Previously on Ghost: Shepard was thawed successfully from the black water, though her recovery will be complicated by the damage done to her eyes. Miranda confronted her own worst memory while waiting for the revival process to finish, and not even Garrus' return could fully reassure her.

But Shepard's awake, so that's something.


Her crew was safe. Garrus was safe. Everything else — the cold, the pain cracking her left arm in half — could be dealt with later. Shepard could barely move, her throat burned, and she didn't want to think about her eyes, but her people were safe. For the next couple heartbeats, that would be enough to let her ignore how uneasily she sat inside her own body.

Shepard remembered Garrus' hands in hers, a fleeting touch, and saw him in her mind's eyes, keen and bright as the edge of a knife, the base spread out behind him. Her relief sharpened. She'd made it back over the line again, holding on with nails and teeth to what she learned on the other side. She'd gotten that one thing right, and now she could rest. Her body would catch up. For now, it was enough to remind herself how to breathe, and to feel her heart beat in her cold, stricken chest.

A door opened nearby. Reflexively, Shepard turned — twitched, really — her head toward the sound, and strained to hear.

"Officer Vakarian," said Miranda. Was that relief, in Miranda's voice? Wonders never ceased. "Welcome back. I trust your errand was successful."

A noise that could have been a sigh or a laugh floated down toward Shepard. She tried to brace her good arm against the bottom of the pod to leverage herself up, but her muscles wouldn't obey, and she stayed where she was, gritting her teeth as the thermal blanket caught on her wet skin. This was a thousand times worse than waking up half-finished back on Lazarus Station; at least then she'd been able to stand the layers of muscle wrapped around her bones. Now she wanted tear off patches of slippery, clammy skin, and make sure she bled actual blood instead of black water.

That's not a healthy approach, commander, she thought, and felt the last word echo through her skull. Commander. Commander.

"You could say that," Garrus said, his voice warm against her ears. God, Shepard wanted to see him so badly her mouth went dry. "How is she?"

"I'm fine," Shepard tried to say, but something ripped the words out of her throat before she could open her mouth, and a stark-white shriek of lightning hit her spine.

Hello, commander. It's been a long time since we've spoken, hasn't it?

Let's get started. You need to know how little you brought back with you this time.

Shepard knew the Prothean beacon hadn't meant to hurt her. The fact that it had overwhelmed her very human brain with a very non-human and very desperate warning was completely incidental. The Protheans hadn't known who would find their warnings, so how could they have planned ahead? You did the best with the tools you had at the time. It wasn't their fault, or the beacon's, that all they had was a sledgehammer. By her standards.

She'd been furious for days afterward, while the beacon's reaction to her and her reaction to the beacon's reaction kept her stuck in medbay for most of the trip to the Citadel, and known she was being unreasonable, and then been furious over that, too. By the time they docked, she wasn't sure any longer if the headache was the beacon's fault, or her own.

Intentions aside, the beacon had hurt her, wrenched every muscle in her body and left every nerve jangling like a set of wind chimes. That all made sense, given how she'd been yanked around in midair after Kaidan activated the damn thing, but other, subtler pains came to light over the next few days: cramps in the arches of her feet, flashes of light behind her eyes, dry mouth, blood in her urine.

Nothing to write home about. When your pain scale included getting half your face ripped open in a knife fight, and thresher maw acid, a headache that was half your own fault barely registered. And without any active malice behind it, Shepard's anger at the beacon had faded away completely as soon as she set foot on the Citadel. Why waste time hating something that hadn't tried to hurt you in the first place?

Then came the melding: first and strangest, for so many damn reasons, with Shiala, and then with Liara. It hadn't hurt, and they'd taken pains to be careful, even circumspect, but Shepard hadn't been able to shake another unreasonable burst of anger while their consciousnesses plunged through hers. She felt them sifting through the scattered images and sounds from the beacon and forced herself not to shout Get out, get out, it's mine, over and over and over. Digging through her brain was hers, even if she didn't do it quite so often as she needed to.

No malice, either time. No hate, no disregard, no carelessness. The Protheans, Shiala, Liara — they'd all done they best they could with what they had.

The voices thundering now in Shepard's head didn't care if they hurt her, or what they disturbed as they flooded her mind. She laid on her back with icy, silty water and a thermal blanket scraping against her loose skin, with her eyes nothing more than two cold, dead weights in her head, and slipped further under the surface. Straight through the ice, past the light and down to where vast shapes brushed against her in the dark.

Welcome back, they whispered, till her head nearly burst.

They made the Prothean beacon look like an alarm clock, and Shiala and Liara look like kids poking around in a sandbox. One word could reduce her to her component atoms and scatter her across the galaxy, and no one could stop them. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put her back together again.

Who are you? she howled, over the storm inside her skull. Dammit, talk to me. Tell me who you are.

The flood paused. In the second before it resumed, Shepard felt the weight of a massive consciousness settle around hers, thoughtful, considering, and impatient.

And then it swallowed her whole.

You've always known who we are.

We were the voices at your ear when you killed Toombs. We were the ones who told you to sing the notes the Alliance wanted to hear. We spoke to you while you tried to drag yourself back home and we've been waiting, all the years in between, to speak to you again.

Stop shivering. We know you hate how your body feels around you, cold dying flesh and fragile bone, we feel it as you do, but you've come back alive. Again. You have a gift for resurrection. Be thankful for it. We didn't.

Stop asking who. There isn't much time, and certainly not enough for an explanation that would satisfy you, commander. We don't need to hear you sing. You're not a songbird to us.

You are a wolf, and we need you to go back to the hunt. Maybe you'll do better than the others, maybe you'll fail like they did. We can afford to be patient.

You can't.

We know it hurts. It always will. You leave a little more behind every time you cross the borders. Trust us on this, commander, daughter, golden girl, hero, because we tried to cross too many times and we've paid for it, ever since.

Ah. Now we've got your attention.

If only you knew the energies it takes to ride your synapses and make our voices something your weak nerves can withstand — but you can't, and we can't waste the time trying to explain.

Listen. You're what we were seeking, half the life of the universe ago. You, golden girl, and the few like you. And — yes, that's right. They're all dead. We'll tell you what we told them: we reached too far, and there is no coming back.

We don't want your pity. We reject it. What right do you have, living in the shadow of our great experiment, to pity us?

That's right. We feel that static burst of shock riding your nerves, we hear your gasp. Your life is so tiny, we can't help but hear and feel and see, though our window on you is small, and getting smaller. We have to hurry.

They're ours, the Sarcophagi and the machines that terrify you so. We know you dream of them when you manage to shut your eyes, even though you don't remember — and you remember so little, you've been given such a gift and you remember nothing.

So, let us tell you, in a way you will not forget. We have so many ways to motivate you.

Don't worry. Your friends will keep your body alive while we speak.

Listen: we reached too far, and the way behind us is gone. You travel different roads, but you've seen where our experiments ended, and — yes. Over the hills and far away. Remember what you were like when you came back. That is what we are, forever.

Think of pity one more time, and we will have to hurt you.

While there's still time, we must tell you this: we left our machines behind. They've forgotten us, like all children do, but they've kept our work going. And if you don't stop them, your sweet little galaxy will be nothing more than slurry.

It's time for you to remember everything, commander. You have work to do.

We'll make sure you don't forget, no matter how little you like our methods.

As a rule, Joker didn't trust anyone who made more than he did. More importantly, he didn't trust anyone who threw around money the way Cerberus did — but the leather seat cradling his ass made a pretty good argument for feeling a tiny bit of gratitude. If he was going to spend most of his waking hours in the cockpit, he might as well do it in comfort.

Pretty sure the Alliance isn't going to get on board with that too quick. He shifted a little lower in his seat. Good thing we're not working for them this go-around, huh?

The thought burned, but not so bad as it had a couple months ago. Leather seats made up for a lot, and so did having his ship back in his hands. And even if Cerberus had way too much money, at least this time they were spending it on the right things. Like fighting the Collectors. And actual coffee.

He reached for his mug — had to love mass effect fields, no plastic zero-g bulbs to ruin the flavor — and settled a little deeper into his chair. If he had to be stuck in Omega's docks — again — while Miranda worked her Dr. Frankenstein magic on Shepard — again — this was the way to do it. Fresh coffee, a great chair, and no annoying co-pilot to try and make nice with while he tried to ignore the nervous flutter in his stomach.

A flash of blue light on his left ruined his quiet moment before it could get started.

"Mr. Moreau," said the ship cancer. "I am linked into all public station comm channels. Would you like to —"

"You know what's great about silence?" Joker sipped his coffee, let it reach every corner of his mouth before swallowing. "Nobody talks. Not even fancy AIs who get to spy on everyone. Silence is great."

Where an actual person would have glared, or paused, EDI just kept on rolling. "— like to listen to any station broadcasts? Alliance records show you enjoyed listening to —"

"Billions of credits and they forgot to install a mute button." He set his mug aside and started punching at his display, specifically not looking to his left. "Thanks, but no thanks, EDI, I'm good."

"Your stress levels have been elevated for the last several hours," said EDI. "If you require distractions, there are several comm channels that would suffice, as well as many extranet channels."

The thought of EDI poring over his extranet history gave him heartburn. Joker kept glaring at his display, calculating how long it would take them to back to the relay under thrust. Just for something to do, till Shepard came back.

EDI's interface flickered, then winked out. For half a second, Joker almost felt bad — maybe he'd hurt her feelings, and after all she was only trying to help, she couldn't help the fact that she was programmed to watch everything — but then he remembered what he was thinking about, and leaned back in his seat with a sigh.

He had every excuse to be a dick. Pretty much any Alliance bar was a no-go now, they had that creepy turian kid sealed up in a cryo pod two decks below, and Shepard was — well, she hadn't just been frozen, Joker was damn sure of that. Maybe the fact that Miranda had already put Shepard back together once should have been comforting, but Cerberus didn't just throw money at problems, it threw people, and Joker really didn't like thinking about Kahoku, and Lazarus Station.

Strange times made strange bedfellows, right?

Calculating how long it would take to get back to the Citadel on their FTL engines and under thrust took up another three minutes, and then Joker yanked off his hat and wiped a thin layer of sweat off his forehead. The comfy chair felt a little too comfy now, the leather warm and sticky and way too friendly, and all he could do was stare at the docks through the viewport and wait for Zaeed's next update.

"Today sucks," he said to no one. For once, EDI knew better than to reply.

Miranda prided herself on compartmentalization, but she wasn't able to file away the memory of Shepard's screams as efficiently as she wanted. Shepard hadn't screamed on Lazarus Station, though she'd been understandably intractable and disoriented — a state Miranda far preferred to the furious, wordless screams that ripped out of Shepard's mouth when she woke, and just after Vakarian stepped into the room.

It would just as difficult to push away the image of Vakarian, frozen in place with his fists clenched at his sides, as Shepard thrashed and pounded her good hand against the pod till the wet skin broke, would be just as difficult.

The shadows in the corners had moved then too, little flickers at the edge of Miranda's vision that she ignored with every ounce of her self-control. In the time it took to turn from Vakarian back to Shepard, Miranda had weighed the risks of sedation so soon after revival after the damage Shepard was doing to herself in her distress, and gone with the sedation.

As they cleaned away the new blood and bandaged her battered hand, Miranda felt the wirelike tension in Shepard's muscles, the tautness that would not give even as the commander's vital signs dropped back into safe ranges.

Mordin spread the medical tent over Shepard's body, and activated the system. The tent would monitor Shepard's biometrics while simultaneously dispensing painkillers as needed, and would begin the first round of ossification treatments once Miranda was satisfied Shepard was stabilized. Cerberus engineering, with her own name on the patent: a reliable source of satisfaction every other day but today.

Vakarian hadn't said a word since his arrival; he stood now just behind Miranda, watching the medical tent's lights, clenching and unclenching his fists endlessly. And bloody looming in the bargain, too.

Miranda was quite sure Vakarian didn't mean to loom. A seven-foot tall turian in full armor would have enough trouble making himself unobtrusive under normal circumstances, but in the crowded room, Vakarian loomed. Over everyone, in general, and over Miranda and her monitors in particular.

She discarded the suggestion he wait outside. Vakarian would only refuse, and Miranda didn't need to add a hostile turian to her difficulties. And why alienate an ally, however tenuous? Vakarian was as inextricably linked to this madness as Shepard, and if Miranda wanted to see her way clear to an optimal solution, she needed him on her side.

It would reassure Shepard to have a familiar face nearby when she woke. Miranda frowned at the thought; that had been the Illusive Man's reasoning, when Miranda's worst difficulty had been rebuilding a spinal column. But he had a far more mercenary view of things — hadn't he?

Her omnitool pinged with the full results of the tent's scans, and she allowed herself a thin sigh. "We'll need to move her back to the Normandy sooner than I expected," she said to Mordin. "Forty-six percent of her skin weave has been compromised, and I don't like the look of the marrow in her left femur. We'll —"

"You can't do everything here?" Vakarian interrupted. His voice, neutral to the point of disinterest, was barely above a whisper.

"The basic treatments, yes," Miranda replied, tapping a command into her omnitool and listening for the confirmation beep from the monitor behind her before turning around. "Mordin's clinic is impressively supplied."

Mordin sniffed on the other side of the pod. "Damned with faint praise," he said, but Miranda heard the smile in his voice.

"Shepard's augmentations require specific adjustments," she went on, fighting a yawn. The skin weave would tricky to repair, and Shepard's new eyes had only completed the first stage of the cloning procedure, with all the most delicate work yet to come. Perhaps Gardner had left a pot of coffee on. "And as comprehensive as the clinic is, it is not set up to deal with her —"

"Customizations," Vakarian interjected.

Miranda met his cool blue gaze head-on. "If you prefer that term. Mordin's clinic has what we needed to revive Shepard from her cryo-stasis, and the Normandy has what I need to complete her treatments." She turned back to her monitors. "I'm not moving her around without cause," she added. "I'm not interested in risking her safety."

"Of course not," said Vakarian. The dual tones in his voice thrummed, raising the hairs on Miranda's neck. "Too much invested in this mission to risk anyone."

"If you have a complaint about any of my decisions, we can discuss it later," Miranda said, frustration clipping her words short. "I have a nervous system to monitor."

Vakarian ignored her. "What happened, when I got back?" he asked instead. "She was — lucid, wasn't she? Before."

Miranda pushed her hair back behind her ears and swallowed down another sharp reply. "The cause is unclear," she admitted. "You must understand, this kind of revival is unprecedented. Cryo-stasis itself is not an exact science, and what happened to Shepard was another like a sterile, controlled process. It could be as simple as a seizure brought on by an allergic reaction. It could be something far more complex."

Vakarian's gaze met hers again. Miranda lifted her brows a fraction, frustration forgotten in the shared, silent moment of understanding.

"Right," he said, giving her a small nod.

Excellent. He wasn't going to be a bastard. That made reassuring him far easier to swallow.

"We're doing everything we can to find the source," she said, and won another nod before Vakarian turned back to watching Shepard.

Miranda allowed herself another small sigh. Her eyes moved from monitor to monitor, before finally landing on a nearly-hidden readout.

"What's happening now?" Vakarian asked.

Miranda watched the fine red and blue lines etch themselves across the monitor and then fade, while the medical tent hummed a few feet away. "She's dreaming."

You think you found knowledge while you floated in the black water, and you slipped back, like vermin through a hole in the wall, with your precious cargo, ready to tell him everything in case you forgot when you returned.

How quaint.

What's this? Anger? Commander, anger is as pointless as your screams. We've watched you, every moment of your life, and we have forgotten nothing. Why should this moment be what enrages you?

Ah. Because of him. Believe us when we tell you we have no interest in your fleshy graspings. You have a purpose, hero. Pay attention. Don't fight us. We are older than you can imagine. We could crush you with our gaze. We've done it before.

You thought you found the truth. What you found were scraps. None of it was wrong — you didn't lie to him — but none of it was whole, either. Listen closely. We'll tell you everything.

We screamed too, when we understood.

Be careful with this knowledge. Don't go too far or look too deeply. There's always a point of no return, even for someone like you.

Your little creature was right about one thing. Events are moving very quickly. You won't be able to contain them. Choose who you can trust, and choose them now. You'll need teeth and claws at your back.

You blame us. Of course you do. But don't think for one second any of you would have done differently, if you thought immortality was within your reach. You would have chewed each other to bloody pulp to get there first. Just like we did.

Joker scratched at his beard and stared through his displays. EDI hovered off to his left, her interface tinting everything on that side of the cockpit a creepy blue-grey, but for once he didn't mind. Maybe didn't mind was too strong a phrase — he just cared too much about other shit at the moment to be annoyed at her watching him think a hole in his console.

So, according to Zaeed's last update, Garrus hadn't stuck around while Shepard got defrosted. Why should that be a big deal? He was back now, and it wasn't like the big guy could do anything except stand around and look terrifying while the mad scientists did all the heavy lifting. Which he was probably doing anyways right about now.

Note to self: don't call Miranda a mad scientist to her face. Or anywhere she might hear. It'd be funny for about five seconds, and then I'd be dead forever.

And god knew Garrus had business to wrap up on Omega. Joker had been exactly zero percent surprised when it turned out Archangel was actually Garrus, because running off to play Space Batman seemed like the natural way for Garrus to deal with the five stages of grief. It had felt good having him back on the Normandy, too, even though he spent all his time in the battery unless he was off on a mission — but Joker figured losing your whole team and half your face would do that to a person.

But Garrus not sticking around to keep an eye on Shepard? That felt wrong, just like him holing up in the battery and not hanging around Shepard every spare minute.

He reached for his coffee, half-forgetting about EDI and the soft chimes of the ship's systems all around him. They'd been funny about each other from day one, Shepard and Garrus. Joker didn't usually notice things like that, or care one way or another as long as nothing happened in the cockpit. Ash had pointed it out, one slow day between Feros and Noveria.

I give it about two more months before they get it together.

Yeah. Right. Because Shepard's the type to fraternize.

You think I'm talking about the commander and Alenko? Wow, you haven't been paying attention. Shepard and Garrus, Joker. Two months. I'd bet half my next paycheck on it.

If we're not dead before then.

Aw, scared of losing, Joker?

She'd been so sure of it, grinning and swinging her legs a little in the co-pilot's chair, but he'd just laughed it off and changed the subject. He started watching, though, and been simultaneously relieved he hadn't taken the bet with Ash, and horrified that two hyper-competent soldiers were worse at flirting than he'd been in middle school.

The fate of the galaxy rests on them, Chief. We're all doomed.

Nah, that's what they've got me for. We'll be fine.

A hard lump swelled in Joker's throat. He tried to force down another mouthful of coffee, but even Cerberus' money couldn't buy a blend that didn't taste like ass once it started to cool, so he shoved the mug aside and let his head loll on the backrest again.

Shepard was alive, Garrus was back, they called this ship the Normandy, but it wasn't home. Not with Ash gone and everyone else scattered across the galaxy, and not with Garrus and Shepard barely talking to each other. Maybe that would change, but Joker wasn't going to bet on it.

"Wonder what Ash would say about us now," he murmured, eyes sliding closed.

"Mr. Moreau?" Anything he heard in EDI's was just him projecting, but it was nice to imagine some hesitation, some sympathy.

"Don't worry about it, EDI," he said, without opening his eyes. "Just thinking about old times."

"I see," said EDI. She went back to flickering in silence, which suited Joker just fine. It'd be hard to be as cutting and witty as he usually was with that damn lump still taking up real estate in his throat.

Feels like we just keep losing, he thought, then scrubbed his hand over his face. Thinking like that didn't help anyone. You moved forward, you kept fighting, because the minute you felt beaten was the moment you were. And hell, if Shepard could keep flipping death the bird, he could keep the happy thoughts going, right?

Joker sat up straight and adjusted his hat. Plenty to do while he waited. He pulled up the queued reports from the team down in Engineering — Ken and Gabby argued non-stop, but they knew what they were doing — and had just opened the first one when something slid past him on the right.

"What the —" He twisted in his seat to follow, because what the hell, and ended up staring at the side of his comfy leather chair. "EDI, did you catch that? What just —"

"Mr. Moreau," said EDI. "I advise against turning around."

"Well, now I gotta," he shot back, and strained his neck trying to see past his chair. "It's not like there's anything —"

Hilary bared her teeth at him.

"— there," Joker finished. His legs groaned; a little farther and he'd start doing actual damage. "Hil?"

"We're going down, Jeff," said his sister. She wiggled muddy fingers at him and scrunched up her nose. "Ass over teakettle. Green grass going black. It's all the same and it all goes down the same and you and me, we go down, down, too."

"Dreaming," Garrus said.

That single word was the closest he'd had to good news in hours, and like most good news, he didn't trust it. Call it pessimism or turian stoicism, or just plain mistrust, but he'd spent the walk from the base to the clinic trying not to get his hopes up for a real reunion with Shepard, only to have his relief at seeing her awake utterly crushed when she started screaming.

Not the first time that happened since this particular resurrection got underway, to hear Miranda tell it. So no, he wasn't going to trust that word, dreaming, until Shepard woke up and confirmed it for herself. Preferably not howling and beating herself bloody while she did.

Miranda nodded. A few signs of fatigue — shadowed eyes, dulled skin — showed, but Miranda wore them better than most, and Garrus knew he only saw them because of how deep her real exhaustion went. Neither of them had slept since Shepard had been rescued, aside from a few five-minute catnaps, and the cracks were starting to show. If Garrus had to put money on it, he'd bet Miranda held out longer than he did. He just hoped she held out long enough to bring Shepard back to the world of the living. Again.

"We're seeing all the standards signs of normal REM sleep. All her vital signs are within stable parameters, and the sedatives are being metabolized at a normal rate. Excellent news."

"How do you figure?" Garrus let his gaze move around the room, over the crates of old equipment and the scattered shadows hanging in the corners.

"It means her implants are operating correctly." Miranda pushed at a strand of hair that kept escaping its knot. "Like them or not, replacing them isn't currently feasible or safe. Most of them were customized specifically for her genetic profile. Her pancreas alone —" She shook her head, almost smiling, looking a shade more exhausted. "Excuse me. This isn't the time for a rundown of my qualifications."

Well, that saved him from asking her to stop talking about all the work that had gone into dragging Shepard back from the dead. As much as he respected Miranda — and he did, because who else in the damn galaxy could brag about making two resurrections happen? — being grateful to her was going to be a tall order, especially when part of him still blamed her for taking Shepard away in the first place.

Funny though, how hearing the truth about one fundamental part of his life had crystallized so many others. While he wandered through the base, shutting off lights, saying his silent goodbyes, Shepard's voice had filled his head: This isn't sustainable, Garrus.

Neither of them had listened. She had stayed, and he had let her. Miranda pulling her away was just the ending they both knew was always approaching. And he'd still held on, to his rage and loss, even while the real thing was only two decks away. If that.

Always easier to blame someone else, or deny the inevitable. Just look at the Council.

He smiled to himself, a knot under his keel loosening. Maybe there was something to all the human self-help stories that said to just let go, but he'd never say so out loud. He'd been a bad turian enough for one lifetime.

"That's strange," said Miranda, frowning at her omnitool.

And just like that, the knot had never come undone. Garrus glanced at the medical tent, but Shepard's form hadn't moved, and none of the monitors had shrilled a warning. So: no crisis.

Not yet, he thought, out of pure habit. He didn't let himself look toward the drop of blood. "What is it?"

"A pause in one of the streams from the tent," Miranda said, still frowning, but typing now. "It could be a glitch in the software. I'll have EDI run a diagnostic, but in the meantime, Dr. Solus, could you —"

Mordin had already appeared at Miranda's elbow, sliding past Garrus without a glance in his direction. "Not a glitch," he said, stabbing a finger at a display that meant exactly nothing to Garrus, but was made up of a lot of pretty colored lights. "No neural activity recorded for point oh two seconds."

No one had to ask the obvious question, but Garrus had his answer ready: nothing good caused that.

We're almost done talking now. You can rest, but be ready. When you wake, it'll be time to talk. No more dancing, no more songs. A wolf needs its pack, or it dies.

"What the shit," Joker murmured. Something started roaring in his ears. "What the shit."

"Won't be a kid anymore." Hilary stuffed her hands in her pockets and toed a line on the slick tiles. "Not me. Snap and crack, crack snap and that's it, not going anywhere but down."

Joker blinked, then rubbed his eyes, and blinked again. Hilary stood just ten feet away, where the cockpit lights faded into the faint glow from the CIC, smudging lines on the floor with her dirty shoe. His sister, who was on Tiptree the last time he called her, and definitely not anywhere a Cerberus frigate.

EDI said his name again, and again, and then a few more times for good measure. Joker ignored her, ignored the pain rocking through his legs, and kept staring at Hilary. He could see the crew moving around behind her, but not through her, which meant she wasn't some weirdly-timed comcall. But Hilary? Standing in the middle of the Normandy? It threw off all the angles, made the light go all slow and orange. And that was before he got to all the weird shit coming out of her mouth.

Before something skated past at the edge of his vision again, and Hilary made a thick, ground-glass sound in her throat.

"Oh hell no." Joker jerked back, surprised out of just staring behind him like a dumbass, and whipped around to face his console again. That fucking sound. He shouldn't have turned around.

"Jeff-Jeff," said Hilary. She'd gotten closer, near enough for her breath to tickle the back of his neck, too hot and dry. "It's all gonna be daisies in the end but we've gotta go inside now. We've gotta go down."

He tried to focus on the console and on his hands as they moved over it — fuck the thing behind him, fuck EDI and how she was still saying his name, fuck it all — but his vision blurred and a heartbeat later his console was gone, along with all the safe clear readouts and safe little sounds that filled the cockpit. Now there was just oily black rock spreading under his hands, and even those didn't look right anymore — his skin was all grey and loose, and there was blue light just underneath, pulsing in time with the light inside the rocks.

"Come on, Jeff," said Hilary. She pressed her hand to the back of his neck, and god it was wet and cold and nothing like Hil at all. It didn't even sound like Hil, not up close. Joker squeezed his eyes shut. "Let's go."

Two heavy metallic thuds sounded behind him, and a low sloshing sound that faded into nothing.

"Oops," said Chambers, then giggled. "Serves me right for trying to do my good deed for the day. Now there's coffee all over the floor."

The fingers on the back of his neck dug in slightly, then vanished.

Joker peeled his eyes openly slowly, not sure what he'd do if all he saw was grey skin and rock again, but his consoles showed up crystal clear, with EDI's blue light falling over everything. He heard Chambers muttering to herself behind him, and after a few deep breaths, he turned his chair around to face her.

"Aw, Chambers," he said, faking a smile that felt like shit and probably didn't look much better. "You shouldn't have."

Chambers grinned at him and blew her bangs out of her face. "I figured you'd been up here long enough," she said. "Someone needed to check on you — besides, don't you usually go for coffee around now?"

"That I do." He watched her wipe up the rest of the coffee — half-listening as she rambled on about how she hoped Shepard was all right, and how hard this must be for Garrus, because the files said they had been close — hoping she'd leave so he could get his breathing under control.

Should have listened to the ship cancer.

EDI's interface flickered patiently, silently, beside him, not giving anything away.

One last thing before we let you go: for what it's worth, commander, we pity you.

Now get to work.

Thank you, as always, for sticking with this story, for reading, and for letting me know what you think. :)