The Normandy's next stop was somewhere in the Far Rim. The Commander needed to speak to the quarian admirals, who were finally willing to help with the war.
After the admirals boarded the ship, they disappeared into the war room with Shepard. When they finished the meeting, one of them, a female who wore a lilac colored suit, was touring the ship with Shepard. Everybody seemed to know her, and she appeared to be a close friend of Shepard's.
"My name is Tali'Zorah vas Normandy." She introduced herself, extending a hand to Valerie, who was amazed at how the quarian knew of this human tradition. Perhaps it wasn't just a human thing after all. "Just call me Tali."
"Alright, Tali." Valerie shook her hand. "It's a pleasure. I'm Valerie."
“There are many new faces here. The Alliance had stationed you here too?” Tali asked.
Valerie rubbed the back of her neck, “er...not really.” 'please don’t go down that path.'
“Oh?” Tali placed a hand on her waist.
Valerie could swear the quarian was raising her eyebrow under the mask... assuming quarians had eyebrows, of course. ”Well... I was with Cerberus - “
“Cerberus!?” Tali exclaimed, interrupting her speech.
Valerie frowned, glad she couldn’t see the disgust in Tali’s face. She expected the quarian to turn and leave, or say something rude...
... but she didn’t. Instead, Tali coughed and spoke again in her accented tone, “I’m sorry to interrupt. That was just kind of surprising. Please, keep going.”
Valerie blinked several times. ‘she doesn't turn away?’
She cleared her throat as she spoke again, telling Tali the short version of how she ended up on the Normandy.
To her surprise, talking to Tali was much easier than she had expected! Valerie found herself comfortable after just a few minutes. Their little chat turned into a deep conversation as Valerie began to ask why Tali had “Normandy” in her name, and she ended up learning more about quarian traditions. It was fascinating!
“Wow, Tali. Thank you so much. That was really insightful. Not exactly how I imagined quarians to be, but it’s still very interesting.”
Tali chuckled, “And how did you expect quarians to be?”
Valerie dropped her head down, shame sweeping through her. “Well... Cerberus spoke poorly of everyone that isn’t human...”
“Cerberus... those racist bosh'tets. I see what you mean.” Tali said, surprising Valerie again.
She still wanted to defend herself, though. She wasn’t like that anymore. “Yeah, I know. But that was long ago and I don’t think like them anymore. I have eyes to see and my own mind to think.”
“You don’t seem like a racist person, Valerie. You’re very nice.”
“I’m glad you think so.” Valerie grinned. She certainly liked Tali, and was looking forward to working with her.
Soon after Tali left,. Shepard called for a conference. Valerie was excited, this was going to be her first official mission on the Normandy. She wanted to make a good impression and show her real abilities, especially since she had not been doing her best during the coup on the Citadel due to her injuries. She wanted to show Shepard what she really was capable of.
The mission was irksome. They got in a big geth dreadnought to destroy the reapers-code source, which, according to Shepard's explanation, was the key to stop the war between the quarians and the geth.
But the supposedly abandoned dreadnought had many, many geth in it. They just came out of every corner and the team soon had seen enough of those synthetics to last a lifetime. After a tiring run through the dreadnaught, they met another geth who appeared to be a friend of Shepard. The Commander certainly had the weirdest friends in the Galaxy.
They released the geth from the dreadnaught's system and stopped the transmission of the reaper-code that way. The geth were now crippled in their defences and instead of retreating, the quarians did the most stupid thing by attacking the dreadnought, while the team was still on board. Shepard was not amused. Luckily, they managed to escape thanks to Shepard's geth friend, Legion.
After reaching the Normandy safely, everybody was exhausted and tired. Shepard went to have a little "talk" with the admirals while the rest of them rested for a bit, before doing their casual jobs around the Normandy. For both Valerie and James, they had to sort all of the new weapons and mods the quarians gave them, or those salvaged from the geth ships.
They worked quietly, it wasn't until they were halfway through that James started talking
"So…" He started awkwardly, cutting the silence, "What do you think about what happened earlier with the quarians?"
Valerie took a quick glance at James, then continued working. "It was dumb, really, really dumb. We're their allies, they're supposed to have our backs, not shoot at us." She said, not bothering to hide the bitterness in her voice. "Yet, we still have to work with them. I certainly don't envy Shepard."
"Couldn't agree more." James shrugged, then cast his gaze upwards, as if he was remembering something. "Although… it makes me wonder; Wouldn't we be also that desperate and do the same if we lost earth?"
Valerie stopped for a second as she considered James' question. "I would hope not but… who knows?"
James chuckled grimly, "Yeah, I guess you're right… I think I'm just missing Earth."
She shrugged. "I don't know…"
James looked at her curiously. "You don't know what?"
"Er… I've never been to Earth." I never felt that sense of home, she added to herself.
"Well, that's a shame. Where are you from?"
Leaning her back against the wall, a deep sigh escaped her throat. "I have no idea. Some remote colony I guess… until Cerberus took and raised me."
James' eyes widened at the news, "Cerberus took you and raised you?"
Pouting her lips, she looked at him with a raised eyebrow. How come he didn’t know that? She thought everybody knew for some reason. "Yeah. You didn't know?"
"Shepard didn't tell us many things about you," He admitted.
Valerie nodded her head then gazed down again, avoiding eye contact.
"That's… awful. I'm sorry to hear that." James said.
She had been nothing but a 6 years old child when she had been taken. She couldn't remember anything about her life before that. Her only memories were of shadowy figures that felt like a family to her, but the memories were so dark and vague that she doubted how real they were. She sometimes wondered how it would feel to have a family but didn't really dwell on the thought.
She cleared her dry throat as she looked up to James again, one of his fingers was stroking his bottom lip as he eyed her. His expression was unreadable, which made her wonder what was on his mind. "So, what about you?" She finally said after long moments of silence. "Where are you from?"
"I've heard a lot about this city - they say it's beautiful." Valerie smiled at him, a genuine smile.
James chuckled, "Yeah, I wonder how it looks right now though, with the war and Reapers." He sighed deeply.
Valerie thought with a chill that it was probably nothing but ruins now. "They'll rebuild. I'm sure."
She moved towards him and put a hand on his shoulder, offering him comfort. Suddenly she felt awkward and jerked her hand away.
She had just touched the man! And it had felt nice? But he didn’t look bothered by it which made her feel better. She made a mental note to watch her actions better.
"I hope you're right… I really do." James murmured, turning back to the gun in front of him.
The next two days passed quickly as the team was running from one mission to another, barely having any time to relax. But they were finally ready for the final push to Rannoch, the quarian homeworld. The team gathered in the war room, to discuss the strategies for the upcoming big battle.
"Garrus, Vega, Tali and Alenko are coming with me. Legion will be hacking the doors and guiding us." Shepard set her fists on the table, wearing her all-business mask, "EDI, keep us updated on any new development while we're down there. Liara, I trust you to keep an eye on the admirals…"
The Commander took a breath, "Valerie and Javik, you both have the day off."
Valerie felt disappointed, but she had been going on pretty much every mission since the geth dreadnought, so it was fair.
"Also," Shepard said, directing her speech to Valerie. "I want to speak to you about something once this session is over."
Valerie nodded her affirmative, although she got an unsettling feeling. What could the commander possibly want to talk about?
Luckily, the session didn't take so long as they quickly came up with a solid plan. After everybody started going away, Valerie approached Shepard with a concerned look. Hundreds of thoughts played in her head at the same time.
Shepard motioned the woman to come walk beside her as they left the room. The smile on the Commander's face told Valerie that she was probably worrying a bit too much.
"We haven't really had the chance to talk ever since you joined the Normandy. How are you doing?" Shepard asked.
Valerie suspected this was more than just a friendly talk. She felt her heart racing, What’s wrong? What have I done? What’s going to happen?
"Fine, thank you. The crew has been really nice to me and…" Valerie paused for a second, trying to piece her words together. "No words can describe my gratitude. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity"
"Of course, Valerie. You’re an asset to the team.” Shepard grinned, then pinched her nose, "I wanted to know more about the group you had been working with. You said that there was a possibility that they're on the run now. Do you have any idea where they might be?"
Valerie bit her lips and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "I wish I had a clue… There were plans of escaping in case The Illusive Man found out but I don’t recall seeing any names of planets or bases or even systems. But…” She sighed at a sudden realization. Concern filled her voice as she spoke again, “They were supposed to contact the Alliance once they escaped… ”
Shepard frowned, “Hmm, we’ve been trying to locate them for some time, but we found nothing. And nobody contacted the Alliance… Do you think they survived?”
“I kept covering for them for a really long time. They didn’t get anything out of me.” Her voice trembled slightly as she spoke, “But when I was tossed in that base… I assumed they either escaped, or were captured. I certainly wish the former but..." She trailed off.
"How did they capture you?" Shepard asked, looking at her from the side.
Valerie took a deep breath. This wasn't exactly her favorite topics. She had been caught completely off guard that day. It was supposed to be a normal morning. Next thing she knew, she was on the floor, electrocuted and gasping for breath.
The memories sent shivers through her body. Her hand involuntary moved to her face, tracing the scars on her nose and cheeks, her eyes wide open but unseeing. She shook her head trying to lock the memories back in their small corner of her mind. This wasn't an ideal time to break down and cry – not that she ever cried. She would just curl into a ball and keep abusing herself mentally until she was numb and couldn't feel a thing.
A hand suddenly patted her shoulder, cutting her thoughts. She looked up at the Commander who was smiling at her.
"It's okay if you don't want to talk about it. I understand.”
Valerie smiled in appreciation for Shepard’s understanding. She certainly wasn’t ready to talk about this, not yet.
“You know what? There's a machine that heals scars permanently in the med-lab. In case you’re interested…”
Valerie looked at Shepard with wide-eyes, "It'll heal them with no traces remaining?"
"Yes," Shepard pointed at her face, "Look at me, do I have any?"
Shepard didn't really have any scars, her face was smooth.
Narrowing her eyes, Valerie said, "I didn't think that was possible."
"It's not exactly common tech." Shepard shrugged, “so.. what do you say?
Valerie’s expression suddenly changed. "I think this is great!” she exclaimed, “Thank you, Commander. I'm forever in your debt."
"Don't worry about it, Val. You're a part of the team now. The equipment in the med-bay is for everyone."
Val closed her eyes and smiled again, she had no idea what she’d done to deserve all of this. "Thank you, really."
Valerie spent the next hour going back and forth in front of the med-lab. She knew what she wanted, why was this so hard? Her scars symbolized her pain, repression, and humiliation. Losing the scars wasn’t going to change the way she looked at herself, but at least she wouldn’t feel disgusted every time she looked in the mirror… or would she?
After a few battles within herself, she finally entered the lab. Dr. Chakwas was sitting in her chair, and she turned to face Valerie, greeting her warmly.
"Shepard told me to expect you."
"Oh, yeah…" She didn’t know if she should feel relieved or nervous.
"I'll start the surgery in a minute, but first, I need to run a few check-ups to see how you're doing."
"Is that necessary?” Valerie asked, then regretting it, after the doctor shot her one of those scary looks.
"Well, you haven't seen in what kind of terrible condition you were in, when you arrived.” Dr. Chakwas looked like the memory was almost painful to her. “Your condition improved a lot in the first two days but I still need to make sure, especially with those implants of yours.”
Valerie sighed and sat on the bed. Her thoughts drifting back to that day, but again, she locked them in a small corner in her mind.
The checkup didn’t take as long as she expected, and Dr. Chakwas' smile told her that the results were very good. She moved and sat under what she supposed was the scar-healing machine.
After a while, the surgery was done. Valerie’s face burned slightly because of it, and turned blood red. The world around her was shaking and she felt like throwing up.
"Congratulations! Now, the redness won't disappear until a few hours have passed. But the results will be great." Dr. Chakwas said as she helped Valerie up. Her tone was positive enough to make Valerie believe that everything was going to be alright.
"How are you feeling?"
"Dizzy," Valerie placed a hand on her forehead as she tried to gather herself.
"You should go take some rest now." Dr. Chakwas handed her an ointment to apply and led her out of the med-bay.
Valerie dragged herself to the crew quarters and fell into her bunk.
Next day… After the battle for Rannoch.
The ride from the shuttle back towards the Normandy didn't take long. James couldn't sit still, he was so full of excitement. All of that fighting, adrenaline still buzzing inside of him… They had achieved the ultimate victory today by killing that Reaper.
As they got out of the shuttle, part of the crew was waiting for them in the bay cheering for them. And why wouldn’t they? They had killed a Reaper! A big damned Reaper!
James first went to the other side of the room, he wanted to take off his armor. After he was done, he walked proudly towards the others with a big grin on his face.
"Alright guys!" He said. They all turned their faces to him. "Drinks on…" Something drew his attention and struck him speechless. His eyes were wide open as he pointed at his face with some weird motions of his hands. "Y-your face…"
His stuttering was directed towards Valerie, who looked very… different. Her facial scars were all gone, and her sharp features were much clearer. She looked ten years younger, in fact, she looked like someone who had just come out of her teenage years. She was stunningly beautiful.
She rolled her eyes with a coy smile on her face.
"Damn… you look really... different and wonderful." James said breathlessly.
"That's exactly what I told her." Shepard said, smirking.
“Shepard told me that machine was magical… but now that I see the results, I do believe her.” Valerie smiled coyly.
James caught himself staring at her and quickly turned away.
After a few chats about the mission, almost everybody went back to their rooms, preparing for a little celebration when they get back to the Citadel. Valerie approached James, who was sitting on his bench. She had a question that she wanted to ask James about, but she waited until everybody was gone.
"I've been wondering… since you guys have such a thing, why don't you use it?" She asked.
"Oh-ho no! I LOVE my scars… they make me look cool." James grinned and ran a finger across the scars on his cheek and nose.
"True. Yours are certainly attractive, but mi…" Valerie trailed off once she realized what she had just said.
James' cocky smile grew wider and he spoke in a flirty way, "You think I'm attractive, huh?"
"I… I... didn't—I—I—meant…" Stuttering, she buried her face in her hands while James burst out laughing.
‘No, no, no! What’s wrong with me? Did the surgery affect my brain or what?’ Her subconscious yelled at her.
She couldn’t believe that she said that out loud; she usually thought before talking. James was a really nice man, friendly, with a great sense of humor. He had a certain handsome badass look on him that she admired. But was she really attracted to him?
In fact, a part of her was. Her mind suddenly snapped at her. It was impossible, and completely foolish. Even if she really liked him and acted on her feelings, there was no way for James to feel the same about her. She was nothing but a mess, a big terrible mess. Also, this was not the time for relationships, they needed to focus on the war. And if they won the war, and survived, she knew she had to answer for her crimes in the past, and run from Cerberus.
"It's okay! I know I'm irresistible!" James said through his laughter.
Valerie punched him playfully on the shoulder, "Steve is going to hate me for making your head even bigger than it already is."
"What!?" James still chuckled breathlessly, his cocky grin never leaving his face. "I don't have a big head… well, mostly."
She punched him again, "You, Mr. Vega, are a tease."
Valerie spent the next day in the mess to pass her time with the rest of the crew, and to avoid the shuttle bay after the slip up with James. She knew, he had probably forgotten but she was still so ashamed.
She was glad she spent some time in the mess, though. She was engaged in a really interesting chat with Garrus, and he was telling her a story about one of his many adventures. She sat on the chair and simply listened to him in awe while drinking a warm cup of coffee. The turian had certainly lived to become a legend.
Unfortunately, their story was cut off by Shepard, who came walking towards them with hurried steps.
"Commander? Are you alright?" The turian asked in worry.
Shepard nodded then turned to Valerie. "Big news!"
"We may have found your scientists." Shepard said with a triumphant smile.
Valerie almost spat her drink, her heart pounding hard in her chest, "What!? How?"
"Traynor picked something up in the communication bursts. We are en route to the base now." Shepard let a wide grin grow on her face. "You want to come with us to pick them up?"
"Hell, yes!" She shouted out, determination clear in her tone.
She had to save them. She had to.