Thank you to everyone you has been following the story and welcome to those who have just started. Thank you to everyone who has either added this story or myself to your favorites, or those who will do so in the future. Thank you to everyone who has left a review or other feedback or will do so. I never imagined this story would have such a follow with such large and positive feedback, especially considering that it came to me during the 24 hours following the ME3 release in which I had no sleep and is largely written in the wee hours of the morning during which I cannot sleep.
Lastly, I regret to inform y'all that I have been unable to procure the right to Mass Effect since my previous chapter. I am still sneaking it out in the middle of the night with every intention of returning it in the morning.
Garrus wasn't really sure what had sent him walking to the bridge. Perhaps it was simply because it was the only place that had windows on this entire ship. He was good at his job, but some parts of it (like the politics and trying to keep someone in line who could kill him with a thought) tired him out. He just wanted a moment away from everything, and he just happened to find himself on the bridge staring out at the stars.
After a while, the pilot spoke up from where he was sitting at the ship's controls. "So," he started without a hint of anything other than the simple tone of pleasant conversation, "I prefer gold to silver." The whole time the pilot hadn't looked up once from the controls, and whatever purpose he had for his comment was lost on Garrus.
For several seconds, the turian was rather sure he had missed a vital part of the conversation while he had been staring out at the passing stars. The only way for him to know what was going on would be to fess up to the fact that he hadn't been listening to the pilot at all. "What?"
"For my metal," the man clarified, but he didn't look up from his controls and his tone of voice hadn't changed at all. Garrus took this to mean that the man wasn't upset that he hadn't been listening, but he was still having issues classifying the pilot's tone. "I figured you'd put me up for one since I just, uh, pulled your boots out of the fire."
Garrus suddenly understood what was going on. Sarcasim. He nearly wanted to hit himself with the realization. Though his experience with humans left much to be desired, he was able to notice whenever Shepard was being sarcastic, but in his defense, she almost always made it more than obvious. The pilot was being far more... subtle about it. "If we present you with a metal, you'll end up sitting on stage listening to politicians make speeches for a couple of hours," he responded with a turian smile even though he was rather sure the pilot wouldn't know what it was even if he looked up from his controls.
"That's a good point," the man conceded and finally looked up from his controls with a smile. "They'll probably make me shave too. I've spent the last seven weeks working on this baby; no metal is worth that." Garrus didn't have much knowledge about human's facial hair or acceptable social standard concerning it so he wasn't about to touch on that, but the beard did remind him of a picture he had seen for some human holiday. If only he could remember more about it than just the fat hairy man in a ridiculous red suit.
"Besides," he added with a devilish smile, "saving my 'boots' from burning lava is your job. I don't know about the Alliance, but in the Turian military, they don't give metals to soldiers for doing their jobs, Flight Lieutenant Moreau." The pilot was the one that started the entire conversation, and Garrus didn't mind the easy chatter. It was almost therapeutic.
"Ah, figures," the man said with a sigh and turned to check the various instruments. "Just give me a nice card and a cake. No coconut, though. I hate that crap. And call me 'Joker'; everyone else does." The man's hands were flying over the controls like he had something important to do; though he did suppose that making sure they didn't drift into some star was important. He honestly couldn't say that he had any idea what it took to keep this ship from crashing.
"Joker?" Garrus asked very amused at the man's nickname. "That's an interesting nickname. I can't say that I've heard anyone go by it before." He didn't know much about human naming conventions and even less about how they acquired nicknames. He had always assumed that they were a lot like the Turians; nicknames were given as a way to honor someone who had helped society or a person above and beyond the expected. He didn't understand how 'Joker' would be an adequate reward though.
He saw the pilot tense up, but he wasn't sure why. "Well, it's a lot shorter than saying Alliance Flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau, and besides, I love to make little kids laugh." It seemed like a plausible reason, but the first part was said with too much resentment, and the last part with too much flippancy. Something was off here.
He also just remembered what the name of that Human holiday representative with the beard, and he hoped that, by comparing the two of them sarcastically, the polite would be convinced to share the source of his unusual nickname. "I was just thinking about how you reminded me of Santa Claus." He laid the sarcasm on a little thicker than he usually did, but he was dealing with a Human instead of one of his own people. Subvocals were no help in this conversation.
The pilot sighed, though Garrus couldn't tell if it was just annoyance or something else. "Look, okay," the pilot started to explain with more ire in his voice than usual, "I didn't pick the name. One of the instructors at Flight School use to bug me about never smiling. She started calling me 'Joker', and it just kinda stuck." Something about the pilot's tone implied that there was something more to it so he decided to press the issue.
"Why didn't you smile in flight school? Weren't you happy?" he asked wondering why the man didn't smile in flight school. He seemed like he belonged in the pilot's chair or, at least, that was the only place that Garrus could see him. The man oozed a pilot's self assurance.
"Hey!" the man exclaimed as if he was physically hurt by the question, but Garrus had the impression that it was really just a ploy to cover up a different emotional response. "I worked my ass off in flight school. The world isn't going to hand you anything if you go around grinning like an idiot. By the end of the year, I was the best pilot in the academy, even better than the Instructors, and everyone knew it. They all got their asses kicked by the sickly kid with the creaky little legs. Just one guess who was smiling at graduation."
Some of the story sounded believable, but there were still parts that left Garrus questioning. Working hard, though understandable, didn't mean that the man could never find enjoyment while in the academy. He also didn't understand what the pilot meant by 'sickly kid with the creaky little legs'. There were a lot of things about this man that Garrus wasn't told yet.
"Sickly kid, huh?" he asked wondering at what illness the man may have had during puberty that modern medicine couldn't fix but time could. He knew that the Alliance wasn't about to let their state-of-the-art ship into the hands of a man with health issues. It just didn't make any sense.
Instantly, the pilot was on the defensive though so Garrus quickly assumed the worse. "Look, I'll tell you what I told the Captain. You want me as your pilot. I'm not good; I'm not even great; I'm the best damned helmsman in the entire alliance fleet. Top of my class in flight school? I earned that. All those commendations in my file? I earned every single one. Those weren't just given to me as charity for my disease."
Garrus, though rather new to human expressions, wasn't blind enough that he couldn't see how upset the conversation was making the pilot. He, however, needed answers; he had an obligation to his mission to make sure everyone on this ship was capable of pulling their own weight. If the Alliance thought they would be able to push a below par pilot on his, they had something else to learn. "I understand that you served the Captain well, but I can't have you on this ship if you're going to contaminate the crew."
Despite being cowed by his scowl though, the pilot just started to laugh. "Contaminate the crew?" he asked between chuckles, but quickly became serious again when he saw that Garrus was still very serious. "You really don't know, do you?" he said, almost in awe of the fact. "Aw, crap. Okay, I have Vrolik's sydrome, 'Brittle Bone Disease'. Basically, the bones in my legs never developed properly. They're basically hollow. Too much force and they'll basically shatter. Even with crutches and my leg braces, it's hard to get around. One wrong step and CRACK! It's very dramatic, but I've learned to manage my condition. Put the Normandy in my hands, and I'll make her dance for you. Just don't ask me to get up and dance, unless you like the sound of snapping shin bones."
Garrus was intrigued by this bit of information. He had never heard that humans could suffer from such a disease, which was just amusing to him; both his people and the Krogans shared the belief that humans were 'squishy'. Now he was finding out that they could have serious flaws in the one area where they could actually be almost sturdy. But this wasn't just about his own amusement, he quickly reminded himself before his thoughts were reflected on his face. This was about his ship. "I need to know more about this Vrolik's syndrome if I'm going to put my ship in your hands," he said trying to be all business once again.
"Of course, you do," the man said with a sigh that suggested that he had gone through this exact line of questioning too many times before he started listing off facts about his condition. "It's an extremely rare condition. Nobody knows exactly what causes it. Genetic, maybe. It's treatable, but there's no cure. They classify my case as moderate to severe. I was born with over a dozen fractures, hips, thighs, ankles; my bones were already breaking in the womb. A hundred years ago, I wouldn't have survived my first year, but lucky for me, modern medical science has turned me into a productive member of society."
Garrus was almost impressed by the man's ability to be objective about his condition, but he couldn't help but hearing the annoyance and irritation that had entered his tone in the last sentence. He didn't want to alienate the pilot; he was rather sure that he was going to like talking with the man. He would try to hurry the conversation up a little. "You're not going to break a bone trying to fly the ship, are you?" he asked, mostly because he wasn't sure how someone would fly a human warship. He knew some of the older human Skycar models still had pedals to make them go and stop.
"Ah, I don't fly with my feet," the pilot said with a touch of how stupid he thought Garrus was for just asking, "so I'm fine as long as I'm in this chair. I gotta be real careful when I get up to take a piss though. I can do my job as well as anyone on this ship, better actually. So don't worry about me."
Garrus knew that he had successfully pissed off the pilot at this point so he thought it better to cut the conversation short at this point; he had other contacts he could probe about the pilot's condition anyway. He said good-night to the pilot, who seemed to be in no hurry to leave despite the fact that his shift had to be over by now, though that made sense in light of the man's condition, and made his way back to his cabin.
The switch to the night crew had occurred as he was talking with the pilot. He really didn't think that he had spent that much time in conversation, but he couldn't argue with the evidence in front of him. There was only a skeleton crew, and two different guards were posted on the doors.
It only took him about an hour to find the name of the technician that had been in charge of the Turian engineer crew that worked on the Normandy, General Invictus. Using his Turian Spectre credentials, he messaged the man asking for his opinion on the pilot, but it would likely take several hours for him to get a response due to the fact that it was still int he early morning hours for the General.
When he was done, he noticed that the Salarian Councilor had sent him a message, and he quickly opened it hoping for a lead about Saren. Instead he found an invitation to train himself and his crew on Pinnacle Station, a training program well known to be the toughest and best in the galaxy. Though he couldn't wait to see the station himself, he wasn't about to take his crew there with the basic equipment they had now. First they would stop by the Citadel for supplies, but then... then he could test his metal against the best and brightest the galaxy had to offer.
Joker waited until he saw the Turian Spectre enter his room on the crew deck before he even started the tedious process of putting on his leg braces and gathering his crutches. By the time he was finished, his relief (late as usual) was just arriving, and the tall, dark-skinned, young man spilling excuses out quicker than Joker had the time or patience to follow. The kid was just out of the academy, and he hadn't even learned his name yet, let alone decided if he trusted the kid with his ship. With a short debrief about what was going on with the ship, where they were heading, their progress, and anything else the man had to know, Joker went hopping down the corridor as quickly and as carefully as he could.
At the steps, he reluctantly allowed one of the night crew to lend him a hand just so he couldn't end up face-planted on the CDC floor with a broken bone or two; if he wanted to hope for a chance at sleeping in his assigned sleeping compartment, he wouldn't have the time for a trip to the infirmary. The stairs leading down to the crew deck were easier (though far longer) than the small one in the CDC, which was mostly due to the handrails that he been installed specifically for him, but even still, his legs were sore from the exertion by the time he had made it to the bottom.
For a moment, he thought of, once again, putting this off for another day, but the Turian Spectre didn't seem too pleased with the news about his condition. For all he knew, he could be replaced tomorrow by some rooky Turian pilot on account of his damned, cursed legs. Tonight might be the last chance he would ever get to receive some answers. The woman had left so suddenly and hadn't even sent him a message telling him why. Surely he deserved some answers.
This was where it was likely to get interesting though, as he didn't want anyone to see him tonight; he would just have to lie if anyone asked for details, anyway. No one seemed to be within sight of the elevator so he slipped inside as quickly as he was able, but the entire ride down he could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest though he wasn't sure of its cause. Anticipation? Dread? Anger? A mixture of all three? He wasn't even sure himself, and he just hoped that it wasn't strong enough to break ribs.
He wasn't even sure if she'd be awake. He knew that she used to staying up late and did work through the night if she was in the middle of something, but it had been so long since they had seen each other and so much had happened since then. He quickly shoved off his fears, as slow as the elevator moved, he would still know for sure when the doors opened.
As he waddled his way out of the elevator, he took in his surroundings. The weapons station was empty as well as requisitions, but the Krogan was still leaning against some crates, and there were female boots sticking out from under the damaged Mako. The Krogan appeared asleep from the horrendous noise that was coming from him; it almost sounded like snoring, that is if you take even the loudest human snore, amplified it by ten fold, and mixed the sound with a two-year-old's attempts to play drums with his mom's pots and pans. Sufficiently assured that the Krogan wasn't likely to wake up unless physically attacked and that his snores would cover the sound of conversation, he made his way over to the boots.
He just hoped beyond hope that the boots belonged to the person that he wanted to see. "You and me need to talk," he said coming to as stop close enough that she would hear him but far enough that she couldn't attack him easily. His bones were too easily broken to take extreme risks, and he was needed to fly the ship should their mission get hairy. True, even coming to talk with her was a risk, but he had to have answers.
"I was wondering when you would be making your way down to talk to me," the red-headed mercenary said rolling out from under the tank just as he was close enough to hear her speak. She looked just like his 'adopted' sister, except for her eyes. His sister's eyes were green, and hers were definitely hazel. Even the way she rubbed her hands off on a rag hanging from her pocket was just like his sister.
He snorted at his attempts to throw him off simply by expressing knowledge of him. "And I was wondering why my sister's face was walking around my ship," he threw back with a tone that put his annoyance with the Spectre to shame. He knew he should tone down on the hatred for his personal safety, but he just couldn't. Her very appearance pissed him off more than everything that his instructors and fellow students have ever said.
"I'll save you some time," she said with a smirk he wanted to knock off her face as she wasn't good enough to own his sister's smirk too. "No, I don't know where your sister is. I never even met the woman. Her identity just happened to be on sale when I decided to break away from the Alliance and make my way as a mercenary. She either traded her identity for someone else's, or she's dead. I have no answers for you."
This was a mistake, he realized quickly as he forced his hands to unclench from his sides; if he were to tighten them any further, he would likely end up with stress fractures which would hinder his ability to do his job. She was too much like his sister. She had no right to his sister's likeness; she had no right to dirty his sister's reputation with her actions. "Why her? Why not someone else?" he asked through clenched teeth.
The assassin just shrugged. "It was the only identity available that made sense. Her skills and training were similar to mine, as was her physical appearance. I had to undergo very little plastic surgery and genetic modification to pass physically as her. Her personality was similar enough to mine that it wasn't too hard to convince people; it only took me several weeks to learn her noted gestures and syntax. There are very few human females out there with my skill set, and I was lucky that there was an identity that fit the bill."
Her lack of consideration for his sister's memory was causing him to consider foolish things, like punching her with his easily broken hand or hitting a notorious assassin with one of his crutches. Neither thought would help him any as he had no doubt that she was more than willing to kill him to keep her secrets safe; he had no doubt that she wasn't lying about it being difficult to find another identity to fit her needs or that she wouldn't want to restart from scratch just for the sake of a cripple.
He should never have come, he quickly determined and turned towards the elevator. Even as he was riding up, he couldn't get the conversation out of his mind; he hated the woman. He wished her a very painful and long death, but he wasn't the one that was capable of giving it to her. He did, however, know who was capable and just as motived as he was. Before he slipped off to sleep, he sent a message to Abigail Kenson. He had no doubt that she could find a way to get stationed on this ship once she found out the woman calling herself by their sister's name was aboard.
That night, he had his usual recurring nightmare. Shepard was on Akuze and surrounded by Threaser Mauls, and though she fought bravely, she was eventually pulled apart. This time, instead of simply ending with her bloody death, a woman came, picked up the pieces, and put them on like armor. He woke up the next morning so quickly he crashed his head into the glass of his sleeping pod, and as he made his coffee rubbing the lump that was forming on his head, he suddenly started to wonder why the woman in the cargo hold told him anything.
The entire conversation had seemed rehearsed to him. She had known that he would want to talk with her, and she had seemed to know exactly what he would say. But she would have had to do amazing research into Shepard's personal history to know so much about him as well, and that was the part that put him on alert. She knew too much, too much about him, too much about his sister. Suddenly, he had a lot more questions, but there was no way that he was going to talk with her again.