100 degree and over heat-index this week. I am a lucky bastard... I got my AC fixed THE DAY BEFORE all that happened. Otherwise me and the hell-cats would have been belly up on the basement tile trying to cool off. I had wanted to write this chapter sooner, but between yet more unpacking, working with the remodeling dudes over here, and work... I have no sense of timing. My intentions were to end at this chapter. I think it's a fairly good 'ending' point. Now I will go back to writing 'Limbo'.
Chapter 9 -Imprinting
Grunt found he had learned more in three days about children than he had for his two-week stay in the female camp and Okeer's imprinting combined. For example, logic did not always work on kids... in fact, some children were impervious to logic. Children don't yet have a full grasp of their own emotions, making them prone to temper tantrums or sudden bouts of sullen withdrawal. Human kids also were very touch oriented – they craved physical contact on a regular basis. Combine all these things together and you get irrational, clinging, and whining children.
Pyjak took the physical aspect in a headlock and refused to let go. When she wasn't riding around on Grunt's back, she was trotting not even three feet behind him like a small chick following it's mother. She also craved socialization just beyond physical nearness. The little human child liked having her hair brushed and braided, and often insisted Grunt do it for her. Braiding hair was NOT a krogan skill... and Grunt stopped just short of tying multiple knots in the file blonde hair in his attempt. For her braids the Pyjak had to be bustled over to Miranda or the teen biotic Rodriguez. However when it came to brushing hair, Grunt had that part down.
Running a tiny brush through silken and fine hair was probably blackmail material to the entire krogan race. However if anyone so much as blinked at him, they would have the brush crammed somewhere very uncomfortable... bristle end first. The Pyjak was seated on one of his armored greaves, calmly letting a krogan brush her hair out. It was one of the few morning rituals the child seemed to have. Grunt's own morning rituals usually consisted of waking up, cleaning and loading his guns, punching a batarian, and then breakfast.
"You hungry, Pyjak?" Grunt had finished his afternoon schedule of 'jack shit' and was now in the middle of 'diddly-squat' to do.
"Yes!" The kid had been in the middle of drawing something. Miranda had given the kid a roll of butcher's paper to use, rather than the few pieces of paper that were on her desk (all of which were highly important... and now covered with drawings of flowers). Crumpling the sheet of paper, the Pyjak stuffed it down the front of her jumpsuit and her tiny nub of a pencil vanished into her pocket. The kid had apparently been observing quarians and their amazing ability to make massive amounts of 'stuff' vanish into their suits.
With the pint-sized human perched on his hump, Grunt made his way through the HQ to the Mess Hall for lunch. By this point, much of the base had gotten used to spotting one of the largest krogan carrying around a human child and several others had actually started the trend too. It wasn't uncommon now to see Strays tagging along behind various human Alliance members and even the occasional asari or turian. Every time the search parties turned over a rock, there was another Stray kid. Wiping out humans seemed to be just as impossible as killing off pyjaks.
"Gardner!" Pyjak spotted the old cook from their position in the mess line.
The balding cook looked up, waving a spatula in greeting and half a serving of potatoes went flying.
"That's your half." Grunt teased.
"Is not!" Pyjak looked appalled as the chef cleaned the fallen food up... but no one quite saw where he ended up putting it. "I want the ice cream half."
Ice cream was another Earth thing that Grunt was putting right up there with beef as 'best thing ever'. Whoever the human was who invented a way to turn disgusting milk into ice cream deserved to be Earth's clan leader. Gardner had tried experimenting with making his own ice cream with moderate success and usually ended up with a sweetened milk slush, but the Pyjak was always glad to help him sample it.
So far Gardner hadn't managed to feed the kid any of the culinary atrocities (or 'war crimes' as the Normandy crew had called them, as it went against some kind of code for not torturing soldiers). This meant the kid thought Gardner was a great cook. But making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was apparently the Pyjak's high bar. "Can I have dessert first?" The kid asked.
Gardner scanned the child's omni-tool, reading what the computer figured a growing 5-year-old human should be eating. "Hrrmm." The old man glared at the readout. "Doesn't look like dessert is part of a growing kid's diet... but you'll be getting the same rations as the soldiers are today."
There was a low mournful keening from the child.
"But... gimme your milk, I think I can try a milk shake today." Garner picked up the tiny carton of milk from the child's tray, dumping the contents into a blender and gathering up ingredients out of a chest sized freezer.
"Milk … shake?" Grunt glared at the carton of milk on his own tray. Milk wasn't really a staple of krogan diet and on most days he gave it to the kid to drink. Picking up the wax carton, Grunt shook it so much the carton ballooned slightly with all the bubbles that formed in it. Poking the box open, the krogan took a short drink and then grimaced. "Doesn't improve the taste at all."
"Give me that." Gardner snatched Grunt's milk as well, adding that to the blender with a handful of other ingredients. "Only one of us it a chef, and it ain't you, boy."
There it was again... old men calling Grunt 'boy'. It had to be some sort of coming-of-age for being old and crotchety.
The line flowed around the massive krogan and small girl with other soldiers giving Gardner curious looks. At this point, the chef was well known for his attempts at 'creative cooking' and the soldiers had a healthy dose of fear in their meals when they saw the word 'special' or 'casserole' on the menu.
"Here we are, two milkshakes! … It probably looks a little watery, well, deal with it. Apparently it doesn't work very well with skim milk, but you take what you get." Gardner pushed two mugs of a pinkish colored liquid forward. The Pyjak gave a gleeful squeal and held out her tray to get hers, but Grunt found he almost wish he had the non-shake milk back.
Giving a grunt of thanks (something learned from her krogan guardian), Pyjak toddled her tray unsteadily away from the line. Following behind her and creating a sudden vacuum of traffic as everyone moved out of the Pyjak's way to avoid Grunt, they sat at a table filled with mostly human marines. One of the marines was staring at Grunt's bright pink drink, his jaw half hanging open.
"What." Grunt grit out.
"Gardner's doing milkshakes ?" The marine almost didn't seem to notice it was a 300 pound krogan with said milkshake, and seemed more in awe than amused by the pink drink. "Gardner! Why did you tell us you were doing milkshakes?"
"Cause you whiners didn't deserve them." Gardner had a wooden spoon clenched in his jaws as he tried to pour a potato concoction into a casserole dish.
The burly marine, large enough to get into a pushing match with a krogan without losing too much ground, leaned down to the Pyjak. "Are you going to finish that?" He asked.
The kid's response was to grab her pink drink and start chugging it as if it was a shot of ryncol. A few moments later she gave a gasp as she finished it off, slamming the mug down on the table. There was a little pink milkshake mustache on her upper lip. "Yep!"
Now the marine turned to look at Grunt, but before he could even ask he had found the krogan had done the same... including the matching pink mustache. "What?" Now more amused than irritated, Grunt smirked at the human.
"You haveta eat your dessert first." The Pyjak said to the marine. "I'm still growing, I need dessert."
"What she said." Grunt wiped the pink off his upper lip and turned to his meal. Today's meal was made of something called 'pork'. It took only a few bites for Grunt to realize it was just as delicious as beef and ice cream. How the humans were not as round as the volus with yet another delicious Earth animal. Was every animal on Earth this tasty?
The kid tried to eat with as much gusto as Grunt did, but found she simply couldn't eat everything. Gardner had been slipping the kid slightly larger portions in order to give her some 'meat on her bones', but from months of starving under Reaper invasion it didn't take much for the kid to feel 'full'.
"I can't eat all my 'tatos." Pushing the tray towards him, the kid had eaten all her meat, leaving just some potato-based starchy food.
"Pff, you are so small, you could eat two nuts and be full. Like a Pyjak." Knowing now that logic has no use against children, Grunt resorted to taunting.
The results were successful. "I can so! I can eat all of it if I want!" Frowning in offense, the child snatched her fork back up, looking rather like she might stab someone in the face with it.
"Good thing you don't want to then, because I'm going to eat it." Grunt made a great gesture of reaching for the tray.
The Pyjak was wolfing down her food even before his hand reached the platter and had cleared her plate. "Muh!" She said, mouth full and cheeks puffed with food. "Ah atf ip!" Whatever she said was lost in the mutterings. Humans were surprisingly krogan-like, especially as children. And only the insane try to take food from krogan.
Grunt ruffled the kid's hair, tossing both trays into a pile and hoisting the child to his shoulder even as she choked down the last mouthful of lunch. The Pyjak waved to Gardner as Grunt headed for the door, the chef waving back and causing him to lose his grip on a stick of butter and a nearby quarian hit the deck as the projectile missed them. Butter is bad for you... in more ways than one if you were levo-incompatible.
"Get them on that shuttle! We didn't dig our way onto the Citadel just to sit back and stare at the mess!" Wrex's booming voice could be heard in the HQ courtyard that bordered the shuttle-bay. Grunt cocked his head and came to a halt, his full attention now on the krogan warlord.
At his side Miranda worked at a data pad, shuffling resources and requisitioning more shuttles. The Ex-Cerberus member paused in her work and nudged Wrex to pass him the plate. The krogan gave it a glare with his red eyes and shook his head in disgust. Their voices didn't carry to the Mess Hall where Grunt stood.
...so he decided to remedy that.
The LZ wasn't outside of Grunt's house-arrest, but it was clear Wrex didn't expect the human kid to be with him. "Nice to see you've taken a interest in the local fauna, boy." Wrex narrowed his red eyes in amusement at the child flopped over on Grunt's back as if he were a giant moving couch.
"I ate too much." The kid mumbled listlessly.
"I've got 99 problems, and I wish that were one of them." Wrex winced. "You picked one hell of a time to get a slap on the wrist and confined to base. I'm trying to get every available soldier onto the Citadel but you and that N7 force you've got are marked 'Earth Only'." A sneer twisted Wrex's maw as his eyes flashed towards Miranda.
"I've been trying at that, but it would appear Hackett himself is assigning the missions for that team. Any more attempts at changing roster will cause more suspicion than I can redirect." Miranda was frowning too, but flicked her hand across the data pad and it made a chiming noise.
Grunt quickly grasped the situation. "You found Shepard?" His heart rate doubled as both hearts suddenly picked up a quadruple beat.
"No. But the Citadel is now open, and we found where that beam sent her to. And it's not pretty." Wrex winced, his eyes darting up to the child now in disapproval. This was not for a child's ears, so he simplified it down. "We need troops up there fast. If Shepard's still sitting around up there, she's been there for five days. How long did you say humans can go without water?"
"Not that long." Miranda answered. "Her cybernetics would have shut her down into a near hibernation state... it would be possible for her to be alive if she's there."
"And if she's not there?" Grunt felt the tingle of frustration kick right into his gut.
"Then she's probably out in the Normandy, discovering some long extinct alien to add to her crew or killing it. " Wrex snorted, amused far too much at Grunt's expense. "I figure we have a 50% chance of her still being up there. And if she's there, we'll find her."
More than anything, Grunt wanted to flip off Hackett and go with the boarding party onto the Citadel. They had been receiving transmissions from the Citadel as various survivors on board managed to contact them. C-Sec Captain Bailey reported they were locked out of most systems but they had removed most of the organic-to-synthetic based reapers on board at this point. Once the Keepers had repaired enough of the systems to start opening the Citadel up to the alliance and the survivors on the station were eager to get the hell off of it.
"I want to help." The child's voice was completely unexpected. Still perched on Grunt's back, the kid had a serious look on her face.
"Help?" Miranda lowered her data pad. "With what?"
"Finding Shepard." As if the only thing needed to find the missing Commander was a five-year-old kid, the child volunteered to fill that role.
Wrex snorted, trying not to smirk or sneer at the earnest child. "Pyjak..." He began.
"Wrex." The child said, her tone almost identical to Shepard's own. It almost dazed the krogan to hear it repeated by such a small kid.
Shaking his head to regain his train of thought, Wrex continued, "There are going to be monsters. Big. Scary. Monsters."
At this, the child's eyes widened slightly, and she hunkered down to flatten herself on Grunt's back. "Not scared." She insisted, but she was clutching at Grunt in a way that seemed to imply she was only not scared because she had the bigger monster.
Grunt jostled slightly, pulling the kid down and putting her on the ground. She immediately latched onto his hand. Grunt's voice carried a tone of menace as he spoke to his clan leader, "I want to go. I need to be up there."
Wrex frowned, his scars turning into deep craggy paths. "You are in no place to make demands, boy. … I'd take you if I could, but Hackett requested you remain planet-side."
Whatever Hackett's plans were, Grunt already hated them. An idea was struggling to the surface of his mind, and it seemed like an alternative. "We could man the comms, report any chatter or incoming signals to the ground team." He offered. Grunt was no tech, not even by a stretch, but it gave him an excuse to hang around the Normandy's QED transmitter. And if the odds were in their favors it would also be Grunt who heard first when/if they found Shepard.
Miranda perked up at this. "It's either we let him man the comm station, or I'm inevitably going to have to file a report on why Grunt got into yet another confrontation with his fists. Let him operate the comm station." She insisted... no... ordered.
Wrex seemed to be balanced on the border of pissed and amused, and settled for a grudging acceptance. Miranda could butt-heads with Shepard (figuratively of course, Grunt was sure that if it was literal them the woman would have been bludgeoned by the Commander before they reached the Collector home world) without fear and seemed to have the same perspective with Wrex. Suddenly Wrex's grudging acceptance exploded into full out 'I am Amused' and toothy smirk crossed his face as he looked down at the Pyjak.
The kid had become distracted holding Grunt's hand was now turning pirouettes clutching Grunt's thumb and the young krogan hadn't even noticed. Whatever protocol was for speaking to your race's leader... he was pretty sure letting a kid dance around like a delicate little asari was probably some kind of social blunder. In dismay, Grunt reached down to toss the kid back over his shoulder it the Pyjak apparently finished her 'wind-up' and took three dizzy steps towards him to try some kind of super-charged headbutt.
The kid stumbled past him and ended up conking her head on Wrex's thigh in her dizzy daze.
Miranda was mortified. Instead of saying anything, the woman only placed her face in her palm and dropped her head.
Wrex was roaring with laughter and reached down to pick up the littlest assailant. The krogan clean leader held her up into the air. "Someone has been teaching you. No points for style there, but you are going to be a terror when you grow up." Blood red eyes crinkled in amusement as he looked over at Grunt.
Grunt looked like he wanted the kid back. "Pyjak... what did I tell you about headbutting." He rumbled.
The child's eyebrows went up. "Um. Not for play."
"No! Not that part."
Now her face scrunched up in thought. "umm... Oh! Not to lean far back, it's in the shoulders, and use the flat of your forehead."
"Add 'spinning' to that list too, don't spin... it looks stupid." Grunt folded his arms.
"No! I havta spin!" The kid insisted. Wrex spotted the tell-tale signs of a child about to kick up a fit because they were being held and quickly put the Pyjak on the ground. Still clutching the elder krogan's first finger, the kid began to spin again.
… if it was a social faux paux to have a child dancing around you while your people's leader stood not three feet away... what kind of social blunder was it to have the kid dancing with him?
Wrex gave Grunt a wry smile. "At least she dances better than Shepard." He says, extending his hand towards Grunt so he could take the child's grasp off him. The blue-eyed krogan slipped his finger under the child's five-digit grasp and pries her hold into his hand instead.
The embarrassment at watching a member of your own race completely without any impulse control to resist dancing had finally worn off Miranda. "We should be going. Grunt, any comm chatter that does not come from the squad team should be routed to myself or –," the rest of Miranda's reminder was cut off as the massive krogan leader swept past her, nudging her towards the shuttle.
"Let the boy figure it out. He hijacked the comm's on the night of the invasion to chat with his battlemaster, he can figure out how to call you." Wrex grunted, pulling his trusty shotgun from his back and cocking a round into the chamber. "Ground team, move out!" he bellowed.
Twirling halted immediately and the Pyjak made to follow Wrex. Grunt tightened his grip on her soft little hand and dragged her back. "Where do you think you are going?" He rumbled.
"I want to help!" The Pyjak said firmly. "I don't know how to use 'comm', I want to help!"
"You don't know how to use a gun either. And you aren't going to help Shepard by playing tag with reapers." Grunt snorted, hoisting the kid by the back of her bodysuit and tossing her over his shoulder as if she were just another pack. "Why are you so eager to help? You don't even know Shepard."
"Uh-huh!" the kid insisted diligently. "Momma told me stories 'bout her. She said Shepard stopped the first Monster back when I was a baby." The first 'monster' being Sovereign, happening almost 4 years ago now.
Grunt nodded. He had received that knowledge via Okeer's imprinting in the tube as well.
"She's helped the Earth, and fixed the gen... gen-o-page, and stopped the robots from fighting the suit-people, and –," The Pyjak rambled on, now describing events that had happened within the last six months.
"You are missing the middle part." Grunt hefted the kid to his hump as he shuffled towards the comm center. "The one where she saves a bunch of whiny human colonists, kills more monsters, and then detonates a bomb in the middle of their base."
"And you helped?" Pyjak's voice rose in glee. She had heard this story already, but heaven-forbid if she didn't want to hear it again. "Tell me!"
If Grunt told her the story much more, she'd be able to recite it verbatim. Still, there wasn't a whole lot to do inside the quantum comm room, so there was a bit of creative story telling involved in this version of the story: in which Grunt punched a Thresher Maw in the craw so hard it exploded (and not at all exploding due to Shepard launching heavy weaponry at it).
Manning the comm center was a 'busy work' job, since most of the time the message went where they needed to go without help. It had taken only five minutes for the Pyjak to have her fill of 'helping' and the kid lost interest in the comm sets and ended up drawing on scraps of newsprint that she kept pulling out of her jumpsuit. She was long overdue for a nap, but the kid refused sleep at every turn. A temper tantrum was probably brewing if Grunt insisted on it, or if she got more tired. Basically, the kid was a powder keg of childish rage at any given moment... and it was adorable.
Messages had come through the comm center that were just a little odd while Grunt listened in at the chatter. Two of the messages were from Geth ships attempting to communicate with rachni vessels, but mostly just making the most annoying racket ever, like a cross between an old-fashion modem and electro-pop music. The resulting noise has been the cause of yet another spontaneous dance by the five-year-old listening in.
There had been other odd comm signals too. Several salarian STG ships were pinging Earth trying to set up a new comm bouy and kept getting the number wrong (how you can miss a planet, Grunt had no clue. Quantum tech was just confusing). A turian vessel was quarreling with another ship over who should yield right-of-way for docking procedures over the comms (they were arguing with a disabled asari dreadnought with no propulsion system... the dreadnought won that argument).
Stranger still was random comm stations that would simply light up as if receiving signals but no messages would be pending through. Several times this happened to the Normandy's QED transmitter... but no signals came through.
All oddities aside, Wrex's team went back a constant stream of chatter on their status. Civilians in the Citadel had been barricaded safely away in the station and remaining reaper troops were cleaned out. Infiltrators had figured that the Beam's end point was somewhere beyond the Keeper tunnels.
Wrex's frustrated growl came over the comm as the krogan warlord oversaw the squad, the slight hiss of static behind his words. "Maybe we should have taken that little Pyjak with... she could have fit into the duct works."
There was a short pause over the comm, and then there was an icy reply from Miranda of, "That had better have been complaining for the sake of complaining and not an actual suggestion. I would hate for your transmissions to Bakara to suddenly be unable to pass through."
"That's playing like a krogan." Wrex said grudgingly. Whether playing like a krogan was fair or unfair, it seemed the threat ended the complaining in any case.
At mention of her name, the Pyjak lifted her head from her drawing, a pen clutched awkwardly in her hand. "I could have saved Shepard by hiding?" The kid asked.
"No. You could have gotten eaten by Keepers by hiding." Grunt huffed, a wide smirk spreading over his face.
"Nuh-huh! Keepers don't eat!" the kid insisted.
"Sure they do. They eat little girls."
"Ahhnn!" The whine pulled from the kid was accompanied by the child trying to scramble into his lap. While sitting, Grunt's lap was just out of reach to sit on without a running jump or climbing all over him like some damn playground. Lifting the heel of one ankle to hook over one of Grunt's knee guards, the child then hoisted herself up in perhaps the most awkward climbing maneuver that he had ever seen. She still clutched the sheet of paper and pen in one hand.
"What have you got?" Grunt tugged on the paper, expecting to see childish doodles and scribbles. He wasn't disappointed in that sense... though he had no clue what exactly he was looking at.
"That's you!" Pointing to a large oval with four limbs poking out of it (and each limb was tipped with three lines that must be fingers and toes) the drawing bore little resemblance to a krogan as it did to some sort of murderous amoeba. A round circle above 'his' head had four lines in it, obviously his crest with scars included. While accuracy in visual appeal was rather lacking, the Pyjak proved she could certainly count and paid attention to tiny details.
"And that's me." Pointing again, this time to another circular figure, this one was sideways on the page. The kid had drawn herself as a stiff-limbed figure (five fingers and toes) and a wide grin on her face. The childish drawing of herself was the exact same size as the picture of Grunt, size perspective hadn't quite sunk in to her young mind yet. Just in case it wasn't clear enough who the kid was in the picture, Pyjak had written 'me' next to the little drawing of herself.
Bright blue eyes were watching Grunt for some sort of recognition or reaction. His own matching colored eyes darted from figure to figure on the paper before twisting his head to peer at the child. "Draw a Thresher Maw." Was all he said.
So the kid did. She scribbled on the paper, now balanced on his lap, and a few minutes later held up a drawing of what appeared to be a tube with teeth (not at all inaccurate of a Maw) near Grunt's own drawing. In fact, she had erased all the fingers on his hand and replaced it with a circle that meant a closed fist.
"Am I punching it?" Grunt took the fragile butcher paper from the kid.
"Like in the story!" Pyjak chirped. It was obvious the kid believed every word of his 'modified' story, after all, with a krogan as strong and indestructible as Grunt was in her eyes how could he not punch a Thresher Maw?
As a general rule, krogan did not do 'cute' well.
But then … rules were meant to be broken.
"I think I'm going to have to keep you now. Can't put a little Pyjak like you back in the nest after carrying you around..." Grunt hoisted the kid to his shoulders, letting her wrap her arms around his neck.
"No, I'm keeping you!" The kid insisted, always twisting his words around. "I'm older, I know better." Said the 5-year-old.
"Yeah? Well I'm bigger, I know better! You are too small to know anything." Chuckled the 1-year-old tank bred.
Huffing, the kid bonked her forehead against the heavy hide of the back of Grunt's neck. "I'm still growing! I'll get bigger, I'll get stronger!" The kid cried out, a wide grin on her face.
"You better. Because it's not possible to be any smaller or weaker than are you right now." Grunt taunted.
There was a frustrated yowl from the child and she tried to headbutt his skull again. "Meanie meanie stupidhead!" retorted the child, her smile never faltering. However wrestling a krogan is hard work... especially when you can only reach his head if you are sitting on his shoulders. Flailing around for a few minutes more, the child finally slid off Grunt's shoulders and into his lap. Exhausted from fending of an urge to nap for most of the day, the kid flopped herself bonelessly over Grunt's forearm, her tiny limbs dangling off his lap. She lasted only a few seconds like that before slipping into one of her frequent naps without any more fuss.
Grunt looped his arm around the kid, holding her against his chest instead of sprawled starfish over his lap. Dropping his jaw to rest on the crown of her head, he continued to watch the comm stations. Wrex's omni-tool would send reports back every few minutes, starships navigated around the battered planet in a clumsy ballet, and the Normandy's quantum link station would blink on an off as if it were winking at him. Despite all the incoming information and distractions, the krogan's only focus was the tiny child slumped in his arms, her tiny fingers clutching his armor - even in sleep reluctant to let go. Perhaps these kid-things weren't as confusing as he had originally thought.