Disclaimer: Alas, I do not own the Mass Effect universe or any of the amazing characters within.
Thank you for reading, and for any and all reviews left! - Fallon.
Joker grimaced as Shepard grabbed his arm and unceremoniously jerked him to his feet.
"Hey! Watch it!" He hissed as his bones strained against the movement.
Shepard held him against her and started toward the escape shuttles. Kaidan and the others had gotten off, something that eased her anxiety if only slightly. But in an unsurprising display of stubbornness, Joker had refused to leave his "baby" behind.
The ship quaked every time it was struck, making walking extremely difficult. Sheets of metal hung down from what remained of the ceiling and in numerous places they could actually see the twinkle of stars through gaps in the Normandy.
An unnerving groan echoed through the body of the ship, shivering up Shepard's legs with enough force to break the will of a lesser man. Commander Shepard shrugged it off though, cursing the tremors and trudging ahead.
Joker watched her. Her helmet shielded all but her eyes, but they told him enough. They were in the belly of hell, flames dancing wildly around them, and yet the determination in her assured him somehow they were going to make it out of this.
Shepard forced herself to move faster but tried to be as gentle with Joker as she could given the circumstances.
She knew time was running out and the Normandy couldn't endure the blasts for much longer. She wasn't a religious person, but at that moment she was praying to whatever god would listen that the ship held out just a little longer for them.
"Time isn't on our side, Joker!" She shouted over the scream of emergency alarms and the crackle of fire as it tore through the ship. Still, she tried to lighten the mood as Joker typically did, "There's no time to be gentle!"
Joker cracked a smile at her but a blast close to them shook it off of his lips. He held on to her as much as he could, but she was practically supporting all of his weight.
This was one of the moments where not being a cripple would come in handy, he told himself angrily.
Joker only ever felt right at the controls of a ship and just being away from the bridge made him realize how limited he was. He did not want to rely on her to make it to the shuttle, but the reality was he would be crawling if she wasn't by his side.
He was about to ask her what she meant when she heaved him over a fallen weapons locker that blocked their path. The all too familiar strain on his arm was building to an unbearable level but he forced himself to remain quiet. She had risked her life to come back for him, he wasn't about to criticize the urgency of her movements.
Mercifully the shuttle came in to view. Shepard sighed in relief at the sight of it and gave Joker a look that screamed of hope.
She grabbed him tightly around the waist and carried him the last few steps.
Joker grunted as she threw him onto the shuttle seat. The sudden and rough pressure on his tailbone brought tears to his eyes and he clenched them shut for fear Shepard would see. As he tried to control his breathing he heard an explosion close by and a scream rise over it.
His heart sunk to his stomach.
He opened his eyes to see Shepard being hurtled away from the shuttle. His commander, his Shepard, was dangerously close to the wall of fire that consumed the remains of the hallway.
He screamed her name.
She managed to grab on to the lip of the wall, but he could tell she was nursing an injury to her side.
Their eyes met through the field of debris between them, locking for what seemed like an eternity but was in reality a split second. Without her saying a word he knew what she was going to do by the finality in her eyes.
Joker reached forward, screaming at her as she made one final sacrifice.
Not her, not his commander, his Shepard!
Shepard blinked the tears out of her eyes and punched the button to send Joker's shuttle shooting into space. His voice echoed in her head as the Normandy shattered around her and a rush of pressure sent her jutting out into the vastness of the stars.
Joker awoke with a start and grabbed his chest in the hope to quiet the panicked drumming of his heart. The same memory entered his dreams almost nightly, reminding him time and time again how he had failed his commander.
Commander Shepard had done everything for her crew and always kept a level head even in the toughest missions. He knew in his gut she had went back for him without a second thought and many times since her initial death he wondered what would have happened if Kaidan had somehow managed to force her onto his shuttle.
When he thought about what she had faced at that moment, when she was jettisoned out into space...it made his stomach churn. The tubes filtering oxygen to her helmet would have been burst within a few minutes or debris would have severed it and the air would have been ripped from her lungs. She would have been in shock and breathing heavily in an effort to draw air in. Her lungs would tighten to the point of pain right before she passed out and then...then the lethal chill of space would have begun to seeped into her bones, destroying the beautiful skin he had admired so long from a distance.
Pale white and marred with scars, but so damn beautiful he often found himself wondering how soft it was. Her rich auburn hair was always tied back tight in a bun, but he had countless dreams in which it was down, his fingers laced through it as he held her close. And when she was close, in his dreams, she'd look up at him with those spellbinding blue eyes and his resistance would shatter; she would be his.
Joker sat on the edge of his cot, head in his hands and a cold sweat covering his fragile body.
For two years he had mourned her, Shepard – the Alliance hero of the Citadel. But to him she was more than that, way more. She used to sit with him at the bridge and just talk, for hours at times. Most of the time it was about their missions, but he could tell she opened up with him in ways she just didn't with Garrus or Liara. She'd admit her fears about the visions the beacon had given her as well as the impending confrontation with Saren, her frustrations about the Council's lack of faith in her…
And most of the time he didn't have an answer for her. Telling her it would all be alright somehow just didn't cut it. He wanted to offer her something better. But she'd just gently squeeze his hand and smile, thanking him just for listening.
That was all she wanted, people to listen and believe in her. Kaidan couldn't do that, Joker had the omni-tool audio recordings from Horizon to prove it. He'd thrown it all back in her face, insulted her and turned his back on her when she'd asked for his help.
She was the last person in the galaxy who deserved a fate so cruel, or to be doubted by those who claimed to be on her side.
He had to remind himself that that was in the past; that she was alive and safe, probably sleeping in her cabin.
Cerberus had saved her, just as they had him.
Joker slipped his leg braces on. The procedures Cerberus had developed had strengthened his bones considerably, allowing him to walk far easier than before. Still, he had spent his entire life with the braces and felt compelled to wear them despite the new found strength in his limbs.
He wasn't entirely sure where he was going, and was surprised when his legs didn't bring him to the bridge but to the elevator.
Joker sighed, muttered a curse to his conscious, and pressed the button marked the first floor – the commander's cabin.
Shepard sat solemnly on the couch; eyes fixed staring at the flashing light of the datapad before her. She had another message, undoubtedly marked urgent, but she just couldn't bring herself to reach for it.
It was late and she was exhausted, but sleep was evading her.
Sighing in defeat, Shepard opened the message on her datapad and noticed right away it was from Kaidan. Her heart stopped and her grip on the datapad tightened. Without doing more than skimming over it she whipped the datapad across the room and clenched her teeth to stifle a scream of anger and hurt as it shattered against the far wall.
Kaidan Alenko, the man she thought would always love and understand her, already grovelling for forgiveness.
As if he thought he could apologize for Horizon!
She ran her fingers through her hair as she refilled her glass. There had been a time when she had meant something to him, but if those feelings remained for her what he'd said on Horizon sent them out the damned airlock.
Throughout everything, all she had ever asked from him was a little bit of understanding. Hell, that was all she asked from the entire damn galaxy! Not creds or awards or days named in her honor, but understanding. But he'd shown his true colours on Horizon as far as she was concerned and she didn't have time to repair his integrity for him or wait for him to have an epiphany.
She had others in her life that understood and they were who she would devote herself to. Garrus and Grunt, Jack and Jacob, Miranda and Joker…
She smiled to herself.
Just like Garrus, Joker had been there from the beginning. But Joker had listened to her when she needed to vent, tried when he could to offer answers and had saved her ass more times then she could count. Her working with Cerberus didn't change anything; he'd even joined them himself before the Lazarus project had been revealed to him. He was his old self, corny jokes and all. On the surface it didn't even seem like the loss of the SR1 and his close call had affected who he was.
A shiver ran down her spine as the last few memories of him she had in the moments before her death ripped through her mind.
She took a long swig of her drink.
He meant more to her then he should. Since muddying the waters with Kaidan and after Horizon she thought she was done with that part of her life. She'd wanted nothing more than to focus on duty, on stopping the Collectors, but feelings were a hard thing to push to the side and hope to ignore.
A gentle chime sounded from the door and she rose to answer it. She waved her hand over the controls and the door gave a soft hiss as it opened.
Speak of the devil…
He glanced at her sheepishly before looking away from her entirely.
"Um, I'm sorry. Did I wake you, commander?"
She shook her head and smiled, her anger over Horizon fading just from his presence. He was the last person she expected to see standing at her door, but that didn't keep her from letting him in.
"Can I get you anything to drink?"
He hobbled into her cabin, "Always trying to get me drunk, aren't you Commander?"
Shepard rolled her eyes, "Yes, because it's just so hard."
"I'm a dedicated soldier and the best damned pilot the Alliance has!" Joker laughed, "I'm hurt you would accuse me of something like that!"
"All the best Alliance has have the occasional drink, Jeff." Shepard held up her glass as proof.
Joker took a seat near the large fish tank that dominated the Commander's cabin. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. The look of exhaustion was evident on his face. He was a man long deprived of meaningful rest, and that worried Shepard.
They'd come so far since Eden Prime, and he was the one who got them there. Shepard knew few ever asked how he was, or if he needed a break or some help – she knew the feeling well herself.
"Something on your mind, Joker?" She asked softly, her concern for him clear in her voice.
"Yeah...well...I don't know." He took his cap off just long enough to run his fingers through his hair, "I had a nightmare...and I guess I've got a question for you."
It was strange to hear him being the least bit serious. He looked like hell. His disease rarely got the better of him, but tonight it was evident on his tired, worn out frame. The brightness in his eyes remained though, of which she was grateful for.
She watched him for a moment, gauging his expression, before she nodded and waited for him to continue.
Joker gave a small smile in thanks. "I...well I've been having nightmares about the day we lost you...the attack on the old Normandy...when you came back for me."
Shepard took a sip of her drink. "Yeah...that was hell."
"You remember then?"
"Cerberus left all my memories intact." Shepard explained in a very matter-of-fact way, "I ordered Kaidan to get on the shuttle before going back for you – he told me you weren't going to leave the ship."
Joker's expression fell at the memory. "Then do you remember...why you came back for me?"
She looked confused for a moment, but the pained look in his gorgeous green eyes made it all click for her.
As much as he seemed immune to the trauma of that day, it was clear that he was torn up about it, far more than she had initially thought. A sick feeling settled in her gut and she realized it was guilt that plagued him.
"Is that what has been bothering you lately?"
Joker rubbed the back of his neck, "No...well what I mean is..."
"Joker," Shepard said in a soft but teasing voice, "you've been as miserable as a hormonal, pissy teenager lately. I knew there was something bothering you – figured at the time though that perhaps the latest issue of Fornax was late getting to you."
He smirked, amused by the comparison despite his conflict. "Damn I was, wasn't I?"
Shepard poured a glass of Serrice Ice Brandy and offered it to him with a warm smile. "So, Joker, talk to me."
The offer of a drink was beyond tempting now that it was before him.
As was she.
Her hair was down and it was longer then he'd envisioned in his dreams. It had a gentle wave to it too which he'd never noticed before. She was wearing a pair of short black shorts with the Cerberus logo stitched into the side and a tight fitted white tank top. He'd never seen her in anything other than her armour, which allowed him only to admire the skin of her neck and face. Now, with her long legs bare before him he had to shift in his seat so as to obscure her view of the stiffening bulge in his pants.
Inhaling sharply, he spit it out before he could stop himself. "You could have gotten out with Kaidan. You could have lived."
She shook her head, "That wasn't an option, Joker."
"And why not?"
"Because I had to get you."
You needed to live, she said inwardly. The thought of losing him that day had sent her into a panic. Kaidan had been stubborn, as he always had been, but once she had sent him on his way she had sprinted toward the bridge with reckless abandon.
He was too important. And she had realized that she couldn't have lived with herself if her inaction had allowed him to die.
Joker snorted, "What, had to save the cripple?"
He regretted the words as soon as they left his lips.
Shepard looked at him in sadness and disbelief. "Your illness had nothing to do with my choice to go back for you."
His illness had never mattered to her. Yes she was concerned for him from time to time, when he'd push himself too far or do something foolish to strain his brittle bones. But she never thought him inadequate or unable to do his job. He was just as capable as any other man, just as devoted to the mission.
"Then I don't get it." He rubbed his chin roughly in frustration, "I said I wasn't going anywhere, and then suddenly there you were lifting my crippled ass out of that chair." He shook his head solemnly as he replayed everything in his mind.
Shepard shifted closer to him on the couch. He seemed trapped in a bad memory and didn't seem to notice how close she was getting to him. She wanted to reach out to him, to comfort him as he had done for her so many times.
Shepard chose her words carefully, but raw emotion was evident behind each one. "I wasn't going to leave you behind Joker, no matter what you said."
"But if I had of just stayed there, or listened to Kaidan and the others when they told me to make for the shuttles..."
She looked at him knowingly, "Chances are good I still would have ended up dying, Joker. If you haven't noticed I have a habit of putting myself if life threatening situations."
It wasn't a good enough answer for him, not for all the guilt he carried for so long.
"Come on, Shepard. You know that was my fault! If I hadn't been so fucking stubborn you wouldn't have been spaced and maybe things would be like they used to."
His hand shook as anger and sadness came to the surface.
Shepard reached over and grasped his hand to halt the trembling. His gaze slowly rose to look at her and the pain in his eyes struck her to the core. It hurt her to see her friend in such turmoil but it hurt even more for her to realize she hadn't even considered that he felt guilty for what happened.
This man she cared so strongly for had spent two years mourning her, two years carrying around enough guilt to send a lesser man into madness.
She tentatively placed her hand on his cheek, preventing him from looking away. Shepard smiled weakly and rubbed her thumb over the stubble he tried so hard to grow into something more. He seemed gobsmacked by the gesture, but did not pull away. She swore she even saw him relax.
"Joker, I went back for you because I'm your Commander...because I'm your friend. If I had a chance to do it all again, I wouldn't go about it any differently. Even if that death was final for me, I wouldn't change it."
Joker found himself trapped, both by the blissful caress of her hand and by the pull of her clear cerulean blue eyes. "But why?"
Shepard smiled at him, hoping to alleviate some of his pain with the simple gesture. "Because you're one of the few people crazy enough to follow me into hell and back – cracking jokes the entire time."
Their gazes locked and Joker felt the same thing he did two years ago when he thought she was dead. That raw, unrelenting determination that made him really believe that somehow they were going to make it out the other side in one piece.
The weight of guilt hadn't been lifted completely from his shoulders, but Shepard and the Serrice Ice Brandy were a step in the right direction.