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It’s almost routine, now. The swoosh of the elevator, the slap of Shepard’s boots on the floor as she rounds the corner to the galley, looking for a fresh cup of coffee at two in the morning. Joker’s already switched the pot to decaf, and the way he avoids looking at it confirms that he’s also slipped in a couple of the melatonin tablets he got from Chakwas.

Joker plays another card. Ace, the fucker. He takes Kaidan’s eight and adds it to his disproportionally high pile. The irony that the two of them spend their late nights playing War isn’t lost on him. Joker finds it funny, and it’s better than both of them sitting in the mess thinking about all the ways their families aren’t safe, all the ways they can’t help.

They’re certainly not the only ones who seem nocturnal these days. Sometimes Vega joins them. Chakwas. It’s rare, but Garrus does on occasion venture out of the battery to seek solace with company. Cortez clings to the isolation of the shuttle bay, which seems to be what Vega worries about most. It’s a bad night whenever the eternal optimist and chronic early riser Adams is fixing a sandwich at this weird witching hour they can’t seem to claw their way out of.

But Joker and Kaidan are the most frequent customers, and they’ve it down now. Kaidan cooks a little. Joker rigs the coffee. They can’t force Shepard to sleep, but they can game the system a little. Kaidan wonders if they’re crossing a line with the melatonin. Tends to think they’ve all crossed so many lines at this point one more won’t make a difference.

That line of thinking doesn’t exactly make him feel warm and fuzzy.

That he’s in collusion with Joker of all people makes it all the more surreal. They were never very close on the SR-1. And quite frankly, things weren’t exactly rosy when Kaidan came back after the coup. The first few nights they found themselves puttering around in the mess at oh-dark-thirty only made the tension feel thicker, restful sleep feel farther away.

That was before the night Joker had a little too much booze and started to cry. The night when Kaidan learned that his report on Tiptree wasn’t just a report.

So now on nights like this they play cards, eat a little of whatever Kaidan feels like throwing together, because he likes to cook and Joker likes food that comes without effort. On nights like this, they take care of Shepard.

She stops for a moment in the galley, like she’s forgotten what she came down there for.

“Pot’s fresh,” Joker monotones, playing a four.

“There’s chicken and rice in the fridge,” Kaidan adds, harumphing with a little more satisfaction than a triumphant six probably warrants, but they’re all in agreement you take your victories where you can find them. Such as taking the opportunity to make sure Shepard gets a meal with actual flavor every now and then, instead of yet another MRE from the stash she keeps in the drawer of her desk.

Shepard mumbles something as she dumps whatever contents were in her mug down the sink and fills it to the brim, grabs the container Kaidan prepped for her from the fridge. She doesn’t heat it up, just finds a fork and starts picking, but it’s better than nothing.

Her fingers are clean, so it’s not armor polish tonight. Must be troop movements. And not good ones.

None of the reports they get anymore are good ones.

She’s not looking at either of them, which means she doesn’t want Kaidan to see how bloodshot her eyes are, and wants to pretend he doesn’t see how much her hand shakes as she pours her fresh cup. He’s stopped saying something. It doesn’t help. But not saying something doesn’t really help either. It seems some days that she’s all that stands between them and the reapers. And if it feels that way to him, he can’t imagine what it feels like to her. One person isn’t meant to carry the weight of the galaxy, and she’s done it for five years.

He remembers the early days. Before Sovereign. Before Virmire. When late nights in the mess meant laughing at Pressly’s terrible poker face, Tali’s inability to distinguish a club from a spade, Ashley’s swearing contests with Wrex. When the bow in Shepard’s shoulders was straight, when there was still a scar on her hip from Elysium instead of Cerberus-smooth skin. When Joker didn’t need to trick her into drinking decaf in a desperate move to get her to sleep, even for just a couple of hours.

Joker’s gazing at her with the kind of grief in his eyes that says he’s thinking the same thing.

Kaidan suppresses some of the relief he feels when the container she puts in the sink is empty. She refills the coffee cup – she’s already downed half of it – mumbles something once more before heading back to the elevator.

Joker and Kaidan watch her go.

Those days on the SR-1 feel so far away. Lifetimes ago. He can’t help but wonder if they’ll ever get back the Shepard that would smile when people were looking. The one who would curl up in his arms and sigh happily instead of cling to him like he’s the only anchor she has to keep her from spinning out of control.

“It’ll get better,” he says out loud, without meaning to. “We’re almost to the end. We’ll see her through.”

Joker eyes him with the same look he usually reserves for the propaganda news vids. “Yeah. Sure.”

They fall silent. Three am is staring them hard in the face.

Joker plays another card.