Throughout his military career, there were few orders Joker had ever balked at executing. It had been with both pride and a certain grim pleasure that he'd skimmed Virmire's flak cannons and flown into Sovereign's teeth. But being ordered into a monkey suit and shuttled to a party full of officers and politicians was nearly beyond the pale.
Worse than that, Shepard had made him shave. "I look like I'm twelve," he'd complained sourly on the way up the elevator, rubbing his newly shorn jaw.
"You look fine," the commander had replied is a distracted tone. She wore black, a sleeveless top and flowing pants that hugged her hips but gave off the illusion of being a dress. Joker had a sneaking suspicion it was as close to a dress as Shepard was willingly likely to get.
Shepard had clearly bullied Alenko into a suit as well, though to Joker's profound annoyance, the lieutenant didn't seem particularly perturbed. In fact, he looked nauseatingly good in it. Then again, he didn't have to deal with either leg braces or crutches.
For the hundredth time, Joker wished Ashley were here. He'd had more than enough experience being a third wheel, and was in no rush to rack up more flight time behind that particular control console. Not that Shepard and Alenko's behavior was egregious in that regard, Shepard in particular seemed to be approaching the evening with the same frosty reserve she usually saved for meetings with the likes of Ambassador Udina. Alenko, perhaps out of habit, seemed to have adopted a similar mood, even if occasionally his eyes had a tendency to wander.
Joker decided early on that the liberal application of inebriates might make an evening of frippery more bearable. He scanned the attendees as he crossed the room, a wide, high-ceilinged room with many windows that looked out over the sprawling arcology of Hong Kong. It was the kind of crowd where you had to step lightly- some of the guests had come in their dress uniforms, but most were in formal civilian clothes.
As he moved, he could hear the faint whine of the power-assist servos in the braces that were clamped around his knees and legs. He still relied on his crutches to support the bulk of his upper body weight, but the braces, uncomfortable as they were, did help reduce fatigue over long evenings.
Based on the size and composition of the crowd, Joker morosely tried to calculate how many times he would have to explain the crutches. It wasn't that he didn't like parties, just that he didn't like parties full of egotistical strangers. This wasn't a get-together among friends, it was the kind of shin-dig that was thrown by rich people who wanted to rub shoulders with people who shouldn't otherwise care they existed.
Shepard was evidently one of those people, and very soon there was a constellation of curious people orbiting her. The commander wore a humoring smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, her demeanor suggesting that she considered this room to be every inch the battlefield Feros had been.
Joker made small-talk where necessary, appraising the guests with curious caution as he ambled between the food laid out on several tables and the chairs along the walls. There were deep layers of politics at work in the room, both military and civilian, and Joker was dedicated to the notion of steering as clear of it as possible. But the universe clearly had something else in mind. An hour into the evening, Joker found himself suddenly confronted by a trio of men. The evident leader was tall, wearing a dark suit which fit somewhat poorly over his muscled frame. His face was flushed, and he held a glass of dark alcohol negligently in one hand. A pair of friends hovered behind him in the all-too classic pose of the protective wingmen.
"Normandy, huh?" the man said, looking Joker up and down. "So this is the guy we have to thank for having to scrape body parts out of the Citadel Wards for a month?"
Joker's eyes narrowed. "I see my reputation precedes me," he quipped. "And you are...?"
"Thoreson, Second Fighter Squadron, SSV Turing," he declared, puffing out his chest.
Joker stifled a long-suffering sigh. He was never exactly sure what forces conspired to breed the kind of jock that seemed to gravitate to fighter piloting, but he had his theories. It seemed to be an unpleasant combination of testosterone-fueled enthusiasm coupled with an underdeveloped sense of teamwork and the lack of balls necessary to actually put boots on the ground.
The situation was already headed downhill. Joker's hard-won instincts kicked in- the best defense was to be as offensive as possible.
"I was following orders," Joker said coolly. "You know, that thing that happens when a superior officer makes a call? It should be an easy enough concept, even for a chimp like you."
"That Nuremberg crap won't fly with me!" Thoreson snapped.
"Oh, big word there," Joker said. "Don't hurt yourself, those two braincells have to last you all night!"
There was a twitter of laughter from behind them. The fighter pilot's eyes flicked past Joker's shoulder, and his face began to turn red.
"You little turd, I had friends on those ships," Thoreson snarled. "They all died for what? So we could kiss the asses of a bunch of self-important aliens?"
Joker controlled the upsurge of anger with difficulty. He vaguely wished he could carry the now-classified recording of Sovereign's clear statement of intent with him, but even that would probably be lost on someone like Thoreson.
"I have an idea," Joker said, forcing an amiable tone through his fixed smile, "why don't you go explain your opinion to Commander Shepard herself? She's right over there, I'll introduce you!"
"You think I'm afraid of the Citadel's lackey?"
"In a word?" Joker shot back. "Yeah, I do. Why else would you be here beating your chest in front of a cripple? She might actually put you on your ass."
Joker had always marveled at the way bullies seemed so deeply offended when their primary weapon was denied them. Thoreson's eyes bulged and his neck threatened to pop the top button of his shirt.
"But maybe you shouldn't risk it," he continued mercilessly. "I mean, Shepard's several times the man you are, your boyfriends here might go astray."
Joker never would have seen it, except that he happened to be looking at the right place at the right time. Thoreson was stepping forward, red-faced and intent, when a deft foot lashed out and hooked him around the ankle. As the fighter jock's eyes flew wide, Joker caught a brief flash of the man behind him slipping sideways behind Thoreson's friends.
The fighter pilot overbalanced and pitched forward, trying and failing to grab at Joker as he went by. There was a muffled crunch as he landed, and Thoreson let out a strangled squawk. He rolled sideways as if stung, and Joker caught the glint of little shards of glass sticking out from his chest from where he'd managed to land straight onto his drink.
One of Thoreson's wingmen whirled around, ready to confront whoever had tripped his friend, but all he found was a uniformed officer striding up to the group.
"Private Hanson!" The officer barked. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Rank stripes on the man's shoulder pegged him as a lieutenant commander.
Thoreson's friend stammered over an answer as the fighter pilot himself stared stupidly down at the seeping dark stain spreading from the flecks of glass embedded in his right pectoral muscle.
"I might have known," the officer continued darkly. "Thoreson! Get up! Hanson, Ramji, get him out of here!"
As the fighter pilots floundered, an outstretched tray appeared suddenly at Joker's elbow. He turned to see one of the waitstaff standing there, his expression diffident, a tray of wine glasses in hand. In a flash of recognition, Joker suddenly realized that only seconds ago, the waiter had been the one standing behind Thoreson.
"Thanks, man," Joker said, accepting a wineglass.
The waiter shot him an oddly knowing smirk before melting away into the crowd. Scratching his chin thoughtfully, Joker watched the three fighter pilots as they retreated. After a moment, he became aware of two people standing close by, looking at him. He turned toward them.
"What a nasty little man you are," the woman said with a wicked grin. She had large, penetrating eyes and a woven gold necklace. Two ivory-colored ornamental sticks crossed through the dark bun of her hair, pinning it in place.
"We all have our flaws," Joker said modestly. He appraised the pair with a raised eyebrow, braced for another battle.
"How dare you insult our comrade?" the woman said, her voice laden with vast insincerity. Then she glanced at her companion. "What do you think, Shakur, does that about cover our duty to support our crewmates?"
"You might be overstating the point a bit, even," Shakur replied with a nod. He was tall, with dark skin, close-cropped hair and an open, friendly face.
"I thought so," the woman said, turning to Joker with a lopsided smile. "I always heard you were hot shit, Normandy. You dropped that lump without even firing a shot."
"I am moderately stupendous," Joker replied, examining the swirl of wine in his glass.
"Thor's going to have some fun picking glass out of his chest," Shakur chuckled. "I wish I could be there."
"It was such a nice shirt, too," the woman said mournfully.
"Thor, huh?" Joker said.
"Oh yeah, he'd like to think lightning shoots out of his ass. But I think it's just that he snores like a thunderstorm," the woman said. She extended her hand to Joker. "Katherine Naciamento, Turing Third Fighter Squadron."
Joker shook her hand and returned the introduction.
"Thor's got the sensitivity of a hormonal moose, but he wasn't that far off base," Naciamento said, cocking her head. "A lot of us want to know... Was it worth it? Saving the Council?"
Joker exhaled and swept his gaze around the room. "Honestly?" he said after a moment. "I don't know. My CO seems to think it was, and she's usually got her head screwed on straight, but I guess only time will really answer that."
Naciamento smirked. "I guess that's as decent an answer as any."
Joker shrugged. "Pretty speeches aren't going to impress anyone, only what they do next. And they have an awful lot of lives to live up to."
"Amen," Shakur murmured.
Fighter pilots or no, at least they made for stimulating conversation. It was perhaps two hours later when something rippled in the hum of conversation, emanating from the far side of the room. Curious, Joker craned his neck around the group. Shepard emerged from behind a crowd of people, leading Alenko by the elbow. There was a silly smile plastered on her face, an expression so incongruous that Joker blinked in surprise. He excused himself and drifted in the direction of his crewmates.
As Joker approached, the commander glanced around, then her vapid expression evaporated. "You mind explaining to me what possessed you to mouth off to Captain Salih?" she asked Alenko through her teeth.
"I wasn't going to just stand there and take it!" the lieutenant snapped, none too gently retrieving his elbow from her grip. "I don't care how many medals he has, I don't know where he gets off saying crap like that about biotics!" He tugged irritably at the collar of his shirt.
"Did they put something in the water?" Joker inquired mildly. "Or is it just that expensive parties are a natural breeding ground for assholes?"
Shepard glanced in the pilot's direction, then scowled at Alenko, her eyes searching. "We're not going to reform the bigots overnight," she said, "especially by picking public fights with superior officers."
"Then what are we here for? To look pretty?" Alenko shot back, his face a thundercloud. His eyes darted around the room. "When did it get so damn hot in here?"
Shepard looked at the lieutenant sharply.
"What have you been drinking?" Joker asked. "I think the climate control is set on 'sub-arctic'."
The commander swore with enough virulence to peel paint. "We're leaving," she said crisply. "Come on, Joker."
"I'm not your damn dog," the pilot quipped, feeling a surge of disquiet.
"Now, Flight Lieutenant," Shepard said in a tone that brooked no argument.
Joker shuffled after the commander, casting a suspicious glance over his shoulder. A few curious stares followed the three of them as they made their way out to the hallway, past the forest of ornamental plants to the bank of elevators. Shepard stabbed the call button, and after a few seconds one of the doors slid open. She ushered both Joker and Alenko through before following.
"Leaving so soon, Commander?"
Joker turned to see a man he didn't recognize standing in the doorway of the elevator, his foot across the threshold. He was young, with angular oriental features and dressed in a prim-looking dark blue suit.
"I have a busy schedule to keep," Shepard replied airily without turning around. "I'm sure you understand."
"Please reconsider..." the man said. Joker watched in grim fascination as the gun came up, a small pistol with an angled design that flared aggressively as the cowling retracted around the muzzle.
Joker's heart thudded, and he heard the shuffle of clothing as Alenko shifted his weight. Shepard turned, sweeping her gaze up from the gun with unhurried deliberation. The off-handed demeanor evaporated once again as she squared her shoulders, cutting down their attacker's angle to her crewmates, and fixed the man with a steely glare.
"I've seen scarier things than you in my morning coffee," she said in a tone of towering contempt. "Why don't you run along and tell your masters I'm not playing their little game?"
The man's lips pulled back from his teeth in a smirk, one that didn't quite hide the nervous twitch of his eyes. The pistol was obviously not having the desired effect. "So sorry, Commander, I think you-"
Shepard exploded into movement, lunging toward the man with an outstretched palm. In one swift strike she grabbed the outstretched pistol and slammed the heel of her other hand into the man's nose. The weapon barked once as she twisted it out of the man's grip, and Joker lurched to the side reflexively as the round scattered high on the back wall of the elevator with a loud ping. Outside, their assailant was falling back, hands to his face, as the doors hissed smoothly shut and the elevator whined to life.
Joker forced himself to resume breathing, his heart slamming painfully in his chest. Shepard's mouth was a hard line as she gave the man's gun a cursory inspection, popping out the ammo slug and then slamming it back in.
"What... the hell?" Alenko asked. There was a hesitant hitch in his voice. He put his hand to his head, his brows furrowed.
"Trouble," the commander said crisply. "We're going to have to move quickly."
"I'm not all that good at running, you know?" Joker snapped. An unfamiliar, adrenal fear raced through his blood.
The commander glanced up at the floor display with narrow eyes. She stabbed a button on the display and the elevator decelerated rapidly. The doors hissed open into a wide, pillared room. Rows of sleek, arrow-nosed gravcars lined the walls.
Shepard turned to him. "How about flying?"