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The Scars That Prevent Us

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Layla Shepard had a problem, one that currently jammed the “Elevator Open” button in frustration, jaw clenched with his brow furrowed, a string of curses gradually growing louder until he gave up, kicking the bottom of the panel. “Ow, fuck, ow.” He limped backwards, glaring at the flickering button display. “Didn’t think that one through.”

“Where’s your girlfriend?” Shepard kept her tone even to avoid sounding bitter, Joker’s obvious preference for females of the robotic nature known across the ship, a ship in which they seemed to be trapped inside.

“They shut her down for repairs.”

“And this is why no one was supposed to stay on the ship during maintenance.”

Joker sighed, sliding his back down the elevator wall. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re both stuck in here. Both.”

Shepard sat down beside him, stretching her legs out in the otherwise cramped space. Good thing she wasn’t claustrophobic. “I have my reasons for still being aboard.”

“So do I.”

She rolled her eyes. “EDI related reasons?”

Joker tapped her boot with his. “You sound almost jealous, Commander.”

She scoffed, glad for the low lighting of the emergency lights. “I don’t exactly keep my distrust of her a secret.”

“So you’ve said.” Joker hesitated before adding, “Is that why you’ve been avoiding the cockpit?”

Her fingers flew to caress the acid burn that covered the left half of her face, the touch a comfort when she grew anxious. So he noticed the lack of her presence, though this was the first he mentioned it since she began her evasion.  And yes, he guessed correct, the AI in her new body cleared Shepard out of her usual haunt, or more the twinkling in Joker’s eyes whenever the robot neared.

A soft sigh passed her lips before she could stop it, too wrapped up in her soured feelings. Joker’s face twisted at the sound of it, earning his full attention. He nudged her shoulder with his before sinking back into the wall. “Talk to me, Shepard. It’s not just the too busy excuse you’ve been using, is it?”

Shepard jumped to her feet, shooting over to the doors to try and throw them open with brute force. Suddenly, this elevator with him was the last place she wanted to be trapped. She dug her fingers into the seam, but despite using all her strength, the door stayed closed. She opened her omni-tool, groaning when she spotted the no signal sign flashing in the upper corner. The elevator shaft always was a dead-zone. She had actually hoped that problem might be solved in the repairs. Which would be over in...two days. Could they survive that long without food or water?

Could she survive him for that long?

She brought out her scanner, searching the car for a weak spot or secret service door. As the orange light hit Joker, he scowled, crossing his arms over his chest. “Wow. You really don’t want to be in here with me, do you?”

“I’m trying to make sure we survive.”

“Funny how that didn’t matter a few seconds ago. Not until I brought up you avoiding me, which you’re obviously trying to do now.”

She stomped her foot into the ground, the car giving off a slight rock in response. She wouldn’t be doing that again. “Direct order from your CO, drop it.”

He stroked his beard in mock pondering. “Are you still CO if we’re stuck by ourselves? Doesn’t society usually break apart in these situations? No ranks, no laws?”

Despite her mottled embarrassment at him calling her out on her recent behavior, she couldn’t help the short burst of laughter at his idea. She liked the sound of that, no ranks or robot copilots who were perfect in the way she could never become. The horrible scarring from Akuze and Alchera marred her entire body, not that she was attractive without it.

There was always something off about her looks, never fully growing out of her teenage awkward phase. From bad haircuts to braces that did nothing for the gap in her front teeth. From a mustache that refused to go away for more than a week, even with waxing, to the dark hair that coated her forearms and legs if she didn’t shave them daily. Her eyes a muddy brown with her ever crooked eyebrows. She drew her left on now, one small favor from her burns. Layla Shepard was never anything to look at, and she knew it.

Which explained why she never bothered with feelings before, most men and women more apt to avoid the frightening woman. Except Joker. Forever the exception to all her carefully calculated rules designed to protect herself, he took one look at her and said, “Nice scars, Commander. Owe the vorcha mafia some credits?”

He treated her like a real person. And nothing was able to hold her back from falling head over combat boots. She couldn’t even begin to describe to him how amazing that felt, for someone to see her as more than her paperwork or dog tags, to who she was underneath her disfigurement and bad hair.

How could she stop the butterflies in her stomach whenever she slid into the copilot’s seat and shot the shit with him?

A seat that the beautiful and perfect EDI now occupied.

Shepard never stood a chance.

How could Joker expect her to explain all that to him in this metal box they trapped themselves in? She couldn’t, she wouldn’t. EDI made Joker happy in a way that Shepard never could, so shouldn’t she be happy for her best friend? Who was she to try to interfere by spilling her feelings out into the already thick air of tension between them?

“There’s still protocol to follow, Flight Lieutenant. Someone out there is going to notice we’re missing and come looking for us.” She counted on EDI for that, if she was honest. No one would notice if she disappeared into the apartment Anderson gifted her, and it wasn’t unusual for the crew not to hear from her. But Joker and EDI were inseparable these days. She would notice and come looking, if she wasn’t already.

Which raised the question, “Why are you here, Joker? And with no EDI?”

Joker turned his gaze to the floor between them, his cheeks pinking to the color of his beard. “That’s classified.”

His reaction intrigued her. She settled back on the floor, in a corner to where nothing would open up behind her back. She survived a lot in her days, but a fall from this close to the top of the shaft would surely kill her. A shaft in which the only floor he could’ve been headed towards was her own.

“Something you needed in my quarters?”

Joker tugged his hat down to cover his face. “I spotted you going back into the ship.”

“And you thought you’d follow?”

“I didn’t exactly have a plan.”

She drew her knees into her chest, resting her chin on top as she kept her eyes on his hidden face. “Did you need me for something specific or just curious?”

“I wanted to find out why you’ve been avoiding me. Though it doesn’t seem like you’re going to say.”

She pinched her face as she debated whether or not to tell him. What if she made something up to appease him? Something simple and realistic. Though didn’t she already do that with her “too busy” excuse? Which wasn’t much of an excuse when she stayed up late every night to do work on the datapad.

She used to sit next to him while she looked over reports. Now she holed up in her quarters with a private coffeemaker she bought on the Citadel, gulping back cup after cup to try and keep herself awake enough to make a dent in her responsibilities.

She actually broke orders to come back for the coffeemaker, though she decided at the last minute it was best to leave it. She overfed Ham-Ham and hopped back on the elevator where Joker waited inside. And then the damn thing shut down, with them still inside. That hadn’t even made it past the fourth floor yet.

“Maybe we should just not talk. In case the ventilation gets shut off too.”

“Not subtle, Commander, but hint received.”

She stayed on her side of the car, curling herself into the corner, her mind racing between thoughts of Joker and how to get out. She could always cut a hole into the car with her omni-blade, but then what? She wasn’t sure how elevators worked, if she was honest. What if she cut into the mechanism at the top if she tried out that way? Was it worth plummeting them to their deaths?

As for Joker, she knew she couldn’t avoid him forever, especially if they were in there for a few days. He never shut up for long periods of time, never good with silence. She pictured him annoying her into talking, which would be effective against her. She couldn’t sidestep his questions forever. So what did she tell him?

There was a war happening across the Milky Way. In the grand scheme, her crush on her FL was miniscule in comparison. But she didn’t know how to get over it, over him. Maybe if he outright rejected her, she could move past it, give her something definitive to recall whenever she thought of him.

It wasn’t like there was much of a friendship to recover at that point anyway. Not with her green monster rearing its ugly head every time she spotted him with EDI.

She cleared her throat. Get it out and over with, then she could move on. No questions, no hesitation. Pretend like she’s defusing a bomb or a hostage situation.

Joker peeked from under his cap at the sound, shifting so his back straightened against the wall. She stayed curled, arms around her calves.

“You wanted to know why I’ve been avoiding you.”

He nodded, his expression wary of any reply she might give. “It’s EDI, isn’t it?”

She shook her head, chewing on her lip as she carefully constructed her reply. “It’s you. Or rather, how you look at her.”

His brow furrowed as he stared in her direction. “What are you saying, Shepard?”

“I always wanted you to see me in that way.” She buried her head into the gap between her knees and her chest, avoiding what visual reaction he might give, mumbling a, “like I’m attractive.”

Quiet steps padded their way over to her side, where a warm presence plopped down next to her. A hand laid on her knee for reassurance. “You are. And I do. Look at you, that is. But I didn’t want to break rank.”

She turned her head to the side so that one eye could peer out at him. “Then why say something now?”

“No laws in here, remember?”

She ducked her head back down. “I don’t want your pity.”

Careful fingers wandered into her hair. “It’s not pity. You get this… light in your eyes when you talk about something you’re excited about, and you get so animated. Or when you scrunch your face and wrinkle your nose when you try something you don’t like, it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. You’re easily the most magnificent person on this ship, Layla. How do you not see that?”

Her face heated with his words, burning red as she kept her head down to give time to cool her off. She had no idea… She wiped at some of her tears on her cheeks before righting her posture. “Then can I break rank?”

She leaned over, not waiting for a response, ducking under his cap to slide her lips along his. Joker’s responded immediately, an arm sliding between her back and the wall to coax her onto his lap. He sucked her bottom lip between his teeth as she moved to straddle him, her hands cupping his face in fear that if the kiss ended, she would find the whole thing a farce and they would return to how they were. Surely this must be a dream of some kind, her want of him for so long and so many years that she all but gave up hope of this.

His fingers fumbled on the buttons of her shirt; she reared back onto her heels, face twisted in horror, her arms crossed over her chest. “I...uh…” She hadn’t been with anyone since Akuze, the thresher maw’s acid leaving deep burn scars across her pink skin. No one but doctors saw them, and they were paid to do so. She never missed that darkness that entered their eyes when she removed her shirt that read their disgust at her body.

She always pictured doing this, with Joker. Not in an elevator with only the emergency lights on, but somewhere dark where he would never have to see her scars.

He noticed the hesitation in her gaze. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes, but-”

His mouth cut off the rest of her sentence, lips once again on hers as his tongue nudged its way into her mouth. This time, his hands didn’t reach for her buttons but for her waistband, untucking her shirt from her pants.

She jumped up onto her feet, flushed from the contact. “I don’t think I can do this,” she said. She started to pace the car, hands in her hair as she considered a way to bypass this error in her, that her guard stood even under his mouth.

Joker didn’t move off the floor. “I’m sorry,” he said when his eyes caught the frantic flash of hers. “We don’t have to-”

“I want to.” She chewed her lip in her pacing. “I’m just...scared.”

“You have... you know, right?”

She nodded. “But not since Akuze.”

“Ah.” She watched the light switch on in his brain. “So that’s why-”

“Yeah.” She tugged at the hem of her shirt, uncomfortable with how he stared at her with realization.

“I could always close my eyes?” He chuckled, a poor attempt to ease the tension between them. She shook her head. Joker furrowed his brow as his eyes kept to hers. “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”

She turned her back to him as she strode forward, her pacing resuming. When she reached the end of the car and swiveled to face him, he worked on the buttons of his own shirt.

“What’re you doing?”

“Getting naked.” He reached the top button and with it undone, shrugged off his shirt onto the floor along with his undershirt. Sparse red hair peppered his chest, leading down his stomach to under the waistband of his pants. He grinned when he caught her assessing, striking a quick flex before climbing to his feet to work on his pants.

She spun so that he wouldn’t catch the brightening of her heating face. “Why?”

“To show you that I’m not exactly who they want to put on the posters.” He stopped when he got to his boxers. “If I'm overstepping, tell me. I'm trying to make you more comfortable, not less.” He paused, eyes searching her face. “Is it working?”

She shrugged, a smile breaking the seriousness of her face. “Maybe?” She glanced down to the hem of her shirt, her fingers toying with the ends of it. “Can we just… kiss?”

He grinned. “I'd like that.” He made his way over to her, arm slipping around her waist while his hand cupped her scarred cheek. She flinched at the touch of someone else's fingers on her marred face, causing him to still.

“Is this okay?”

“It takes some getting used to.”

He sat them down, slipping his hand away from her waist to pull back and shift her hand to his calf. His fingers over hers, he traced down a large jagged scar on his leg. “Here, you can touch mine if it helps. I got it the first time my legs broke.”

“The first time?” Her eyes trained down to where her fingers followed the bare river of scarring where his body hair refused to grow. His skin felt soft, not mottled and rough like her own. Then again, he didn’t have acid spat on him, eating into his body with voracious force.

“I think I’ve broken every bone in my body at least once.” He let go of her hand to trace along a nasty scar on his shoulder. “My collarbone hurt the worst.”

She examined that mark with the same intensity of the last, following it to another blemish, then another. His body held several, a map of cuts and gashes healed over. Drawing in a shaky breath, her eyes fluttered up to his face, where he observed her, withholding judgment of her quest across his body. She made up her mind. She said, “Kiss me,” and he did.

And then she withdrew, trembling fingers fumbling with the buttons of her shirt. He didn’t move to stop her, but his hand reached under the hem of her shirt to skim across her bare stomach. Her body shuddered under the caress. “Are you sure? We don’t have to do this, we can-”

“I’m sure.” Though her bottom lip quivered and her body quaked and her hands trembled, she slipped the top button through the loop, the gap between her shirt and neck widening, revealing more of her marred skin. The next followed with less confidence, her thoughts racing with each release of a button.

What if he shunned her most guarded insecurity, waiting for the last pop of the button to change his mind? She chewed her bottom lip with a growing intensity, her anxiety peaking at the final button. She vibrated so hard that her fingers fell off the small button several times, frustration building with each attempt.

“Let me,” Joker cut in, his hands enveloping hers as he assisted in that last hurdle. Her shirt fell open; she expected a gasp, some sign of revulsion, him retracting from her deformed body.

Instead, lips danced along her raw skin, soft kisses that etched out the worst parts of her. With a cautious tendency, his mouth covered her shoulder, down to her breast, only pausing to unhook her bra. He didn’t speak to her missing aereola and nipple, not even a pause as he continued down to her stomach, stopping just below her navel where the worst of her scarring ended. “You’re so beautiful,” he said when she thought her staggered breathing couldn’t get any louder.

She fought back the tears that brimmed her eyes. “You really mean that?” No one called her beautiful before; not her mother, her father, not the boy she lost her virginity to, or the random encounters she had at bars in the years leading to Akuze. Beauty was a trait lost to her, skipping her genes to fall to her sister, her brother, all around but never her.

And Joker was no exception, lovely long lashes that framed his dazzling blue eyes, beard trimmed and maintained, body muscular but not overly so. He was by all means the very definition of handsome, so unlike her in comparison.

But he called her beautiful, and as his tender kisses trailed back to her mouth, reassurance in every brush of his lips, she almost felt it there under his gentle care. Beautiful. A word attributed to the likes of her. A descriptor he kissed into her skin, the soft caress of his fingertips following each peck of marred flesh, each show of insecurity she carried for years.

Her hands threaded back his hair while waiting for his mouth to rejoin hers, the sweet motion of his touch an act of reassurance unto itself. The salt of her skin lingered on his lips as he pressed them to hers, the tender indignation of her heartbeat present in his kiss. He didn’t push further, his hands guiding to her waist and anchoring there, holding her steady against the rock of his tiding motion.

She couldn’t name it love under his fingertips, but it felt close, enough for her to slip the true final button, the one that bound her pants to her hips, revealing the soft peek of her polka-dotted lace underwear, a tuft of kinky black hair poking from under the band.

His eyes scanned her face for confirmation before his fingers sought the slick flesh between her legs, skimming her clit, drawing a slight shudder from her. A faint moan pulled from the back of her throat as she rocked into his hand, her kisses increasing into a frenzy. When did she last let herself be touched in such a way?

And oh, did he know how to touch her, circling her entrance while his thumb stroked her center, driving a mild bucking into her hips as she struggled not to lose herself in him. A struggle she lost as the first finger slipped inside, thrusting up into her while the movement of his thumb continued on, knowing exactly where to touch in order to make her writhe. She mewled against his parted lips, tongue flicking out to his upper lip.

Another finger joined the first; she tugged at his hair while rocking into his hand, his tempo increasing with her hips urging him further inside, light moans filtering through the stiffening air of the elevator car. Her muscles tightened with the force of his movements inside of her, her groans louder with the tension wrought in the lower half of her body.

The lights of the elevator flickered on, the car hesitating for a few seconds before continuing its descent to the ground floor. Joker withdrew his hand, both flustering as they scrambled to throw their clothes back on. She managed half the buttons to her blouse when the doors opened on the bridge, EDI standing by with a perplexed look on her metal face.

“I couldn’t find you on the Citadel, Jeff. Sensors indicated you and Shepard were last spotted heading into the elevator shortly before shut-down.” She paused, head cocking to the side as her scanners read over the two humans. “Your heart rates are elevated.”

Layla flustered, opening her mouth for a poor excuse when Joker jumped in. “Shepard’s claustrophobic.”

“That doesn’t explain-”

“Don’t think about it too hard, EDI.” Joker shot Shepard an apologetic look. “So, uh, we can continue that conversation later? Maybe over dinner?”

A smile broke the embarrassment on Layla’s face. “I’d like that.” She hesitated, deciding to risk taking a chance. “Are you hungry now?”

“Yeah, I could eat.”

She didn’t miss the coy grin he gave, or the ravenous glint to his eyes as they fell to the low cut of her shirt.