A/N: This is sortof my post-NaNo present to myself so please no crit thanks. It's also a "happy ME3 announcement" present for you.
"I don't know how to walk in this," Shepard says.
Because she just came back from Berkenstein, she's still in the knee-length dress. Just trying it out. She doesn't think she'll keep it. Kasumi is standing by her desk recovering from Keiji's stare on the little gray box held in her hands.
"It looks good on you," the thief says. "You've just got to learn to walk like somebody vaguely feminine. Think you can manage it?"
"You want the pilot to know you're a woman."
Shepard braces herself as casually as possible against the black leather couch, digging her fingernails in. "What?"
Kasumi turns around and smiles, her painted lips quirking under the cowl. She gives the gray box to the table reluctantly, trailing her fingers over the thin surface. "I saw that look when you called the Normandy in to pick us up. You got all concentrated and unfocused at the same time. It's in the eyes, Shep. How long have you known him?"
"Er. It would be four years if I hadn't been dead for two of them."
"And you never figured it out?"
"Go. Tell him you've got a thing for men who snark." Kasumi manages to almost growl through the last few words, and Shepard feels herself blush. Being with Kasumi is like having a teenage sister sometimes…and not a shy, helpful, Tali-type teenage sister. The kind who's always sneaking out for parties.
"I've gotta check on Zaeed first, I think he set up a camera feed I didn't sanction…."
Kasumi smiles slyly, her cheeks dimpling. "Whatever you want, Shep."
The Collector base has been destroyed, but what with Zaeed, Kasumi, and the Shadow Broker, Shepard's life has still been as full of explosions and intrigue as usual. The Normandy is a refuge for her, a constant (although the SR1 was a constant too. A ship, she thinks, is not the metal of its walls but the people in it. She still has Joker and Chakwas and Garrus and Tali so she still has the SR1 in more ways than just the atmosphere-blackened helmet on her desk.)
It's not a perfect place, though, not with Cerberus (mostly Miranda) and EDI watching her every move now that she is in their debt. Shepard knows that as she's walking through the halls of the Normandy, she's also walking through tens of overlapping fields of camera-eyes. If someone wants a secret on this ship, they've got to work at it.
Despite the feeling of constriction she likes to make the rounds when she comes back to the ship after a mission, say hello to everybody and reassure herself that they're still alive. This time she goes to see Zaeed first, to find out how he's settled in.
In the parts-strewn cargo room he is sitting at the desk, hands almost too big for the holographic interface that connects him to the little computer screen. She brushed through his camera feeds the first time she was in here after he set them up. He didn't seem to mind, and didn't seem to comment when she paused on the view of the hallway up to the bridge, trying not to squint as she quizzically made sure of what corners he could see into. Now, he has his eyes on Jack.
(Shepard remembers: The monstrous yahg Shadow Broker and now the more subtly monstrous Liara Shadow Broker has files on Zaeed. He considered killing himself. Going out in a blaze of glory on a ship. Shepard thinks that if she had to go some way it would be that. The Shadow Broker also had files on Jack.)
Zaeed's burnt-dough face with the loop of Blue Sun tattoo creeping up from his neck is focused on the slightly pixilated screen. He just looks up at Shepard and grunts something that might have been "hello" and might have been "you again" and might just have been a grunt.
"What're you doing, Zaeed?"
"Keeping track. You got a problem with it?"
She knows that he respects people who have opinions, so she says "A little. I would more if I didn't know that you and Miranda and EDI and Joker all have access to cameras around the ship."
Jack is exercising. Half of it is without biotics; kicks and punches and spins.
Zaeed says, "The AI was watching me. I shut her out, or she let me. I thought the drell would try to plant something too, but it never happened. He's too traditional."
"What do you mean?"
"If you asked him, he would probably tell you that if you have to put cameras up you don't know your target well enough. Some people operate that way. I don't."
They both watch the screen for a little while. Jack picks up a box, just holds it in the air on blue current-trails. The screen is too small for Shepard, looking down over Zaeed's armored shoulder, to see well, but she can imagine the grimace on Jack's painted lips. The biotic always says she's having fun, but it never really looks it when she fights.
"Girl's got guts." Zaeed said. "She'd make a good mercenary."
Shepard remembers with a chill the time when Jack carefully outlined to her how she could take over the ship and "go pirate" with all the Normandy's capabilities, all its silence and power. She said kill the pilot and Shepard wasn't going to show how ill she felt then, she just wasn't—
But Jack's not like that anymore; not since she blew the support struts out from under the claws her test-subject childhood had in her.
He respects opinions. And guns. "You're not taking my crew away," Shepard says.
"No," he says, and she figures that since he didn't say 'not while Cerberus is handing me a paycheck' that she doesn't have to worry too much.
The dossier said Maybe I should just buy a ship full of explosives and commit suicide by Omega. Easiest retirement plan I've come up with so far.
She remembers Jack's skin red and purple with new tattoo.
"You could do good here," she tells him. "Try and stick around."
"Why did the Shadow Broker want this stuff?"
"Perhaps he never knew what was going to find useful. Perhaps he wanted as thorough an exploration of you as possible."
"Creepy. I can't believe he got cameras into the Normandy." She walked around the video projector, curious. Liara stands on the other side, her round face as passive and kind as always. Shepard remembers her commanding all the Shadow Broker's contacts. Liara is deceptively quiet; this will serve her well in the future.
"His networks are extensive. Remember that he worked with Cerberus to recover you when the first Normandy crashed."
"That's true. He and Miranda might have spoken."
"Knowing the information that he has here, I am not sure the Shadow Broker and Miranda would have been on the best of terms."
"They saved me from the Collectors. That's what matters the most."
"Yes," says Liara. "I am glad you're back, commander."
Shepard cannot escape; she has talked to everyone else and has even talked to Joker over the commlink, briefly, telling him to disengage from the Shadow Broker base and head somewhere where she can get a cheeseburger, and she is still wearing the dress. It still feels cool against her fingers when she drums them on her legs. Because she is nervous, she returns to the viewing deck where Kasumi is sprawled out on her black couch with a pink drink in her hand.
The thief smiles from beneath her blue screen of data readout. It makes her look blind, but who knows whose past or vault she's seeing. "Hey, Shep!"
"What're you doing?"
"Just realizing how many people are watching other people on this ship."
Her painted lips quirk. Shepard realizes that she has no idea how old the thief is.
"Watching you, you mean," Kasumi says.
"Yeah, a little of that too."
"That would be the dress."
"I promise you I'm not keeping it. I just haven't visited my stuff yet."
"It's still the dress."
They look at each other for a bit. The blue half-mask flicks off. "I'm not watching anybody. I just steal stuff." She shrugs a smile again. "Nothing from you."
Between you and Jack… "Do me a favor and don't."
Shepard nods. It's hard for her sometimes to know what to say after she's warned somebody. It's a careful balance between keeping everything in line and being nice.
"You sure you don't want me to steal Joker's hat?"
There it is; now the conversation is relaxed again. Shepard remembers why she came back; Kasumi is nice to talk to. Like a friend, even when you remember the kleptomania. Shepard's little smile comes back. "That's okay."
"Go show him your dress."
So she does. He's watching the dining hall, where there's a poker game going on. She wonders whether he was watching her before, and just switched the screen. Maybe. He's got an earbud in one ear, a thin silver spike with a holographic tail, and he doesn't turn around to see who's walking up behind him, so maybe he was watching the hall.
"Commander." He always sounds so tired.
She leans on the back of his seat. It's wide enough that her bare arms don't touch him. "How are things going up here?"
"To everyone's surprise, Tali doesn't have a great poker face. Just look at this, here. She keeps flapping her hands." He points at the screen, where the quarian is indeed fidgeting her fingers around her cards on the dining table. Donnelly looks like he's winning the stoicism contest. (He was good when he played Shepard, but she was better.) "They probably don't play much poker in the Quarian fleet. Do they use credits there? Don't wanna go betting on pieces of people's houses."
"Do you watch everybody on your free time?"
"Just the interesting ones."
He still hasn't turned around. She purses her lips. What's she going to say that's interesting and he hasn't heard before?
So instead she does what she's wanted to do a few times already and runs her fingers through his hair above his ear, almost under the edge of the black cap, before she can think otherwise. He turns around and brushes the audio clip off his ear and looks at her, and she is pleased to see his eyes follow the line of her bare forearm to the dress sheathing her body, and he realizes that he can't really see her without turning around. It's too quick for her to worry, and then he's partially sitting up and looking at her again.
He says, "Is this new Cerberus policy, cause, I'm okay with that."
She shifts a little to the side and taps her hands on her side again, not knowing how to act. "It's from the, you know…"
"Right, Berkenstein. Big scary rich guy, mysterious klepto girl."
"That's the recipe."
She can hear Kasumi saying Just tell him. "I wanted you to see. You've been, ah, a great help. You would have liked the party."
"Maybe. But I was kinda taking care of your ship for you, ya know.."
And something snaps. She glares at the back of his head and she thinks I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favourite pilot in the galaxy—
She takes three quick steps and puts one hand on the arm of the chair and kisses him on the lips, quick, except when she pulls back he turns and catches her again and slides a hand across her hip to the small of her back and she is smiling so hard that he pulls away because this kiss is feeling unpracticed, and he says "You pick me? Of all the people, that's not,"
And she says "Yes I do."
"Why?" But he leans forward again and it is nearly angry this time, the way he pulls at her, desperate and like he is not going to have another chance and she is not sure she is going to have another chance. But they break apart again and he says "Good choice," and she says "I know."
Before she commands the lights off to go to sleep she looks up at the stars and wisps of star-stuff flowing over the open viewport.
"How many people are jacked into your camera systems now?"
"There are two systems currently active. Legion, and the security feeds that Jeff monitors from the bridge."
Shepard smiles. "That man hardly ever sleeps."
"Jeff has regular eight-hour sleep cycles during which the navigators perform necessary duties and the Flight Lieutenant remains, officially, on call."
Shepard shifts. "Right. The cameras, now-how many of my squad members have their own systems?"
"The only independent system on the Normandy at the current time belongs to Zaeed Masani. It is currently inactive." She paused.
"Are you concerned for your personal information, Shepard? There are no cameras located inside this room. It would be impossible to insert one that I could not detect. My own node is voice-only. The Illusive Man values your privacy."
Values me thinking he values my privacy, you mean.
"No, it's okay. Just keeping track." She knew, before, that there was nothing in this room. She scanned it and tore off plates the first day after the Cerberus ache faded enough for her to think about electronic bugs.
"That'll be all."
"Logging you out, Shepard."
Shepard thinks, thank you, Kasumi, for teaching me when to be seen and when not to be seen, and turns over and nestles against Joker's back. He is silent and asleep and stretched out with one arm lying across her bed. He still looks tired with his eyes shut. She thinks about Reapers and wonders how much time they are stealing.
She puts her arm around him and thinks of the soft coolness of her stolen dress and goes to sleep.