Many thanks to my amazing beta HeavenlyMuse, who went through around five drafts of this thing with me!
Joker would be the first to tell anyone that he knew the Normandy better than anyone else alive. Though David Anderson first and Irien Shepard after him may have thought they understood her pretty well, Joker knew that in terms of knowledge of technical details, skill at fixing any problems that came up, or control over the tiniest aspects of all the systems in the ship, he would always be the one they'd turn to, because he knew it all.
Unfortunately, he didn't realize that knowing the ship that well meant knowing the people on it and their activities far better than he'd ever wanted to.
"We haven't had time together since our last chat." Kaidan's voice came through his headset, and Joker rolled his eyes. "And, uh, a lot was said. When we talked."
"You seemed decisive then, Lieutenant," Shepard asked him, and from the tone of her voice he could tell she was grinning. "Why so hesitant now?"
Not again, Joker thought with a long-suffering mental sigh, but he didn't turn off the headset or switch to monitor another room. If those two weren't going to try to keep their flirting a secret, he would just have to pick up the slack.
During his scans of the Normandy through its impressive comm system, the words of crew members sometimes made their way into Joker's ears, often when they weren't meant to be heard by anyone else. At the beginning of this increasingly lengthy mission, he had made an effort to check in on a different area whenever he heard someone talking. Unfortunately, every damn crew member felt the need to tell their secrets constantly, so it was tough to avoid.
He didn't mean to be nosy – well, okay, maybe he did – but some of the crew members just didn't understand how keeping secrets in the military worked. People in this line of work could be brutal in sharing things that could be used to give themselves an advantage, as he knew from experience; more than once on previous assignments, lower-ranked pilots had used his illness in complaints to superior officers in attempts to get him demoted and take his job themselves. Occasionally, early in his career, it had worked.
While he couldn't help but still be a little bitter about losing the jobs for no reason other than his limited ability to walk, Shepard had made him understand that this ship was run differently. Though he was being judged on his skill at flying, he knew there were still some on board who would cause problems with private matters. He was concerned that some uptight, goody-goody random crew member would find out too much about Shepard and Kaidan's not-quite rule-breaking and report it to the Alliance, which would cause many problems and solve none.
Keeping tabs on everyone in order to protect these secrets had become part of his self-defined job description, and he did it well, Joker thought with satisfaction as he set up the ship's autopilot.
He couldn't hide everything – everyone on the ship knew that there were things going on among the more prominent members of the team. However, he had been successful so far at hiding the things that would really get people in trouble. As he casually chatted with one crew member or another, he made sure these things came up in conversation. Just like the captains came to him for technical advice, the crew came to him to discuss the latest rumor. He usually didn't confirm or deny anything they asked him, though he did know the facts about many of the different rumors floating around, but would sometimes pass on tidbits of things he'd heard to encourage interests in different directions.
He felt like the Shadow Broker on the Citadel, aware of and subtly controlling all the strands of information around the ship. Though he never gave away information that could get people in trouble, people got bored sitting on a ship for days without anything to do and most turned to gossip for entertainment. If the people involved weren't going to do anything to quash the rumors, it fell to him to do so. He kept everything under his control, and got to silently laugh whenever someone reported back to him a rumor he himself had started.
For instance, Wrex, the huge, intimidating krogan, often whistled in his sleep. And not some big, manly whistle, if such a thing existed – it was the kind a small bird would make. From the location of the sound, Joker had been able to learn that Wrex had set up a cot on the lower level of the ship and slept on that. Though the more human-like members of the crew had claimed sleeping pods, the krogan was far too large – and too used to the constantly on-the-move life of a mercenary – to make more permanent arrangements. That was one he'd never pass on, as he had enough trouble trying to stop himself from laughing whenever he saw the guy – he didn't want one of the crew giving the thing away, since he didn't want to get his ass kicked, especially by a krogan who could easily grind his bones to make his goddamn bread.
He chuckled to himself and switched to monitor another area, and was saddened to hear Ashley singing some decade-old pop song. Again. It happened whenever she was working and thought she was alone, and they got stuck in his head every time he heard her, making the other crew members sitting near him laugh when they caught him humming them. He switched away quickly to try to avoid it happening again.
"So what do you think about all the aliens the commander dragged on board?" his assistant pilot Richard asked. Joker resisted the urge to smile smugly.
"As long as they don't try to come up here and fly the ship, I've got no problem with 'em," he replied dryly.
"Fair enough," Richard said. "Don't know why the hell Shepard trusts a krogan and a turian on this ship though."
Sometimes I don't either, he thought, but shrugged and grinned at him. "What, think she can't take care of them if they start causing a problem?" he asked sarcastically.
He chuckled and nodded in agreement. "Yeah, no way they'd mess with her."
He'd heard little from Garrus and Wrex during their time on the ship, but as he switched to another room now, he caught them as they discussed their (sometimes unfavorable) opinions on the rest of the crew again, though he'd never tell that to anyone else.
"I don't get why Shepard let those biotic underlings go," Wrex said in his typical deep, grumpy voice. "They're just gonna cause more problems."
"Eh," Garrus said, sounding doubtful. "Once they're out from the influence of Major Kyle, I'm sure they'll forget about his violent goals."
The krogan snorted. "You sound like Shepard."
It was clear to Joker that Wrex didn't enjoy the fact that she refused to indulge his rather bloodthirsty tendencies. While the turian had been the same way at the beginning, it seemed to him that Garrus's willingness to get the job done however possible had been curbed somewhat by being around the commander, who often took risks and went to great lengths to save civvies.
The other two aliens seemed decent enough, he thought as he switched down to monitor the engine room, where Tali proclaimed her love and admiration for the ship and amazed all the mechanics, even impressing Joker with her knowledge. As much as he loved listening to people talk about technical details, he thought dryly, he switched up to the medbay in the hopes of finding something more interesting.
The asari, Liara, who everybody else on the crew thought of as a sweet, naïve little thing, was definitely hitting on Commander Shepard every time she made conversation with her. Shepard was completely oblivious – she continued talking to her and was baffled when Alenko brought up the idea that Liara might be "interested" in her "as more than a source of Prothean data."
Apparently Shepard and Kaidan had wrapped up their latest flirting marathon, because the lieutenant and asari were now debating.
"I just don't think it's appropriate for you and the commander to speak so personally about yourselves," Liara said, trying to sound innocent. Wow, talk about a hypocrite, Joker thought. She told Shepard her whole damn life story last time they talked.
"What are you talking about?" Kaidan said. He was trying to sound like he had no idea what she was talking about and failing. "We were- discussing the mission. That's all, really."
"And when you kept touching her arm," Liara said, her voice filled with barely-contained jealousy, "that was about the mission too?" Kaidan sputtered an excuse about not understanding what was going on and fled.
She made a good point, and Joker couldn't help but chuckle at the guy's awkward reaction. Shepard and Kaidan really were the most shameless flirts he'd ever had the misfortune to listen to – but of course, that didn't mean he was going to let them have their little "discussions" without finding out what was going on. Both of them brought up the rules against fraternization fairly often, which always made Joker snort contemptuously – if they really cared about it, they wouldn't be making excuses to talk or staring at each other constantly.
Joker still sometimes felt a twinge of jealousy as he heard them talking, but did his best to suppress it. Somebody on this ship should be getting some, and if anybody deserves to, it's the two of them – as long as they can control themselves until there was some time to kill. Of course, he thought, Shepard would be the last one to put the mission in jeopardy – not only could she command the respect of the crew, she also had her priorities straight, she was an incredible fighter, not to mention gorgeous, athletic, intelligent...
He caught himself zoning out as he thought of her, and gave himself a mental slap. He wasn't allowed to criticize Kaidan when he couldn't help occasionally thinking along the same lines the other man was.
His thinking had taken more time than he'd realized, he noticed as he checked out the navicomputer. At least the two of them quit chatting, he thought, shaking his head slightly. He flipped on a two-way comm channel with Shepard. "Commander, we're coming up on Noveria. Want me to prep the shore party?" he offered.
Her voice came clearly through the comm. "Sure, tell, um... Ash and Garrus to meet me by the airlock in five," she replied. "Thanks a lot, I appreciate it."
"Damn, commander," he said, filling his voice with fake pain, "you're really giving me some tough assignments here. How about you give me a break once in a while and let me do something easy?"
"Fair enough – get your gear and grab a weapon," she replied with a laugh. "I hope you're ready for the cold, I hear Noveria's pretty chilly."
"Well I wouldn't want to take all the glory," he protested cheerfully. "Like you said before, getting a medal would just cause all sorts of problems for me." He heard her laugh and half-smiled as he dutifully switched the channel to speak to the two she'd selected. He couldn't stop his thoughts from taking a more serious turn. She appreciated him, but only for the easy stuff he did like piloting the ship, making calls, summoning crew members – the only things she knew about. If only I could tell her everything I do for her, he thought regretfully. But I guess some secrets are better left unsaid.
They were off the ship shortly after, leaving Pressley in charge – which meant everyone else on the crew would be sleeping, eating, or gossiping within a few minutes. Richard patted him on the shoulder and left for a break in the mess hall, and Joker sighed – he was bored already – and began running his scans again when he heard footsteps and a polite throat-clearing behind him.
"Hey, Joker," Kaidan said, coming up to sit in the chair Richard had recently vacated. He nodded a greeting and began a routine systems check on the computer, and Kaidan sighed and leaned back in the chair. "I hate not going out there with her," he said, sounding mournful. "I always worry."
Joker snorted with derision. "Yeah, sucks to be left here every time and never have any idea how she's doing or if things have gone bad or if she's even alive until she shows up back on the ship, huh," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Must be really rough on you to have to sit out for once."
The lieutenant grinned. "Ok, I guess you win," he admitted. "I just- I wish there was something I could do to protect her."
He relented a bit. "I know the feeling," he said sincerely. What was it about Shepard that made them all do everything they could for her and still want to do more? I'm doing what I can on the ship, and Kaidan helps her in fights, he thought as the two of them sat in companionable silence. I just hope it's enough to protect her from whatever may happen.