Their exchange of greetings went the usual way in the gym, sort of an everyday ritual. Shepard's muscle mass yielded slowly to his efforts, although he kept feeling unjustifiably scrawny, especially when compared to the Kro-- the other man's physique. Thinking of Rex as not being Wrex was difficult, not with the gravelly voice or the same determined look in his eyes that seemed to be constantly weighing up everything he saw on a scale of "If we fight, who will kill whom?"
"Seen the new girl yet?" Shepard asked, as casually as he could, picking out the weights for one of the machines.
"New girl?" Rex asked, raising an eyebrow in question. Somehow, that very human gesture looked alien to Shepard - until he realized that even if Krogans could understand the emotive qualities of human and Asari facial expressions, they might not have been able to accurately reproduce them. In short, the Wrex he knew couldn't ever do that, at least, not that high.
"Yeah, bald, all tattooed up -- saw them bringing her in yesterday night," Shepard explained, preparing for the warm-up and stretching.
"Hmm. Sounds interesting, Shepard, but no, I ain't seen anyone like that today," Rex replied, furrowing his brow, "Though if I said I never saw anyone like that, I would be lying through my teeth, hehe."
Shepard gave him a weak smile in return before settling into the machine, preparing to give his arms another torturous session. Even though Lara urged him to not overdo it, he had to. He felt oddly compelled to get himself back into fighting shape, especially now that-- But that would still not be a good enough reason to tear his arms off because he pushed himself too hard.
"What is this I hear about a new girl?" another voice joined in. Knowingly or not, but out of all the people from his memories that populated this place, Shepard managed to form a clique of instant friends based off his original team on the SR-1. For better or for worse, the only one missing was Tali.
"Vakarian, I thought you only had place for one girl in your sights," he laughed, "Speaking of which - still haven't worked up the courage to talk to her?"
Changing the subject helped. He knew what was probably happening to her while he was here, talking, laughing. He knew he couldn't do anything about it at the moment. He had to be ready, and for that... he needed his team. And that meant getting someone to talk to Natalie. Even if it was Garry and his weird affection for her - apparently, he preferred to admire her from a distance.
"Come on, Shepard, you know as well as I do how that would look," he said defensively, "I don't want to come off as a stalker or something."
"No, Garry, I don't. You like her. Start with that," Shepard replied with a reproachful look, "This isn't high school, you're both grown-ups in a grown-up hospital for grown-ups that got boo-boos doing grown-up things that leave normal grown-ups cowering in a fetal position for the rest of their lives. Stalking is for them. With us, that's tactical reconnaissance."
"I can't believe I'm playing therapist again. This makes me wonder if it's just my bad luck or there really are no therapists worth their salt in the Universe at large. At least this time we didn't have to involve organ traffickers."
"You make it sound so easy. What if she gets creeped out? What if she doesn't even speak English? I mean, we've got all types here, I can barely understand what that glass-eyed dude is--"
"Vakarian, take a chill pill," Rex interrupted, "Because now you're making me feel like we're in high school. Not a good idea."
"Let's put it that way. If you're not gonna talk to her, I will, and then it will be exactly like high school," Shepard said in a mock threatening tone, his grin widening. Whatever the reasons, he was enjoying this. It felt... relaxing, somehow.
"You-- I--" Garry's pursuit of words to say was entertaining to watch, but didn't result in much of anything. "This is blackmail, you know that? Fine, I'll talk to her. Tomorrow."
As he left, shoulders hunched as if he was bested at some competition, Rex and Shepard exchanged glances.
"You're gonna talk to her anyway, right?"
"Naturally. Today, too."
"You're kind of a sucky friend, Shepard."
"That remains to be seen, Rex."
He had to admit, however, this Vakarian was a bit of a stalker. Without even trying, Shepard learned more about Natalie's life than he probably knew about Tali's - just by hanging out with the guy - so finding where she was in her rather rigid daily routine on this Wednesday noon was relatively easy. She would spend a little under an hour in the sun in the rear courtyard, out beyond the morgue - where most patients seldom wandered except for the ones jogging, and these seldom went there at noon, making it probably the most secluded sun-exposed spot on the grounds except maybe the main building's roof. Except it was prettier, and also accessible to patients, unlike the roof. Walking out onto the sun-warmed pavement, Shepard took a deep breath of the autumn air - still warm, but already showing hints of the cold that was to come - and made for the roundabout walking path that would, eventually, lead him to the rear courtyard.
True to the plan, she was there, bandages and all, sitting somewhat stiffly on a bench not readily visible behind some service outbuilding and a few bushes planted along its walls. It seemed as if the entire hospital grounds were planned out with the intent to provide an attacking force the least possible cover while maintaining the appearance of a properly-maintained hospital. Shepard inwardly thanked himself for checking first whether Garry had any doctor appointments - at the moment he was supposed to be getting a check-up on his right-side eye from Dr. Martin Solace (which didn't really look anything like his Salarian counterpart, aside from a missing earlobe, though he was apparently a coffee addict).
As casually as possible, he walked up to the bench in question and plopped down on it rather nonchalantly on the end opposite to the target. A little voice in his head proclaimed "LZ is clear, mission is go, proceed with contact!" He tried to tune it out to the best of his ability.
"Hello," he began, turning to her, "You might not know me, but my name is--"
"Shepard," she said, facing him as well. Garry was right - the bandages were spaced unevenly, though they didn't reveal much of anything, other than a vague outline of a vaguely feminine face (except maybe the nose was a little big for Shepard's taste) and what were apparently deep blue eyes, "I was wondering when you would approach me."
"Huh. And to what do I owe the honour of my name preceding me?" Shepard asked, trying as hard as possible to not come off as taken aback.
"Come on, Shepard. I'm a trained CIA agent, don't you think I can notice a recruitment attempt when I see one?" she retorted, "I mean, half the hospital knows you're building some sort of clique around yourself from other patients."
"Is that what you think this is?" Shepard asked, smiling micheviously.
"Well, I see no other possibility here. We're in about the only place in the entire hospital that isn't covered by security cameras, so unless you're here to try a pitch for Cerberus or whoever it is you represent, I suggest--"
"Wait, Cerberus? You honestly think I'm with Cerberus?" Shepard interrupted. This was quickly getting out of hand.
"Well, you did meet with their people recently, did you not? Talked to the woman in private after the "official" return to active duty talk, even," Natalie went on, with what looked like a small tight-lipped smile forming under the bandages.
"Ah, that is why you bandage yourself despite not needing to," Shepard attempted to fight back with, "You have eyes everywhere?"
The bandaged woman laughed, before tugging on an end of bangade that was tucked in behind her left ear (which looked a little undersized, even for one tightly bound by bandage), unwrapping a portion of her face around her eyes. The smile was wiped off Shepard's face, his eyes narrowed, his jaw set. He had a sudden urge to find whoever did this and remove some vital parts of their anatomy. She wasn't very badly scarred - he could see that she was beautiful, once, but what remained now served more as a reminder of what was rather than any hope for what it could be.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to offend," he finally said as she covered her eyebrowless burn-scarred forehead and nose back up behind the white fabric, "Although I have to wonder - why do you keep track of everything that happens in the hospital, yet don't talk to anybody but the doctors?"
"My therapist says I have to do something. Keep myself occupied. Focused. Until... Until I get better, somehow, though what constitutes better in this state is anyone's guess," she replied slowly, the bitterness in her voice building up.
"How did this happen?" Shepard asked, quietly wondering if placing a hand on her shoulder with intent to reassure would produce a broken hand, a reassurance or a psychotic break.
"I got soaked in gasoline and set on fire," she explained flatly, "then left, burned and bleeding, in front of the American embassy where I worked as part of my cover. The dumbest thing was, they didn't do it because I was a spy. They did it because I was a woman who worked for the "heathen pigs" at the embassy, and offended their religious feelings with my uncovered face and hair."
She gave a hollow laugh, rubbing at her eyes through the bandages - wiping tears into them, as Shepard belatedly realized.
"Not every CIA agent is some sort of martial arts expert living weapon, you know," she said as if it was an explanation of sorts, although Shepard found himself nodding in agreement, if only to make her feel better about it, "The most I could manage was break the arm of one of them and gouge out the eye of another. I'm a data analyst, not a field operative, чёрт побери."
"If it makes you feel any better, that's a lot more than I usually manage in such situations," Shepard admitted, "Eyes are generally unpleasant to stick your fingers in."
"Aren't you a soldier? Killing is supposed to be your profession," Natalie replied with disbelief.
"Oh, it is. I just don't like dealing with eyes. While quick, harming heads to kill people is almost universally repulsive. I still have the occasional nightmare about some of the... bursts." Particularly Batarians. Four popped eyes is twice the revulsion.
"Then how do you--"
"I'm the "shoot-from-far-away" kind of soldier, Tali," Shepard explained, not even bothering to chastise himself for overplaying his hand with the name, "Because when you shoot from up close, it's certainly showing up in your nightmares again, especially if it's not human," he paused, before something in his head clicking, compelling him to finish the phrase, "Not after what you did to kill it."
"Like me?" she asked bitterly, but without the hint of tears in her voice. She was unhinged, he could see that much, but she did have some sort of training in suppressing it, keeping it under control. This still didn't explain the rest of her behaviour, or the paranoia about Cerberus... but it had to wait.
"Oh no, you're still you, inside," he tried to comfort her, "You're still the same person, who still walks, talks, thinks and, from what I've seen, works out, the same as before."
"And you were giving me grief over "eyes everywhere"?" she asked with another half-visible smile. Shepard had an assumption why she didn't even try to smile widely and he wasn't too keen to find out the answer.
"Reconnaissance before approaching you. You see, there's this guy..."
Dark Space (Chapter Eleven)
Blog entry posted by Noelemahc, Aug 7, 2012.
About the Author
A Russian Econ major with a minor in graphomania. Used to write for a Russian gaming magazine a while back, apparently wasn't very good or they wouldn't've cancelled his column to replace it with one devoted to listing erotic fanservice moments in videogames and anime series. Has a penchant for long-winded distracted rants and a bizarre affection for very old videogames.