Once we’d recovered from the idea of Garrus rubbing up against Joker in a dark closet Anderson briefed us on our objectives and procedures. “Trust me, you wouldn’t want to see the encrypted forms of the messages he sends,” Anderson assured me. “He hides them in the sorts of pictures that have made him infamous on the extranet.”
I cracked up again at the idea of some staid intelligence handler opening cross-planetary, 3-D porn every time Joker had something to report. I supposed it was someone with whom he’d served on another ship so that it would look natural for him to keep sending smut like he did to half of the people he’d ever met. On certain subjects Joker was pretty easily entertained.
We finished the actual details and left the Cone of Silence, wandering over to Anderson’s desk. Garrus, Jack, and I replaced our comm links and chatted about how little Anderson enjoyed his diplomatic duties on the Council. As we did so, I became more and more curious about the photo on his desk. He’d never mentioned family to me and I had been under the impression that he’d been as much a loner as I always had. Spectre status didn’t lend itself to spouses and children.
I supposed it was possible that he’d met someone in the past two years. I reached out and snagged it, prepared to make a ribald comment on Anderson’s proclivities should it be of an Asari or, dared I hope, a Turian woman. When I had turned it around my mouth hung open still but nothing came out: it was a picture of Kaidan.
“I…but…you…what?!” I stammered. I couldn’t seem to bring my jaw back into position as I turned my eyes to Councilor Anderson. If he twinkled those eyes at me one more time today I might have to shoot him a little after all, just to remind him not to mess with me. I had never known that this sadistic sense of humor had hidden beneath his professional command style. I wished he did have a girlfriend so that I could feel sorry for her.
“Ah, that’s for you,” he said, unperturbed by my glare. “I hadn’t meant the presentation to be so…unexpected but I thought you might like a little memento of your time aboard the original Normandy.” His face shifted to show his concern. “How are you doing, really?”
“I really don’t know yet, sir.” I folded the picture into my arms. “In my mind I spoke to you a month ago, before our last swing into the Outer Rim planets. So many things have changed that I’m completely at sea. No one is where I left them and half of the people I do find react like I’ve returned to haul them off to the grave. If I didn’t have the Collectors and the Geth to keep my mind off things I might lose it completely.
“Where is he, Captain?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said softly. “If he were on the Citadel I’d find a way, but he’s not.” That wasn’t good enough and I said so. “Look, Shepard. You’ve been gone for two years. Alenko mourned you so hard I wasn’t sure how he kept going. But he did. He set aside his grief for shore leave and did one hell of a job with whatever he was given. Not every mission in the galaxy revolves around your latest attempt to save it, despite the Reaper threat. For now, you’re just going to have to do without.”
Ouch. This was the captain I knew: he brooked no nonsense and expected his officers to suck it up and be professionals no matter what. I knew he was right, no matter how lost I felt. I took a deep breath, sucked it up, and gave him a crisp nod. “I’ll just have to wait then.”
We said our goodbyes to Anderson and headed up to the levels near our berth. I still wanted to get Jack a shirt, at least, and I thought some extra rations would be useful. With a powerful biotic and a Turian on board we were going to need some specialized snacks and what Cerberus had provided fed people but offered a distinct lack of flavor and variety. Not only did the crew complain but my taste buds were so bored that they had threatened my brain with mutiny.
I wasn’t sure what the coffee stocks looked like but you could never have enough of that fabulous stuff. It was the one Earth export that was almost universally loved. I always thought that would be a better diplomatic approach than trying to impress the other species with how strong we were. I’d even thought up a tag line. “Humanity: the species that brought you coffee.”
It would get a lot more positive response than Ambassador Udina screaming at the Council about not getting any respect. I’d heard whispers about his wig collection and I was pretty sure he wasn’t our best foot to put forward, no matter how pretty the slipper in which he was clad.
I shook my head to get that image out of it. I remembered that Donnelly had asked for some couplings and started a shopping list on my omnitool. I hated shopping but at least I didn’t have to try anything on or put together an “outfit”. Food, armor, and mechanical equipment I could handle. We picked up a couple of weapon upgrades for Jacob to install along the way. Everything was going smoothly until we hit the armor shop. It wasn’t my favorite store on the Citadel but it was close.
I soon learned that I should have discussed this stop with Jack before I started talking to the clerk. A gift of armor usually was received with grace and gratitude among the people with whom I’d worked, taken as a sign of respect and caring. Jack, on the other hand, decided I was insulting her abilities and trying to hide her tattoos. Between our bouts of cursing we settled on an armored leather vest of sorts and at the last minute she tossed a visor onto the counter beside it. It may not have been as much protection as I would have liked but at least her vital organs would be shielded. It’d serve her right to lose an arm in that thing.
As I paid the bill Joker spoke in my ear. “I’ve got another hour of shore leave left, Commander. How about a drink?” Anxious to avoid more cuddle time with him, I readily agreed. There was no way we could get all four of us into that closet and I didn’t want to have to start meeting each of them separately to pass on information if I could avoid it. Meeting with Joker that way had caused enough gossip. Adding Garrus and Jack to the rotation might cause the heads of my crew to explode with salacious imagination.
We made our way to a nearby club and found Joker ensconced in the loudest spot he could find, smack in the middle of the floor. We put all of our comm units in a glass and set it on the bar. In a place like this you could usually rely on the bartender to aid and abet as long as you did something relatively interesting. The quizzical look I got when I set them down reassured me that they’d be unmolested as long as we tipped well.
I returned to the table in time to hear Joker say something relatively low key and nice to Jack about our purchases. The explosion I expected never came. She hardly took the compliment well, muttering something about men and leather, but considering that she’d nearly taken Jacob’s head off, literally, for looking at her when she’d come aboard I thought such a mild response must be a good sign.
Maybe I could pawn off all future closeted meetings on her and solve two of his problems at once. I’d never seen him so earnest, but whether he was trying to impress her or actually taking this job seriously I couldn’t say. Since he’d never missed the opportunity to crack wise before even in the most dire of situations, I leaned toward the former. If things worked out, Kelly would get into a cat fight with Jack at some point. That ought to solve a couple of problems as well and certainly should make Joker happy. I resolved to nudge Kelly in his direction again at the earliest opportunity.
The four of us discussed how to proceed and how to communicate with each other on board. The supply cubbies would work in some situations but we’d have to find other ways to talk without raising Miranda’s or Jacob’s suspicions. We agreed to think about other ways to be alone without Cerberus getting awfully interested in what we were discussing. With any luck we wouldn’t have too many reasons to meet. If all else failed, I suggested getting some pens and paper. The archaic medium was difficult to use but could be read without electronic involvement and destroyed numerous ways. There was no recovering the words from a message that had been eaten or shredded and flushed as long as you could keep EDI from getting a picture of it.
Thus began my career as a double agent. I hoped that Joker had gotten more training than I had.