itch [ich] – English verb/noun
1. to have or feel a peculiar tingling or uneasy irritation of the skin that causes a desire to scratch the part affected...
2. an uneasy or restless desire or longing...
Since the age of six, Thane's world was one of self control. Everything was to be planned, whether it was quieting his breaths, silencing his steps, or ensuring that every inch of his body was in place to avoid detection by his prey. Even outside of a fight, it had become habit to carefully guard his actions so as not to draw too much attention; you never knew who was watching.
So this itch... this damned annoyance...
It was crawling up the base of his spine and along his back and arms as he sat in the shuttle on the way back from Aeia. After he and Shepard had rushed to the Citadel to deal with Kolyat, Jacob had requested the commander's help, sending them almost completely backwards to an uncharted planet on the fringes of the known galaxy. Fiona had been quick to agree to the task, as Thane had learned when brought along to help, of aiding the operative in locating his father. That was when it had started, just a minor vexation he had attributed to the tropical heat of the planet, but it had begun to spread the more they ran after the 'hunters' responsible for the trouble. And now he sat in silence, hands on his knees while the two humans discussed how soon Cerberus vessels would be arriving to aid survivors and deal with the wayward captain, trying to avoid the temptation to rub his back up against the back of his seat. No, it was too slick any way to be of any help anyway... and the only thing more uncomfortable than the itch was the idea of explaining to the two humans exactly what was wrong.
With an inner sigh of frustration, he closed his eyes and let his head fall back to appear to be dozing as he focused his will on keeping his skin settled. It was a long wait until, finally, the Kodiak docked into the ship. Ah-ha. Without a word, he headed to the elevator that would take him to the medical bay with a marching stride, not speaking a word to either human.
Pulling off her helmet, Fiona watched Thane walk off with some confusion as she stepped out of the shuttle. He seemed to be in a hurry... but for what? Possibly something to take care of. No, this seemed a little more... she wasn't sure what the word was. But it seemed to her he was more trying to get away from something.
Maybe it's you, badgered a little voice in her head. She quickly dismissed the idea as foolish, but the small thought remained, quietly seeding doubt into her imagination. Things had changed between them since he had revealed the fact that he had a son, how his wife had died... and had admitted his attraction to her. And how she had in turn confessed her own l-
No, 'love' wasn't the right word at all. Or, at least, too strong. Sexual attraction? That just sounded clinical to the point of being dirty. But what else was there to call it, this eagerness to be near him more often than just the hour-long or so talks or on a battlefield? She stared down to her hand as she peeled off her heavy glove, remembering the feel of his fingers resting around hers. She had felt the scaly skin before, of course, shaking hands after a chat or an accidental brush of wrists and palms while at the mess table. But that day in his adopted quarters... It had been different. And things had felt different between them since as well. A slight air had developed that she couldn't deny; the way their eyes met and the words between them hadn't changed but they weren't quite the same either. They carried a new significance. It wasn't like they were jumping on each other in the hallways or something, but at least one person had noticed the change; she hadn't been able to help the smile that had tugged at her lips when Kasumi had noted that Thane's eyes 'fluttered' when he spoke of her. The mental image that had painted in her mind was... pleasing. She still wasn't sure if that was good or bad either.
It was pounded into the heads of Alliance soldiers that fraternizing was bad behavior and she had followed it as a golden rule. Sex in your squad could lead to favoring soldiers over another, lack of focus or a dozen other things that could jeopardize not only missions but lives. Even before joining the military, she hadn't been much on the dating scene. Before the Alliance, getting decent food and some extra credits was more of a forerunner in necessities than a stable boyfriend. And after signing up, her training and education fulfilled her life emotionally. There had been a few men at one time or another, always friends but not romantic interests, but never something she wanted to continue on the long-term. She'd simply had no desire to do so. Now, when battlegrounds and weapons had become familiar and close, the possibilities of attraction to a man - an alien at that - was unnerving. Mordin's enlightening talk hadn't exactly helped either. Her job required her to know exactly what she was doing, and this was new ground. It was... was...
Jacob arched an eyebrow at his commanding officer. "You all right, ma'am? You seem really interested in your fingernails."
"What? No. I just-" Curling up the bare hand into a fist, Fiona coughed into it as if to clear her throat. "Dismissed."
Taking the hint, Jacob gave her a curt nod and a grateful smile before he walked off as well, leaving Shepard alone in the docking bay with her thoughts.
She sighed at her own confusion. Varren, husks, mercs. She could handle all of those with professional ease. But... well... emotional things, her own emotions at least, were not her forte. Maybe there were books. Drell Are From Rakhana, Humans Are From Earth?
Oh bugger this. She had to go speak with the Illusive Man regarding their info leak... her love life would have to wait. As the soldier stepped into the elevator, she considered that perhaps salarians had the right idea about this whole sexuality thing.
"Hm, yes, interesting."
"Interesting?" Thane asked as he sat on the edge of the examining table. He had consulted with Chakwas first, but she had admitted that she hadn't been prepared for a drell patient and didn't quite know as much about his problem. So the professor had been brought in as a consult. The windows of the medical bay were tinted for privacy, something he was glad for; sitting with his back to open glass was perturbing enough without knowing that the rest of the human staff could peer in and see his skin and the sorry state it was in.
He was shirtless, and for a reason; little pale flecks of skin were in a pile around him on the table as they slowly dried and peeled off his body. Some were in patches, none bigger than an inch or so wide, but the majority were coming off in individual scales. The ones that hadn't come off yet hung on his skin like old paper, discolored greens and blacks, with the new skin underneath still sensitive and bright as it adjusted to dealing with being the outermost layer. But regardless in how big or small they came off as, the entire process was ridiculously uncomfortable... if not entirely unfamiliar.
"So this is a regular physiological occurrence for drell?" Chakwas asked curiously as she read off of a data pad. "I wasn't informed about it when you came on board."
"I did not expect it to appear so soon. Usually, ecdysis occurs on a more predictable time frame," replied Thane, idly scratching at his arm. Though the peeling had begun on his back, as it usually did, it had begun to spread rapidly. It was strange to him; it had never happened so quickly. The process usually took weeks. It had only taken a few days for this year's moulting to spread.
"Skin sheds annually, part of regular drell biology, not unlike the timing of female salarian egg-laying, or asari and the onset of matronhood." That was Mordin talking as he walked a small half circle around the table, occasionally pausing to gently take Thane's arm in hand or pick up a dead flake to inspect them. "Should have expected it to occur while aboard the ship; your personal quarters are drier than the rest of the ship, more similar to natural habitat, prompting physiological response to temperature. Sometimes triggered by emotional distress as well. Have only seen in it in one patient before, though, so unsure. Rarity of drell patients and social stigma makes it hard to study."
"Stigma?" queried the human doctor, glancing back to Thane for an explanation.
The assassin shifted uncomfortably. He was very aware of his unique position on the ship; every other species of the galaxy had a long and distinguished place in history, for good or bad. Drell were relatively new to the scene compared to most, nor had they made the social advances that other new-comers, such as humans, had accomplished. For many of the Cerberus crewman and the members of the squad Shepard had built, he was the first drell they had ever encountered. He had grown used to being the source of much of their information regarding his species. "It is... not discussed much, even among my people. This sort of thing is usually handled only between family members, or those in a close personal relationship."
Chakwas looked abashed for a moment. "I apologize, I didn't mean to pry. I promise, no one else on the ship will know."
"I'd like to keep it that way," he said with some relief.
"No need to give the rumor mills heavier ammo as it is..." the doctor added with a chuckle, turning to her computer to put in some data.
Thane reached for his undershirt and stood, pulling it over his head and down his back carefully. Even so, a few scales caught roughly on the fabric, sending jolts of minor pain not dissimilar to paper cuts along his body. But something in her words gave him pause."Rumor mills?"
"Whoops. Ah, forget I said anything. Just an old woman's mumbling." She gathered up her tools and set them back in their proper places before un-tinting the windows back to normal. "If you need any further help, Sere Krios, be sure to let me know. I'll be happy to assist as best I can. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to go get some lunch."
... Hm. His glance darted out the window to the Cerberus crew as Chakwas joined them in the mess hall. Humans, in his experience, liked to talk. The only other people he could think of that talked more were salarians... and salarians only because they talked faster, giving them more time to fit in more words. And even then, he considered it a tight race. It didn't surprise him that, even with a organization as strict and secretive as Cerberus, more than a few half-truths and half-lies were stirring around. Few forces in the universe could hold back the phenomenon that was the human urge to gossip. "Thank you for identifying the problem. I can handle it from here."
"Ah, Thane, I would advise taking some assistance in this matter!" quipped Mordin with concern as Thane put on his coat. Ugh, the heaviness of the material only made it worse. "Can be complications with self-removal, due to difficulty in reaching furthermost flakes. Infection, buildup of bodily fluids under the conflicting layers, can lead to temporary and permanent skin damage possible."
Shaking his head, Thane declined. "I'm aware. But thank you, I've taken care of it in the past by myself. It's nothing against either you or Chakwas, I assure you. It's merely a personal choice."
Doubt was clear in the professor's face, and Thane could almost hear the gears grinding in that genius brain, but he made no argument. "As you wish. Let me know if you want any further help."
"I will." Turning on his heel, Thane left the room. He didn't get far, though; his preoccupation on the shedding was pulling his attention away, just enough that he bumped into someone who was heading into the entrance. The door had already shut behind him, ensuring he didn't fall when the collision forced him a few steps back. His attacker, a familiar one, quickly reached out to grab him by the wrist to steady him.
"Sorry, Thane," apologized Fiona, offering him that usual half-smile of hers. "Didn't see you coming. You were walking awful fast."
"Oh." He coughed and smoothed out his jacket. He could feel where her chest had bumped into his; every inch of skin there was now ferociously awake and prickling. "My apologies."
The human shrugged it off. "Don't be, my fault more than yours. I was just heading in to see if Chakwas was available. You doing all right?"
He met her eyes. Did she suspect? "Yes, why do you ask?"
"You were coming out of med bay," she pointed out, waving a hand to the room just behind them. "You didn't catch anything from Aeia?"
"No, no. Just a check up. No need to worry, siha."
Her lips twitched just a bit. She was pleased by his title for her, as much as she tried not to show it too much. "Ah, okay."
The pair paused without a word between them. I should say something... he thought to himself, but he realized he wasn't entirely sure what to say. Not even a day had passed since they had last spoken, truly spoken and not just exchanged barks of information in battle, but only a fool wouldn't recognize the shift their relationship had undergone. The smile when he had called her 'siha' brought a small bit of pleasure to him that he kept to himself. It was a pleasure he wasn't entirely familiar with anymore.
A flake dislodged itself. The only physical reaction he had was the barest twitch of an eyelid. Gods, give him patience. Or thicker skin.
"Thane?" A hand settled on his arm; Shepard was trying to get his attention. "Are you sure you're all right?" she asked with a look of slight worry. Her grip was light, tender, but he could feel the weight of her fingers pressing his coat's fabric heavier into his aggravated body's surface.
For a moment, he considered telling her. She wasn't drell, but she knew him far better than anyone on the ship. No, better than anyone left in the galaxy. But to speak of his own physical matters beyond what could affect future missions seemed... intimate. More intimate than he himself was sure he was ready for; one did not simply forget years of marriage and an even longer period of solitude in a matter of moments. Such things required careful consideration. And, he considered, this would only burden her further. The crew was preparing for the final haul with their own emotional or physical needs, and he knew Fiona put a lot on her own shoulders to make sure they all were at ease before they made their assault.
"Nothing, siha. Please, don't let me keep you. Chakwas is getting lunch," he said and stepped out of her way.
She opened her mouth briefly as if to say something but seemed to reconsider, taking a small pause of breath before replying, "All right. See you later?"
Thane nodded. "Later," he agreed and watched her stride towards the tables to join the doctor. No, he decided as he continued his own walk to his room, he wouldn't tell her. She had too much to deal with already; his minor health problem was not something he wanted to place on her building tower of worries. He had handled it without an intimate for over a decade now. While it had not been so aggressive before, he could take care of the matter himself. It seemed unfair to continue asking when she already gave him more than what he needed.
A spasm of itching along his side made him twitch. Or maybe it was simply his guilty conscience.
Peanut butter and jelly. Mmm...
Midnight cravings took on a new meaning on a space ship that didn't have day or night as those born on Earth knew it. The crew of the Normandy had a schedule of its own, though, to try and keep it synced with the internal clock of the different species aboard; most of the crew took a standard eight hours of sleep with a rotating skeleton crew operating it while the rest of their comrades peacefully slept. It left the already quiet ship even more eerily silent without the background noise of talking and boots walking across the floor. Fiona didn't much mind, though; it meant she could head down to Rupert's kitchen without him looking over her shoulder like a mother hen. While grateful for the supplies she'd bought, he was still aware that possibly the only person on the ship with less skills for cooking was EDI. And EDI had a good reason, because she didn't have hands to burn anything with. As such, while it was never actually said, it was an accepted de facto rule between Ruper and Fiona that she wouldn't enter his kitchen and mess with anything flammable, spill-able or generally capable of making a colossal mess.
But a growling stomach could not be ignored; she had found herself laying in bed staring at the ceiling until she couldn't take it anymore and found herself where she was now, behind his counter as she pieced together a sandwich. See, no real cooking involved, just bread and condiments. It didn't technically break the rule...
She was just about to take a bite of her snack when she heard a muffled sound. Military training and gut instinct had her freeze, food still inches away from her face, as she carefully tilted her ear to the source of the sound on the other side of the room. There it was again; short and quiet, definitely a voice, strained as though the perpetrator in question was trying to keep themselves quiet. But it was the slight flanging effect she couldn't miss that tipped her off as to who was the source.
Putting the sandwich down, she carefully walked over to the door to life support and listened, taking care that her bare feet didn't slap loudly against the sleek floor. For a third time, the sound came again, distinctly Thane's voice. And it sounded like he was in pain. She recalled how he had looked when he had stepped out of Chakwas's office earlier; his discolored skin, the slight twitches of muscle barely hidden, his lack of concentration. Could it be...? Without another thought, she opened the door and stepped in. "Thane?"
It was him inside. With nothing on his upper body, the resident triggerman was kneeling on the floor with his jacket and shirt beside him, and he was... doing something. It took her a moment to realize that he was scratching, blindly pulling at the skin along his back, at least the parts he could reach with obvious effort to be careful. Patches of bright green and black-striped skin were visible in the dim light of the room, a stark contrast to the dulled scales around them. But once he heard her footsteps behind him, he turned around, a look of surprise crossing his face before he had time to restrain it. "Shepard?"
"Oh. Shit. Sorry." Quickly covering her eyes and turning around so her back was to him to give him privacy, she apologized quietly, "I didn't mean to barge- well, I did mean to barge in, but..." Well damn, this was getting more ridiculous by the minute. "I heard noises and got... worried." Stupid. So stupid.
From behind her, he replied, "It's all right. Just, perhaps, knock next time." He sounded a little awkward... even embarrassed. But, hey, not angry. She figured that was a good sign. "It's safe to turn around."
When she did, he had pulled his jacket back on, though he had left the shirt on the floor. Her eyes darted down of their own accord before she could really stop it. Huh. No belly button. "I'm sorry," she said again, raising her eyes back to his. "I can leav-"
He dismissed her words with a shake of his head. "No, no, it's... it's all right." The drell arched an eyebrow as he gave in to his own curiosity, eying her in turn. "Though I am curious as to what you are doing up at this time."
She glanced down to see what he was looking at. Oh. She was still in her pajamas and barefoot to boot. It occurred to her that neither of them had seen each other in anything outside of her armor and civvies or his suit. Strange, how the loss of just a few feet of fabric could slightly alter the perception of someone they thought themselves familiar with to make them new again. And it only highlighted what sometimes she forgot. He was an alien. Not quite as obviously as a hanar, elcor, or even a turian. But seeing the deep red frills on his abdomen and sides, the way his waist was just a little too long for a 'normal' person, reminded her of something she'd heard about once. What was it? Uncanny valley. When something was so close to being human like, but once in a while you noticed the features that weren't, all you could do was think about them?
"Got the nibbles," she said with a shrug. "You?" An awkward look passed over his face, prompting her to add, "If it's personal, never mind. Look, I can go, I'll let you get back to-"
"Siha." When she paused, he offered her a small, patient smile. "I don't want you to leave. What I'm doing is..." He paused, seeming to think over his words carefully. "I'm not sure how to say it, to be honest."
Thane, at a loss for words? That was slightly more surprising than anything she'd seen so far. Though given her career and general life, she found that very little could surprise her anymore. "Try me."
He blinked once, his face neutral. "I'm shedding."
...Well, consider her last thought debunked. "Shedding," she repeated flatly, wondering whether or not she needed an upgrade in her translator.
"As opposed to humans, who shed on such a daily basis that you fail to even notice," he explained, "for drell it happens once a year or so, and obviously on a larger scale. The old skin dies and falls off so the new layer can take its place. It's perfectly healthy... though I was not expecting it so soon. It had already happened shortly before I joined you. Why, I'm not sure. But it isn't harmful."
"I see," she said, trying to keep the slight tone of 'ew' out of her voice. It's totally natural, she reminded herself, and it's not like humans don't have gross things their bodies do. Bet he's never had his appendix out. But it didn't help much; while her senses and heart completely understood it, a deep part of her primal brain couldn't help but be curiously disturbed. "You looked like you were having some trouble with your back," she noted, remembering his efforts to reach where his hands could not.
Again, Thane took some time before he spoke. "Usually, this is a time shared between family or lovers, for drell." His voice was quiet, giving a gravity to the words as Fiona realized the privacy of the information he was relaying. "To allow someone to help you with your molting is to trust them when you are most vulnerable. You have to expose yourself, without protection, to show your back to them. And even if they mean you no harm, if they don't remove the scales correctly or fail to remove some, it can be painful. As such, it has become taboo among my people to speak or handle it casually."
"But it's all natural isn't it?" she asked, moving to sit on the edge of his cot as he took up his usual chair, turning it to face her. "Seems to me it's a weird thing to not want to talk about."
He nodded, talking as he idly dragged his fingers along his forearm to dislodge some stubborn flakes. "It is. But, as you and I both know all too well, people are not always sensible about things. Consider. Sex, for all species, is a natural function for our bodies. For humans, it's pleasant when both parties are willing, and it can lead to the happiness of shared union and offspring. Yet, even as you travel the stars as such an advanced society, it has been noticeable to me that many aspects of your culture still has many views on what is appropriate for flirting, your preferences, the number of lovers you have... Many of your views regarding one of the most basic of bodily and emotional needs remain somewhat negative."
He had a good point. She recalled how she had felt the warmth around her neck and face when he had first spoken to her of solipsism, his slipped mention of 'the tast[e] another's tongue in your mouth', and how she had thought it a bit too much information when he was simply describing a kiss. How would she have reacted if he'd described his memories of being with someone? She considered herself fairly liberal and open... it was surprising to look at her own thoughts and behavior and realize how much of it was affected by cultural bias. "May I ask a question, then?"
Thane's lips quirked up in an amused smile. "When have you ever not, siha?"
She shot him a cocky look before asking, more seriously, "If you usually do this with people you trust... you've been alone for a long time. How were you able to... handle it?"
"Some drell and non-drell doctors are trained in how to deal with it, though there are few outside of hanar space. When I was away on work, I had a steady contact of those I knew, though I usually went to them under an assumed alias for my own protection. But other than that..."
But other than them, it was Irikah who helped you, finished Fiona to herself. The dead woman had been on her mind a lot lately, since she had learned about how Thane's wife had met her end. She had known Thane before she had known Irikah, but now it was hard to imagine him without her as well... and Fiona had never even seen so much as a holo of the woman. Thane didn't describe her much, and she understood why; his feelings had been so strong, she was sure that talking about her would bring back painful memories. Not wanting to inflict that on him, she tried to respect that and not pry. Shepard didn't know if drell believed in ghosts, but that was what Irikah had become in her mind, forever haunting Thane's own soul in a way she knew Fiona Shepard would not. It wasn't envy she felt, most definitely not animosity... but the knowledge that her memory would have a hold on him until the day he stopped breathing was heavy on her thoughts.
"Is there any way I can help?" she murmured, reached over to brush her fingers over the top of his hand.
He glanced down to her touch before meeting her eyes again. "Siha... I would not expect you to. Even with my own culture, you are human. I doubt this is an entirely comfortable subject for you."
Fiona gave a small shrug. "There has to be some things about humans that you find really weird, I'm sure. What happens if you aren't able to get it all off?"
"At best, I'm merely itchy, my skin is tight and dry. It's bothersome. At worst, the oils and sweat from my body will build up underneath the dead skin, preventing it from acting properly, and may lead to some health issues."
She paused for a thought. Then, as cautiously as possible, she asked, "Well. Do you want some help?"
His eyes met hers, impossibly black in the dark. But she remembered how brightly lit they had been just over a day ago, in the flashing C-sec lights that had invaded an apartment while his son threatened to murder someone. Her eyes were green, too, but they had paled in comparison to the vivid emeralds and jades she'd seen then. Now she imagined them, staring at her with that unshakable focus he had, and only on her. It was hard to hide her shiver.
"I... I don't want to impose, siha."
Shepard shook her head in disagreement. "I don't mind, Thane. If it's bothering you, I want to know what I can do."
Turning his hand over so her fingers rested in his palm, he gently enclosed his own over hers."You have already assisted me more than I thought possible. This is a far smaller matter than what you have helped me with in the past few days," he reminded her quietly.
"Exactly. I helped you then, for the exact same reason I want to help you now," she countered. She couldn't help but rise to the challenge of his opposition, even when the challenge was her boy- her frien- her person of interest and his skin problems.
Thane seemed to recognized this. He knew as well as anyone that to try and deter Fiona Shepard once she had gotten something into her head was about as impossible as trying to teach a vorcha astrophysics. "If you wish."
"Okay. How do we do this, then?"
"Water can help. I was about to go shower when you interrupted me."
Shepard winced. Oops. "Sorry about that."
He held up a hand, dismissing the apology. "I would like to keep this discreet, if possible. I'm sure you can imagine why."
"Right," she agreed. The human crew and the rest of the squad talked like pyjaks on red sand. "What about my quarters, then? If anyone asks, we're discussing upgrades or strategy or something. And even if they don't believe it," she smirked, "It's none of their damn business."
"I'm inclined to agree, siha," he said, returning the smile. "Though perhaps we should wait until tomorrow. We should both try to get some sleep."
It made sense. If it was as sensitive as he claimed, she didn't want to try it while half-awake, and she had business with Garrus on the Citadel. She started to stand and, reluctantly, released his hand. It felt quite useless, hanging empty again at her side. "All right. It's a date."