AN: An AU first meeting I've always wanted to write! I write my Shepard a little younger than what is canon, During Akuze she's only around 19 or 20. Just a little baby fresh and new, making Joker a bit older in comparison.
I own nothing, Mass Effect belongs to Bioware, this is a fanpiece.

A makeshift memorial had been constructed just hours after the news hit the station.

People filed in daily to pin up pictures and pay their respects to the 50 dead marines and the dozen or so colonist casualties.
Akuze: some Podunk planet in the earliest stages of colonization, otherwise unkown and unheard of until now. It was the horror on everybody's lips.

Actual details beyond the wreckage were sketchy and there were rumours that someone came out alive, but if thresher maws had been involved Jeff couldn't imagine there was much left of them at this point.
Not that it bothered nor intrigued him in any way.
Casualties weren't atypical…but still, fifty men and women dead in less than 48 hours...

"Really makes you think, don't it?"

Jeff pulled himself from his reverie and peeked up at the man sitting across from him flexing his arm in a sling. They'd been listening to the newscaster speak in muted tones about the attack while waiting for a late discharge, not speaking.
Until now.
The pilot couldn't help but laugh bitterly, pulling himself out of slump to regard the other man.
A jarhead, thinking; what a novelty.

"About what exactly?"

"Well ya know… could have been either one of us down there."

"Not likely," The youngest of the pair snorted, pulling a pair of crutches out from under his seat, shrugging them up under his arms and getting up.
Jeff was tired of small talk.

"Oh… Rough break, buddy." The marine twisted in his seat to take a look at an inch of plaster casting now peeking from the hem of the pilot's slacks.

"Clean, actually." Jeff quipped, removing himself from the conversation as quickly as his crippled legs could take him to the front desk before the marine could wrap his head around what he meant, filling out the necessary paper work to get him out of this hell hole.
He hated hospitals.

As he was leaving he looked back to the marine, who released a short wave. His hands betrayed him and he gave an awkward half-wave himself.
Ah, it would have been easier if the guy'd just decked him. Now he kinda felt like a tool.

That hadn't really been what he meant in regards to his leg, but that guy didn't need to know that.
In reality the idea of him going planet side still gave him fits of panic. Forget the trudging around in the muck with an assault rifle and a breather helmet, his body wasn't even made for shuttle drop offs, or the inevitable pickups for that matter.
There was too much turbulence; too much thrashing about in the unknown.
Hell he'd probably risk a set of broken ribs by just the wind hitting the shuttle wrong.
It was good that sort of thing was beneath him.

A petty thought, but nonetheless truthful. He had more important things to do and to fly, neither of which involved playing soccer mom to a dozen or so cranky, packed in soldiers.

Nahhh, he'd leave that specific task to the honor roll kids, while he ran the show from above where he belonged.
In the vast, empty, creepy, nothingness of space.

Jeff paused just outside the hospital entrance, eyes drawn to the deathly quiet of the lobby and commons.

It wasn't the emptiness that stole his attention; that was typical. It was the middle of the fucking night, for chrissakes he didn't expect anyone out and about at this hour.
Except there they were, standing in front of one the end of the memorial that'd started creeping like ivy across this side of the station.

An androgynous figure with slicked back hair stood awkwardly in front of the plastered billboard, trying precariously to balance with a set of crutches, only to fall back and stumble before they could tack up whatever article they held in their hands.
Crutches, just like him.

He felt a pitiable twinge of empathy for them and stalked over with a soft "ch'e"
Why not help the fella out?
After all he was in a good mood for once; the hospital let him go with great news about his leg and a shiny gold star for the way he took care of himself.

The metallic scrapes and clatter of his crutches took him to the frail kid's side, and when he looked down their curved, freckled nose and to the insignia on their chest he realized that the midnight straggler wasn't a kid at all, but a navyman.
Specifically a navy woman.
The soldier's entire figure shook with enough force that Jeff swore he could feel the reverberations under his own two feet.

He looked down into her hands to see what they were trying to pin up.
It was a medium sized group photograph of a pack of men and women standing in front of a land rover, throwing ridiculous hand signs, and posing aimlessly, playing to the camera with smiles and bright lights behind their eyes.
He recognized most if not all of the plain faces from the news casts on Akuze.
All dead.

Reaching over he silently took the picture and thumbtack from their hands with a little more force than necessary.

"Where do you want it?" He asked sharply, following their hand as they pointed to a small clearing just above their natural reach.

"There." A hoarse, feminine voice alerted him, guiding his wrists with her finger tips to place it just right below a wreathe of flowers and a portrait of a young man with a kid. The corners of his lips twitched, he knew there was a reason he'd avoided this place like the plague.
It was one thing to hear a number; easier to dissolve loss of life down to simple maths, but it was another thing entirely to see each individual face side by side with photographs of family members, girlfriends, even…pets.

He chuckled at one in particular of a man fussed with a pack of mutts all crawling and scrambling for the bowls he had in each hand, waves of kibble falling out of the red plastic dishes.

"You know any of them?" He asked, taking a step back to allow the young woman to back track a foot or two to take a good look at the wall. She was still shaking.

"Yeah," She ducked her head to tug at the high collar of her blouse, the loose sleeves slipped down her thin wrists revealing a thin white band.
A patient at the hospital.

He could almost hear tissue tearing as she gave a wet, ragged cough.

"Not well, still. Knew just about everyone; knew the ones in that photo the best."

"Yeah, film, real vintage…"
Poignant. Real smooth.
It was probably a good thing his flight qualification exam didn't involve a deeper inspection of his social skills; they were about as atrophied as the muscles in his legs.

Well. Maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration.

He took the brief bout of silence to examine her more thoroughly. He knew now she was a patient at the hospital, and judging by the state of her dress she'd likely been there for a few days.
Her face was nice, real cutesy for a military woman, he thought with amusement. Vulnerable in the dull light of the commons, tired.
She might have been downright gorgeous if not for the large white bandage that covered her left eye with tape and her pale sickly complexion.
Superficial scrapes graced the exposed backsides of her fingers, bandages wrapped above her tense whitened knuckles and palms.
The corners of his lips turned up at the sight of the only novel, yet feminine, thing about her; chipped brown polish at the base of her nails.
But the most troubling aspect was her apparent lack of casts, so why all the shaking and trouble balancing?

He hadn't seen anyone have this much trouble standing since, well, himself.
She fixed him with her one good and eerily blue eye and cocked her head.


"You're not used to crutches are you?" He smirked, disturbingly pleased with himself.

"Ah, no. First time…"

"Here, don't turn your hands out like that you'll get a cramp." Jeff reached out swatting at the girl's wrists and motioning to his own posture with an enigmatic laugh. He didn't think he'd be spending his free evening instructing on the proper support apparatus protocol. But here he was giving the young lady some pointers, amused at the way she hung on his every word.
Satisfied with her progress he nodded to her with an appraising look.

"So, what happened?"

The woman looked puzzled for a moment, mouth twisting around thoughts unsaid.

"…Bad day." Her voice finally broke.

Bad day? That's the sort of thing you say when you stub your toe in the dark, not when you look like you stubbed your toe in the dark and then went crashing through a large pane of glass.
But he'd had plenty of those 'bad days' growing up. When something so routine and mediocre went terribly wrong.
And from the tiny emblem on her chest she was an engineer.
Accidents were bound to happen in that field, unplanned maiming included.

"Yeah, well. Don't worry; it couldn't have been that bad. You'll get over it."
He adjusted his cap, doing a double take as two nurses appeared out the sliding doors wheeling a chair in their direction.

He nearly missed the sigh that escaped the young woman's lips.

"Nah." She said wistfully, head cocking at the picture he'd helped her put up.

"Private Shepard?" One of the nurses called, causing the woman's shoulders to jerk involuntarily. Jeff stepped out of the way as they pulled the chair up behind the pair, the girl now known to him as Shepard easing herself into the metal seat and folded her crutches up into her lap, hugging them between her knees.

"Later." He muttered, noting the way her shoulders hunched a little forward while rubbing wearily at her eye. No reaction.

Jeff watched as they rolled away towards the hospital, doors sliding shut with a sickening sucking noise; swallowing Shepard up.
He was kinda sad to see her go. She wasn't too bad to be around.
Turning his attention back on the memorial wall he rolled his shoulders to ease a kink forming from standing too long hunched over to ease the discomfort in his knees.

"Huh…" He muttered dryly, figuring he may as well take a look at the memorial billboard while he was there. His gaze easily found the picture he'd assisted in pinning up, admiring the way everyone managed to retain a unique and degrading pose.
A list of names ran in white across the top corner from left to right giving a name to every silly face and rude hand gesture.

He found Shepard's there, and found her face next.
It must have been recent, and he felt a small bit of guilt for not saying anything about her friends.
But there she was looking magnitudes healthier and happier. She was grinning down at him, piercing blue eyes alight with youth and fondness, with another woman's arm around her shoulders, throwing up a peace sign and battling for space in the front of the line.

Jeff breathed a soft 'heh' and leaned back. He was about to leave when he noticed something typed just below the photo that he hadn't noticed before, he recognized it to be a time stamp marking the time as sometime around 3pm.
Beside it was a description in blocky black lettering, giving context to what was otherwise a random spontaneous photograph.

4th squad, Akuze, March 17th 2177

Numbness, like a sedative, ran from his chest and spread to his arms and legs.
It seized his lungs, limbs and thoughts, constricting, smothering, until he forgot how to inhale.
His legs brought him forward with a mind of their own, eyes raking the image for names once more, it couldn't be.

He read it aloud over and over in a breathy, guilt wracked whisper that fell heavily, dropping anchor in the pit of his chest.

Somewhere in the back of his mind a television was streaming.
Live news coverage, the reporter's features contorted in some vague expression of grief as the story first broke.

50 dead on Akuze, colonists evacuated temporarily.
Rumour of a survivor.
Critical condition.
Shepard's bandaged hands, hospital band, crutches, shaking.

"Bad day" she'd whispered.