The days after Virmire, with his mind stuck on a loop of doubt and regret. The stubborn fearlessness in Ashley's voice, and the anguish in Shepard's.
The snap of his radius fracturing as he's heaved into the escape shuttle.
The vice around his heart as Shepard floats into open space.
Joker limped away from the cockpit, the list of agonies playing like a mantra in his head. It was a kind of perverse comfort, to remind himself that things could always be worse. He was still alive, still ambulatory. Shepard's team was all off-ship, tying up loose ends before they passed through the relay. Shepard herself had gone off on a rescue mission with Garrus, and that at least was some comfort. Whatever happened, the Commander and the turian would protect each other with their lives. They could find another ship - another pilot - and carry on.
Three crewmen crouched behind the glowing panels of the CIC, wide-eyed and grim but with hands steady on their weapons. Joker was reminded of an old movie from Earth, the stalwart sheriff facing down a gang of killers in the middle of a dusty street, long after all the sensible townspeople had fled. He choked back a laugh. When had he ever done the sensible thing?
The crewmen spared him a glance as he passed, the shuffle-thump of his footsteps the only sound on a ship that had gone eerily silent. Then the elevator opened with a hiss, and a Collector tumbled out. Long seconds passed in a melange of gunfire and screaming as Joker struggled onward, then the unmistakeable thud of a body impacting the floor made him pause.
Lifeless blue eyes stared at him from a too-young face, one outstretched hand still clutching a pistol. Joker bent painfully and pried the weapon from the kid's fingers, feeling ghoulish. It was one thing to watch Shepard loot the bodies of mercs, but this -
"Joker, go!" one of the soldiers shouted. "We'll cover you!"
Hadley, Joker thought. His name is Hadley. It seemed terribly important to remember that, all of a sudden. These men, men he'd teased and bullshitted with just that morning, were standing between him and certain death. Counting on him.
He lifted a shaking hand to wipe the sweat from his eyes and forced himself to keep moving. It was easy to be the cocky hero behind the controls of his ship, where the Normandy seemed to respond to his every thought. Now, relying on his own fickle body and the direction of a bitchy AI, everything seemed so much more terrifying.
He reached the maintenance hatch and began to descend, ignoring the way his knees popped in protest. He'd been trained for this, knew how to push aside pain and fear, but his mind kept returning to Shepard. He thought about the way her hand had lingered on his shoulder as she'd said goodbye, with Garrus hovering impatiently near the airlock. He'd teasingly ordered her off his ship, and the smile that lit her eyes had turned her into something breathtaking.
Joker emerged from the tunnel at last, only to be brought up short by the sight of a Collector dragging a thrashing body into the elevator. A pale face turned to him, pleading eyes topped by messy red hair. Chambers. She reached for him, shrieking something he couldn't make out over the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. He swallowed the guilt and bile that burned in his chest, and hobbled on.
The next few minutes were like something from a nightmare. Lurking in a stairwell as Collectors lumbered past, their shadows dancing grotesquely against the wall. A far-away scream, shrill and agonized and cut off with abrupt finality. Fifteen of the longest seconds of his life, as he passed through the exposed corridor before bursting into Engineering with his heart in his throat.
"EDI," he whispered, leaning heavily against a console. If he had to do any more climbing, they were all screwed.
"Activate the drive, and I will open the airlocks as we accelerate," EDI instructed. "All hostiles will be killed."
"What?" Joker demanded. "What about the crew?" Was this the part where the AI revealed its evil plan, after all? Because he was going to be pissed.
"They are gone, Jeff." EDI sounded almost regretful. "The Collectors took them."
Took them? What the hell did that mean? Took them alive? Took them to experiment on? For food? And what if EDI wasn't telling the truth? But in the end, it was the only thing he could do. Even if he wasn't exhausted, he didn't have any brilliant ideas, and there was no way to communicate with Shepard.
EDI sealed the engine room and powered up the drive, and Joker was knocked over by the resultant shockwave. He landed on his back, feeling ridiculously like an upended turtle. He was dazed and breathless – and probably horribly bruised - but mercifully still intact. It was done. The press of a few buttons, and Joker was the only living soul on the Normandy.
He made his way through the ship in a haze, some internal auto-pilot guiding him to the conference room. Shepard – and she was coming back, she was – would want to have a briefing. He hauled himself onto the table with his last shreds of strength, and he waited.
Time passed – hours, days, a lifetime – with nothing but the hum of the ship to occupy his thoughts. It should have been a comforting sound, proof that the Normandy had survived, but in the absence of other life it was deafening. Then the door opened suddenly, and there was nothing but sound. Miranda shouting, blaming him. Jacob unexpectedly coming to his defense. EDI, filling in the blanks when he lacked the energy to explain.
Amidst the arguing, the one voice he'd been waiting for spoke at last. "Hey, I heard you had a pretty rough ride. Are you all right?"
Shepard's tone was carefully neutral, reminiscent of what Joker privately thought of as her 'placate the moronic colonists' voice. It pissed him off, that suggestion that he needed to be coddled, and he found himself yelling.
"No, you know what? I'm not all right! What the hell were you doing, leaving us out here for the Collectors to work us over?" The room had gone still and silent. He risked a glance at Shepard, who looked like she'd been slapped. Some small, rational part of his brain shouted that he was ruining everything, but the pain and fear overcame reason.
"Maybe I should just go! Next port, just get the hell out of here, and-"
"You don't mean that, Jeff." Surprisingly, it was EDI who interrupted, and something in her cool, logical tone doused his anger.
"I..." What was he supposed to say now? Sorry about the near-mutiny there, guys. I'm just such a damn coward. "No."
He lapsed into silence, dropping his face into his hands to hide eyes that suddenly stung with tears.
"Miranda, Jacob," Shepard said. "You're dismissed."
Joker could feel their stares as they filed out, burning him with accusation. He was too tired to care.
"Joker, look at me," Shepard said. Her voice wasn't the no-nonsense bark she'd used to order the others out of the room, but something softer. The woman, not the Commander.
He dropped his hands but refused to meet her eyes, his anger giving way to embarrassment and shame. She approached him slowly, hands raised to show her empty palms, as though he were a skittish animal. Maybe that wasn't so far off. Only when she eased it from his white-knuckled grip did he realize that he was still clutching the dead crewman's pistol.
"Joker." She rested one cautious hand on his thigh. It was small, but strong and capable. Steadying, like the rest of her. "Jeff. You did everything you could. You saved the Normandy. And we're going to get the crew back, you know that. You know me. Now tell me what's really wrong. Why are you so angry?"
Because I was afraid you wouldn't come back. Because I was afraid you'd come back too soon. Because I couldn't save any of them, and all I could think about was you. It was at once too much and not enough. Too honest, too exposed, but nowhere near the truth of what she meant to him. How could he say the words? He was too cowardly to even look at her.
"Lieutenant!" Shepard slammed her free hand onto the table to punctuate the word, and he jumped. "Answer me!"
Joker's head snapped up at the command. Shepard's dark hair was wild, her armor mottled with blood and soot. He met her eyes at last and saw concern, and a trace of guilt. For what? Pulling rank, ordering him when she knew he couldn't refuse? Not being able to save the crew? Well, he had the market cornered on that last one.
"That gun," he said quietly. "It was... Crewman Goldstein." His voice was harsh and cracked, and he knew he wasn't making any sense. It shouldn't have been so hard – he'd been a goddamned soldier, even if he was just a pilot. But he'd failed so spectacularly.
Shepard nodded encouragingly, like he wasn't being a babbling idiot, and he took a deep breath and carried on.
"He died, right by my feet. Holding off a Collector so I could get by. He talked too damn much, all the time. And he worshipped you, you know. Always bugging me with questions about what it was like saving the Citadel with the famous Commander Shepard." He let out a ragged laugh. "It's not like we haven't lost people before, but...this was because of me. I keep thinking, if I wasn't so slow, if I was more use in a fight, he wouldn't have had to die. And Hadley, I heard him screaming on my way out the door, and I just kept going."
"Joker," Shepard said softly. "This wasn't your fault."
He shook his head. He had to get it all out now, or he'd never be able. "I kept thinking...if you were there, you might've been able to save them. You'd have known what to do. But I was so glad you weren't." And what kind of selfish asshole does that make me?
"Joker," Shepard repeated. "Do you trust me?" She took a step back and held a hand out to him, waiting.
So much meaning, in that one gesture. Absolution, from the only person who mattered. Understanding, because they were both only human. Physical support, from the woman who already knew all his weaknesses.
"Yes," he said, taking her extended hand. "I do."
She helped him down from the table, patient as he steadied himself on his feet. "Come on, then," she said. "Let's go save our crew."