So, hi to everyone who stayed turned and even provided me with feedback)) As usually, thanks to skywalker05 for beta-reading!)
"Hey" I raised my eyebrows when the elevator doors opened on the second deck and I saw Joker standing there "What are you doing... up here?"
"Leaving an area of habitation in search of subsistence." He grumbled, looking somewhat offended "Need to eat sometimes too, you know."
"I see. Mmm, wait a second..." I said, carefully moving my large box from the doorway so Joker could walk in. "Sorry, I haven't been in my right mind for a bit. It was like half an hour ago when EDI called me down to pick up my goods and then suddenly found them extremely suspicious. She tested probably every single threat that one poor box can represent – bomb, infection, poison, predators, automatic weapons, I don't even remember what else. And just as suddenly calmed down and let me go."
"Huh, now you get that this AI is annoying?" He smirked, limping in the elevator, but stopped suddenly "Wait, half an hour? Exactly half an hour?"
"Didn't note the time, but roughly, yeah. What's wrong with that time?"
"It's..." He started to speak, but then shook his head "I just don't trust this thing."
"That's the news. Gonna get in already ,or you can not trust it only on this deck?"
He didn't answer, examining the elevator suspiciously. It was getting ridiculous. I gave out a tired sigh and said crossly "Don't worry, I'm not hungry and already checked here for other monsters."
Joker frowned, but finally stepped in. I pushed the button, the elevator started to move, and I asked "What made you take your paranoia about EDI to a whole new level, mm?"
"It started making... crazy theories. And spread them around."
"Huh? Crazy theories? Sounds cool! What about?"
"Nothing interesting. Just nonsense."
"Tell me anyway, I love that AI's crazy nonsense."
He cleared his throat, not looking at me "I don't remember."
Now that's interesting. I bet EDI got something on him and he's trying to convince me that I shouldn't listen to her."What? Oh, c'mon! You remember every stupid joke from..."
Something deafeningly squeaked – one of those unbearable sounds that make you shut your eyes and clench your teeth – and the light went off and elevator shuddered, stopping moving. I noticed how Joker and the box staggered, caught Joker's elbow, heard how something crack inside of the fallen box and turned on a biotic field to stabilize us.
"What the hell? Are we crashing? Again?" This isn't irony, it's mockery! You complained about running through the ship because of Joker – now you two are just locked and helpless, and the crew doesn't have either a Commander or a pilot either, and…
"Wow..." Joker whispered absently, looking amused and amazed. "That's feels funny... Actually good! As if the all pressure's gone, but not like in weightlessness... I can move freely! Huuh, I can stand on one leg!"
"Joker." I said coolly, sizing him up "I'm glad you're enjoying yourself, but before you start jumping..."
"You think I can even jump?" he finally looked at me, smiling so childishly happy that I could just blink at him. "Okay, okay, we're certainly not crashing. We're docked after all. It must be just something with the elevator. But, maaan, wow..."
I tried really hard not to grin – and I probably shouldn't, we don't know what's going on, maybe the ship is under attack and we're doomed, what's funny... but m'boy, he was shining brighter than the biotic lights around us, and I just couldn't help but smile. He noticed and blushed, immediately becoming all uninterested and careless.
"Mmm, it's must be tiresome to support... this biotic thing of yours?"
"Nope, absolutely no. I can keep it up for an hour and just need to eat a pair of sandwiches after that."
I caught myself not so much supporting him already as clinging to him. Well, you should expect pretty strong arms from someone forced to carry his weight on clutches for his whole life, but I just didn't think it would feels so good...
"Anyway" he shifted awkwardly "There's no danger anymore, so no reason to keep it up, yeah?"
"Yeah" I nodded, still smiling faintly, and finally released his arm. I caught disappointment in his fast glance and said nonchalantly, lifting up my fallen box "And jumping in the broken elevator isn't the smartest thing to do. We should find a better place."
He stared at me for a second mistrustfully, but then realized what I meant and beamed at me again. Why have I never thought about it before? Having those powers for my whole life, I got used to them and didn't even count non-combat possibilities as something special. I must arrange for him an amusement with adjustments of mass fields one day.
"And you better sit down," I said, pointing at the box ."It may feel dizzily after this." He nodded, carefully settling himself down on the corner of the box, and I turned my biotics off.
"Take a seat too. Who knows when they'll get us out of here? Or will even notice that someone is missing?"
I glanced at him, weighing up if the box could sustain me too. Theoretically, I could escape through the vents in the shaft, but Joker certainly not...
"C'mon, I'm brittle-boned, not fat-assed" he said sarcastically "There's still room for four people like you. Or three krogans. Or even two Mirandas. But you better not mention this comparison to her, ok?"
I smirked and sat at the opposite corner of the box, sighing heavily and rubbing my temples
"Elevators. They haunt me. Always was late on the missions because of them. Had to break through walls and fight armies of geth, 'cause the damn thing got broken in the middle of the Presidium when I chased Saren. And now I'm stuck and locked on my own ship! It is the height of impudence already!"
"Yeah, those malicious guileful monsters..."
"Look who's talking! What, being paranoid about an AI is ok, but about elevators – no?"
"That thing actually talks, watches us all the time and annoys, y'know. Not like silent innocent elevators."
"Huh? Innocent? Haven't you ever used the Citadel's elevators? We're in the 22nd century, we have light-speed ships already, but those things are as slow as if they're driven by a donkey spinning a wheel! It's not just annoying, it's clearly a conspiracy. And they're way more subtle than AI."
"So, after Collectors and Reapers we'll go for the elevators? Just asking , so I'm prepared."
"And you know, they are talking. All those annoying announcements and news about people struggling to survive after my visit. And when the radio was silent, Wrex started to ask other squadmembers who would win if we fight. Just behind my back."
"Ouch. That must be awkward."
"Huh, well. When I took Liara and Kaidan with me once and accidentally caught them staring at my ass with identical expressions – that was awkward. Or the Asari Consort. Yeah, that time with the Consort wins."
"Ah! By the way, I always wondered what grudge you have against her."
"I didn't tell you?"
"In those days, our relationship was defined in terms like "Shut up, Flight Lieutenant." And Kaidan could just blush and wave me off, though he usually never missed a chance to praise you. I assume you shamefully failed a job for her?"
"Nhuh! I didn't fail anything! I had to man up a soupy turian general, persuade an elcor diplomat – and believe me, after that you don't need to bother going in their theater – so, I saved her reputation, and what did I get?" I looked at him, caught his gaze absently wandering on my lips and curled them discontentedly. Joker blinked, shook his head and cast up his eyes with exaggerated attention "Nothing!"
"Oh gosh, she didn't pay you?" he asked with mocking horror. "Didn't pay the woman who has a price list for telling people what time it is?"
"Hey! I do help people in need for free if I see that they can't afford a payment. But this... consort has a schedule choked up with rich clients for the next half-year. Surely she has the money!"
"I thought you had your way with people who refuse to pay you."
"Normally, sure. But she just... Well, first she gave me a cheap prophecy about my harsh destiny and inner strength – nagh, it was just pathetic. I've made better prophecies when I imitated a biotic child-prophet in the streets – and I was nine! Sure I said it's not enough. Then she gave me some ancient useless thing and said she doesn't know what it is, but feels I must have it. She didn't even bother to think up a story for it! And when I said I need more, she... oh god, it's just too embarrassing and silly to tell... she tried to jump my bones, just right there and then! Before my squad's very eyes!"
"No... way..." Joker barely managed to get it out, choking with laughter.
"I tell ya! She started to paw all over me, panting and trying to kiss me! I didn't kill her on the spot just 'cause I wasn't a Spectre yet and didn't want trouble with her high-ranking clients. I barely escaped without ruining my own reputation! Garrus chattered his mandibles like mad and glanced at me through his visor, thinking I can't notice, and Kaidan couldn't look at me at all. "
"So that's where your phobia of "asari rapists" came from! Uh-huh, I bet when she pounced on you, you said..." he made a half-terrified, half-furious face and I can't help but snicker, because he got even an exact angle of my crooked eyebrow. "I should go!"
"It wasn't funny back then!"
"You should forgive her. Not everyone has enough willpower to restrain themselves in your presence."
I scarcely held back a remark about someone having too much willpower for his own good. Girl, we decided to deal first with collectors, then with your private life, remember?
Suddenly I noticed that with all the laughing and grimacing we somehow managed to closer to each other and now were sitting side by side.
"So, by the way, what is in this box?"
"Oh, it's a castle." I declared cheerfully, but he looked at me anxiously and said slowly,
"I knew you're a bit obsessed with your knight stories, but..."
"No!" I cut in indignantly "It's not a toy, it's for the fish-tank! It's a decoration."
"Huh, I see." He said skeptically, but I made my 'I'm a serious Spectre, what's your problem, citizen' face and he shrugged finally. "Well, you can give it a cool name. Like Castle of the Dead or Water Cemetery."
"Ah, thanks for reminding me. Have you been thinking about the deal?"
"Geez no." He rolled his eyes up. "Don't start with that again."
"C'mon. Killing things is a universal solution. There must be someone for you. Villainous neighbor who took away your toys? That stupid teacher who thought you weren't smiling enough? Oh, I know! After you left the Alliance, someone must have been taken your title. We should teach that upstart to know his place. "I looked at him mischievously and grinned widely "Because he was daring to proclaim himself the best helmsman in the Alliance fleet, when everyone knows that Joker is the true ruler of the skies!"
Joker sized me up, understood that I wouldn't leave it be and that he must just live it through, and sighed "Such rancor is unworthy of the biotic goddess."
"Come on, you'll give him your "earning" speech! You can name all your commendations, diplomas and whatever fancy papers you also have. And list of my compliments too."
"That list would be short and rather indecent," he said coolly and narrowed his eyes. Oh, I know this look, I used to have it myself – and it usually left me with choice of tugging down Joker's hat, or...
"And then we can organize a duel for you two! Like we, biotics, see how many people we can make swirl for longer. Sure you, guys, also have things to compare sizes with." And since I don't have any hat to be tugged...
Joker took his hat off and pulled it over my eyes. Well, he's kinda got out of a scrape this time. But when all this mess ends, I'm gonna threaten him with something like "We're clearing things out or I'm telling Miranda and Jack you said they have the hots for each other."
I turned the brim away from my view and gave Joker a displeased gaze, but he looked taken aback himself
"Commander, emmm, sorry, I didn't mean..."
"Well, who's "always like that" now?" I grinned at him teasingly and he laughed nervously, reaching for his hat, but I just calmly clicked my tongue "Nah-ha."
Joker sighed and ran his hand through his hair, as if it wasn't already disheveled enough.
"Does it just bother you that there's someone on this ship who doesn't occupy with you with a long list of murdered people?"
"Well, let's look at the statistics." I shrugged, sighing "I've killed the criminal for Garrus – he's still with me now. I've found information for Tali – she's still with me. I've found the armor for Wrex – well, maybe he's not here, but he's still my friend. I didn't do anything for Kaidan – and he suddenly overdosed with the Alliance in his blood and despises me."
"Doc's still here too."
"I got brandy for her."
"You saved me." He didn't say "and died", but it was implied in his tone and his marked nonchalance. I wanted to took his hand and tell him plenty of things, from "it wasn't your fault" to "I've never regretted it", but I know he wouldn't believe me, so I came up with dry facts. "I've saved a lot of people who turned against me eventually, including the Council. And you've saved me a plenty of times before."
"So I must betray you or something? Like how?"
I barely suppressed a smirk. When I'm giving orders to my squadmates in fights, I know exactly what they can do and what they can't, I can control them step by step like "move under cover up here, use overload on YMIR and then get this guy with missiles out of my way with your sniper rifle." The most detailed orders that I can give to Joker in a real mess are usually "Shoot 'em up!", "Get us the hell out of here!" and, more often, "Do something!" If wanted to get me killed, he could just not hurry to rescue me for once, or even get me into any trap he wants, sell me out and pretend he doesn't know what happened. Because dealing with pilots – it's like with doctors: they tell you "It can kill you, but we have to do it anyway" and you can only agree and hope they know what they're doing.
"You've been with me through all those hells. I wouldn't have made it with anyone but you since, let me think... Therum. I should get you all the medals that you wanted, but now it's too late and I just want to do something for you. Just 'cause, you know, you deserve it more than anyone."
"No, no, that's just ridiculous." Joker snorted and shook his head "You don't need to do anything to keep me here. Seriously, when the Cerberus people showed up and told me they'd bring you back and needed me as a pilot, I was surprised they were gonna actually pay me for this, 'cause..." he trailed off, realizing that in respond to my oh-so-covert "I want to do something for you to make sure I'll have you around" he almost plainly said "I always will be there for you". It meant her was letting the shields down, shields that were built up for years and without which you feel yourself stripped to the bone.
"Cause they gave you the Normandy?" I said softly, leaving him a possibility to avoid this and get back to our usual pretending and not-showing-weakness-or-concern, because I have the same shields – another form, but equal functions – and I understand how it hard to just drop them down.
"No. Not at all."
He said it slowly and waited for reaction, examining me, but I just smiled stupidly and he smiled back, warily at first, but then fell into the same silliness. I suppose it was a good time for confessions or something like this, but we weren't really that type of people. It's not the words that matter, regardless of how big and poetic they are – I know, I'm a master of speeches. What matters – it's what you really mean by them, and if someone cares, he'll get you. And we just stared at each other, grinning like two idiots, and we both knew that when it's impossible to grin wider, we're gonna kiss like no tomorrow. It was that strange and rare feeling of when you wanted something for a very long time and you can finally get it, but you're delaying it just to enjoy the moment and because you know that then it'll be even more delightful.
Suddenly something clicked behind my back and a tight spring inside of me immediately expanded. On bare reflexes I threw a burst of dark energy at the source of the sound before Joker had time to shout out almost with panic, "No! It's just Krios!"
I turned around, vaguely wondering for a short moment when he started to be so anxious about the assassin, but then he continued "Stop damaging my ship!"
"Thane! Did I hurt you?" I asked, trying to discern him in the darkness and hoping I didn't lose the assassin earlier than expected. Gosh, haven't they trained him to never sneak up on a distracted biotic?
"You can come out. I'll hold her." Joker said just under my ear.
Wait, what? I looked down and found his arm around my shoulders. Ouh. Heh.
Thane came into sight from the entrance of the vent shaft on the ceiling.
"No, you didn't, Shepard," he said, examining the floor for a place to slip down. But our box was just under the vents, so he remained up there. "Are you alright? Tali'Zorah is working on the problem. "
"Thank you, we're good." I said politely.
"Were." Joker added coolly.
"I can help you get out of there through the vents. There's a ladder up here."
"It'll be the last day of my self-respecting life if I climb on the vents and elevator shafts."
Ouch. Do you really need to be so cocky, m'boy?
"And you, Shepard?"
I felt how Joker's fingers squeezed my shoulder and fought down a smile and the urge to lean closer."I suppose Tali can manage this just fine without me."
"She said you... feel uncomfortable in elevators and would prefer to leave as soon as you can."
Thanks, Tali. I shrugged with one shoulder to not throw off Joker's hand."She grossly exaggerated. This girl's always so caring and sometimes overprotective. Quarians, y'know. "
"I see. Then maybe you'll take this to keep in communication? " He got an earpiece from his pocket and held it out.
"Yeah, thanks, that's a great idea." I nodded and drew it up with biotics, feeling how Joker's fingers started to tap impatiently at my shoulder. Yep, I also want to return to what we were up to, but I can't just shoo Thane away.
"Do you need anything else?" the assassin asked politely. Is he really so comfortable with hanging upside down?
"Yeah, two coffee and a pizza would be great." Joker said innocently. I almost choked.
"No! Thane, thank you so much for the concern. And sorry for bothering you with all those... climbing through the vents troubles." I gave him my best bright and most grateful smile.
"It's nothing, Shepard." Thane performed something that probably was meant to be a half-bow, but in his current position looked more like a push-up exercise, and pulled himself up into the vents in one smooth movement. But he still managed to stay calm, elegant and graceful. Man, I could make a hell of money on him in the freak show.
Joker smirked above my ear and I turned to him, wiping the smile off my face, and said "Jeez, what's wrong with you?"
"What? You don't want a pizza?"
"The man is dying and helping us for free! He doesn't deserve to be mocked."
"He did ask."
"He was just being polite and... well-mannered."
"Right, first he's all gentlemanly and then he decides that since you handle over-aggressive kids like Grunt so great, you'll be a perfect stepmother for his wannabe-killer son."
Well, what did you expect? He barked at Kaidan every time the biotic got his hands near the co-pilot's panels and is fighting for territory with AI. It should've given you hints about jealousy at what he considers his. It's like... it's like his shields are up again, but now I'm inside of them.
My new earpiece vibrated at the incoming call and I took it to my ear, giving Joker a last unapproving and supposed-to-be-stern look. He understood that I wasn't really angry and pulled me closer with a smug grin.
"Shepard?" said Tali's concerned voice.
"What did you tell Thane? I'm trying to earn respect from the new members, and you tell people I'm nuts?"
"I assume you're fine. Don't worry, the problem will be solved in a few minutes."
Joker oh-so-casually leaned over to me, waiting for resistance. He didn't meet it and pressed his ear against mine. Just to hear the conversation, I suppose. I found out that his beard didn't fell wiry or itchy on my skin, smirked, and said to Tali "Yeah, we're fine. You can take your time. I mean, really." I could feel how Joker was grinning against my cheek, a little rough and ticklish sensation that I wasn't used to.
"No need for causticity, Shepard," Tali said indignantly. "I know that you hate elevators, I'm working as fast as I can!"
I sighed quietly. From some patient, friendly Commander she would take it seriously and be grateful. But from snarky me people always search for mockery.
"So, really just a few minutes?" I asked, trying to not sound disappointed.
"Yes. I'll prove it, so don't start to pounce on people."
I just noticed Joker's hand stroking absently my shoulder and decided that was pretty good advice.
"Yeah, people are quite stressed already, no need for rumors about the Commander being crazy."...and so horny that she tries to ravish the pilot in a locked room. I don't think we'll be able to tear ourselves away from each other in a few minutes, not to mention about not looking so calm, so we better not start right now. Joker apparently had similar thoughts, as he pulled himself away, sighing, and removing his hand.
"Don't worry, Shepard, everything will be great. See you soon."
"Yeah." I switched off the comm and cast a sidelong look at Joker. He cleared his throat and said nonchalantly, "So... It's occurring to me that we're doing quite great, mm?"
"Indeed." I murmured with a ghost of a smile.
"Better than on the bridge, yeah?"
"Maybe there's some... correlation? Maybe in a more remote place it'll be even better?"
"Somewhere not on the ship with a constantly watching AI, you mean?"
"And where people won't bother you with troubles... and new messages."
I chuckled. "We must experiment. For science, as Mordin would say."
I stood up and picked up the hat from the floor, where it apparently felt when I abruptly turned to Thane. When I held it out to Joker, he looked at me and frowned.
"Nothing to worry about."
"Hey, I can see. What is it?"I sighed and licked my lips.
"All those abducted people... Some of our crewmembers had families on those colonies. And we're the only ones who work on that. I mean... You know me, I can't even go buy something for myself if I don't have a reason to be around. I won't be able to just go and enjoy my shore leave and not think that something awful is happening right now. I would be tense and uneasy and distracted... I know it's stupid. I know it's irrational. But it's just the way I am."
"I guess I should expect that, asking out the hero." he looked down for a moment and shrugged, but then curled up one corner of his lips. "Well then, you give the order to Gardner and scare everyone away from the mess hall, I cut off the power to the cameras... and block vents, hmm?"
"You're the best."
"I know. Lucky you."
Wait, how about... Nagh, it's madness. But with some estimations... nonsense, I can't do it. Better to not risk and joke around lawful fanatics... Oh, c'mon, you were dating the city's main prosecutor for three months before he discovered who you are. Sure you can handle one accident. I was a reckless criminal in those days, not a responsible Commander. This only means that now people trust you more. It will be easier. She will never find out and it's not her business anyway. I guess the threat of jeopardizing her precious quest is quite her business. She certainly would consider it this way. He can put up with that. The man had already put up with leaving the Alliance and joining terrorists for you; can you do something for him once? There's no guarantee you will live long enough for the second chance.
"Hey? You alright?" I looked up and found out that he already stood up. I bit my lip and said slowly,
"Mmm, listen... Actually today I have to go on a mission... under cover. In "Afterlife". But it's not just-in-time affair. I mean, we can hang around together for hours, I'll just need to deal with things before the night ends."
"So you are going just abandon me there?"
"In the VIP-section, with drinks and asari-dancers all around? I'm sure you'll survive."
He folded his arms, frowning.
"And what's the mission?"
"Well, Samara needs me to..."
"No, wait! I don't want to know anything about it. She's gonna come and say that she regrets it, cause I'm nice guy, but she has to kill me because I know more than I should."
"I'll deal with her."
I just nodded, and trailed my fingertip up the line of his collarbone to his shoulder and shook off the speck of dust there. He silently followed this with his eyes, swallowed and looked up, but in this moment everything lightened up and the elevator smoothly started to move.
"Okay." Joker said quickly, as if a spell was broken and I could change my mind. "Better than nothing."
I smiled at him and the doors opened. There was everyone standing quite crowded and nervously around, with Miranda barking about something at Mordin, exaggeratedly optimistic Kelly, and Tali, who immediately stepped to me.
"Hey, I told you we're fine, no need to..."
"No, no! It's not about that! The Collector bugs, the ones Mordin kept for experiments, accidentally broke free!"
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and said very calmly, "I'm sure our team of engineers and scientists can provide us with butterfly nets?"