I took another tour through the weapon shops on the Citadel, picking up what upgrades we could afford and drooling over the shiny guns that were financially out of reach or simply impractical. I also had to pick up a pair of dressy shoes, as my usual boots would at best look bizarre paired with that tiny, stupid dress. Those I left at the store to retrieve later.
Unable to put it off any longer, I returned to the SR-2. As EDI began to announce my arrival I interrupted. “EDI, do you have to announce to the entire ship that I’ve left or returned?”
“How else will everyone know who is in command at any given moment, Shepard?” the AI responded in a perfectly reasonable voice that yet betrayed a suppressed hint of laughter. For the second time that day my palm met my forehead. I swear the AI had grown a sense of humor. I could also hear Joker laughing over the com from his seat at the controls not far from the airlock where I stood. They’d probably cooked this up together, the weasels.
Hopefully Jack would distract Joker from getting any chummier with the construct. I hated to think what bizarre twists he was imparting to the poor computer’s developing psyche. “Just stop doing it, please,” I said wearily. I wasn’t about to argue with my own ship.
I know the damned thing was laughing when it opened the inside door of the airlock and said, “Very well, Shepard.” It sounded like Joker was about to wet himself up the corridor. I shook my head and made my way to the CIC.
Kelly lay in wait as ever and pounced on me as soon as I was within hearing. “Commander Shepard, you have no new messages. I had a lovely chat with Kasumi as she came on board. We got her established in the starboard observation deck but I can ask her to come up here if you need to speak to her…”
She didn’t even stop for breath between sentences so I interrupted her before she could work up a full head of steam. “Thank you, yeoman.” At least I knew the thief’s name, now. “You know,” I said, my tone carefully neutral, “Joker’s been asking about you again. He seems quite taken with you.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “I thought he and Jack had something going. Do you really think he’s interested?”
“Definitely,” I said. With her successfully derailed I all but leapt into the elevator and pressed the button for the crew deck before she could remember what she’d been saying. I thought I’d formally greet Kasumi before I decided how to face this evening’s potential for humiliation.
The thief offered me a drink and greeted me warmly. I suspected she was going to be a very popular addition to the crew if she could manage such hospitality in the span of a few hours. The observation deck was a changed place, even in the short time she’d had to decorate. Somewhere she’d found a bar, complete with a colorful assortment of liquor bottles, and installed it aft while some personal mementos brought cheer to the other end of the dimly-lit room.
Knowing what I faced not long after this I happily accepted something to calm my nerves. Kasumi explained that she needed to infiltrate a party with incredibly tight security. The host, a suspicious sort, might know her face. Otherwise she’d have simply accomplished the task herself. I tossed back the drink, agreed to give her a hand, and officially welcomed her to the team.
“You seem nervous, Shepard,” she said, pouring another drink. “Anything I can do to help?”
I appreciated the offer but what could I do, ask her to go for me? “Nah, I’m meeting a…possible source tonight and the circumstances are awkward, that’s all.”
My stomach clenched again as I considered standing around like an idiot waiting for Kaidan to show. I politely declined her offer to come along as back-up, grabbed a giant mug of coffee from the mess, and made my way back to my cabin. A quick glance at the clock showed me that I had two hours to kill so I sat down at my terminal and worked out an itinerary that I knew would never hold up past the first stop but which took into account all of the things I’d promised to accomplish.
I felt better for the time spent thinking of something else and for having increased my caffeine load to acceptable levels. I forwarded the file to Joker and EDI with a note that we would be leaving in the morning. Naturally we had been taking on supplies all day so I granted shore leave to the crew with strict instructions to be on board promptly at 0700 hours or they would be left behind.
Even if everyone on the Citadel recognized me in that horrible outfit I could at least be assured that the face-to-face mockery would not last. My private terminal, however, would be stuffed with I shuddered to imagine what. Kelly would be beside herself with joy and I might have to take her back to Tuchanka and feed her to Urz after all.
The thought of that cheered me enough that I could face my fears. I took the box from my closet, dropped my earpiece on my desk, and announced to my listening audience that I would be off-duty for the rest of the night.
“Knock ‘em dead, Commander,” Joker said. I hoped he wasn’t picturing me in the get-up I’d soon be wearing but I knew I hoped in vain. With a heavy sigh I started for the elevator. He was probably at that very moment convincing EDI to hack into C-Sec’s video surveillance equipment to get pictures.
My legs seemed to have gained weight and the box felt enormous as I dragged myself across the CIC. Surely it was my imagination that everyone stared as I stood waiting for the airlock to open. The security staff peered at the package with unseemly interest, I was certain. Perhaps they recognized the fabric softener box and wondered if I’d discovered some black market for it.
To my great relief a taxi stood ready at the stand and I dropped into the seat as though I’d just completed a lengthy sprint. I zipped over to the shoe store and traded my boots for the strappy, pointy black things I’d bought.
It took me a bit to get back to the taxi but at least by the time I did I had found my balance on the things, mostly. There was still a danger that I’d fall on my head and draw a ridiculous amount of attention to myself. With great caution I maneuvered my way into the cab again.
The trip to the rendezvous seemed desperately short and I stepped reluctantly from my solitary haven into the terminal on the other end. Getting out was nearly as awkward as getting into the thing had been but once I’d tottered back to vertical I surveyed the area, box clutched to my chest.
Imagine my relief when I saw several people in fancy dress with masks obscuring their faces. I may have felt self-conscious but at least I wouldn’t stand out in a crowd of casually-dressed tourists. The doorway of the nearby restroom stood clear so I ducked inside. No one appeared to be unduly interested in me but I would much prefer that my transformation be secret.
I locked myself in a stall and struggled out of my clothes in the confines of the narrow walls. The dress slithered down my arms and over my hips, thankfully not requiring a zip at the back or I’d never have gotten into the thing on my own. It stopped far short of where any decent garment had any business ending. A shocking amount of leg continued past the hem but thankfully the worst of the scars were hidden.
My completely nude arms were not so lucky and I resolved to keep them down so that the still-visible seams on their undersides would be mostly hidden. Perhaps I should have taken Dr. Chakwas up on her offer to erase them after all.
I pulled the mask from the box and piled my clothes in its place as best I could. I listened carefully and, not hearing anyone, emerged to confront myself at the sinks. I quickly wet my hair and slicked it back tight against my skull before clasping the mask around my head. I stared at my image in the mirror and realized that there was no way anyone would recognize me.
My eyes stood out a brilliant green from the field of wispy black around them and the electric blue of the plumes that fringed my forehead and curled about my ears hid most of my hair from view.
I was relieved enough at that to not notice at first the puckered end of a scar that protruded from the embarrassingly-low neck line. It was the worst of my reminders and I presume the one through which Miranda had done her most invasive work. I tugged what assets I had together to create some cleavage in which to hide it.
I had to laugh. No one would believe Commander Shepard would walk around with her chest so much on display. That mirth lasted about four seconds until I contemplated actually opening the door. Then the nausea returned. I had only minutes to stash the box and meet Kaidan.
A loose ceiling tile offered a convenient hiding place, one in which I would have preferred to place myself. I nearly slipped and doused a foot into the toilet, all the excuse I’d have needed to say fuck it and go back to the Normandy. Unfortunately I recovered before I thought of it. Then there was nothing for it but to face the world in my inappropriate disguise.
The door opened to admit two women dressed and masked even more colorfully than I. We smiled those fake, social grace notes that people do at one another and I stepped out into a crowd that had doubled in size.
Many of the women wore long dresses but apparently current style required that the abdomen be completely exposed, front and rear with small panels on top for modesty and scraps up the sides to keep the things together. I was actually grateful for the comparative modesty of what I wore.
Masks hid every face. How would I recognize my package? No sooner had I thought it than I felt a hand on the bare skin between my shoulder blades. If it wasn’t Kaidan then its owner was going to lose at least three fingers.
I spun and my hand dropped to the place where a gun’s comforting weight normally rested. Of course, there was nothing there. I’d secreted a sheathed knife so as not to be completely unarmed but publicly accessing would be awkward to say the least, especially in these evil shoes.
“Easy, Shepard,” came his familiar voice. That faint, delicious scar that crossed his lips crinkled with mirth.
I narrowed my eyes at him from behind the absurd contraption that hid most of my face and hissed. “I hate you.”