Shepard ground her teeth, her fists clenching, wishing like hell that the Illusive Man was really standing in front of her. The son of a bitch had known about the Collectors the entire time, and had chosen to send her to Freedom's Progress blind. Had he also known that Tali would be there, despite his assurances that her old team was unreachable, that she would have to make do with the Cerberus crew? And now he was lecturing her, with that smooth, condescending voice.
Shepard took several slow, deep breaths, reminding herself that fantasizing about smashing her pistol into the Illusive Man's perfect teeth wasn't going to help anything, no matter how satisfying the idea.
"Two things before you go," he continued, lazily flicking ash from his cigarette. "First, head to Omega and find Mordin Solus."
"I haven't even started, and you're telling me what to do?" Shepard snapped. She regretted the words as soon as they'd left her mouth. If there was one thing Shepard had learned from her time working for the Council, it was that losing her cool would only prompt more of that smug superiority. She wondered if her unusually short temper was somehow a side effect of her rebirth, or if it was simply a particular talent the Illusive Man possessed for getting under her skin.
"I'm giving you direction," the Illusive Man replied calmly. "What you do with it is up to you. I'm sure you'll make the right decision."
"All right," Shepard said through clenched teeth. "What's the other thing?"
"I've found a pilot I think you might like. I hear he's one of the best. Someone you can trust."
Shepard's irritation ratcheted up a notch at the idea of yet another Cerberus flunky joining 'her' team. She started to turn, hearing slow, irregular footsteps behind her, and her breath caught in her throat at the sound of a familiar voice.
"Hey, Commander. Just like old times, huh?"
Shepard dragged herself up from the floor, exhaling sharply as her body protested. The myriad aches and pains she could ignore, but she was fairly certain that her armor had actually melted to her skin in places, and with every movement came a searing pain and a sickening pulling sensation. She had watched as the last of the crew piled into an escape pod and ejected, and then something had exploded just in front of her. Fire was raging all along the corridor, and cables dangled from the ceiling, sparking, as the entire ship pitched and yawed. And that pain in the ass Joker was still in the cockpit.
Shepard stumbled toward the stairs, muttering every curse she'd learned in her years as a marine. If they made it out of this alive, she was going to kick Joker's ass. She could hear him over the comm., still radioing for help, as she finally reached the top of the stairs.
When the door opened, Shepard froze, momentarily unable to comprehend what she was seeing. She thought nothing had the power to frighten her anymore, but the sight of the gaping hole where the hull in the CIC had been was staggering. There was nothing there, nothing between her and the vastness of space, no sound but her own harsh breathing inside her helmet, no movement but the severed remnants of the bridge crew's chairs, floating eerily as gravity tried to re-assert itself.
She heard Joker's voice again and continued pushing forward, thankful for the reminder that someone else was still alive. His tone had changed. Instead of shouting for help, he was muttering, pleading with the ship. "Come on baby, hold together, hold together!"
When Shepard finally reached him, he was still wrestling with the controls. "Come on Joker," she said. "We have to get out of here."
"No!" he shouted. "I won't abandon the Normandy. I can still save her!"
"The Normandy's lost," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder and forcing him to look at her. "Going down with the ship won't change that."
He looked so defeated then, and for a moment Shepard was afraid he would refuse to come. Finally, hanging his head, Joker said, "Yeah, okay. Help me up."
She half-carried, half-dragged him to the last escape pod and had only just managed to dump him inside when there was another explosion. She was lifted off her feet, and with the last of her strength slammed her fist onto the pod release button. She caught a flash of Joker's wide, shocked eyes, and as another blast hurled her away from the ship, she heard his voice screaming for her over the comm. "Commander? Shepard!"
She looked up, realizing that while she'd been lost in her memories the Illusive Man had disappeared, and Joker was standing there, looking at her oddly. Everything about him was so familiar, from his hunched posture to his ridiculous beard, and she didn't think she'd ever been so pleased to see anyone in her life.
"Joker?" Shepard said, relieved that her voice, at least, seemed normal. "I can't believe it's you."
"Look who's talking," he retorted. "I saw you get spaced!"
Joker began to walk, gesturing for her to follow. She had to slow her natural gait to keep pace, tamping down the instinct to take point. It was odd, a counterpoint to how familiar everything else about him was – she didn't think she'd ever simply walked with him before. As he led her through the building, they spoke at length about his decision to join Cerberus, but one phrase stuck in her mind, making her chest ache with guilt.
"The Alliance took away everything that mattered to me." He had said it in such an offhand way, tossing the remark out between curses while navigating a flight of stairs. If she hadn't been watching him closely, afraid that he might lose his balance, she would have missed the shadow of pain that crossed his face, belying the casual tone of his voice.
Shepard thought about her time aboard the Normandy, how Williams had become almost like a sister to her, the long conversations with Garrus about C-Sec and his father, her fledgling romance with Kaidan. Hell, she'd even gotten to be friends with Wrex. But somehow she'd never taken the time to get past Joker's attitude, and had treated him as a lesser member of the crew. She promised herself, no matter what else happened on this screwed up mission, that she wouldn't make that mistake again.
"You really trust the Illusive Man?" Shepard asked.
"I don't trust anyone who makes more than I do," Joker answered, stopping in front of a large window. "But they aren't all bad. Saved your life. Let me fly. And then there's this. They only told me last night."
He gestured at the glass, and as Shepard peered through, a gleaming ship drifted slowly into sight. When it came to rest in front of them, she turned to Joker, her mouth open in surprise, to see him grinning widely. It was larger, sleeker, and painted with the yellow logo of Cerberus, but it was still, unmistakably, the Normandy.
"It's good to be home, huh Commander?"