A/N: Sorry guys, had planned to get this up sooner, didn't want to leave you hanging too long, but rebuilding a PC and Easter got in the way. Anyway, hope it was worth the wait.
Joker heard voices. Maybe he'd finally cracked, gone off the deep end. They were muffled, like he was listening to them underwater. He sensed that he was moving, fast. There was pain, lots of pain. His chest was burning and he couldn't breathe. He panicked and tried to move but something held him down. His hands didn't want to work, he couldn't feel his feet. A memory surfaced. Shepard, blood, falling. He tried to turn his head and a voice whispered in his ear, he knew that voice, he loved that voice. He felt something sharp, darkness rushed in but as much as he tried to push it away it beat him.
'Cerberus! Fucking Cerberus, it had to be!' Heavy footfalls echoed around the medbay as she paced.
'You don't know that for sure, Shepard.' Garrus was seriously worried. He'd never seen Shepard so angry.
'Don't I? The Insane Idiot wants his ship back, he wants control back.'
'Spirits Shepard! Think about this. Why would he want you dead? He paid billions of credits to bring you back because he believed you to be the only hope for the galaxy. Why would he want to kill you now?'
'I don't know, Garrus,' there was a long drawn out sigh and she placed her hands on the edge of the bed as if she needed it's support. 'Polonium, they used polonium rounds.'
'Guess they wanted to make sure if a bullet to the heart didn't get you the poison would.'
'I can't lose him, Garrus,' there was a tremor in her voice and a sob escaped as he walked over and pulled her against his chest. 'He has to live, I need him or I have nothing to fight for.'
'He'll pull through,' Garrus hoped he sounded convincing and he hoped he was right.
He'd seen Shepard deal with wounded soldiers on the battlefield without hesitation but he'd only ever seen her scared once before and that was when Joker had left. Joker had to pull through or Shepard might just lose her sanity. He knew what Joker had gone through when Shepard died and he'd hate to see her go through the same thing, they couldn't afford for her to break down, the galaxy needed her.
Whether it was the noises or the fear and despair in Shepard's voice that pulled him back Joker would never really know. He was floating, completely free, flying without the need for a ship and it felt amazing. He was happy to stay in that state until he heard her voice, felt her pain and the need to touch Shepard, to know she was okay, to understand her fear called to the deepest parts of him. Consciousness slowly returned.
The sound of hushed voices dragged him back into wakefulness and he opened his eyes to the dim lights and grey ceiling of the Normandy medbay. There was an invisible weight holding him down, a fuzziness to his thoughts and tiredness. He knew those feelings, he'd spent enough time under anaesthetic to recognise the after effects. He was stiff and sore and felt like he'd gone ten rounds in a boxing ring, not that he'd ever done that to know what it felt like, but he was guessing it would feel something like the pain and dull ache that was his body. It was several moments before his memory caught up with his awareness and he remembered. Blood on his shirt, Shepard holding him up, panic in her eyes. Without thinking he surged forward. Pain made him scream but what came out was hoarse croak.
'Jeff!' Shepard was by his side, gently urging him to lie back. 'You need to stay still, relax.'
He felt the warmth of her trembling hand on his shoulder. Pain lanced through him and he sucked in a breath, it didn't help, in fact it felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest. He tried to swallow but his throat was tight and dry.
'Here,' Shepard lifted a glass to his lips and water had never tasted so good. 'Please, lie still. You've had surgery to repair your chest and you need to give it time to heal, okay.' She held his hand gently.
He nodded and used what little strength he had to grip her fingers. He managed to focus on her face and he could see tear tracks running through the dark bags under her eyes. Even as he watched her tears formed and a sob escaped as she gently placed her other hand against his cheek.
'I thought I'd lost you.'
'Payback's a bitch,' he managed a smirk and she laughed through her tears. 'Not gonna happen,' he croaked as the remains of the drugs in his system started to drag him under. 'I love you,' he managed to force out before his eyes closed and darkness once again held him down.
The next time he opened his eyes it was to find Chakwas fussing over him. As his eyes focused he could see the concern on her face and as she met his gaze there was relief there too.
'You're awake,' she chuckled at stating the obvious.
'Hey, doc,' his throat was still dry and he gladly accepted the drink she offered. 'How long has it been?'
'Four days,' she checked his vitals and smiled. 'All things considered you're doing quite well. More than I can say for the rest of us.' She nodded to the bed alongside him where Shepard lay curled up asleep. 'She refused to leave, got quite angry in fact when I ordered her to rest so I had to sedate her. She probably won't be happy but she needed to sleep.'
'You're a brave person, doc,' he managed a grin and tried to move but winced as his chest tightened.
'You're going to be sore for a few more days. We had to repair the chest wall and drain the chest cavity but the surgery went well and you're healing nicely, we've kept you sedated to help you over the worst of it. Although no broken bones this time. A few millimetres more and it would have hit your heart. You were lucky, Jeff.' She fought back emotion as she removed sensors and drips from his arm. 'If you hadn't stepped in front of Shepard it would have pierced her heart, you saved her life.'
'So lucky all round then,' he chuckled to hide the terror he really felt. Timing, it's all about timing. Why had he chosen that particular moment to move in front of her? What fate had placed them in that spot at that moment? How did the shooter know they would be there? That last question had him frowning.
'Jeff?' Chakwas looked at him worriedly.
'I'm okay, just thinking about how everything fell into place.' He pulled himself further up the bed to relieve the tension on his lower body, ignoring his body's protests. 'How long before I can get up?'
'Whenever you feel strong enough, although you'll still have to take it easy for a few days. You'll probably feel a bit nauseous as well, we had to counteract radioactive toxins so the meds will knock you around a little.' She took his hand and held it gently, 'I'm really glad you're okay, losing you would have …..' She closed her eyes and Joker could see she was holding back tears.
'Hey doc, you've been treating me long enough to know how stubborn I am,' he placed his other hand over hers. 'And like you said, no broken bones this time so I guess you get to yell at me for not taking my meds a little longer.' She groaned and chuckled before releasing her hold and moving away.
'I'll go and organise some food for you.' She paused and looked over her shoulder at him, 'you're going to have a scar, nothing huge but still a scar.'
'Really! A genuine war wound,' he grinned at her and she was laughing as she stepped through the door.
Joker rolled slightly to one side, his eyes coming to rest on Shepard. She looked so peaceful. He had no doubt she'd been angry, or that they would be having words. He'd stepped in front of a bullet that was meant for her and she wouldn't be happy about that. Not that he'd done it deliberately, no one had seen it coming, but he knew he wouldn't hesitate to do it again if it meant saving her life.
'I hear you're awake,' Garrus sounded cheerful as he came through the door and Joker shushed him as he pointed to Shepard. 'How are you feeling?' Garrus spoke quietly as he came to stand beside the bed.
'Like I've been stomped on by an Elcor,' Joker grimaced as he moved. 'What happened?'
'You took a bullet meant for Shepard,' Garrus hesitated and Joker was surprised at the emotion on the Turian's face. 'You saved her life.'
'So I hear and as much as I'm glad I did it wasn't deliberate, although I would have done it anyway.' He glanced over at the woman he loved, 'do we know who it was?'
'No,' Garrus sighed and paced slowly. 'Bailey had C-Sec carry out DNA sweeps of the spot we think the shooter was in but it was pretty clean. The keepers probably got there before we did. Shepard thinks it was Cerberus.'
'You don't?' Joker frowned at the unspoken thoughts.
'No, this seems more personal to me. I've never known Cerberus to use polonium rounds, that's more like something a merc or an individual would use.'
'That's the toxin Chakwas was talking about?'
'Yeah, polonium rounds are illegal but you can still buy them in the wrong places. If you hadn't received treatment fast it would have killed you even if the chest wound didn't.' He leant against the edge of the bed. 'That's why I think this is personal, it would have been an agonising way to die. Besides, it doesn't make sense for the Illusive Man to spend so many credits to bring her back only to kill her.'
'Well she's certainly pissed off a lot of people,' Joker chuckled and settled himself further into the pillows, he was already feeling tired.
'I brought you some food,' Chakwas was saying as she walked through the door. 'You need to eat and then rest,' she frowned at Garrus who held up his hands in surrender.
'I'm leaving,' he chuckled and his hand came to rest on Joker's leg. 'Get better quick, we need you, she needs you.' He looked across at Shepard before leaving them alone.
'Gardner has had chicken soup on standby for when you woke up, apparently it's his mother's recipe,' Chakwas placed a tray on Joker's lap.
'Chicken soup? Where did he get chicken, if it's really chicken?'
Joker eyed the dish suspiciously and took a tentative taste. His eyebrows rose in surprise, it was actually chicken soup and it tasted good. Chakwas laughed and settled herself at her desk as he finished eating. By the time he was done he was struggling to keep his eyes open so with a last glance at his wife he gave in and allowed his body to rest.
The feel of familiar fingers brushing his face slowly awoke him, aroused him and for a moment there was nothing but pure pleasure. He lay still, if he didn't move it might continue.
'You know, it might get a little hard to explain the sheet lifting,' that familiar voice whispered in his ear.
'I'm having a wet dream, so shoot me.' His eyes shot open in realisation as the fingers stopped moving. 'Oh shit, someone already did that.' He tried to cover but as he met Shepard's eyes he saw the pain there.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her towards him, his other arm lifting slowly around her shoulder, holding her against him. He felt her trembling and cursed himself for letting his mouth run away again. But hey, he was half asleep and she was brushing his face. Belatedly it occurred to him that he probably shouldn't have pulled her into his chest but it was worth a little pain to feel her so close.
'I'm okay,' he kissed her hair and she sucked in a deep breath. 'Sorry, didn't mean to upset you.'
'By being shot, or by being the smart ass I know you are,' he felt her smile and he let out a relieved sigh.
'Both, but you know me, never one to let a chance go by,' he grinned as she lifted her head and looked at him. 'It's why you love me.'
They both turned as the door opened and James stood looking at them both, uncertainty obvious in his downtrodden stance. They watched him take a deep breath before striding into the room, standing at attention at the end of the bed.
'James?' Shepard straightened up but didn't release her hold on Joker's hand.
'Commander,' James was staring at the wall above Joker's bed. 'I want to apologise for not doing my job, for letting you down. I understand if you ask Anderson to replace me.'
Joker couldn't help the smile that tugged at his lips, he tried to hide it though. James was embarrassed enough and obviously feeling guilty. He felt Shepard squeeze his fingers and he suddenly felt sorry for James. He watched as she moved to stand beside James, her Commander persona sliding into place.
'What exactly is your job, Lieutenant?' She slowly paced and Joker saw James tense.
'To ensure your safety, to watch your back.'
'Were you watching for threats? Were you aware of your surroundings?'
'Yes, ma'am,' he flicked a glance at Shepard, doubt in his eyes.
'Did you perceive any danger or sense anything out of place?'
'No, ma'am,' he was starting to sound confused.
'Are you psychic or have x-ray vision?' Shepard stopped and looked him in the eye and James glanced from her to Joker.
'I… what …. No?' His stance faltered and Joker couldn't hold in his laughter any longer and James scowled at him.
'Shit, don't make me laugh,' Joker wheezed, 'it hurts.'
'Relax, James,' Shepard chuckled, 'you had no way to know what was going to happen. None of us did. You were as alert and watchful as the rest of us so don't blame yourself.'
James sighed and relaxed. 'Shit, is it always like this around here?'
'Oh no,' Joker shook his head, 'this is a good day, nothing exploded.'
'Hey man, I'm sorry you took a bullet,' James gently placed his hand on Joker's leg.
'Always wanted to be on the ground team, get down and dirty,' Joker shrugged, 'didn't actually expect to get shot though. You guys can have that all to yourself. I'll just stay safely in my chair.' He pulled himself up, pleased to find that his chest didn't hurt quite so much. 'Now help me get out of this bed, my ass is going numb.'
Joker placed his feet cautiously on the floor as Shepard held his arm on one side and James was ready to catch him on the other. He was just straightening as the door opened and Anderson and Chakwas walked in. Shepard and James automatically snapped to attention and saluted, leaving Joker gripping the bed to support himself.
'Way to go, just drop the cripple,' he groaned and then laughed at the horrified look on Shepard's face. 'I'm fine.'
'Glad to hear it,' Anderson chuckled as he stopped before them and waved away the formalities. 'We've checked the security footage,' he glanced at Shepard, 'it was Batarians. Three of them. One was watching the Normandy so they knew when you left, one followed you and the other was already in the maintenance catwalks just waiting for an opportunity to strike.'
'See, Garrus was right,' Joker nudged Shepard's shoulder and she frowned at him. 'Not Cerberus.'
'Do we know where they are?' Shepard asked but Anderson shook his head.
'They apparently had a shuttle waiting and left the Citadel immediately after their failed assassination attempt.'
Joker knew that would drive Shepard nuts, the inability to go after those who had hurt him. He slipped his arm around her shoulder, partly to reassure her that he was okay and partly to support himself. She sensed his need and wrapped her arm around his back.
'How are you feeling, Joker?' Chakwas moved forward and ran her omnitool over him. 'Your chest is healing nicely but you'll still feel it for a while.'
'I'm okay, need to get out of bed.'
'Good,' Anderson nodded and looked at each of them in turn. 'The sooner we get to Earth the better I'll feel about Shepard's safety.'
'Sure, why execute her on the Citadel when it can be done on Earth by her own people.' Joker scoffed and Anderson frowned. 'Sorry, just venting.'
'I don't like this either, but at least in detention she won't have Batarians or Cerberus to worry about.'
'No, just dumb ass politicians and brass,' Joker sighed as Shepard's arm tightened around him. 'Okay, I know, shut my mouth.' He pushed himself as upright as he could and looked at Anderson. 'I'll be ready, it doesn't take much to sit in a chair and pilot, for me anyway. Give me a few hours to shower, find my feet and we'll be good to go.'
'Don't push it, Joker,' Anderson's gaze softened and Joker felt a little guilty. 'Earth's not going anywhere.'
No, Joker thought, it wasn't, unfortunately. Anderson nodded and left as Joker took his first steps. Shepard helped him and James stood by just in case. Dr Chakwas told him he was good to go if he preferred to rest in their cabin as long as he didn't overdo it. Getting into their bed couldn't come fast enough and as he lay resting on Shepard's chest, wrapped in her arms he became a little selfish. Earth and their uncertain future could wait a bit longer.