Some introduction is in order here.

Knightfall1138 and I are working on a collaborative adventure story about Kaidan and Joker on a mission together. It'll be called 'All Along the Watchtower'.

We thought it would be fun to write two little prequels – one each, and each focusing on one of our lead characters' pasts.

So this story is about Joker, and 'The Thief' is about Kaidan.

It's a fanfic event! Or something.

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1

Jeff Moreau grunted as he pulled his metal-braced legs along with him down the wide, white and blue hall. As he made the noise, a young blonde a meter or so away looked sympathetically at him. It really didn't help and just made Jeff clench his teeth in anger.

It would be pointless, but he wanted to take the girl aside for a moment and explain that the grunt was undeserving of her patronizing glance. He was not in pain and was suffering no discomfort. The problem was simply that his baseball cap had slipped a little too far down his forehead, and he had no free hands to rectify the problem. As he moved further into the hall he spotted the tall, imposing statue of Jon Grissom and considered using the Alliance hero's angular elbow to fix his hat. In a moment he had decided against it. Sure, the girl had pissed him off and his restricted vision was not helping matters, but he had enough respect for Grissom to leave the man alone.

The statue was laser-cut and hence it was a perfect likeness. It stood calmly and modestly with its arms behind its back, a deliberate symbol that even the greatest men and women of the Systems Alliance recognized the importance of mutual respect. Jeff liked that, despite occasionally feeling the uniform image of the Alliance a little restrictive to his personality. His instructors at flight school made him cut his hair much shorter than he would like and they were not happy with his slowly-developing stubble, which one day he hoped might finally sprout into an actual beard. Beards were allowed, but the hazel-colored fuzz on his chin was taking way too long to become one.

Only by sporting an unshaved face and a cap, he stood out. Down on the colonies or on Earth, he would have blended in easily, perhaps even appeared a little conservative in his appearance, but here on Arcturus things were different. The massive station was the center of the Alliance, the 'new home for humanity' according to the vids, and here the military ruled. So everyone was neat and tidy, a culture of authority and respect had arisen, and only the dropouts ever sat around idly. There was a fast pace to the station that suited Jeff well. Discreetly he pushed the brim of his cap against a wall and tilted the hat back up to its correct position.

"There ya go," he muttered to himself, his voice barely audible. After cracking his neck a little, he pushed down onto his crutches and made his way out of the hall and into a corridor. At the end of this was the main entrance to the Academy test center.

Three more corridors and two more caring glances later, he reached Flight Lieutenant Donna Fackler's office and knocked with his crutch.

"Come in!" The voice was high-pitched to the point of unpleasantness. Jeff had never seen her talk to someone who wasn't wincing. It was usual for her to affect this ridiculous, sing-song voice whenever speaking to her students. More than once, Jeff had overheard Fackler speaking to her husband via comm and discovered to his bafflement that her real voice was deep and rather pleasant. Maybe she used her work-voice to make the cadets pay attention. If so it never failed her.

Pushing the door open, Jeff strode in and let it flap shut behind him. Fackler was standing and leaning over a computer screen at an odd angle, typing away while straining her neck toward her student, as if the orange screen possessed some terrific gravitational force.

"Hi Jeff, I'll be with you in just a moment," she sang.

"No problem." He leaned against a wall for a second and took a look out of the window.

"You're early?"

He was, but only by fifteen minutes. It was about usual for him.

"Yeah," he said simply, sounding friendly.

"How was your piano lesson?"

Jeff leaned back harder against the wall and let it take some of his weight.

"Not so bad."

At this, Fackler found the strength to wrench herself free from the clutches of the screen. "Oh, Jeff, what happened?"

It irritated him that the teacher had managed to infer that something had happened.

"Nothing," he told her. "Just didn't go well. I can't get the hang of it."

"I'm surprised!" she said. Jeff decided to take it as a compliment.

"I can't get it. I've been studying for a couple weeks but I can't get the tunes to flow. I should've learned guitar."

Fackler crossed her long, thin hands on her lap. "Are you forgetting the notes? You know the old memory aide, don't you? E, G, B, D…"

"Yeah, I know it," Jeff interrupted. "Every good boy deserves favor". Privately, he had invented his own version of the phrase, which he preferred. Memorizing the age-old mnemonic had been among his initial tasks, learned even before his first lesson. In the days before he started, he had planted himself in front of books and screens and learned everything he could to give himself a head start. The positions and the sounds of the notes and chords were completely familiar to him. It was the timing he couldn't handle. His inability to master the basic skill of stringing notes together made him mad. Jeff could do any damn thing he put his mind to, but this piano business was more of a challenge than he was used to.

"It's strange that you're having so much trouble," Fackler told him, and as she spoke he identified every note she used in the sentence. "You're so good with your hands."

Jeff could see what she meant. Flying an Alliance space vessel depended almost entirely on helmsmen pushing the correct sequences into various panels and keypads. Flying for the Navy had always been his dream, and he was good at it. She knew as well as he did that he was not just the best student in her class, but the best in the Academy. He had long-since given up comparing himself to the other students, even the seniors.

Now he was gunning for the instructors. He had seven more months of training before graduation, which he figured was just about enough time to do it. Separate scores were awarded for simulation results in take-off, cruising, military maneuvers, docking and in the final semester, FTL speeds and Mass Relays. That gave him eight instructors to best, six times each.

"You'd imagine that because of your condition, you'd find something like the piano quite easy!" Fackler warbled.

Jeff's throat dried with anger. He was used to this kind of patronizing crap from her, but he was still sore about his earlier failure at the piano lesson. "Vrolik's syndrome doesn't make you a better pianist," he growled. It took some will to restrain himself to only this, but he managed to put enough venom into his words to earn a startled look from his teacher, if not an apology.

"No, of course not," she said, brushing it off. "Of course not. But you know how blind people have very acute senses of hearing…?"

Closing his eyes, Jeff tried hard not to listen to the poisonous, ignorant BS pouring from her glossed lips. He knew it would harm his progression in class if he were to insult her, or even start a heated argument. He had to spend the rest of the semester in the same room with her, so he needed her to like him.

"Blind people make very good pianists, in fact," she carried on, unaware of the effect she was having on her waiting student.

"Lieutenant Fackler…"

"I told you before, Jeff, just call me Donna. I like to keep informal."

"Look…"

She looked startled again and Jeff calmed down a little. It wasn't her fault she knew next to nothing about him, or his disease for that matter. She was just an idiot. In her happy, pretty world the blind were all grinning, brilliant musicians and paraplegics were champion arm-wrestlers. It was okay for her to go ahead thinking that Jeff's superlative piloting skills owed less to his constant, obsessive study and practice and more to some divine system of justice where all physical disabilities were magically evened-out by corresponding super-powers. It was okay because he needed her to teach him as well as she could.

"Never mind," he told her.

"Gee, Jeffy, you look even more serious than usual today. You should try to relax a little or you might harm your performance today."

The little nickname annoyed him, but he ignored it because she had a point. Today was the day of his first real space-flight. No simulations. Considering the photo-realistic surround displays in the simulator booths and the precision-engineered vibrations and gravity effects he had been training under, this should be just like any other practice session. In theory at least. The difference was that he would be actually flying an Alliance vessel, completing a circuit around the series of Relays that circled the station. In less than an hour he would finally be in space, solely in control of a two-man shuttlecraft.

He couldn't wait.

Fackler watched Jeff's face and when he started to relax, she returned her attention to her desk and shuffled some papers, a self-satisfied smirk forming beneath her round nose. In a moment the papers were clipped and neatly put into a drawer. She stood.

"We should call you Smiley Jeff," she said, adding insult to injury. "Jokey Jeffy".

It was all he could do not to curse at her for this. It was as if she was trying to irritate him, though he suspected she meant no harm by it. This made it impossible to insult her back, but no harder to be annoyed.

She opened the door and made a point of holding it open so that Jeff could pass through more easily. Clenching his teeth, he moved through and tried to get to the next door before she reached it. As always, the crutches slowed him down and she made it first.

"Okay!" she trilled. "Are you ready, Jokey Jeffy? Got everything you need to sign-in?"

"I'm ready to go," he confirmed grimly. "I know my ID codes." He had memorized them all over a year ago.

"You know, really, I don't think I've ever seen you smile. I honestly, literally don't think I've ever seen that."

It was hard to know how to respond to this. He had heard this complaint from her many times before and still had no answer for her. Donna Fackler's company had never come close to inspiring Jeff's happiness, but he supposed she had a point. He wasn't exactly known for his sunny disposition. But why should he be? What would be the point?

"Jeff the Joker," she said to herself, her voice almost making it sound like the opening notes of a nursery rhyme.

With a muted sigh, Jeff kept on walking, focusing solely on reaching the next door before she did.