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."
Before finally being able to sleep again, Thane had managed to get enough chips off of his arms and face that it wasn't entirely noticeable except for his slightly fresher color, which would wear off in a day or so as the new skin adjusted and hardened. The dryness and itching remained, though, in the spots where he'd been unable to reach it. But, he reminded himself as he rode in the elevator up to the combat deck with a book in his hand, that will be amended soon. With Shepard's help, at that.
He had mixed feelings on that despite sleeping on it. Part of him, admittedly, was nervous. How long had it been since he had been so exposed to anyone who wasn't a medical professional? And even then, there was an obvious difference. A doctor was doing their job. But this was private, intimate. Though he knew she was offering mostly out of worry, not knowing or possibly understanding the cultural implications, her offer to help had struck a chord in him. Her aid in saving Kolyat had been a request as a trusted friend, when his feelings had only begun to culminate, bubbling under the surface and overshadowed by his fear for his son. It had taken only a moment to realize them but only later, after exiting the C-sec office, when he had seen how happy she was to see Kolyat safe... What could have been a tragedy of proportions he could scarcely bear to imagine had instead been a blessing.
Yes. He wanted her help with this. Suddenly, Thane felt foolish for thinking to keep it from Shepard in the first place, out of the belief that she would find it distasteful as most drell did. Hadn't she learned of his transgressions, against both the evil and good people in the galaxy, and accepted him regardless? This was just another facet of their increasingly complex relationship... she already was intimate with him, emotionally, mentally. He had divulged his darkest memories to her in a moment of pure need. She had seen his soul... he had no fear in exposing this temporary weakness of his physical body.
The doors of the elevator opened up to reveal the combat deck. Kelly waved to him and he returned it before turning to the lab. The professor was, for once, not standing over a microscope or computer screen but sitting by the window with a tray on his lap and a pad in one hand while the other rhythmically scooped food into his mouth with a spoon. It was a usual habit for Mordin; he never dined in the mess hall, not out of anti-social behavior but because to him it simply made more sense to bring it back so he could read or work some more while he ate. And Thane theorized the singular task of eating was not enough to keep the salarian's attention span occupied anyway.
Mordin looked up from his food and gave Thane a welcoming smile. "How can I help?"
Thane held the book out in offering. It was old and battered, with a stained cover of a pale human male sitting in a chair while electricity stormed all around his head. "I was instructed to give this to you by Daniels if I came up here," he said, folding his hands behind his back when Mordin took it and looked it over. "She mentioned you had been expecting it."
"Ooh, yes, yes." Mordin smiled even wider, nodding approvingly as he focused entirely on browsing through it, pausing occasionally to brush a finger over the aged pages. "My Inventions, The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla! She's lending me her copy, shocking to find an antique paperback still readable, very interesting figure in Earth history, very much so." He took a deep, happy breath. "Glad to see it. But, sorry, ignoring you. Wanted to speak with you, actually."
"Yes, yes, needed to have this conversation for a while now, actually, prior to your ecdysis occurring." Mordin pushed himself up to his feet, standing to meet the drell eye-to-eye as he fell back into his role as a physician. To Thane, it seemed to him as if Mordin was reading off his lines, like a script... or he'd repeated something similar before, perhaps to someone else. "Aware of your attraction to Shepard. Do not mean to pry, only want to ensure you are both safe."
"Safe," Thane repeated curiously.
"Correct. Drell-human encounters can have some risk. Mostly for the human partner, though." Mordin waved a hand to Thane's small square of exposed chest for an example. "Skin shedding aside, oral contact on the human's part can induce hallucinations, mild to severe. Same fluids responsible for that can also create external rash in humans with prolonged physical contact. Drell can have similar reaction after molting, new skin not yet acclimated to outside damage for a few days, so would suggest both participants thoroughly clean beforehand, hands especially." When Thane didn't offer anything to the conversation aside from a stunned silence, he added helpfully, "Can provide educational materials, textual or video, have provided EDI with well-known relationship advice, very thorough diagrams of erogenous zones-"
"I- no," Thane interrupted, holding his hands up in some attempt to pause the professor in his vocal tirade. Blessed gods... At Mordin's confused face, he said, "She offered to help me with my molting."
Though thrown off track, Mordin quickly recovered. "Ah! That's good, good, studies show process goes much faster when participating in pairs, much more relaxation in the muscles and epidermis, allowing dead skin to be removed with less stress. Much preferable to doing it alone. Was going to suggest as much yesterday, but did not wish to make you uncomfortable."
You talk so easily about erogenous zones and oral contact, but thought that would be disturbing? Thane thought privately, amused. "I see. But she can't develop that rash just helping me with-"
"No, no, no. Presuming you use warm liquids..." Mordin paused and seemed to reconsider his words. "Presuming you use warm water, the natural oils and sweat that drell produce would not be present, posing no risk."
"Thank you, then. I won't bother you further."
"No bother, Thane, but one last thing." Striding over to his work bench, Mordin bent down to rummage through the carefully organized items, eventually producing a small blue bottle. "This should help." He pressed it into Thane's hand, who turned it over to read the label.
Lubri-scale!, the loud writing shrieked, a photo of a male and a female drell gazing at each other in apparent bliss with very bright text underneath declaring, Have a happy molting.
"Helpful for your current state of things," said Mordin in what Thane could only believe was an amused tone, "and the behavior associated with it."
"I will. Thank you, professor," murmured Thane, still staring at the bottle. Shaking his head out of his imagination, which had suddenly become a very dangerous place to be in this public space, he turned the bottle so the label was hidden inside his palm and walked out the door. Though he didn't actually look to any of them in the short space from Mordin's lab and the elevator, he would swear he could feel the eyes of nearly every crew member on him - or possibly on what he carried - until he turned around to face out of the compartment, upon which work was suddenly discovered and conversations got fresh new starts.
As the elevator sunk him downwards, Thane pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose in silent prayer for patience.
How did one dress for a date that would be spent in a shower?
Shepard was staring down her closet like a general staring down an invading horde. Was she supposed to dress nice? From what she had looked up on the extranet, this was supposed to be important. Almost ritualistic; parents would help their children up until the time they became adults, upon which it was generally believed that it was only to be shared with a romantic partner at best, at worst a very good friend. Like Thane had said, doctors were trained, and it appeared there were other drell who would assist... but the data had a sort of tone that implied, at least to her, that these men and women weren't exactly lisenced professionals, though they still took some sort of payment. While accepted as alternatives, neither were considered very acceptable ones.
But on the other hand, she mused, what the hell did she have that was going to look good while the two of them were just moseying about in her bathroom? And he wouldn't even be looking at her most of the time; while huge for a personal bathroom on a ship, it was still only big enough for two human-sized people to stand comfortably in. Still... she admitted, she wanted to look decent.
That was the confusing part at the moment. She did want to look nice. It was an odd sensation; half of her time was spent in blood- and mud-soaked armor that had to be aired out and washed daily from the amount of sweat that built up on the inside... and the other half was spent in standard Cerberus civvies that she'd accepted only because she didn't have the desire or time to go shopping, despite Kelly's repeated insistence. And that outfit more often than not found itself in a similar state of filth as she fiddled with her combat drone's schematics, helped Garrus with his calibrations, or worked out to stave off boredom.
Practical. I'll go for practical, she decided and changed into some loose, tan shorts and a bright red tank top that hugged her sides. Yes. That'd work. But on a moment of afterthought, she reached for a bottle on her desk. It'd been a present from Kasumi, a gift for helping her with Bekenstein. She had gone out of her way to note that it was a smell both drell and humans found rather pleasing. It had gone untouched until now; a thin layer of dust sat on the lid as she unscrewed it and sniffed it. Smelled like... fruit. Huh.
... Ah what the hell.
Just as she sprayed an experimental mist at her neck, EDI's voice rang, "Thane wishes to enter, Shepard."
"Great." She ran a hand through her hair, promptly decided saving the galaxy was a little easier than getting her hair to stay in place, and replied, "Let him in."
The doors pulled apart to reveal her guest; it appeared he hadn't wondered about what to wear at all. He was in his usual suit, the black one this time, and paused once he was in the door to glance at her. "Am I too early?" he asked with an unsure tone.
"No, no. Let me give you the grand tour." She waved a hand dramatically to the room. "The bed, the desk, the fish tank, etcetera."
"There are no fish," he observed with a tilt of the head as they both stared at the large wall of empty water.
"Seemed kind of cruel to keep buying new ones every week over and over," she said with a hint of shame. "And there's the bathroom."
"So I noticed."
"Mmhm. ...And that's about it. Is there anything we're supposed to do?" she asked, disliking the uncertainty she could hear in her voice. But she wanted to be sure she didn't step on any toes tonight.
Seeming to follow her train of thought, he shook his head and replied, "Nothing special. Your presence is enough." And without much ado, he pulled his jacket off.
Years of military training in strict behavior and muscle control completely failed in her brain as he laid the item over the back of her chair, followed by the shirt underneath. Yep. Still no belly button. In some attempt at regaining control of the moment, she said, "You said something about a shower last night."
"Yes. It will loosen the skin, make it easier for both of us," he replied. He stepped into the bathroom but paused to turn back to look at her. "Normally, this is where I would invite you to join me..." he replied, a cautious offer in his tone.
She held up her hands in gentle denial. "I think I'll wait. If you don't mind."
Thane nodded in understanding and shut the door. The sound of water soon followed as she sat and waited at her desk, tapping out her fingers on her knees. A few weeks ago, I was tracking this man through a penthouse and watched him kill a complete madwoman. A few days ago, we stopped his kid from permanently altering the political scene of the Citadel... not to mention permanently altering Talid's face. And today... today, he's naked in my shower. Fiona shook her head and turned around to focus on her messages instead. Something from Wrex about how there was still a breeding request for her on Tuchanka and he wanted to know if she wanted it held open, an update on Kolyat from Bailey about how the kid was settling in, a message from her mother back on Earth, and others. The spam, though, was the most entertaining as usual. She was still snorting at one declaring her as a possible recipient of 'Fiona Shepard's hidden stash on asteroid Errol 68! Send your credit chit information NOW and don't miss this DEAL!' when she felt a hand rest on her shoulder.
Turning to look, she was met with a very damp drell, still shirtless and in some very fitting shorts. Black, of course. Somewhere in her brain, hormones were firing off like rockets. Boom, boom, boom. "I am ready," he informed her, "if you are."
"No time like the present," she replied coolly, and followed him into the bathroom. Planning ahead of time, she'd found two small stools for them to sit on. Without direction, he sat on one, bending slightly so his elbows rested on his knees, with the seat behind him left for Fiona. She picked up a small pail beside the stools and filled it with warm water from the sink. His back was even worse than it had been the day before, peeling everywhere and darker than she'd yet seen his skin even after Haestrom, where even Grunt had walked away with a sunburn. A large flake stood out in the center, barely hanging on; reaching out, she tugged it off.
The action prompted a stifled hiss from Thane, his back arching away from her. "Siha."
"Damn, sorry." Angry at her thoughtlessness, she rubbed her thumb against the spot. It seemed to help as he relaxed back into place, peering at her from over his shoulder. "I didn't realize they were that sensitive." It made sense now, though, those sounds she'd heard the night before. It couldn't have been easy to try and be careful when his fingers could hardly reach pieces he couldn't even see.
"You didn't know," he replied patiently. "Though I hope you remember what you've learned now." Though she could only see part of his face from over his back and shoulders, the smirk in his voice was audible. It took Atlas-worthy restraint not to give him a smack. Instead, she reached down for the cloth. It was thick and soft, just right for carefully rubbing off the chips without being too harsh.
"How's that," she asked, lightly rubbing at a spot. The scales came off in little diamonds, sometimes joined together, much easier than the first one. She shook them off the cloth, letting them rest on the floor. Alien dandruff, she thought with some amusement. Heh.
"Much better," he said. "Thank you again, siha."
"You don't have to keep saying thanks. I know you'd do the same for me, right?" There was a slight pause between them until she amended, "If I shed my skin once a year, I mean."
She had to pause in her work when he chuckled. "If you did, I would. In this case, I'm afraid I won't be able to return the favor."
"If I wasn't so picky about it, I'd let you cut my hair?" offered the human as she returned to it. The flakes were stubborn in places, and it was an effort to be delicate. Being gentle was not her job, unless it involved explosives. But, then, could you really be considered 'gentle' when you were reprogramming robots to go up in flames? "Or, hey, since we're going back to the Citadel, you can buy me dinner."
It was an obvious opening. He glanced backwards for a moment with a look of study before replying, "I would like that."
She smiled back, hoping the flush she could feel in her face could be attributed to the steam still hanging in the room. Returning to her task, she diligently scrubbed away, slowly but surely lessening the large patch of skin away to a small section, and then to nothing. The uncovered layer was fresh and colorful, the edges of the black stripes crisp and clear while the red ribbing was as red as blood. The tiny singular scales that differed from the colors around them, green on black or black on green, stuck out, apparently not freckles in the same way that she had freckles. For a moment, her fingers lingered, dragging down slowly over the newly exposed skin. Smooth as silk.
Underneath her hands, she felt a shiver go through him, the muscles bunching up briefly before releasing. She pulled back immediately. Had she hurt him? No, she hadn't pulled any scales... A realization crossed across her mind, and she couldn't help but laugh. "Thane Krios. Are you ticklish?"
"Ticklish? No," he denied without even turning his head.
"Are you accusing me of deceit?"
An evil smirk slowly appeared on the engineer's lips. While she strived to be a good example for her crew and civilians, she would admit to a small prankster's streak. She slid her finger down the small crease of his spine again. Though he didn't shake, she could feel the tension there; she heard the barest of gasps escape him, sending a primal thrill through her. "Possibly."
"Siha." His reaction was quick. Thane shifted, turning around to better face her. "I haven't entirely explained this, I think. The reason this is usually restrained, once we enter adulthood, between lovers or married partners is because..." He coughed slightly into his hand. "The exposed skin's nerve endings aren't entirely developed. The layer hasn't yet adapted to the air or sunlight. As such it is... sensitive."
Fiona blinked. "Right."
With the look of someone who is trying to very patient with a small child, animal or simply a rather thick-headed person, Thane added, "And not just in the sense of being painful when done incorrectly. Even when it is done correctly, it is... stimulating."
Stimula- oh. Oh. She could definitely feel the blush in her face again, but it wasn't from flirting this time. "Well. That makes a lot more sense now," she said, removing her hands before she comitted any further intergalactic faux pas. That certainly explained why it was shared with those who were in a more private relationship... And what better way for two drell in molt to help get rid of their problem than creating mutual friction? "I apologize."
"Don't be." His face still set in that neutral expression he wore so well, he added quietly, "It's not something I would apologize for."
The pair stared at each other for a moment, perhaps both aware that each of them were treading new ground, if in different ways. Was this too soon? Too fast? He had been a husband, and a widower, for a long time... and she had never had these feelings for any person. Much less a non-human. The feeling of being amateur to this sort of scene seemed to be mutual. Both adults were taking their time, testing the waters with a metaphorical tip of their toe before they made too big of a splash getting in. I survived living in the Reds, fought more aliens than Captain Kirk,and given death the middle finger. Why is this so damn hard? she couldn't help but wonder. But when she opened her mouth to comment, Thane beat her to it.
"If it makes you uncomfortable, we don't have to continue."
"I was more worried about making you uncomfortable, actually," she answered truthfully as well as shamefully. "I didn't- don't want to rush you. With the mission, Kolyat... Irikah... I'm okay with biding my time until its the right time. And, well, you said you've never had affection for another species. Neither have I. You're... really the first man I've had this sort of feeling for emotionally." She shook her head and reached for his hands, folding them between hers. They were smooth and still slightly damp; she noted in the back of her mind that drell got the same wrinkly finger effect that humans did when wet. He glanced down briefly to their entwined fingers and palms before looking back up to her as she said, "Thane, to be perfectly honest? It's weird to me. Really weird. I'd rather be honest about it then pretend it's totally normal for me and hide it from you. And it's something you need a little help with. You trust me with it." Her grip tightened, a small squeeze of his fingers. "I'm glad that you do."
She swallowed her pride and little fears and said as plainly as she could, "You mean a lot to me. Whatever reservations I've got... I know that I can beat them, if you're with me."
After a long moment of silence, he surprised her with that small, subtle smile he had. She loved that smile. "You honor me more than you know." He let go of her hands, instead placing his on her knees as he leaned in and kissed her. A small one, just a peck on the lips, really. In the brief moment that he was so close, he smelled like clean leather and fresh soap. It was not the most romantic kiss she'd ever received. But, as she felt a warmth spread and her mood soothe over, it might have been one of the best.
"So... you're not...?"
"Siha. If I did not wish to be here, I wouldn't be," he replied patiently. Reaching up, he stroked along her cheek with his thumb. The warmth of his fingers was more inducing than any drug she'd toyed with in her ill-spent youth, and she eagerly soaked it up. It was the closest he'd been to her that she could recall. And she was pretty damned sure if it had happened before she'd remember that. A shared but unspoken need hung heavy in the air between them.
It was do or die.
Getting to her feet, Shepard extended her hands to him in invitation. Thane didn't even pause in following her as she led him slowly through the door, walking backwards as she did so, then past the desk, the two of them coming to a stand still at the steps that led down towards the bed. The pair sat on the edge, turning towards each other without a word. With one hand back to steady herself, she smoothed a hand down his sides and was rewarded with a hard shudder from his body, his mouth sighing his chosen title for her as he pulled her close to his hips before silencing himself with his lips to hers. Skin pressed to skin; his was drying, she could feel the dry coarseness as it returned, rubbing her in that alien way she had come to crave the sensation of. And if that was just his chest and arms... Mordin's little warnings rang out in the back of her mind, though it was easily ignored for now. She had time.
She shifted to lay down until she was flat on her back, arms above her head, prompting him to lounge on his side with an arm still wrapped around her waist possessively as he continued planting kisses along her neck. "Do humans have times like this?" he murmured questioningly between delicate little pecks. Each one made her shiver, and he liked that; his expressions could be subtle, but she had come to know them well, and he was clearly enjoying this pleasant torment. Bastard. Damned, wonderful, glorious bastard who'd stolen her heart, and a few other pieces of her body too. "Times of sensitivity of the flesh?" Kiss, kiss, kiss. "Of need in your soul?"
Leaning her head back, her eyes half-lidded to let the sensations soak in, she thought to herself. "Hm. Valentine's Day. Birthdays and anniversaries. And especially when the other one has messed up nice and good, and you get to reap the rewards as they have to make it up to you," she murmured, smirking at him and delighting when he returned it.
"I'm not quite sure that's the same, siha."
"Maybe. I wouldn't mind testing that theory." She paused for only a moment. "If... you're ready."
"And you as well," he replied in agreement.
Fiona smiled from ear to ear and reached for him.
As an alarm went off, chirping quietly but insistently, Thane awoke. Immediately, through habit and conditioning, he took in his surroundings. Unfamiliar room. Door, locked, within five steps of running if needed. An array of model ships, and one fluffy little animal he wasn't sure of, none of which served as solid defense. Bedsheets were tangled around him up to his waist, cumbersome if he were forced to move quickly. And a pale, red-haired human female lying across from him, arm slightly curled around the pillow they had set up a barrier between them before sleep - Thank you, Mordin, he thought to himself - as her body balled up in a pose of desired security.
She looked at peace. He continued to lay on his back, watching the slow rise and fall of her chest as she took in the steady breaths of her repose. He had seen many emotions on her face and through her body. Anger, grief, surprise, joy. But to see her so still and without worry was new. His memory sealed the look of her face, lined from the wrinkles in the pillow case and hair curling with messy disorder over her eyes, and he knew he'd remember it fondly.
He scooted a little closer to Shepard, taking great care not to disturb her. It was hard to believe this little alien was the person who had saved him from the death he had accepted on the Dantius towers, the person who had helped him save his only child, the person who continued to surprise him at every turn just when he thought he had seen all there was to see. Could he have done any of this without her? He didn't know. Only the gods knew the future and he accepted that in good faith.
Shepard, savior of the Citadel and commander of the legendary Normandy, snored lightly in her slumber.
It was hard to hold back the chuckle in his throat at the muffled sound. With a delicacy honed into his body to deliver death as swiftly and discreetly as possible, he leaned in to kiss her forehead, and breathed the words that had been whispering in his soul for some time now. "Siha. I love you."
The human mumbled a bit in her dreaming but it was too jumbled to make out. Only after he had relaxed back to his claimed side of the bed did he hear the barely audible reply of, "Wove 'ou, 'oo."
Smiling came so easy now. He could remember such long periods of time when he hadn't been able to. No, not been able to... he'd merely had no reason to. Now he couldn't hold it back at all when he reached for her hand and her fingers gently curled around his into the light grip. He closed his eyes, and began to sleep again, dreamless.
And for the first time in many years...
Thane Krios felt comfortable in his skin again.