The first time, he found on of her red hairs on his seat, but he didn't think anything of it. The second time, his seat had been re-adjusted just a little, just enough for him to notice. He asked EDI if there had been any unauthorized access to the helm, but she'd said no. It wasn't until the third night when he was staying up late running simulations that he found out what was going on. Shepard stood there in the doorway in a tee shirt and sleep shorts, carrying a blanket and looking startled to see him when he spun around to greet her. He could count the times he'd seen her out of uniform on one hand—on a turian hand—and still have fingers left over.
"Oh, hey," she said, looking everywhere except at him. "You're working overtime, I see."
"Yeah, I had some . . . things . . ." he answered lamely. "Think if I put in for it I could get time and a half?"
She smiled and tucked her hair behind her ear. "I'll see what I can do." Her fingers twisted together nervously and she shifted her weight from foot to foot. "So, um, I'll just be going now." She turned to leave, but Joker surprised her (and himself) by calling out to her.
"Hey, you don't have to leave." She looked back over her shoulder at him, and her hair falling in a thin curtain over her eyes. Joker's breath caught in his throat when her hopeful gaze fell on him. "This is boring busywork, anyway; if you don't mind listening to me gripe for the next hour or so, you're welcome to stay." The corner of his mouth turned up in a playful smile, and she returned it gratefully.
She sat in the co-pilot's seat and leaned it back so she could look out of the windows at the stars, pulling the blanket up to her chest. They were so beautiful, silent and cold and permanent in a sea of black. Here, in the dim glow of the cockpit listening to Joker give barely-comprehensible commands to the simulator, she could relax.
Her cabin, which was designed to be lavish and comfortable, only made her feel like an intruder on her own ship. There was nothing personal about that space at all, except for her model ships, and even they were carefully encased in glass like museum pieces. Down here, where the air smelled of stale coffee and hard work, it felt like coming home.
"I miss my old ship."
His fingers froze on the console and his jaw tightened, his eyes hidden beneath the brim of his cap. "I do, too."
"I still dream about her sometimes. She was beautiful, and you . . . goddamn, you could put her through her paces like no one else in the galaxy."
He turned to look at her, lying there beside him, watching the blue shimmer of the mass effect fields. There were fresh tear tracks on her face, but no other sign of the deep sadness in her eyes. She smiled, and the motion sent another drop coursing along the wet path that ended in her hair.
"I should have saved her," she whispered, a simple statement that made her lip tremble. He'd never seen her like this before, and he wanted more than anything to take that look off her face, wipe the sorrow out of her eyes, but it was so close to the same emotions that had been plaguing him since his baby went down in flames that he didn't know where to start.
"You did everything you could, Shepard. I lost you the Normandy; if you're gonna blame someone, blame me."
"Joker," she started, her tone taking on a chastising edge. He started to pull up his simulations again, but suddenly she was there right next to him, her huge green eyes boring into him. "I never blamed you, you know. What happened . . . none of that was your fault."
He bit his lip and wished they weren't having this conversation. The heaviness was too much; he wanted to carry his pain on his own and shove it down to where he didn't have to look at it anymore, but she was insistent in her need to reassure him. Couldn't she see that he didn't want her reassurances? That he needed to hate himself for what happened, because to do any less would be like giving her up? When he thought of losing her, he wasn't even sure he meant the SR-1, or Shepard.
"I was her pilot," he said. "I should have stayed with her until the end."
"There was nothing you could have done. She was already gone."
"And now we've got her back, with a few upgrades," he said, casting a baleful glance at EDI's darkened display. Warm hands encased his and he met her eyes, so old for someone so young.
"And I know that if she could say it, she'd tell you just how happy she is to have you at the helm again."
Without thinking, he reached out to touch her face, the barest brush of knuckles on her cheek. She closed her eyes and turned into his hand, taking in the warmth and giving her own in return. God, she was beautiful. He so rarely got the chance to see her as a person, not just a proud officer, and he wanted to make the most of this moment before it slipped away in the bustle of the day cycle.
"Shepard, I . . . I wanted to tell you . . ." he tried, but the words wouldn't come. She seemed to understand, though, and lifted his hat away, leaning over the arm of the chair toward him. Her breath was hot, feather-soft against his face, her heavy-lidded eyes so dark and close.
"You're the only thing keeping me together, Joker. I couldn't do any of this without you to come home to."
His hand slipped around to cup the back of her head and he twined his fingers in her hair, pulling her closer. His lips brushed against hers and she sighed before pressing into the kiss, her lips parting for her tongue to slowly tease his mouth open, a silent plea to let her show him this, to see that he was what made her whole and kept her fighting on all this time. She tried to pile all the things she never said, the words she couldn't bear to speak aloud for fear of being turned away with a joke and a laugh, those fragile little things that she wanted more than anything to press into his hands and let him keep safe for her.
She pulled away first, breaking the contact just enough to rest her head against his. Her eyes stayed closed, relishing this closeness to him, the scent of him, the rough scratch of his beard, the steadfastness that made her love him.
"Can I stay here tonight?" she asked with a nervous tremor.
"I'd like that." She grabbed the blanket, settled herself between his knees, and leaned carefully back against his chest. They got the blanket situated and he wrapped his arms around her waist beneath it with his cheek resting on the top of her head.
"This okay?" she asked with a yawn.
"Yeah, you're fine right where you are. You're not a thrasher, are you?"
"I don't think so."
"Good, because trying to fly with broken ribs sucks."
She laughed softly and brought his hand up to her lips, kissing each of them in turn. "I promise, I won't hurt you."
A few minutes later, her breathing slowed and deepened in sleep, and he whispered into her ear, "Me, too."