I know it took me really long to finish this one, but, what can I say, there's been a lot happening in my life...
I hope You will enjoy this one. Unfortunately, still unbeta'ed, but I got mighty impatient!
…I try to stop the words in my throat, but I cannot keep them in forever…
It is incredibly hot on the Normandy. I was told it is because of the star of the planet we have approached. Laslo, one of the engineers - who seem to enjoy chatting with me over meals - said it is unstable, prematurely entering that phase of its life that usually ends up in a red giant stage - providing that the star does not collapse into itself to form a black hole, obviously.
From what I have heard, we are here to pick up an old friend of Shepard's, a quarian named Tali'Zorah. I have heard her name before, of course. Just like Garrus Vakarian, she was one of those people who have accompanied Shepard two years ago, when he was a Spectre chasing another Spectre that has had gone rogue - a turian named Saren. As it turned out later, Saren had been gathering a geth army that he has eventually led against the Citadel. And since geth are the artificial life form created by the quarians a few hundred years ago, Tali'Zorah's experience was more than crucial to eventually defeating them.
Well, that was two years back. Right now, as I have been told, a small army of geth is occupying the planet, Haestrom, and Tali'Zorah is supposed to be somewhere on its surface. Quite inevitably, it means that we are also in the middle of war zone, the Normandy hidden well with the stealth system she has. To be honest, I am just waiting for the alarms to ring, announcing the approach of one of the geth warships. There are three of them on the planet orbit with us right now - and I know this for sure, because Shepard had us all briefed before he left for the planet surface.
What exactly am I doing here?
I have been asking myself that question for the last half an hour. I try to remind myself that I have signed up for this mission fully aware of how dangerous it is, but, well, it is one thing to know about it and the other to actually feel it. And my hands have been shaking ever since we entered this star system and probably will until we leave it.
If we leave it.
I wonder if that would not be the best option. I have been trying hard not to think about what Jack has told me those two days ago, that I was a Cerberus experiment, adopted by my parents because they were paid well. I do not know if I can believe it or not. Everything in me that has always missed Demeter and the farm my parents have there, is screaming that it cannot be true; that the memories I have are real and full of love. But there is also that small voice in the back of my head asking "are you sure?" and it is becoming harder and harder to ignore it.
Am I, really? I find myself both despairing and outraged by the thought I have never before noticed that my life may have been manipulated. I am now questioning every moment that I thought to have been a happy coincidence - New Dawn Pharmaceutical agent appearing on Demeter, willing to pay for my admission to Grissom's Academy. The internship I was practically handed over the moment I have graduated. The Normandy mission I was assigned to, despite being one of the least expected candidates… It is really difficult to admit I have taken all those situations on faith, never questioning their probability. The realisation of how naïve that proves me to be, is really making me feel depressed and angry with myself.
I cannot help but consider a quick death by some geth warship laser beam might just prove to be an easier option, than having to deal with the possibility of my whole life being one, gigantic and horrible lie.
I am so deep in my thoughts right now that when I hear someone knocking against the window of the med bay, I literarily jump in my chair, my head jerking up from the piece of paper I have been tearing to a very tiny scraps. I look into blue eyes of Garrus Vakarian and he smiles at me in that weird turian way. I find myself smiling back and he gestures to the inside of the bay in a clear question "can I come in?". I nod and for a moment a part of me marvels on how similar our races are, apart from the obvious morphological differences. One would have expected another species to have some awkward system of gestures of their own that would most likely be as alien to us as their appearance is, but it seems that in whole Galaxy some things are just surprisingly universal. When I think about that, it is quite heart-warming, actually.
'You look bored, Doctor,' he says as he enters the bay. I look at him with surprise. 'I thought you might use some company. Oh, and I have a request to make, too.'
'I do not quite understand, Mister Vakarian…' I begin and he shakes his head with an amused snort.
'See, I wonder how many times I'll have to repeat myself over, but I'll try again,' he interrupts me and gives me a teasing look. 'Will you just stop that and call me by my name for once, please, Doctor?'
I cannot help myself but smile on that one. It is true, he has been insisting on that ever since I have been assigned as his medical officer in charge, but I still cannot make up my mind to do so. I cannot help but admire him - his undisputable battle skills, his charm, his experience… It is just too incredible for a person like this to ask me, a regular staff member, to call him by the first name; almost as if we were squadmates, because I simply cannot place our two names and a word "friends" in one sentence. That would be too… amazing.
'I have already explained myself, Mister…'
'I insist,' he interrupts me again, playful sparks in his blue eyes. I give up. As always.
'All right, Garrus. But only if you quit calling me "Doctor", for once. Back to the question I wanted to ask earlier: why would you think I am bored? I am afraid my current state of mind can be called anything but bored…'
'I don't know, Danielle.' Oh, goodness; how come it is so nice to hear my name spoken in that deep, flanging voice of his? 'I guess I've just assumed you're as bored as I am.'
I shake off that embarrassing pink mist that is beginning to envelop my brain and I raise my eyebrows in a question.
'Well… you kept me off the mission again,' he explains, his tone now just a little bit hurt. 'It's been twenty days and you still tell Shepard I'm not at my… how do you call it?'
'Full capability,' I finish. This is another of our regular issues he loves to bring up. I am kind of feeling guilty about this, because I realise how much he is longing for some action; like a caged animal, he walks around Normandy every time Shepard is taking his team out. But I know I need to keep this turian from fighting for at least another week. His recovery is going remarkably well, wounds healing fast under the IWDS bandages, yet it is still not enough. I have told him that so many times, that I just stand here in silence now, waiting for him to finish the argument the same way he usually does, admitting that I am "probably right". Not this time, though.
'What if I made you a deal, Danielle?' He asks, tilting his head to the side.
'What kind of a deal?'
'If I can pick you up with my right hand and carry you all the way from here to the mess room tables, are you going to report my full capability to Shepard?'
I stare at him somewhat stupefied. He cannot be serious about it, can he now?
'Because,' Garrus continues, obviously noticing my hesitation. 'I can totally do that. Right now.'
He takes a step in my direction and I back off with a small laugh.
'Oh, I believe you!' I say quickly. I cannot possibly allow him to perform that little joke, not if I do not want to risk some deterioration of his recovery. 'Or at least I believe that you believe you can! However, I do not think actually testing that is a good idea. If you want me to accompany you to the mess room, I can quite safely do this on my own, thank you.'
'I'll take that, then,' he says with just a hint of disappointment in his voice. 'I still think you could use some company and possibly a regular dinner, just as the rest of us.'
'I am sorry, Garrus, I just do not feel hungry in this circumstances,' I admit apologetically. 'We are effectively in a war zone. That really does not encourage a need for a healthy meal!'
'My stomach definitely calls for one,' the turian says and extends his hand towards me. 'Shall we?'
I resist the urge to take that offered hand and instead smile as convincingly as I can today. I really am not in a mood for grins, but… somehow I want to smile for him. It is surprising how good I feel around this man, even though I hardly know him as a person.
We walk to the mess room and stop in front of Mess Sergeant Gardner's little realm. He gives me a taxing look and then turns to Garrus with an approving nod.
'I see ya dragged our little Doctor out of the bay, nice work,' he says and the turian makes a little snort.
'We don't want her starving, do we?' I suddenly feel his armoured hand placed on my right shoulder in a very protective way and I freeze in place for just one second. I cannot decide what I feel in this moment. Am I more alarmed or delighted? I force the grin back on my face before our cook starts to look at me in a weird way.
'You are both too kind, caring for me,' I say as lightly as I possibly can and I reach out towards the plate in front of me.
And, all of a sudden, I bump into someone on my left.
'Oops, sorry for that!' Says a voice in the air and I take a panicked step to the side, colliding with Garrus, who instantly catches my other arm to steady me. I watch with eyes wide as the air in front of me vibrates and fills with colour, revealing a shape of a woman dressed in black clothes and a hood. I gasp. 'Didn't want to scare you, Doctor-Dany.'
I release myself from the turian's grip and do my best to regain my composure, as shaken as it has already been before the Master Thief appeared.
'Miss Goto,' I say with a small nod. Shepard has picked her up last time we have been on the Citadel and I was in the med bay when she came in for the regular examination. I remember I was wondering then, how is it possible for her to keep her face darkened by the hood in the sharp light of the Normandy's lamps. Then it turned out her face is simply painted dark from her nose up. She claimed that is a habit she finds difficult to withhold.
'I thought you went out with Shepard?' Garrus inquiries and the woman shrugs dismissively.
'Nah, it's a hot planet and just look at me, I'm wearing black.' Her teeth flash in the shadow of her hood when she smirks, kind of making me think about a row of pearls in a necklace. She turns to Mess Sergeant Gardner. 'Ramen for dinner again, huh? I must say I've missed a good ramen, but this is quite too much for me.'
'No need to eat if you ain't appreciating it,' the cook snorts and she beams at him too.
'I wouldn't dream of not appreciating it! It's a good ramen, isn't it, Doctor-Dany?'
I blink and look at her a little distracted. I could swear she is always saying my job title and my name as if it was one, very rhythmical word. I notice the anticipation in her features and I quickly turn to the cook with a wide smile.
'Of course it is! I daresay it is the best one I have ever eaten, Mister Gardner.'
I can hear Garrus chuckle quietly behind my back when I receive a double portion of the dish. I try to ignore that, as well as the amused grin on Kasumi Goto's face. She pats my back when I turn around, ready to head towards the table.
'Enjoy your hearty meal!' She says with a good-natured laughter before she turns her cloaking device on and disappears again. I honestly do not know what to think about her behaviour. Part of me is admiring the grace she moves with and around the Normandy, appearing at the same time a part of the crew and a totally separate and intriguing being. Another part senses there is more to her than just her cloak and smile - that there is some sadness and nostalgia to her that cannot be explained.
When I begin to wonder what her secret might be, I realise I am doing that only because I subconsciously want to have this certainty I am not the only person with a trauma in my life. Then I realise how petty that makes me and I push those thoughts as far away as I can.
They keep coming back, though.
'Your meal is getting cold, Danielle.'
I look up from the bowl of untouched ramen to see Garrus, who is staring at me with concern written on his face. I have almost completely forgotten about him and about the fact I am in the mess room, instead of the private safety of the med bay. I can feel a blush creeping at my cheeks and I try to suppress it with the most honest smile I can put on my lips right now. I am probably not doing that very well.
'Oh, of course!' I say, my voice just a little bit too high-pitched and desperate. 'Sorry, I got lost in my thoughts.'
'Yes, I could see that,' he replies and for a moment I have some difficulty taking my eyes off his; blue orbs that are telling me that he is worried about me. But why would he be? We do not even know each other; he is just my patient… I lower my head and concentrate on eating, determined not to break the silence that suddenly fell over the table we both occupy. Luckily, I am saved by Joker's voice on the radio.
'Normandy crew, prepare for a take-off, the shuttle is inbound. Some turbulences may occur, hold your glasses tight! Thank you for flying Air Normandy, folks, don't forget to check in with your favourite pilot and remember - Big Sister EDI is always watching!'
I clasp my fingers around the cup that is in front of me, awaiting the tremors Joker mentioned, when my omnitool bracelets bleeps at me. I activate it and Doctor Chakwas' face appears on the com.
'We're going to have an injured quarian on board, Danielle,' she informs me, without waiting for me to speak. 'Prepare the clean room, please.'
'Certainly, Doctor,' I reply and turn the omnitool off at almost the same moment the Normandy enters FTL speed and some minor vibrations appear. They stop quickly, though, and I make a move to get up. But... I cannot. As if I suddenly lost control over my body, I sit motionless, knuckles of my right hand getting white when my grip around the cup tightens. With arising panic, I realise I cannot let it happen again. I cannot allow my fear to stop me from performing my duty. I find it ridiculous that it should happen now, when the danger we have been exposed to seems to be lesser and lesser by the matter of seconds. I raise my head just an inch to cast a quick glance at Garrus and I realise he looks back at me, his head tilted to the side in a wordless question.
I try to stop the words in my throat, but I cannot keep them in forever.
'I am scared,' I say silently. For a fraction of a second I wonder if anyone in the mess room pays us any attention, but it quickly ceases to matter at all. The turian leans towards me over the table and his three armoured fingers gently close around my stiff palm.
'Hey, it's okay,' he says with a voice so soft I would have never expected from him. 'We'll be out of the geth range in a few minutes.'
I nod hesitantly. For the next few seconds I take the comfort in the metallic chill of Garrus' gloves, before I slowly withdraw my hand from his and straighten up.
'Thank you,' I whisper. 'I need to… I need to go to the med bay. Get ready.'
The turian gives me his alien, mandible-flaring smile, the most reassuring sight I have seen in eons.
'I'll be here if you need me, Danielle.'
I am not sure how I ended up in the med bay and how I managed to get everything prepared, because the next thing I notice is the hissing sound of the door being opened and Doctor Chakwas walking in, followed by two quarians: a woman dressed in violet and grey, who is supporting a man dressed in reds. Judging by the number of medigel patches on his body, he lost enough blood to collapse, but he is walking, even though wobbly. I immediately direct the two of them to the clean room - a temporarily construction of semi-transparent walls, that was designed in the back of the med bay to contain patients with contagious diseases. Luckily, it is also hermetic enough to serve as a sterile room for our quarian patients, whose immune systems are not prepared for the contact with germs on the outside of their suits.
'It's going to be crowded with the two of us,' says Doctor Chakwas, while she puts on a sterile suit. 'I'll take care of Kal'Reegar in there, you check that burn on Tali's side, will you?'
I look around at the quarian woman, who nods at me.
'Without the clean room?' I ask a little surprised. 'Would that not expose her even more?'
'I was thinking about it,' my supervisor puts on a mask and winks from above it. 'Try your biotic fields. They should be sterile enough for that short moment you need to take the medigel off and apply the burn ointment.'
Without further instructions she walks into the sluice of the clean room. I turn to Tali'Zorah and then freeze, unsure of what their species greetings might look like. She saves me, extending her hand towards me in a friendly and straight-forward gesture.
'Please, just call me Tali,' she says, her voice vibrating with distortions caused by the voice processor at the bottom of her mask. 'Nice to meet you.'
'Likewise, Tali. My name is Danielle and I am Doctor Chakwas' assistant here in the med bay. It is an honour to have you with us,' I reply, grateful to skip further formalities and I can see shining orbs of her eyes narrowing slightly in a smile. I cast a quick glance over her figure and notice fresh patch of medigel on her left side. 'Please take a sit, so I can take care about your injuries.'
I have never before attempted to create a biotic field so dense that it could remain sterile for a period of time, but I can see how Doctor Chakwas came to a conclusion it is going to work. It is easy enough to make a small biotic bubble empty inside, it just requires some concentration to make it work longer than a couple of minutes. In my case "longer" is not an issue. An issue is "bigger".
'It is going to take me a while and removal of the medigel patch might cause you some discomfort,' I inform her, feeling a little silly with myself. "A discomfort" is probably not the best word in these circumstances. To my surprise, Tali is enduring my meddling with her injury with calm patience, but I cannot help wondering if under her mask she is not flinching with pain. I hurry up as best as I can and finish before I start feeling dizzy due to prolonged biotic use.
'You have some very impressive skills,' Tali says when I am finished and I nod.
'I have been equipped with a very specific biotic implant,' I explain and she tilts her head to the side with interest.
'Really? What kind of and implant? If it's okay to ask, of course.'
But before I can answer, the door to the med bay swoosh again and this time it is Jake Shepard who steps in, visibly in haste.
Tali, whose back is towards the door, turns around so swiftly, she almost knocks me off balance. I take a quick step backwards. For a fraction of a second I am wondering why her reaction has been so sudden, but then it dawns on me. I have been jumpy enough just sitting on the ship safe on the orbit. How is she supposed to be feeling, when she is fresh out of the fight?
'Shepard!' She says out loud, her modulated voice purring over his name in a very fond fashion. With certain consternation I realise that what I mistook for anxiety is in fact the same excitement I sometimes find myself in while around our Commander. I start to think it is more common between us females than I thought it could be and that regardless of our species.
'Hey, Tali, you okay?' Shepard asks and she gives him an eager nod. 'And Reegar, what of him?'
'Doctor Chakwas has been taking care of him back there,' the quarian points towards the clean room and Shepard's questioning look turns to me. I feel an overwhelming need to burst into giggles, when I realise that one simple look of his sends some excited shivers up my spine.
'It is the clean room, Commander, supposed to minimise the risks our quarian patient is exposed to,' I explain.
'Clever device,' he remarks and that makes Tali giggle softly. 'Any idea how long it's going to take? His quarian compatriots are already getting antsy about us picking him up and doing who-knows-what to his immune system,' Jake winks to us. 'As if we didn't have the best medic in the Galaxy aboard our ship...'
'Flattery isn't going to speed things up, Commander,' Doctor Chakwas' voice interrupts him. 'And I can hear you all from here pretty well, so please, take your jibber-jabber somewhere else, will you? I am trying to work here.'
'You heard that, ladies? Quit the chit-chat, as our specialist requests, will you?' I can swear there is no wider smile in the Galaxy than that of Jake Shepard.
'There's no need to quit, just keep it down,' sighs my supervisor from behind the walls of the clean room. Shepard winks at us and places his index finger on his lips. I make a little cough to hide the grin appearing on my face.
'In fact, Miss Zorah is free to leave whenever she wishes,' I say, significantly quieter than I normally would just to play along. 'We are finished with the treatment for now. If there is anything else I can do for you, please let me know. Otherwise I shall only remind you to check with us tomorrow or earlier, if the need arises.'
The quarian nods to that.
'I think I'm going to be okay - well, as much as a quarian in a punctured envirosuit can be. If I ran a fever that I cannot handle, you'll be the first to hear,' she takes a little bow with her head and exits the med bay, leaving me and Jake alone; if one does not count Doctor Chakwas working on the other end on her patient.
'Do you have a moment to chat, Danielle?' The Commander asks and I feel my heart stopping just for one second, because I secretly fear what he might want to discuss. I clear my throat.
'Would you mind if we left for the Starboard deck?'
'No... I guess I would not,' I say, even though inside me there is that panicked little voice screaming "I just don't want to talk about that!". I honestly hope I am wrong and the only thing he wants to talk about is, I do not know, maybe the weather conditions on Haestrom. He probably notices my uneasiness, because he gives me another one of his reassuring smiles and a hearty squeeze on my arm.
'Excellent! Shall we?'
He leads me out of the bay and towards the room on the side of the ship, where a gigantic window faces the vast emptiness of the Galaxy, currently enveloped in a blueish, eerie glow that tells me Normandy is still in the FTL speed. We stop in front of it and for a long moment none of us speaks a word. I half-consciously start to play with the tip of my braid, toying with it with my fingers in the exact same way I had yesterday when I was talking to Kelly on our psychiatric session.
Kelly... she probably told Shepard about my... incident with Jack. I release my braid and bite my lower lip. I kind of expected her to do so at some point, even though I have specifically asked her not to. I am not yet ready to deal with this and talking to Shepard is probably going to end up in some steps I do not yet want to take. Like finding out what really is the truth. What if... what if Jack is right? How can I live with the knowledge that all my life has been a lie?
I can feel Shepard's gaze on my reddening cheeks and almost without thinking I turn to him, my eyes meeting his concerned look.
'I am not ready for this, Commander,' I say out loud. He nods without a word and I stumble, not sure what should I tell him next. 'I... I think I know what you wanted to discuss. Kelly has told you, undoubtedly, it is her duty as the ship's psychologist-' I get another wordless nod. It does not get easier to proceed. 'I... I apologise for not talking to you personally, Commander, but... I was not ready to deal with this situation. I still am not and I want to request a few more days to... to make up my mind.'
'I'd give you a month or a year, if that was up to me,' he says suddenly. 'But it's a sensitive situation, Danielle. I need you up and running your drills flawlessly for the good of this mission. Can you promise me you can do that while you settle your mind?'
I hesitate. I obviously cannot give him my word on that, I know myself too well. My mind jumps to the moment from, what, less than an hour ago, when I stifled in the mess room, unable to take any action. If it was not for Garrus...
'I...' If I say "I cannot", will he immediately order my release from duty and leave me in the first port we enter, so I could go back to my dull, scientist work? I realise I would hate that, both for the shame and... perhaps I do enjoy the thrill that accompanies this mission just a little bit more than I dare to admit? 'I... do not know, Commander.'
He nods and turns to look out through the window at the dancing glow. I wait, uncertain and a little anxious, while he seems to be weighing some words in his mind.
'I wish I could help you, but I don't know how,' he says finally. 'It's not only a new situation for you, Danielle, it's new to me as well. I don't even know how to put myself in your position. See, I've never had a family like you did,' he looks at me and gives me a small smile. 'I cannot imagine what it feels like to be told what you heard. Still, I can help you with one thing for sure. I did some digging in the files Jack passed to me. I could tell you the truth right here and right now. The point is...' he pauses, obviously alarmed with the shock I realise is now painted on my face. So… he knows already? He gives me a moment to get accustomed to that sensation before he continues. 'The point is: do you want to know?'
Do I now?
For a second I want to scream "yes", I want him to tell me that Jack is just a bitter liar and that all my childhood memories are as true as I want them to be... and in the same moment I understand he might say I was wrong about everything and with that my life will be ruined forever.
The Commander reaches out and places his hand on my arm reassuringly.
'I'm not a shrink or anything,' he says lightly. 'But I think that eventually I do have something to say to make you feel a bit more at ease with this. Tell, me Danielle, does it really matter?'
I stare at him with confusion. What does he...?
'In the end, does it matter if the people who took care of you all your life are really your birth parents or not? I've checked the files, all right, and all I could find there was that they always looked after you and worried about you just like parents should. Isn't that right?'
It takes me a few moments, before the meaning of what he just said finally reaches me. And I know he is not wrong. When I look back, all I remember was genuine - the look my mother gave me when I brought stray kittens to our home, the warm voice of my father who sang lullabies to me and my siblings, all those Sunday dinners we made certain to spend together all the time I was on Demeter... I might have been fooled by Cerberus and their actions, but if there is one thing I can know for sure is how it feels to be loved.
I look up at Shepard's blue eyes and I smile, easily, for the first time during the last two days.
'I do not want to know, Commander,' I inform him calmly and he raises one of his eyebrows.
'For certain, Commander. Thank you for telling me this. Now I can give you that promise.'
Jake looks at me in both relieved and somewhat prideful way, then he fondly puts his arm around me and I receive the closest thing to a hug that I can probably ever get from him. I can feel blush rising on my cheeks in a crimson wave and for one moment my head is spinning wildly... and then I suddenly realise, that while it is a really pleasant thing, to feel the warmth of another body - and a really well-shaped body at that - next to mine, it is just it. A pleasant feeling, nothing else. I release myself from his embrace, before it starts being awkward.
'Thank you for everything you said, Commander,' I say and he grins at me.
'I know everyone on the ship keeps on telling you that. You really don't have to call us all by ranks, Danielle.'
The blush is coming back to my face, I just know it.
'Comm... Jake... I am just trying to be polite...'
'We're sort of a family here, all of us,' he interrupts me with a wink. 'Well, except Miranda maybe, but she's getting to that.'
It is hard to explain how easily Jake Shepard can turn this solemn, almost dramatic atmosphere around us into a light-hearted joke. I guess it is one of the reasons why he is such an amazing leader, too. He knows how to manipulate the moods of people around him to keep them happy. And to keep them faithful, too. For one, I am absolutely certain that I would not hesitate from doing anything for him - within acceptable boundaries, of course.
'Thank you, Jake,' I say and I mean it with my whole soul. 'Thank you... for the family.'
Thank You for reading!