change, she does fall, and she does die beside her ship, and months later Cerberus does track down Joker in the worst kind of krogan bar. TIM explains the technology and the transformation; Joker agrees. They find the body.

But because the explosion was too large or too small, because Shepard was standing wrong or breathing wrong, maybe because the Normandy could be cruel to those around her in her death throes, Cerberus is unable to perform their miracle revival. The surgery doesn't work; the implants don't function; the biotics won't take. Perhaps the words Shepard chose weren't right after all.

She doesn't come back, and without her there's no reason to bring back the Normandy. There are always other heroes. TIM sighs his disappointment, buys Joker a year's worth of blindingly strong krogan swill, and moves on.

Joker drinks his way through half a year and spends the other half sobering up. He feels fine, actually: more than fine. Damn near content. He's always been good with a wrench and spaceship innards, so he gives up piloting for basic repair jobs (and breaks enough bones that he's in for repairs as often as the ships themselves). He works quietly, steadily, taking every job he can find, crooning love songs to ships he doesn't know: "Easy, baby," he'll say. "Easy. Just relax."

He tries to keep track of what he learns from each job. He also keeps track of Cerberus and their whereabouts. He knows they won't help him a second time; there's never been enough that's human in TIM to expect goodwill. But Joker is crafty, and headstrong, and loyal beyond all things. At night he dreams of Shepard.

He's pretty sure that he'll be able to rebuild her, given enough time.