DISCLAIMER: Much to my chagrin, Mass Effect, its characters and elements don't belong to me.
SAY YOU WILL
I Run from my Past
Some wounds, Shepard thinks, are better left untouched.
After finishing her homework and making sure Emily completed hers, Shepard headed to the office Mrs. Keller usually shared with Dr. Yoshida, the psychologist, with the younger girl following her really closely.
"I don't know why you're so excited about this; it might be nothing at all…" Shepard told the dark-haired girl, who shrugged in response.
"People don't usually allow me to participate of their meetings…" was the enthusiastic response.
"Maybe they would if you didn't just eavesdrop anyway…" the redhead suggested, watching Wong's reaction.
"I only eavesdrop because nobody wants to tell me anything…" Emily stubbornly countered.
Shepard shook her head, realizing that debating this would get them nowhere. "You are known for ignoring personal boundaries after all," She chastised, with no real bite to it, "and it's not exactly fair since even you have some subjects you don't like to talk about."
"Hey! I know when to let things drop," Emily defended, with an with an air of wounded pride. "For example, I didn't bug you about how your date went…"
"That's true, and I can't say how relieved I am that you dropped the matter," Shepard replied, gratitude quite obvious in her voice.
"So, you admit it was a date..." Emily said coyly, watching Shepard stare at her with narrowed eyes. "Not another word. I promise!" She added, quickly, but completely unapologetic.
When they got to the director's office, Shepard hesitated for a heartbeat. That all too familiar pressure at the base of her stomach, which generally preceded something going wrong, holding her in place. Beside her, Emily twitched anxiously. With a deep breath, she hit the door chime and waited for it to open.
The office was a longish kind of room, a desk against each lateral wall with an armchair placed in front of each; there was a round table with a couple chairs by the window and a metal cabinet between two doors to the left: one to the washroom, the other to the small room where the doctor held the regular therapy sessions with the orphanage interns. The ever-present scent of cinnamon filled the air because Dr. Yoshida liked to light incense to cleanse the air once a day.
"Ah, Shepard!" Dr. Yoshida, a chubby grizzled woman, called out. "We were hoping you'd show up earlier."
"I'm sorry," Shepard said, crossing the room, "I was in the middle of a Xenolinguistics essay when I got your message…"
"Have you finished your studies, then?" Mrs. Keller, a tall, lanky blonde, asked in her unmistakably nasal voice, as she emerged from the toilet.
For a moment Shepard considered lying so that she'd have a way out if the talk went some place she didn't like it, but opted not to – even though she was sure Emily would back her up in the bat of an eye had she decided otherwise. "Yes, Ma'am, I did."
"Very good!" Mrs. Keller said, looking toward Emily, who was still glued to Shepard, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. "Would you excuse us, please, dear?"
"But…" Emily turned to Shepard, with wide eyes.
"No buts, Miss Wong," Mrs. Keller replied with a non-nonsense stare. "This is a private matter and has nothing to do with you."
"It's alright," Shepard interrupted, "I told her she could stay. I don't mind."
The older women exchanged a surprised glance. "Are you sure?"
Shepard supposed that was a fair reaction. For a long, long time she had worked quite hard to not let anyone get too close. Most of the girls at the Orphanage were still afraid of her and most of the boys paid her no attention at all. She probably wouldn't be friends with Emily either if the other girl weren't so damned stubborn.
"I would just tell her what we talked about afterward anyway," Shepard shrugged, as if it wasn't that big of a deal. From the corner of her eyes, Shepard saw Emily giving a smug grin.
"If you're certain…" Dr. Yoshida said cautiously; as if giving Shepard one more chance to change her mind. She directed Emily to sit down in the armchair by her desk and asked Shepard to join her at the table by the window.
"You start. I'll see if he's available…" said Keller, sitting at her desk and activating her omni-tool. For a second, Shepard wondered who they were talking about.
"How have you been?" The doctor asked, with warmth in her eyes that usually made Shepard feel uncomfortable.
Shepard shrugged and self-consciously tucked her hair behind her ear. "I'm fine. Haven't been in any kind of trouble lately", she answered, concealing a little smirk at the knowledge that it wasn't exactly true.
"I have to admit, I had no idea you and Emily were friends…" the doctor said, seemingly satisfied. "Though, I should've imagined my two most troublesome patients would eventually bond."
At that, Mrs. Keller, who had been typing on her omni-tool, stood up from her desk and made her way to them. "Alright, let me just set this up."
Without turning the device off, she synced it to the Holo-pad on the table and, soon enough, two figures were staring at Shepard: the first one was a strong-looking woman, with short black hair and such a presence that, even though her avatar on the table had about thirty centimetres, her no-nonsense expression made Shepard straighten up on the chair – if she had to guess, she'd say the woman was from the military. The other one was a male turian, and not just any male turian, but the C-Sec Executor.
"Shepard, let me introduce you to Lieutenant Jill Dah, from Alliance PR, she's responsible for overseeing the Systems Alliance reputation within the Citadel," the doctor began, putting Shepard on her guard. She couldn't begin to imagine what this was all about and it made her antsy and terribly uncomfortable. "And this is Executor Pollux, from C-Sec."
"Now that the introductions are out of the way, we can get to business," the Lieutenant began with such directness that Shepard wondered how a person with apparently no patience had made it into the Public Relations department of the Alliance. "Miss Shepard, tell me: how do feel about turians?"
Shepard's eyes widened as her heart started racing in her chest. The knot in her gut becoming more and more strained. Was this some kind of trick question? Could they know about her and Garrus? She wondered. She looked at the other people in the room, both physically and virtually, trying to decide what to do. The silence stretched for what seemed like too long, but she still tried to buy some time and test the waters by asking: "What do you mean?"
"Just answer the question, dear," said Mrs. Keller, patiently. "Be honest."
It still didn't make it any easier for her to come up with an answer. What could she say? She didn't really think anything about Turians, just as she didn't think anything about Humans. They were people. They had flaws and virtues. She'd known some nice individuals, just as she'd known some nasty ones, but wasn't that a reality about other species as well?
Lieutenant Dah sighed, exasperated and was going to say something, but the Executor was faster. "Let's change the question: what do you think of the… The First Contact War, as you call it?"
Well, that's a lot easier to answer, thought Shepard.
"I-I think it was a mistake." She started, looking at the Alliance officer with suspicion; she clutched her pant legs in order to avoid crossing her arms in a defensive movement. "I mean, even though their panic at seeing us meddling with the Relay is understandable if you think of what happened when the Salarians opened the Rachni Relay, the turians were the most experienced in dealing with other races, so they could probably have dealt with it better."
As she spoke of it, she gained confidence. That was something she was very good at: looking at History with an objective eye and some detachment. 'True History allows no Partiality' her father used to say.
"On that note, we should have thought better of the consequences of messing around with the Relays. We didn't have much information to go by and were dealing with a technology we knew almost nothing about. What if we had unleashed something far worse than the Rachni on the Galaxy?" She wondered, shaking her head thoughtfully. "The truth is that the blame falls on both parts, but that's something I can only say in hindsight and with an incomplete picture of the situation. I have no idea about how close from activating the Relay our technicians were; if the Turians thought they didn't have the time to approach us following First Contact procedures or if they were just trigger happy as I often hear some people say… I just don't know. I wasn't there. I have no way of knowing what really happened and, honestly, the continuing fight over who's to blame only leads to people making the same mistakes over and over again."
"I wish more people were as discerning," the Executor, interjected, apparently satisfied. "Unfortunately, though, too many people are too busy trying to prove the other side was in the wrong instead of learning from History. I know a lot of people died on both sides. I lost a lot of friends from basic during the fights, but that is not reason enough to perpetuate the fighting with the new generation, who had nothing to do with the conflict." He then sighed and looked slightly down. "I apologize, Dah. I know you were there during the reclaiming of Shanxi."
"Don't worry, Pollux. Even though I can't be that detached from the way the fighting occurred, I agree with you. The perpetuation of the infighting is a setback, despite what the purists think. Humanity can't become a part of the Galaxy unless we learn to coexist." She scoffed, but then turned to Shepard. "It gives me hope that some of the younger generation have a mind of their own."
"Agreed," the Executor responded, with a serious note to his voice. "Now, to the reason we are here..."
"Yes, well, Miss Shepard, you must be aware that Armistice Day is around the corner," the Lieutenant said, and then continued without waiting for an answer. "Every year a group of humans called Terra Firma organize a protest against other species here in the Citadel. Every year the protests nearly get out of hand and give C-Sec a headache, the Alliance a nightmare in terms of negative feedback, and humanity a terrible reputation. Last year, things actually escalated to vandalism and violence in one of the Wards. Thankfully, no one ended up injured, but the Council still pressed our Embassy to come up with an answer to the this year's protest. And, even though they have no affiliation with the military, the Embassy charged us with finding a solution." She explained, clearly exasperated.
Shepard supposed she could understand. Her own experiences with the Embassy and Terra Firma were blemished after the whole Harkin situation.
"The solution we found was to hold an event to highlight the similarities between the species instead of the differences and we're going to count with the help of C-Sec."
"It's in C-Sec's best interests to avoid any incidents. Plus, C-Sec is the largest multi-species organization in Citadel Space with an increasing number of human members in our ranks," the Executor added. "After some deliberation, we decided to exploit a somewhat martial point of view of our cultures…" he explained, and something in his phrasing made Shepard lose her breath. "The Citadel Self-Defence Classes were supposed to have a major role in the whole affair, but with our instructors otherwise engaged; this is no longer possible…"
"Unless you help us…" The woman pointed out.
"I don't see how I could possibly be of any help," Shepard replied, unsure. What was it that they were asking of her? And why did she feel like she wouldn't like it?
"Your name came to our attention from the CSDC reports," Dah replied. "The three instructors in charge of the program have nothing but good things to say about you. They say you're dedicated and open-minded, and quite skilled at both turian hand-to-hand and asari arketa, but, even more important than that: you're also a certified black-belt karateka," the Lieutenant pressed on, making Shepard's blood run cold.
She clenched her fists; her back went rigid even as her arms quivered. Very suddenly, her whole body went cold and she must have gotten really pale because in the following second Dr. Yoshida was kneeling beside her and asking her to take a deep breath. "It's okay, dear. Just be calm, please."
Shepard closed her eyes for a second, disappointed with her own lack of control. She thought herself stronger. She didn't imagine her family, Mindoir, and her past to still have such a great pull over her, even though she still refuses to talk about it – her brief discussion of the subject with Garrus was an olive branch, but she still had a long way to run before being able to say that it was behind her.
"It's okay. I'm fine," she told the doctor, refusing to look straight into her eyes. She stared at the two projections over the table, instead. The Lieutenant had a deep frown, but mentioned nothing. She couldn't just deny herself from helping, so she would have to find a middle ground. "How does that help you exactly?"
"As a black-belt, you can take over training in the absence of a master, can't you?"
"Normally I would say yes, but it would require that a proper karate class be established; and I'm only a Shodan, which is a black-belt first class. It hardly makes me a master," Shepard explained. She wondered if the Lieutenant knew anything about the traditional fight.
"You are still allowed to make demonstrations and teach any interested party the first kata, at least."
Damn! Obviously she knows enough of the technicalities.
"It's true, Ma'am, but it's been at least two years since my last contact with karate. I'm afraid I'm a little rusty."
"It'd be a good opportunity for you to retake training, then, wouldn't it?" Dah suggested, firmly.
At this point it had to be quite obvious that she was trying to find her way out of the commitment.
"You're not forced to help us," the Executor interrupted, making her flinch. "Why don't you take some time to think it through? We can grant you three days. If you decide to help, let us know and we'll organize everything."
It wasn't that she didn't want to help; she just wasn't sure that she wouldn't choke and run, ruining the demonstration.
"I'll help if I'm able!" She said, trying to breach the topic from another perspective. "It's just that… Karate isn't just a series of random movements. It's about the cohesion of body, mind and soul. I'm not sure I can get to that kind of unity in such a short notice."
"I see," said Pollux; contemplation in his subvocals – and Shepard was surprised at being able to spot that. "I really hope you can help us out, then. It'd be a shame to let such a discipline inducing tradition to go unnoticed by the Council races. Especially those who think of humans as unruly…"
"Then, I suppose there's nothing else to be done here," said Dah, clearly unsatisfied by the outcome of their conversation. "We explained our piece, now it's up to you, Miss Shepard. I hope you come around; the Alliance would be very grateful if you did." She made a point of emphasizing the last part.
Shepard wondered if she was being paranoid or if it actually had something of a threat under those words, considering that she was intent on enlisting.
After the farewells were given and the connection was cut, Shepard remained still, staring at the transmitter on the table for a few heartbeats. She used to love going to the dojo and going over the katas until exhaustion hit. It used to give her a sense of purpose and peace and relaxation, but now the mere thought of practicing made her tense and in conflict with herself as she went through those feelings of loss all over again.
Still, she wished she could help further human-turian relations and her guilt was on the way. It's not like she promised to never use karate again. She only made a decision, but it wasn't like she could abandon the lessons she acquired over a decade of her life. It was ingrained in her posturing, in her discipline, in the way she didn't slouch around like other teens her age. Chellick even said that she held herself in a particular way that made her movements more fluid and effective than most humans and she knew it was due to her years of training the Ancient Martial Art.
A hand rested on her shoulder and she looked up, seeing Dr. Yoshida beside her, staring at her with kind eyes. "I don't really need to tell you this anymore, but you know where to find me if you want to talk. You don't have to-"
"… Deal with it alone. I know." Shepard finished the sentence, nodding with gratitude to the doctor.
On the other side of the table, Mrs. Keller cleared her throat (which was a known indication among the children that she'd broach an unpleasant topic) and Shepard prepared herself for it.
However, before the director could say anything, Emily stood up, pushing her chair with a clatter and reminding Shepard of her presence. "Hey, Shep, can we go now? You promised you'd help me with my Math lesson after this was all done…"
For a fraction of a second, Shepard could swear that the other girl had a grin on her face, but just as it showed up, it was gone. "Uh, yeah. I'm sorry, Emily, just, uh…" She looked at the doctor and stood up, ending the conversation, even as she asked if there was anything else out of politeness.
"No, dear, go ahead! Only God knows how much help Emily needs at school…" said the doctor, playfully.
"Excuse me, then," She approached Emily who was fidgeting by the door, and looked over her shoulder to the elder women. "Have a good afternoon, Ma'am. Doctor!"
The girls walked through the corridors in silence till they had put enough distance between them and the office. Then Emily started giggling and Shepard couldn't help but join her. "Really smooth. Nice timing…"
"Oh, I know! I'm awesome!"
"Just one thing…" Shepard looks at with a frown. "Shep? Really?"
"Well, once we're such good friends, I'm allowed, ain't I?"
Emily tried not to show it, but Shepard still was able to hear a flicker of hesitation in her voice. She didn't know why this kid was so set in being her friend, but she was thankful for that. It was her own damn fault (what with her anger bursts during the first six months after the attack on Mindoir), but even if she didn't want to admit it, her time in the orphanage had been quite lonely.
"Yes, you're allowed!" Shepard smiled, and then turned mockingly serious. "Try not to call me that in public, though. Or people will start to think I'm going soft."
"And we wouldn't want that," Emily replied with a lopsided grin.
The smile didn't remain on her face for long, though. She grew gradually more serious as they approached their dorm.
Once they entered the room and were certain to be alone, Emily sighed heavily and turned to Shepard with a determined expression. "Do you wanna talk about it? The karate stuff, I mean. I saw how much it bothered you; you were as pale as a ghost when they brought it up…"
"I'm sorry, Emily. I'm not ready to talk about it, yet…"
She liked Emily and wished she were strong enough to open up, but… Even without meaning to, Shepard could feel the invisible wall she erected around herself getting back in place. The only difference was that, looking in the younger girl's eyes, she found such a deep understanding that it felt like the wall was starting to crack.
"So what are you gonna do about Armistice Day?"
What, indeed… She thought, sitting on her bed.
"Don't know, yet," she admitted thoughtfully. She knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to help in every capacity, but needed time to convince herself that she could do it without breaking apart afterwards.
"I could be wrong, but," Emily thoughtfully scrunched her nose and sat beside Shepard. "You don't really have much choice in the matter, do you? Where the Alliance is concerned, I mean."
"You caught that too? Damn!" Shepard heaved a sigh and hopelessly lied down. "I was hoping it was my imagination…"
They remained in silence for a bit. Each dealing with their own thoughts, but Emily was a person of action and didn't like to handle the quiet for long.
"Well, once I've already done my homework, I'll take a walk and see what else is going on around this place," She stood up and looked at Shepard with a slight grin. "Why don't you do the same? Shed some light on the matter? See your boyfriend, maybe?"
Shepard shook her head as Emily hastily walked out the door, waving goodbye. Truth be told, she'd like to talk to Garrus, see what he thinks about it all. It'd been barely a week, but she missed him. Missed his company and hearing his voice and their nightly chats over the Comm.
She stood there staring at the ceiling of her dorm for a few more heartbeats before sitting up. "Well, why not?" She asked herself, getting to her feet.
If he's not there, I can at least work on the puzzle a bit before heading back.