'Jeff, this has to stop,' Dr Chakwas sighed as she wrapped Joker's fingers. 'You can't continue to hit anyone who doesn't agree with you, I can only mend your bones so many times. You've already suffered a broken leg, fractured ribs and arm, how much more are you going to put yourself through?'
'What can I say Doc,' he grimaced as she pulled the bandage tight. 'I'm not going to stand by and listen to people who have no idea what they're talking about. I won't let them dishonour her memory.'
Chakwas saw the pain in his eyes and shook her head. 'Do you really think this is what she would want?'
'No.' He grunted angrily and tried to pull his hand away but failed. 'She would want to be alive, to be fucking taking on the galaxy, to be living and breathing.' He almost sobbed the last word and Chakwas put her hand on his shoulder.
'She wouldn't want you to keep punishing yourself either.'
'She died because of me!' he shook off her hand and stared out the window into the red haze that was Mars, there was storm on the horizon that matched the storm in his heart. 'She died because I refused to leave the damned ship.'
'No Jeff, she died because she was the Commander.' She placed her hand on his chin and turned his face to her. 'It was her job to make sure her crew was safe just as it was your job to give the crew time to get to safety. She would not condemn you to eternal guilt for doing your job. If you hadn't we would have lost a lot more people. We owe you our lives for hanging on so long.'
Joker yanked his head out of her grip and stared at the floor, 'She should have left me, I should have been the one to die with the ship.' He felt the tears building as they always did when he thought of her, of watching her being thrown into space, flailing to reach the leak in her suit then the stillness as her oxygen ran out and the red glow as she entered the atmosphere. 'She should have fucking left me,' it was a whisper, a plea.
Chakwas sighed and completed the wrapping of Joker's hand. When she was offered the position on Mars she had insisted that Jeff come with her. It wasn't Alliance but they were both disillusioned with the Alliance, especially Jeff when they took away his flight status. She thought being able to fly again, even if it was only shuttle runs, might have helped him get over his grief, his guilt and his self-destruction. To a point it had, she hadn't seen him drink himself into a stupor for the last couple of months but the guilt was eating away at him and she didn't know how to help him.
'All done,' she gathered up her equipment as Jeff slipped down from the bed and picked up his crutches. 'Please don't go getting into any more fights for a while and be careful when flying, you need some time to heal.'
'Don't worry,' he nodded to the storm outside. 'Won't be any flying for a few days when that hits, besides, I can fly one handed better than most pilots can with two.' He gave her a half smile, 'Thanks doc, for everything.'
She nodded and watched him leave, her heart going out to him. She jumped as her terminal beeped and she answered it to see Liara looking back at her.
'Liara,' she couldn't help the surprise in her voice.
'Dr Chakwas,' Liara sounded hesitant but continued. 'I have a proposition for you but I'm not sure you'll like where it's coming from.'
'What is it Liara?'
'Do you remember some time ago I asked you for a copy of Shepard's medical records? There was a reason for that which I couldn't explain at the time but the results are…..'
'Liara, what's going on?' Chakwas felt her stomach churning and her palms were sweating, she had broken regs to give Liara those records, was it coming back to bite her.
'Shepard is alive.' Liara went on to explain how Shepard's remains had become a prize, sold to the highest bidder. Liara had been the highest bidder. She had discovered some information that gave her hope and it had paid off.
Chakwas dropped into her chair as she stared at the screen in dumbfounded silence. Her mouth was moving but nothing was coming out.
'I'm sorry to surprise you like this doctor but it's only been confirmed in the last few days that the project was a success.'
'What? How? Who?' Chakwas stopped speaking as she tried to gather her words into a coherent sentence.
'This is the part you are not going to like,' Liara flinched, 'Cerberus.'
Chakwas felt her breath stop and her chest contract. 'Cerberus? Why, after everything she did to destroy them?'
'Because they understand that we need her to defeat the Reapers, to save the galaxy.' Liara was defensive now and was that guilt behind her eyes. Why did everyone who knew Shepard feel some kind of guilt over her death?
'What do you want from me, Liara?'
'They are putting together a ship and crew and need a medical doctor; I thought you might like the job.'
'How do I know this is really Shepard and not some clone or construct? I need proof before I agree to anything.'
'I would expect nothing less,' Liara let out a long sigh. 'I am sending you some data so you know exactly how this was done and what the medical outcomes may be. I will contact you again tomorrow for your decision.'
'Wait,' Chakwas stopped Liara from cutting the connection. 'You said they are putting together a crew, do they need a pilot?'
'Yes, I was hoping to find Joker but he seems to have disappeared.'
'He's here, on Mars, with me.' Chakwas saw a glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. 'Do you want me to ask him?'
'If you would, please,' Liara almost smiled. 'Until tomorrow.'
Joker stopped at the small market to order supplies then made his way slowly back to the one roomed apartment that had been home for the last six months. At least it wasn't far, nothing was far on Mars and he was thankful for that, walking was hard enough even for a short distance. He thought about drowning his sorrows in alcohol but changed his mind and made coffee instead. He was a little proud of his willpower as all he wanted to do was get drunk and forget. It was fourteen months, two weeks and three days, he remembered it almost down to the minute, since the Normandy was lost, since Shepard was lost and he still found it hard to let go, to get over the grief, the guilt.
When Chakwas had asked him to come to Mars he had jumped at the chance. The Alliance had given up on finding those responsible for Shepard's death, they had brushed the Reaper threat under the carpet, they had buried everything she had ever fought for, protected them from. And he hated them for that.
Flying shuttles wasn't like flying the Normandy but at least he was flying. The first time he was back behind the controls he panicked, what if he needed to fight off a reaper ship or some other unknown enemy. Could he do it right the next time around? His own self-doubt haunted him but he soon fell back into familiar routines and even though the flights were short in system flights he was happy enough to be back at the helm. It gave him something to concentrate on, to keep him sane.
In his spare time he studied every scrap of tactical, instructional and extranet blog he could find on space flight, dogfights, aerial combat and anything else that might be useful if he ever again had to fight for his ship and crew. He'd found it stimulating and he'd even tried a few manoeuvres during standard flights, much to the surprise of his co-pilot who was in awe of his skill. But doing it in a shuttle was not the same as manoeuvring a frigate like the Normandy and Joker hoped he would get the chance to at least try.
He dropped onto his sofa and sighed as the pressure on his legs was relieved. His fingers throbbed and he felt the slow drag of the painkillers kicking in. He closed his eyes, allowing the painkillers to do their job, giving in to the physical and emotional exhaustion that had become his constant companion.
'Joker, we have to go!'
'No! I can still save her!'
'Going down with the ship will not help anyone,' she grabbed his arm and he turned to look at her. There was panic in her eyes and something else. 'Jeff, please.'
'All right, help me up,' he relented and cursed as she tightened her grip.
The ship exploded behind them as their attackers took another shot. He watched in horror as the void grabbed her, as she punched the release for his pod. He knew then what the look in her eyes was – regret.
'Shepard!' He heard his screams, felt his tears, the blood on his fingers as he clawed at the hatch. 'Ari.' He sobbed as the escape pod tumbled uncontrollably through space, as it tossed him around like a rag doll. He heard his bones crack but the pain was nothing compared to the pain in his heart.
Joker slammed back into reality, tears rolling down his cheeks as he sat up and waited for his heart to slow. The door buzzer sounded and he ignored it. He had no real friends, he'd closed himself off from the world even more than when he'd been in the pilot's seat. He'd finally let someone in and that hadn't worked out so well, so he kept everyone at arm's length. The buzzer sounded again, longer this time, insistent. He cursed loudly as he lurched to the door and opened it to find Dr Chakwas standing in his doorway. She looked up at him but said nothing about the tears he hadn't wiped from his face.
'Hey Doc,' he motioned for her to come in, wiping his face absently. 'You don't need to check up on me at home, I'm not doing anything stupid tonight.'
Dr Chakwas walked into his apartment and paced slowly, he could see she was nervous, upset. 'I have something to tell you and I don't know if you'll like it, where it's coming from.' She sighed and stopped to look him in the eyes.
'Doc, what's going on?' A bad feeling settled in his gut as he saw the confusion on her face.
'Shepard is alive.'
Joker stared at her, his mouth open his eyes wide in disbelief. Was she deliberately trying to send him insane or was this her way of testing his resolve to deal with his problems. It hurt to think that she would deliberately push him this way.
'I never thought of you as a comedian doc,' he tried to sound light-hearted but failed.
'Jeff, I am telling you the truth. Shepard is alive.' She dropped onto the sofa and ran her fingers through her hair. 'I didn't believe it either but if what I've seen is real then she is alive.'
'That's not possible!' He glared down at her. 'I saw her get spaced, I watched her suffocate and fucking burn up!' He fought to hold back tears, his nails cutting into his palms as he clenched his fists in anger.
'I know, Jeff,' Chakwas sighed. 'Please, sit down and hear me out.'
Joker scowled at her but sat down, he was trembling and his anger was simmering as he met her eyes.
'Liara contacted me and told me that Shepard's remains had been found, mercs were selling her to the highest bidder so she made sure that was her. She got her hands on some specialised medical information and contacted the scientists to see what could be done.' Chakwas took a deep breath. 'It was Cerberus. They said they could bring her back so Liara gave them Shepard's remains.'
Joker completely lost all sense of reality. This had to be a nightmare that he couldn't wake up from. There was no way it could be true, it wasn't possible.
'They did it Jeff,' Chakwas whispered, as if she didn't believe it herself.
'That's not possible,' Joker repeated himself. 'It has to be a clone, a VI of some sort. How? Why?' His heart raced as he allowed himself to hope that there was some truth in what he was hearing.
'Apparently they think she's the only one who can defeat the Reapers and they've spared no expense in bringing her back.' Chakwas glanced around the small apartment that Joker called home. 'Damn, I could do with a drink.'
'So could I,' Jeff limped into the kitchen and grabbed a half full bottle of whisky and two glasses, poured two fingers neat and handed one to the doctor before gulping down his own. He refilled his glass and returned to the sofa with the bottle.
They sat in silence for several minutes, both lost in their own memories. Shepard's death had affected everyone deeply, it was as if the sun had gone out. When the Alliance and Council swept everything under the carpet and insinuated that Shepard had been crazy a black hole opened up and sucked in the crew of the Normandy.
'Are you sure about this, doc?' Joker watched as Chakwas organised her thoughts.
'I've seen the logs and vids, the medical procedures and the science behind it. I can't say I understand it all but it appears to be the truth. Project Lazarus is what they've called it.'
'Is there any way we can find out if this is true?' Joker found himself grasping at hope.
'Liara says they need a medical doctor to look after Shepard,' she met Joker's wide-eyed stare. 'They need a pilot for the ship they're providing.'
'Cerberus,' Joker grimaced. 'If Shepard is really alive she won't be eager to work with the organisation she tried to destroy.'
'I know.' Dr Chakwas held out her glass for a refill. 'Liara is contacting me tomorrow and I need to let her know if I'm interested in taking the job. Of course I will actually need to see Shepard before I decide.' She took a sip of her drink, 'Are you interested in being their pilot?'
'If they can prove that it really is Shepard then hell yeah,' there was a flicker of release in his heart, a sliver of grief breaking at the thought of seeing her again but the vision of her dying was still too strong to ignore. He would go with Chakwas, only to see for himself if any of this was true, if there was any redemption for him.
Chakwas stood up to leave, 'I'll tell Liara and see where we go from there.'
Joker walked her to the door, 'I don't know if Shepard will be happy if it is her they've brought back but if it is her and I can be there for her I have to be.'
He watched as Chakwas nodded her head in understanding then walked out.