This story was inspired by my own experiences of being disowned by a parent due to differences in viewpoints. I've often wondered about spacer Shepard's stilted relationship with her mother and decided to explore that here. I'm going to do my best to allow Shepard vulnerabilities and insecurities in her personal life while maintaining the hard-ass renegade soldier that (this) Commander Shepard is.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Commander Shepard leaned against the railing at the docks. She looked out through the broad panes of glass that lined the bay at the long, silver ship glistening in the artificial sunlight of the Citadel. NORMANDY was emblazoned on her hull. Shepard had seen the ship at the unveiling ceremony, but this was the first opportunity she’d had to really look at it without a press of people in the way, each of them trying to vie to have their image taken with the pride of the Alliance fleet. The stealth frigate was a joint human/turian venture, a physical representation of how far the two species had come since the First Contact War. She still couldn’t believe that Anderson and Hackett had recommended her to be its captain.
She was also still trying to come to terms with the fact that her name had been put forward as the first human Spectre and by a turian at that! Her evaluation had gone better than she had expected. Nihlus Kryik, the turian Spectre who’d recommended her, had proven to be very different from the other members of his species. He didn’t resent humans, he saw past their flaws to the potential in her species, and—most surprisingly—he had a sense of humor. Most of the other turians she’d met seemed to have sticks shoved so far up their asses it was a wonder they could sit down.
Like Councilor Sparatus, she thought darkly, and the one he’d assigned to train her, Saren Arterius. Sparatus didn’t have any reservations about displaying his disdain for humans. To be fair, however, she did have to admit that she would likely have a negative view as well if Ambassador Udina was the one with whom she spent most of her time. Udina didn’t make it any easier on any of them with his blatant political maneuvering and his ceaseless demands for more concessions for humanity. They’d already been made a Council race and been given an embassy. They’d been given this ship. They had been granted permission to have a Spectre—something many older races did not yet have—and yet he still didn’t think it was enough. No, she couldn’t particularly blame Sparatus for disliking them.
Saren Arterius, on the other hand, was a different story. His hatred of humanity was the stuff of legend. It bordered on obsession. He was as different from Nihlus as volus were from krogan. Where Nihlus was open and friendly, Saren was cold and distant. Where Nihlus preferred mercy, Saren was ruthless. Nihlus enjoyed humor. Saren didn’t seem capable of comprehending it. She could imagine Saren having that icy glare even as a child. He’d probably held magnifying glasses over bugs just to watch them burn and called it play. It amazed her that Nihlus had been his protégé and that the two were somehow friends. She didn’t think Saren knew what a friend was.
What she did know was that her placement under him had been deliberate. The Council had granted the humans a Spectre, but Saren had already sabotaged that once when Anderson had been in training under him. Anderson had been livid when he’d found out she’d been assigned to Saren and had put her suspicion into words. “They’ll pay lip service to granting us a Spectre, but the Council has no intention of it ever happening. They’re setting you up for failure, Commander. Mark my words. You can’t trust Saren. Watch your back, Shepard.”
Quiet footsteps came to join her at the rail and a blue-armored shoulder bumped up against hers. “Ready for the big day, Shepard?” his flanged voice asked warmly.
Shepard looked up at one of the only other turians she’d met whom she felt she could ever call a friend. She’d met C-Sec Officer Garrus Vakarian a month ago when he’d responded to a call to Flux down in the Wards. A group of Alliance marines had been harassing a female turian in an alleyway behind the club. Even the turian females looked predatory and capable of defending themselves, but this one had been backed into a corner. When a dressing-down hadn’t worked on the drunken soldiers, Shepard had taken them down.
C-Sec was called and Garrus was one of the responders. It had turned out that the female she’d rescued was Solana Vakarian, his younger sister. Sol, as he called her, was tough and had been a special forces operative herself, but she was newly pregnant and something about turian physiology and the way the females’ plates were situated meant that a strike to her abdomen could kill the developing child. Shepard and the Vakarians had formed an instant friendship after that.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she answered.
“I heard they assigned you to Saren Arterius,” he said casually, moving to lean against the rail in an echo of her posture.
“Yeah,” she said. “Do you know him?”
Garrus shook his head. “I know of him. Arterius was a big military family back on Palaven. His older brother, Desolas, was a general.”
“Was?” she asked.
Garrus nodded. “No one really knows what happened. It was all covered up and kept very hush-hush, but he died and Saren was somehow involved. Saren himself fought in the Relay 314 Incident. I suppose that’s why he hates humans so much. I’m afraid there isn’t much insight I can give you. This all happened when I was a child. He was already a Spectre by the time I joined the military and I never met him.”
He paused and looked down at her consideringly before saying, “How much do you know about our culture?”
“What I learned in xeno-studies mostly,” she answered. “Nihlus explained some things during my evaluation missions.”
“Do you know what our markings mean?” he asked.
“Something about your clans or colonies?” she said. Nihlus had grown closed-mouthed when she’d asked about them.
He nodded. “Our markings identify our home colonies, but more than that, they tell people where we belong. They give us a sense of both belonging and accountability. For example, any turian who sees me knows that I am a Vakarian because of these markings. My family founded Cipitrine, the largest megatropolis on our homeworld. Rather than the generic Palavenian markings like Sparatus and Nihlus wear, we have the right to wear the original Cipitrine markings. From there, it’s a simple matter to discover which Vakarian I am. So, if I were to commit a particularly heinous act and get caught or be seen by another turian, it wouldn’t just be my identity that would be known and affected but that of my entire family.
“Lacking those markings is a sort of taboo in my culture. ‘Barefaced’ is one of the worst insults a person can sling at one of us. It implies certain things and none of them good. Either one’s family originates outside of turian colonies—like a mercenary group, has been exiled or cut off from their family, or has chosen to deny their family. They’re no one. They have no accountability and no sense of community. A barefaced turian can’t be trusted.”
She wondered why he was telling her this and then remembered her trainer. “Saren is…”
He nodded again. “Exactly. Just…be careful, Shepard. You’re the only human friend I’ve got, and honestly, one of the only real friends I have,” he said and tapped the railing with his hand. “I’ve got to get back to work. Good luck.”
“Thanks, Garrus,” she said. “And you take care, too. That red sand dealer you’re looking into isn’t going to be happy when you catch him.”
He grinned widely and said, “I know.”
Yet another person was telling her that she couldn’t trust her mentor and this was one of his own species. What the hell had she gotten into?
I have taken some liberties with the timeline and the ship because I prefer the Normandy SR-2 and it has more room for all of the characters.
“Again,” Saren snarled and charged.
Shepard widened her stance and sank low to brace herself. She didn’t make the mistake of watching his eyes this time. There was nothing there to read. This time, she watched the position of his body, the slight shift of his weight that signified his next move. She dodged his first swing and he blocked her punch, but she was able to hook her ankle around the spur on the back of his leg and throw his balance off enough to move out of his reach. She realized her mistake just as his boot made contact with her chest, throwing her back and knocking the wind from her.
She leapt up and darted for cover as his hand began to glow. Saren didn’t believe in sparring. He said that sparring was training for fighting and that it was asinine to train at a lower level than what one would face in the field. Thus, sparring with Saren meant full-contact, full tech and biotic attacks, and full armor. He also had a tendency to disable her shields, calling them a crutch that couldn’t be relied on. What is your plan when you have no cover and your shields fail, human? Surrender? Admittedly, that would be appropriate for your species. It also meant that he denied her medigel until she was able to get to the med bay since running out in the field was a possibility.
The only concessions he made to training rather than truly fighting were concussive rounds in their weapons and that he stopped short of actually killing her. He had, however, made her spend a day walking around cloaked after she’d taken a concussive round to the head. She’d been ‘dead’ and dead men didn’t eat, drink, or receive medical treatment. They also didn’t get acknowledged by the crew. They did, however, scrub the decks with a toothbrush whether they had a concussion or not. She’d felt like an ensign again.
Over the past weeks, she’d slept no more than four hours in a night and those hours were generally broken up into thirty-minute cat naps wherever she could find a dark and quiet space. She had seen her too-fancy cabin only to shower, change, and study since coming aboard. She’d slept at her desk more often than she had at her bed and even those episodes were always cut short as he’d set the ship’s VI to alert him if she fell asleep while working. She had quickly learned not to allow that to happen as it was a guaranteed way to wake up with an angry turian attacking her or a new, even more sadistic, punishment.
So far, he’d cut her hair as he said that her long ‘fringe’ was both a sign of vanity and a weakness because it allowed a handhold for an enemy even when kept in a tight bun. It had taken her three days to get the choppy cut evened out and one of the turian engineers had mentioned that cutting the fringe in a turian was a form of both torture and humiliation. Shepard wondered if that was why Saren’s were so uneven. She’d lost count of the number of cuts, contusions, and broken bones Dr. Chakwas had patched up. She’d lost almost ten pounds because, aside from sleep deprivation, hunger was one of his favorite tools. He generally allowed her to remain hydrated, but it was clear to her that he wanted her weakened and slow. He hadn’t yet learned who he was dealing with.
“What are the base specifications of the Phaeston assault rifle?” he called out.
Damn Saren and his love for assault rifles. She called up a mental image of his preferred weapon and began to mentally unpack the specs from the attachment points she’d visualized in order to help her remember the details. He’d made her memorize the details of every weapon available in the galaxy because he said she needed to be able to immediately identify what her enemy was carrying and what its capabilities were. “Phaeston, manufactured by Cipitrine Armory, fully automatic,” she called out as she readied a plasma ball on her omni-tool. “Weight: 33 ounces. Capacity: 68 rounds. Fire rate: 60 rounds. Damage per shot: 15/100. Accuracy: 24/100.”
“HMWA Master X assault rifle” he said.
She popped up and released the plasma ball. His shields deflected it but she saw them flicker. “HMWA Master line of assault rifles, now defunct since the advent of heat sinks. Damage per shot: 384/400. Shots before overheat: 77. Accuracy: 77.”
“Wrong,” he said and she winced as his warp ripped through her. “Shots before overheat.”
“77.3!” she corrected. “Meaning that number is an average rather than a precise count. Therefore, it cannot be relied on if waiting for the weapon to overheat before acting.”
“Weight?” he asked.
None of the specs she’d seen had listed the weight. However, she had held his once and could make a guess. It was heavier than his Krysae sniper rifle but not as heavy as her Black Widow with lightweight materials. That meant that it was between 75 and 98 ounces. “80 ounces,” she said.
“Are you guessing or are you certain?” he asked.
“I’m making an educated guess,” she answered as she fired her pistol at him.
He shot back with his rifle and she grunted as the slugs slammed into her shoulder. “81 ounces,” he corrected. “Krysae sniper rifle.”
This was one that she could answer easily. Sniper rifles were her bread and butter. “Krysae sniper rifle, Cipitrine Armory, semi-automatic. Weight: 75 ounces. Capacity: 10 with one in the chamber. Fire rate: two rounds. Damage: 60/100. Accuracy: 75/100.”
She activated her cloak and moved behind a stack of crates in the cargo bay. She knew that part of his purpose for the continual questions was to keep her from being able to utilize her stealth skills and limit her to her few tech and weapons attacks. The bay was too small for her sniper rifle to be useful given his speed, so she was stuck with a pistol while he had the options of pistol, shotgun, or assault rifle in addition to his tech attacks and biotics which she didn’t have. He was already physically stronger and had the advantage of experience, heavy armor, some of the strongest shields she’d ever seen, and his full range of attacks. He simply wanted to emphasize that she was vastly outmatched.
Before he could formulate another question, she slipped out from behind the crate and flanked him. His mandible twitched and she dropped the cloak and rolled as dark energy hit her and threw her across the bay. She sabotaged his rifle and rolled out of the way as he was drawing his shotgun. Shit. That damn shotgun hurt even when it was only firing concussive rounds. “I can see your cloak, human. Name five improvements you would make to the Normandy,” he ordered.
“Additional armor, an axial mass accelerator, increased fuel capacity, more kinetic barrier projectors, and stronger shields,” she answered as she sabotaged the shotgun and incinerated it as it backfired, creating a tech burst as she dived back behind cover. He changed back to the rifle with a glare. She was going to get it now.
“Give me three examples of biotic explosions,” he said as he began to glow.
Shit. She knew this game. It was a type of ‘pick your poison’ trap. She thought rapidly. She knew most of his biotic abilities but did not fool herself that she knew them all. He had learned so many. He could warp, but she’d never seen him use a singularity, so she named that combo. He remained still. Good. He could reave, but he didn’t have a lifting shockwave that she knew of. He continued to glow. Stasis and…surely he couldn’t flare. The only person she’d ever heard of who could was Aria T’Loak on Omega.
He could. FUCK! she shouted to herself as her body froze in place. With a cruel smile, he threw both of his hands out and she watched in horror as the wave rushed toward her like a nuclear cloud. Perhaps he’d decided to kill her after all.
She woke in the med bay with the now-familiar feel of heavy-duty pain medication flowing through her veins. “Is he trying to turn me into an addict?” she grumbled.
“Don’t move,” Chakwas said. “I’m afraid you’re going to be out of commission for a few days.”
“I hate him,” Shepard vowed. “Did you know he can fucking flare?”
“I’m not certain I know what that is,” Chakwas said.
Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, presumably in the med bay for another of his L2 migraines, peeked out from one eye and said, “No way. He did not use a flare on you.”
“I’m hard to kill,” she said. “And I assure you, it was a flare. Combined with a stasis.”
Kaidan whistled softly and said, “He must be able to control it exceedingly well. Otherwise, you’d be dead.”
“If he kills me, he loses his plaything,” she muttered darkly and laid her head back on the hard pillow. She asked herself again what the hell she’d gotten herself into.
Shepard wasn’t breaking. Saren needed to come up with a new plan. He had managed to rout Anderson from the Spectres without even trying; though, the human captain had certainly attempted to paint him as the villain he would willingly have been had Anderson not sabotaged himself by running off after the woman and alerting the guards, thereby forcing Saren’s hand. He briefly considered setting up such a scenario for Shepard but discarded the idea. Anderson had acted out of sentimentality for the human woman who was his lover. Shepard had no lover and had no such sentimentality.
As her mentor, he had access to even her most classified and redacted files. He knew that she was military to the core, having been born to a pair of Alliance soldiers. She seemingly had no more tie to the human homeworld than she did to their colonies. Her only loyalty was to the Alliance, and even then, it was limited. Shepard operated by her own code. She did what she felt was right but did so in the most expedient way possible. Her personal credo, like his, was simply: get the job done. She was the one the Alliance turned to when failure was not an option. Cold, calculating, brutal; she seemed to have little regard for collateral damage if it meant attaining her goal and fulfilling her mission. She would perform her duty at all costs.
He had read the reports from Torfan. When the major in charge of the operation had faltered at the cost, then-Lieutenant Shepard had been the one to step up and take command of the failing mission. Their objective had been to destroy a batarian stronghold on Torfan in retaliation for the Skyllian Blitz. Major Kyle, her commanding officer, had reportedly panicked and attempted to withdraw his forces. Shepard had evaluated the situation, formulated a plan, and executed it without regard for the massive loss of life that would be necessary to accomplish it. Three-quarters of her unit—including her lover—had been slaughtered, but they had taken control of the stronghold. Interestingly enough, according to the redacted information contained in her psychiatric profile, many of the batarians had surrendered once the humans’ victory was assured. She had lined them up and executed them as they’d begged for mercy. He approved. He did not believe in killing without reason, but one could always find a reason to kill.
It was a pity, really, that she was human. If she was turian, he might admire her. It was not possible, though, that he should find a kindred spirit in one of her kind. It was, in fact, an insult to Desolas to even consider it. Desolas had been the one creature in the galaxy who understood him and whom he had understood. Saren had not utilized his connection to the high-ranking general in order to advance himself. He had earned his place on Desolas’ team and his brother had respected him for it. It was ironic that it had been that exact understanding that had led to Saren being forced to kill him. He might not be able to understand or admire his human protégé but he could understand duty.
Surprisingly enough, it was not a distaste for her as an individual that mandated he must end her candidacy. It was her race. Humans had attained far too much already. There was one thing that Desolas had gotten right in those final days of his madness. If a newly-discovered race could be allowed equality with those who had come before, then that equality meant nothing. Humans were the only race without a Council seat to be allowed a Spectre. It would not be long before they began demanding a seat. They would argue that one of their own was being led by the Council without input from their own species, and eventually, they would win that argument. He would not see a human on the Council when so many others had not yet earned their place and humans had done nothing to benefit the galaxy.
How, though, was he to fail her? She was competent. She was resilient. She was intelligent, for a pyjak. She had taken the weeks of hunger, sleep deprivation, and abuse that he had thrown at her and it had done little but increase her resolve. She did not care about any of the filthy humans that the Alliance had insisted on having crew the ship. She had no friends aboard the ship whom he could use against her, and even if she did, it wouldn’t work. She felt that she had a duty to her people, if not to succeed, then to do everything in her power to ensure that she did not fail them. She would not make a mistake like Anderson did. She would not buckle no matter the strain under which he put her.
He tapped a talon on the metal desk in his quarters and growled. This should have been a simple matter. He had taken down people far stronger, smarter, and harder than she. How was it that a Spirits-damned human had managed to withstand him? She wasn’t even afraid of him and he’d broken every bone in her body at least once. He had sliced her open with his talons. He had stopped just short of ripping her apart with his biotics. He had forced her to face him with nothing more than her bare hands without even the protection of her armor. Still, she had not broken.
Psychological attack was the only route left open to him. He perused her file once more, searching for anything that he could use against her. She was remarkably mentally stable. She had no mental illness nor emotional imbalance. She had regretted the necessity of sacrificing her men on Torfan but not the loss itself. Even the death of her lover had apparently done little to affect her. According to the reports, they had not been together long, but he would still imagine that she would have had some reaction. That meant that either she had hidden it from the psychiatrists or she was a complete and utter sociopath. The latter was unlikely. She did not fit any of the symptoms. He checked.
“Father, Major Adam Shepard, Alliance Marines, deceased, Shanxi,” he read. Saren had been on Shanxi. He considered using the death of her father against her until he noted her date of birth. She had been three years old. She likely couldn’t even remember the man. If the death of her lover had not affected her, then the death of a man she’d barely known when she was but a fledgling would not, either.
“Mother, Captain Hannah Shepard, Alliance Navy, current posting SSV Kilimanjaro.” Shepard and her mother had been close when she was young. There were reports of her mother attending every major point in Shepard’s military career. Hannah Shepard had been the one to welcome the Commander into the Alliance after her completion of her basic training. Hannah had been present for each of her N1 to N6 ceremonies and had been the one to blood pin her--and wasn’t that an interesting tradition--when she received her N7 designation. Hannah had been waiting on Arcturus Station when Shepard returned from Torfan…and Hannah had been the one to report her for murdering the batarians. They had not spoken since.
He could imagine the scene. Shepard, bloody, still in shock over the loss of her squad as no one, not even he, would have been able to walk away from that entirely unaffected, arrives to find her mother waiting for her. She confides the sordid details to the one person whom she believes she can trust...and her own mother turns her in. Her psychological records did not show any reaction to that event, but the fact that she had cut all contact with the person with whom she had been closest could only mean one thing. Shepard had felt betrayed. She had even turned down promotions afterward that came with being stationed under her mother.
Saren tapped his chin thoughtfully as a feral grin spread over his face. Of course. It was so clear. Betrayal. The one thing Commander Shepard could not handle. She did not allow many people to get close to her. Once she did, she trusted them implicitly. For one to turn on her… Yes. That was his answer. He would betray her, preferably in a humiliating and painful way. But how was he to do that? She did not trust him. She did not like him. She was far too insightful to believe that he would have a sudden change of heart. It would take time, a great deal of time, for him to do this on his own. He had to find a new way under her guard.
Nihlus. She trusted him. She liked him. Everyone liked him. Nihlus had also mentioned that he had taken on a new trainee, one with whom Shepard already had a friendship. Having the two of them around would make her feel more comfortable. Nihlus could provide a backdrop for his softening attitudes toward her. The mentor/protégé bond would do the rest. When she came to trust him, as she would when she realized that he was giving his full effort to training her, then he would spring the trap and Nihlus would help.
Unfortunately, that meant that he would have to be very careful about handling the situation. Nihlus was far too honorable to help him with something this nefarious and far too loyal to those he called friend. He would have to be an unwitting participant. Fortunately for Saren, Nihlus was easy to read. He was a complex individual but one Saren understood to the bone. It would be a simple matter to keep him in the dark. Nihlus would be furious once he discovered what he’d helped do, but he would see reason eventually. He was far too sympathetic toward humans, but surely he could not wish them a seat on the Council.
“How are things with Commander Shepard?” Nihlus asked as he and Saren sipped on their kava. He had released Vakarian from duty for the day when he’d learned that the Normandy was coming into port.
“She is…acceptable,” Saren said. Though his tone was disdainful, Nihlus was surprised by what he saw as high praise coming from the other Spectre. Saren hated humans on a level that approached irrationality and he had expected nothing but complaints. “She still cannot hit the broad side of an elcor with an assault rifle and her electronic skills are deplorable. She is an infiltrator through and through. She is absolutely useless in close quarters. Her hand-to-hand skills are nonexistent. Sparring with her is all but impossible as she will evade and gain distance at every opportunity, but when that opportunity is denied, a turian child could easily take her down. We spend hours each day training, but she is not improving.”
“There have to be good points,” Nihlus said. “She’s a highly decorated officer and you haven’t written her off yet.”
“I could not write her off if I tried,” Saren sneered. “The human ambassador is determined that this one will pass and Tevos and Valern are attempting to placate him. However, I suppose you are not mistaken. Her tech bursts are above average. She has a decent grasp of tactics and strategy. If she gets her team killed, it will probably be intentional rather than due to poor planning on her part. And…she is the best sniper I have ever seen.” He sounded as if the last sentence had been torn from him while he’d been fighting to hold it in. Shepard was a superior sniper. She was the best that Nihlus had ever seen as well. It was just like Saren to resent having to give a human any due at all. “She also does not waste my time on frivolous small talk like so many of her race. If she speaks to me, it is generally for a reason. And her questions are…not entirely stupid or uninsightful. She doesn’t seem to like people much, either. I suppose that is a point in her favor.”
“She likes me,” Nihlus said.
“Yes,” Saren said as if he’d expected the comment. “That is part of why I wished to speak with you. As I said, it has become clear that I cannot teach her close quarters combat. Before I am able to dismiss her based on that failing, I am obligated to at least attempt to find another to try. I have also met with difficulty in attempting to increase her technical skills beyond those with which she is already comfortable. You are an engineer. If you were to come aboard the Normandy, we could aid each other in training our protégés. It would have the added benefit of placing more turians aboard. I am afraid I will never get the stench of humans out of my nasal plates.”
Nihlus considered the offer. Vakarian, like Shepard, was a sniper. He was almost as good a shot as the Commander, but not as good at stealth. He excelled in close quarters combat and was, honestly, better even than Nihlus. Vakarian could help Shepard with her hand-to-hand and Shepard could help Vakarian with infiltration. Nihlus could help Shepard with her tech skills while Saren could likely help temper Vakarian. The young C-Sec officer had a tendency to go off half-cocked much like Nihlus himself once. Saren had fixed that for him.
Nihlus had volunteered to mentor Vakarian after Shepard had been assigned to Saren. He had attempted to use his status as her evaluator to become her mentor, but Sparatus had intervened. Vakarian was his second choice. Garrus was good. There was no doubt about that. He would be better with someone to emulate. Shepard and Saren were both utterly ruthless where Nihlus and Garrus would not hesitate to get the job done, but shared a streak of idealism that nothing had been able to kill thus far. They would likely mesh well. And it would give Nihlus more time with Saren…and Shepard.
The human commander intrigued him. She was, as he’d noted, ruthless, but where that was likely all that Saren would see—and most likely the reason why he didn’t utterly loathe her—Nihlus knew that there was more to her than that. She had a warmth that she kept mostly buried but that made itself known to those whom she trusted. He had read her files as had Saren, but he had come to learn that, while she would not open up to a shrink, she would discuss her experiences with someone she felt could understand.
She had expressed her regret about Torfan and the loss of her squad while harboring no remorse for killing the batarians whom she saw as unredeemable. Her mother had been on Mindoir after the raid there and she herself had taken part in the Skyllian Blitz and had seen the aftereffects on the colonists of Elysium. Where Saren hated humans, Shepard hated batarians with almost equal passion. However, that had not stopped her from aiding a batarian child during one of their missions together while he had been evaluating her. She might despise the adults but she did not hold the children accountable. In fact, she seemed to have a soft spot for children while simultaneously having absolutely no idea what to do with them. It had been…endearing.
He had admired her even before he’d met her for her willingness to get the job done no matter the cost. He had respected her upon meeting her for her straightforward manner and her intelligence. He had liked her for the person she’d revealed herself to be over the weeks that had followed. He had desired her for both her striking physical appearance and her grace on the battlefield. Nihlus wanted her. Of that, he had no doubt. Any opportunity to be around her was one that he would welcome and he rarely turned down an opportunity to work with Saren.
“All right,” he said. “We can join you for a few months. I don’t currently have any assignments from the Council. Do you?”
Saren nodded. “You have heard about the investigation into Sonax Industries regarding Prothean technology they are allegedly withholding?”
“I have,” Nihlus said. Withholding Prothean technology for personal gain was a serious galactic crime. The investigation was not common knowledge, but it had been rumored about among the Spectre community.
Spectres were a fairly tight-knit group given that there were fewer than fifty of them—though they liked to make it seem as if there were more—and that it took a certain breed of person to be suited to the lifestyle they led. Spectres primarily worked alone. They were never truly off-duty and their downtime could be interrupted at a moment’s notice. Very, very few of them were married and none had families. Their life expectancy was measured in a decade or two, which didn’t make them very good prospects for parenthood. They were gone more often than they were home and romantic partners who could handle that were extremely rare and families provided a weakness. Those who were married were almost exclusively with other Spectres, or at the very least, members of the various spec ops groups whose jobs were almost as dangerous. The responsibility they carried was to the entire galaxy rather than any one faction of it and threats to the galactic community were generally exceedingly large in scope. It was difficult to relate to people who had not seen what they had.
Saren said, “We are the ones investigating. Your C-Sec fledgling could prove useful.”
“When are you leaving?” Nihlus asked.
“0600 tomorrow,” Saren answered. “I have business to attend to this evening.”
“We’ll be there,” Nihlus assured him.
“Garrus!” Shepard exclaimed, throwing her arms wide when she saw him.
“Shepard!” he called out and jogged over to her. He took her hand in his and pulled her in for a friendly hug. “Damn, you’re a sight for sore eyes! And still with Arterius. I’m impressed.”
She laughed and said, “Yeah, I’m a bit surprised by that myself. How’s C-Sec? Did you catch that red sand dealer?”
He snorted. “Of course. But I’m not with C-Sec now. Don’t you ever check your messages?”
“I haven’t had time,” she said. “I think I have about a thousand of them piled up. It’s going to take me a week of shore leave to work through all of them. If it hasn’t come from the Council, Alliance brass, or Saren, I haven’t read it. What happened?”
“I figured you could use someone to show you how this whole Spectre thing should be done,” he said with a grin. “I’m training under Nihlus.”
“Lucky!” she proclaimed. “You look so…rested. And fed. And you’re in one piece. Are you sure he’s training you?”
Garrus shook his head at her wistful tone and took her by the elbow. “Come on. Let’s get some food in you. Spirits only know when you’ll get another chance. So, is it as bad as we expected?”
“Not really, actually,” she said as they boarded the lift to the Presidium Commons. “I mean, he’s brutal. He’s obsessed with perfection. He’s fastidious almost to the point of compulsion. He’s demanding and cruel and training under him makes all of my N training look like a walk in the park. I have data pouring out of my ears because my brain can’t hold everything he throws at me. He expects me to be able to look at something and have it memorized and be able to call it back at a moment’s notice. He’s also absolutely brilliant. I’ve learned more in the past three months with him than I have in my entire time in the military.”
“He’s actually teaching you?” Garrus asked in surprise.
“Yeah,” she said, her tone echoing his. “I mean, his methods are insane and it doesn’t usually feel like I’m learning anything. It generally feels like I’m just getting beaten to a pulp and worked to the bone, but when I hit my rack for the hour of sleep he now allows me at a time, I realize just how much he’s packed into the day.”
The doors of the lift opened and Garrus guided her to a café with an outdoor seating plan that overlooked the Presidium. “Oh, gods, they have cheeseburgers,” she groaned when she saw the menu. He watched her with a gaped mouth as she placed her order. “What?”
He shook his head and laughed. “Just wondering where you’re going to store it all. Are you sure you’re not a biotic?”
“I’m starving, Garrus,” she said with a laugh. “Three months of a single nutrigel pack a day is not enough to keep a rabbit alive.”
“What’s a rabbit?” he asked as he tapped his order into the console.
“Small furry creature with big ears that hops around,” she said absently as an asari handed her a tray loaded down with food. Her mouth watered at the smells wafting up. She accepted the bottle of beer a turian slid her way and waited impatiently while Garrus got his own tray. They carried them to a table by the balcony railing and sat down. She groaned in delight when she bit into the greasy burger.
When they finished their meal, they went down to Purgatory and ordered a drink. Lieutenant Alenko waved them to a table and they joined him. A few minutes later, a quarian female and an asari slid into the seat beside Garrus. “Hey, Garrus,” the quarian said in a slurred voice. “Who’s this?”
“Commander Shepard,” Garrus said. “She’s a friend of mine. Shepard, this is Tali’Zorah vas Neema and Dr. Liara T’Soni. They’re on Nihlus’ crew.”
“Nice to meet you,” Shepard said. “This is Kaidan Alenko. He’s on mine.”
Kaidan said hello and then peered across the table. Shepard followed his gaze to a dark-haired woman on the dance floor. “That’s Ash!” Kaidan said. “Shepard, sorry to invite you over and run but I haven’t seen Ash in ages.”
“Go ahead,” Shepard said. “Have fun. Just be at the docks at 0545. We depart at 0600 and I will leave your ass on the Citadel if you’re not there!”
“Aye aye, Commander!” he called back as he jogged away. “I’ll be there!”
It quickly became clear that Tali was drunk. She was also flirting heavily with a very oblivious Garrus. Shepard snickered into her drink and Liara grinned at her and rubbed her forehead. Shepard guessed that this was a fairly common occurrence. She was struck by the friendliness between the three of them. Shepard barely knew any of her crew beyond what she’d learned in their files and the short amounts of time she was able to take to speak with them between her duties with Saren. Kaidan, as her XO, was getting far more than his fair share of her regular workload. He also had to deal with Saren bitching about fighting alongside not one but two humans. Her crew was, admittedly, not very diverse.
Nihlus clearly ran his ship and his training very differently. Garrus, Tali, and Liara knew each other well and had that camaraderie that came not only from fighting together on the battlefield but also from spending time together when not on duty. Tali was a tech whiz while Liara was a biotic and Garrus was a sniper. The makeup of their team wasn’t much different from hers with Saren except that he was also a biotic. Nihlus, apparently, preferred to scout ahead while Garrus led the ground team. Saren relinquished no such control. He let her lead the team on occasion, but he insisted on being present. He did follow orders surprisingly well, but she was able to recognize it as yet another part of his training. In addition, being there allowed him to critique her decision-making process and ensured that he didn’t miss even the slightest mistake on her part.
Stop, she ordered herself. She had…sixteen more hours of leave. She was not going to spend it thinking about Saren or training or missions or work. She was going to spend it getting drunk with her friend and his friends and…going to the simulator with a big bottle of liquor, apparently.
“What are we doing?” she asked as Garrus dragged her from the booth.
“Have you been paying attention at all?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Liar,” he charged. “I challenged you to a little friendly competition. You didn’t decline.”
“What kind of competition?” she asked as she reached out and grabbed her shotglass to down the alcohol in it before he dragged her away.
“We’re going to see who the best sniper is,” he said.
“Didn’t we already do that?” she asked. “I distinctly remember going to the C-Sec range and doing that.”
“We were sober then,” he said. “Now, we’re going to see who the best wasted sniper is. Every time you make a shot, you take a shot.”
“I don’t know that I want to be around you drunk with guns, Garrus,” she said with a laugh as he pulled her into a skycar and set the VI. “Hey, where’d your friends go?”
“Tali saw her boyfriend and Liara was hoping your friend Kaidan would get shot down so she’d have a chance,” he answered.
“Tali has a boyfriend?” Shepard asked. “She was coming on to you pretty hard.”
“It’s just playful,” he insisted. “I’m still dating Nyreen. I think. I haven’t really heard from her in a few weeks since she went to Omega.”
“Are you sure she’s okay?” Shepard asked.
Garrus chuckled. “Yeah. Nyreen can take care of herself. Come on. We’re here. I’m going to kick your ass.”
“In your dreams, Vakarian,” she scoffed.
“Is that Nihlus and Saren?” he asked suddenly.
“Shit,” she groaned. “Rain check?”
“Hell, no,” he said. “Don’t you want to show our mentors what we’re made of?”
“You know they’re going to pit us against them, right?” she asked. “And we’re drunk and they aren’t. And Saren kicks my ass on a good day.”
“It won’t be that bad,” he said.
It was that bad. Nihlus was the one who suggested it. Saren jumped on the idea. Garrus and Shepard not only got their asses kicked but got mocked in the process. Then Shepard had the idea of changing the terrain up a bit. Saren and Nihlus agreed to the change and she and Garrus worked their way into position. High ground with a sniper rifle. It didn’t get better than that. Except that Saren constantly sabotaged her rifle and Garrus’ overloads couldn’t keep up with Nihlus’ drones. They were squarely routed yet again and this one was humiliating. Even at their specialties, they couldn’t defeat the two Spectres.
“I suppose we can even things up a bit,” Saren said. “Vakarian, with Nihlus. Shepard, with me.”
Garrus grinned at her and said, “You’re going down.”
“No,” Nihlus said. “Shepard is the better sniper. You trained me, Saren. To make it truly fair, you take Garrus and I’ll take Shepard.”
Saren considered this for a long moment and then nodded. “All right. We will change up at the next round.”
Nihlus bumped her shoulder the way that Garrus had a tendency to do and said, “All right. Garrus won’t be a problem. You are the better sniper. Saren will be the difficult one. He doesn’t know how to work as a team, though, so they’ll be fighting independently. I can counter his tech attacks and wear down his shields. You sabotage his weapons and work on his armor. That will leave him reliant on biotic attacks, and while his cooldown period is short, he does have one. We strike then. He’s going to try to get in close with you to take you out. Keep your distance. I can take him in close quarters.”
She nodded and they broke apart to find their preferred places. Garrus and Saren had finished conferring already—she expected that Saren had likely grunted a few terse instructions that mainly consisted of “Stay out of my way,” and sent him to high ground—and were already in position. Her cloak didn’t work on Saren but it did on Garrus. If she activated it out of Saren’s sight and stayed in cover as she moved, she could flank Garrus while Nihlus kept Saren occupied. Then they could both focus on her mentor.
She remained undetected and was able to take cover behind an outcropping of simulated rocks. Garrus was ahead and to her left and Saren and Nihlus had begun to engage below. She could see Garrus scanning for her. A faint stirring of air across her hair reminded her that the sim had air movement. She’d neglected to account for that and found herself upwind of Garrus. He caught her scent and turned, ducking behind another pile of rocks. Shit. She’d lost the advantage of surprise. This was going to be a shootout. An unexciting one, at that.
Any time that two snipers faced each other down was tense but boring to witness. Patience was one of the virtues pounded into them throughout their training. Snipers were not rapid-fire rapid movement fighters. They regularly dug in and waited for the perfect shot rather than going to their targets. However, she was not just a slightly better shot than Garrus. She was also more patient than he and that was what truly won the day. He was eager to fight his mentor, to attempt to impress him by taking him down. Shepard, however, had far more real battle experience than he did and had learned the value of trusting one’s teammate.
A shout from Nihlus distracted Garrus for the heartbeat of time that she needed. The side of his head lit up with simulated blue blood and she heard him curse bitterly. She gave him a mock salute before cloaking and moving to another position. Saren had Nihlus locked down and was attempting to sabotage his drone to use it against him. She activated her disruptor ammo and took a shot before releasing a plasma ball. The resulting tech burst made his shields flicker and visibly weaken. His head turned and she rolled away as he homed in on her position and sent a reave her way. It missed her by inches but was enough to allow Nihlus the time to come out of stasis.
Every time she heard the click in her ear that signified her omni-tool recharging, she sabotaged one of Saren’s weapons. Nihlus brought down his shields and she began alternating sabotages with incinerations between shots from her rifle. She and Nihlus had developed a rhythm when he was evaluating her and they fell into it, but Saren was a foe unlike any they’d faced together.
She had never had the opportunity to see him fight like this and realized that he’d been holding back with her. In fights, she wasn’t able to truly watch him and when she and Garrus had fought him with Nihlus, the two Spectres hadn’t needed to pull out all of the stops. Against each other, though, they were vicious. She had never seen anyone move as fast as they did. Their attacks on each other were constant and she didn’t seem to make much difference against Saren. It wasn’t until they were able to finally completely wear down his shields and deactivate his omni-tool that they began to truly gain ground. Then Saren disappeared.
“You’re in for it now,” Garrus taunted.
“Dead men don’t talk,” she muttered.
“Neither do dead women,” Saren said from behind her. She rolled but it wasn’t fast enough to avoid his stasis field. He leaned over almost casually and placed his hand on her throat. The pressure he applied as he lifted her off the ground was enough to leave her gasping for air and her eyes widened as he threw her off the cliff. He released the stasis field with just enough time for her to send all of the power in her omni-tool to her shields. It helped lessen the impact, but she still knew that she was going to be black and blue tomorrow. She groaned and rolled onto her side.
Nihlus was creeping up behind Saren and he activated his drone as he moved in, creating a pincer. Saren’s amp hadn’t had time to recharge yet and his guns were still out of commission. Nihlus’ drone began hammering rockets at him and it caught his attention for long enough that Nihlus was able to shoot Saren with his rifle before pushing him over the edge of the cliff. His barrier flared at the last possible moment and he rolled up onto his feet. Nihlus crowed as Saren’s indicator blinked and proclaimed him deceased. “I assure you, I am much harder to kill than that,” he snarled but accepted the loss. “Shepard, with me. We will show these fledglings how it is done.”
“Yes, sir,” she groaned and pushed herself to her feet. She slapped a hand against the medigel dispenser and shook off her injuries.
“Sorry, Shepard,” Nihlus called out with a grin.
“I’m the last person to bitch at you for sacrificing one of your own for the sake of the mission,” she said. “We’re good.”
Saren said quietly, “Let Vakarian take his piddling shots. Nihlus is the real threat.”
Nihlus had expected Saren to target him. He had even expected Shepard to potentially target him as well. He had not expected the two to work together. Even when he and Saren teamed up, they worked as independent units. They always had. Saren and Shepard did not. While Nihlus had been taking Garrus on simple training missions, Saren had been taking Shepard along on his Spectre missions in addition to accompanying her on her Alliance assignments. They’d had real-time experience in the field against serious foes. Somewhere along the way, they’d learned to work together.
Saren might claim that he disliked Shepard or that she was merely adequate in all but her infiltration skills but he trusted her in the field in a way that he never had Nihlus. Perhaps it was because he was accustomed to her fighting from his six while Nihlus was more forward but this was a side of Saren he’d never seen. He knew exactly where Shepard would go and that was not unusual but he worked in concert with her. They hadn’t even formulated a plan before starting. Shepard, too, seemed to anticipate Saren. She was setting him up for his next move before he even made it. At odds, they were unevenly matched to the point of ridiculousness. As a team, they were a virtual juggernaut.
Nihlus and Garrus didn’t have that cohesiveness yet. They were close but Garrus was far too focused on taking Shepard down while she largely ignored him aside from moving to prevent him from getting off a clear shot. All of her attention was focused on Nihlus. It was heady, in a way, to know that they were both watching him that closely. He didn’t have time to dwell on it, though, because she and Saren kept him on the move. He and Garrus worked on Saren’s shields but the sabotage he’d had Shepard use against Saren was now turned against him and after she took his drone over the first time and then appropriated his turret, he stopped deploying them. He was now limited to draining the energy from Saren’s shields and firing his weapon when he managed to get it functioning again.
He had to do something or he and Garrus were going down in flames. Garrus was better at hand-to-hand than Nihlus was. He was, truthfully, almost as good as Saren himself. Nihlus sent his protégé against his old mentor. Garrus looked surprised but obediently moved in and engaged. Nihlus turned his attention to Shepard. She couldn’t beat him on her own. At least, he was fairly certain she couldn’t beat him on her own. Saren had said her CQC skills were nonexistent—something he had noticed as well—and that she found opportunities to gain distance. He had to back her into a corner. That would be easier said than done given that she had her cloak and was focused on…Garrus. He grinned ferally and slipped into cover.
Her inattention lasted only for a moment but was long enough for him to get into position. He set a turret without activating it and then called up a drone. By the time she realized he was herding her, it was too late. She activated her omni-tool as she moved and sabotaged the turret but he was already out of its range and behind cover. Before she could do the same to his drone, he cut the power. She fired in his direction with her pistol and he called up a new drone. With her having to run and fight on her own, he could keep calling them up and dismissing them all day, giving him time to stalk her.
She had nowhere left to go. Garrus was, surprisingly, still holding his own against Saren. Nihlus had time to take her down before Saren took Garrus out and could then return to the real threat. Shepard dropped into a fighting stance and he took advantage of the explosive speed that turians possessed coming off a mark to move in. She was anticipating it, though, and dodged out of the way. He spun and caught her before she could dart past him. She broke his hold but he took her feet out from under her. Shepard’s weakness in close quarters was that she forgot that she had both hands and feet and focused on only one at a time rather than fighting with her entire body. He would have Garrus work on that with her but, for now, he would take full advantage of it.
She went down hard but pulled her feet in and lashed out with them. He jerked to the side and grabbed her ankle. She kicked out at his head. “Yield, Shepard,” he said as he grasped the other ankle.
“Fuck you,” she growled.
“Gladly,” he purred, “but I don’t think this is the time or place.”
She laughed. He’d heard her laugh before but this was so out of place that it took him off guard. It wasn’t the reaction he’d expected. He had anticipated a ‘go to hell’ or a disdainful snort or for her to lunge up and head butt him. He hadn’t thought that she would laugh like this in the middle of a fight. Her shoulders shook with it. He shook his head and moved up to pin her beneath him. She continued laughing as she batted somewhat weakly at his cowl. Then she grew serious and, before he could react, she ran her hand along the underside of his exposed fringe and wrapped her legs around his waist. He groaned and then she was flipping them so that she was straddling him. Her hand tightened around his fringe and his groan of desire turned to one of pain.
She leaned forward and whispered, “Use the tools at your disposal, Nihlus.” He felt her pistol against the side of his head an instant before he heard the click. “You’re dead.”
“Creative,” Saren said, walking up to them. She released his fringe and Nihlus lifted his head to see Garrus sitting on the ground a few feet away, breathing heavily and probing cautiously at one of his spurs. “I suppose you aren’t entirely hopeless, human. You were still a fool to allow him to get in close when you are aware of your limitations when fighting in proximity.”
“I considered slapping a sticky grenade on him,” she said as she stood, “but I prefer not to kill by suicide.”
“All right,” Garrus said, “Shepard has a challenge to answer.”
Saren cocked his head at her and Shepard explained what had brought them there in the first place. He shook his head and muttered something about children before waving them off. Garrus grinned at her and brought out the liquor bottle. “Drink,” he said. “We’re too sober now.”
This should be interesting, Nihlus thought. He and Saren moved to find seats well away from them. He was surprised that Saren stayed to watch but supposed that he would be looking for flaws in her performance or, just as likely, was simply there to unnerve her. Nihlus wondered if it would work and then Saren said, “Please tell me that you are not truly attracted to that human.”
Nihlus shrugged nonchalantly. “Why not? She’s beautiful, intelligent, skilled, creative, and fun to be around.”
“She is human,” Saren sneered as if that explained everything. Nihlus supposed that, for Saren, it did.
“And?” Nihlus asked. “They’re physiologically very similar to the asari, though there are a few ways in which they are vastly superior and, surprisingly, much like a turian without the plates but…better.”
Saren snorted. “A human? Better than a turian? You are delusional, Nihlus.”
Nihlus lowered his voice and said, “They’re very…flexible. And they can control the muscles. And they self-lubricate.”
“Turian women don’t need flexibility,” Saren said. “They are designed to accommodate us. I do not see what muscle control would improve. And their self-lubrication would be redundant.”
“What’s that saying Garrus uses? Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it?” Nihlus said. “You like asari, don’t you? A human is like an asari you can penetrate.”
“I have never been with an asari,” Saren said, “and you are a fool to do so. Allowing someone else into your mind.” He shuddered visibly. “Asinine.”
“You mean to tell me you have only been with turian women?” Nihlus asked disbelievingly. “When was the last time you got laid by someone that wasn’t me?”
“Yes and that is none of your business,” Saren said.
Nihlus laughed. “Spirits. It was the last time we were together, wasn’t it? It’s no wonder you’re always in a foul mood. What do you do for stress relief when I’m not there?”
“Spar,” Saren said. “Though, with that one, it is more stressful than anything. She truly is abhorrent at it.”
“Ha!” Shepard laughed from across the room. “Top that, Vakarian!”
“Drink!” Garrus said. “You’re still too sober.”
Shepard bumped Garrus’ shoulder and said, “You’re just so bad, you need me wasted before you can be competitive. Come on, Vakarian. You’ve got two feet and at least a hundred pounds on me. Shot for shot, I’m getting more alcohol and I’m still kicking your ass.”
“Set the target out further,” Garrus said. “Long range, I wrote the book.”
“Bullshit,” she snorted as she sent the target further out.
Saren chuffed. “One hundred credits says she beats your whelp.”
“No bet,” Nihlus said. “I know she’s better. Give her a handicap and then we’ll talk.”
“Shepard!” Saren called out. “Two shots of liquor to his one.”
“Are you guys trying to get me wasted?” she asked but dutifully downed another shot. “Go on, Vakarian. Show me how turians do it.”
“She doesn’t weigh enough to hold that kind of alcohol,” Nihlus said.
“You clearly have not seen her drink,” Saren said. “A month before I began her training, she outdrank two krogan males and still managed to head butt one of them when he called her a pyjak.”
There was a tone to Saren’s subvocals when he spoke that made Nihlus look at him. He almost sounded…proud. Saren? Proud of a human? No. Unless…Nihlus shook his head. Sure, he was proud of her. He was proud of her in the same way that a krogan was proud of his pet varren. “How do you know that?” he asked.
“I began observing her when you put her name forward,” Saren answered.
“Spying on her, you mean,” Nihlus said. Saren shrugged. It meant the same thing to him.
Shepard was beginning to sway as she lifted her rifle. The muzzle bobbled a bit and then she steadied. She took the shot. It hit. Nihlus began to mentally debit the money from his account. Garrus still looked steadier than she but they had reached the end of the range and she was still taking headshots. His only hope was that she would lose that steadiness as she became more intoxicated. Saren called out, “Move the targets. Real enemies don’t just stand there and wait for you to shoot them.”
“Now you’re just showing off,” Nihlus grumbled.
“I would tell her to take three for his one but I do need her functional tomorrow,” Saren said. “At this rate, we will be here all night and she will be utterly useless come morning.”
The targets danced across the field and Shepard took slightly longer to make her shots but they continued to be clean. Garrus was finally beginning to show the effects of the alcohol in his raised voice and the way he had to shake his head to clear his vision before aiming. His shots, too, were perfect. Nihlus wondered how long this had taken with both of them sober. Shepard fumbled her heat sink but didn’t drop it and ignored Garrus’ taunting. Then Garrus was firing again and he seemed to be having trouble identifying which target was the real one. Nihlus felt as if he was watching a pair of siblings. As they grew drunker, their banter became more intense and more ridiculous since they were both slurring their words.
Nihlus sighed when Garrus lined up on a target and missed by a millimeter. Shepard crowed and Saren silently held out his hand. Nihlus slapped a credit chit into it. “0600?” he asked. Saren nodded. “Should we help them back to the ship?”
“No,” Saren said. “They want to be Spectres. They can find their way back on their own. I am going to bed.”
"Want company?" he asked.
"Not tonight," Saren said. "My rack is too small for the both of us."
It was another two hours before he heard Garrus stumble onto his ship. “Where’s Shepard?” he asked.
“Normandy,” Garrus answered. “‘S what took me so long. Dangerous to be walking around the docks alone. She’s so little.”
“‘And though she be but little, she is fierce,’” Nihlus quoted.
Garrus nodded. “What’s that?”
“A human poet. Shakespeare,” he answered.
“Fits,” Garrus said, rubbing the back of his neck with a groan. “Damn, gonna hate myself tomorrow.”
“We’ll be reporting to the Normandy at 0530,” Nihlus told him. “Joint training.”
“Fun,” Garrus said. “Hope they have a good ship doc. Gonna have a hell of a hangover.”
“Garrus. Nihlus. What are you two doing here?” Shepard asked as they walked into the mess hall.
“Joint training,” Garrus told her, sinking into the chair beside her. “Apparently, you need to learn to fight and I need to learn to sneak. How’s your head?”
“Feels like the scene of an elcor mating ritual,” she admitted. “How’s yours?”
“The same,” he groaned.
“There’s kava,” she said.
“You are a goddess,” he sighed.
“Good morning, Shepard,” Nihlus said.
“Morning, Nihlus. Welcome to the Normandy. Are you staying, too?” she asked before taking a sip of her blessed coffee. In the mess, Gardner was cooking something that smelled greasy and perfect.
“I am,” he said.
“You’ll need bunks,” she said. “Saren took over one of the cargo holds. Said he wanted the privacy. There’s a cabin there on the other side of the mess. It’s the XO’s cabin but Kaidan decided he wanted the observation lounge, so it’s empty. Garrus, just find an unoccupied spot and make yourself at home.”
“Mind if I take a look at the main battery?” he asked. “Once my head stops pounding, that is? I kind of have a thing for giant guns.”
Nihlus groaned. “He’ll spend all of his time calibrating if you let him. Don’t let him in there unless you don’t mind him taking it over. He does know what he’s doing. He increased the damage rate of my systems by almost 300 percent.”
“Go ahead,” she said. “The VI has been taking care of it, but if you think you can outdo her, you’re welcome to try.”
“Her?” he asked.
Oops. “It, uh, has a female voice,” she said. She didn’t know if Saren had told Nihlus about the AI he’d installed on the ship and certainly no one else on board but Joker knew. She had grown to like EDI, especially since it had taken pity on her and ‘forgotten’ to tell Saren she was asleep at her workstation one night. She didn’t know where Saren had acquired an unshackled AI and hadn’t asked. She wasn’t going to complain. Joker had bitched about it at first but had grown to like it. Having an AI for a co-pilot had its perks, apparently. Perks that involved a terabyte of porn. She tried not to think about it.
“EDI?” Nihlus asked.
“Good morning, Agent Kryik,” EDI said. “Welcome aboard.”
“Thank you, EDI. I trust you’re settling in well on the new ship?” Nihlus asked as if he were conversing with an organic.
“I am. The Normandy is a superior vessel and her crew has been very…educational,” EDI answered.
“We’ll have a quarian joining us in a few minutes,” he told her. “Make sure she’s allowed aboard, please.” He turned to Shepard. “I hope you don’t mind. Tali’Zorah is my chief engineer and she begged me for an opportunity to see this ship. She is loyal and can be trusted with classified information.”
“It’s fine,” Shepard told him. “We’re actually running on a skeleton crew right now. Very few engineers are trained to work on the Tantalus drive core yet.” If Nihlus said that the quarian could be trusted, then Shepard accepted his word. He was not as obsessive about background checks as Saren was—he at least didn’t break into their homes and rifle through their possessions to learn about them—but he was incredibly thorough.
After chow, Shepard went up to the bridge to give instructions for takeoff. Navigator Pressly gestured with his head and, after inputting the coordinates for their next location into the galaxy map, she went to him. “What can I do for you, Pressly?” she asked.
He cleared his throat and looked around before saying in a low voice, “Commander, may I speak freely?” When she nodded, he said, “I don’t mean to question your judgment but are you certain that it’s wise to have so many aliens on board? We already had the one turian Spectre on board and now we have three turians and a quarian. What’s next? An asari? A krogan? A batarian?”
“If an asari or krogan prove useful, yes,” she said. “Believe me, I understand your hesitance about turians. I feel the same way about batarians. However, the difference is that the First Contact War has been over for thirty years. These people are our allies now. You will suck it up and learn to work with them just as I will suck it up and learn to work with batarians if they ever decide to stop being murderous, slaving fucks. Turians are not murderous, slaving fucks. They are people just like you and me. If you can’t handle having them on my ship, you are welcome to request a transfer. As to the quarian, her people are neutral. If that changes or she gives me cause to doubt her, she will leave. Until then, we will accept her help and be grateful for it because Adams, Donnelly, and Daniels are overworked and understaffed. Are we going to have a problem, Pressly?”
“No, ma’am,” he answered.
“Good. Dismissed.” With that, she turned and went to the cockpit to stand behind Joker during the relay jump. She loved watching the relay jumps. She loved knowing that they were able to cross thousands of light years in an instant. She loved the slight pause in the ship and then the momentary acceleration as the relay caught and slingshot them across the galaxy. She loved the play of lights and the stream of stars as they blinked through. Hell, she just loved space. This was her home. This was where she belonged. Some people needed ground below and a visible sky overhead. She needed a deck below her feet and a blanket of stars like she needed to breathe. She needed the vastness of it around her. It centered her, reminded her of her purpose, reminded her that she was just a single piece within a massive universe.
She wasn’t surprised when Nihlus came to stand beside her. It was one of the things they had in common. He’d told her once of the first time he’d ever been offworld. He was sixteen. His father had died and his mother had forced him to join the military because she wanted something better for him than what he would find on a mercenary colony outside of Hierarchy space. He’d been resistant to the idea, an angry teenager who felt like he was being rejected and forced from the only home he’d ever known. Then, he’d looked out a porthole and had been entranced. He’d never lost that sense of wonder and was almost superstitious about being present for the jumps. She’d found him many times in the cockpit of his own ship with the VI set to fly, leaning back in his chair and simply watching the stars.
She smiled up at him and he bumped her shoulder. Unlike every time before, though, he maintained his proximity rather than drawing away. When the ship accelerated, he placed his hand on her shoulder to steady her. She could feel its warmth and the slight graze of his talons through the fabric of her uniform shirt. The unexpected contact reminded her of their mock fight the night before and she suppressed a pleasant shiver. She was almost certain that he was joking and his comment had been truly funny, but there was a part of her that had warmed to his purring voice and the image that had flashed into her head when he’d pinned her. And that groan… She’d meant to throw him off guard, to use his physiology and her knowledge of turian erogenous zones against him as payback for that little comment, but that groan had gone straight to her groin. It had taken every bit of willpower she’d possessed—along with the sight of Saren striding toward them—to flip him over and put the gun to his temple.
She had never before thought of Nihlus in a sexual manner. Human/turian couples were still rare, though she knew some existed, and she hadn’t ever considered them in that way. Most turians were too rigid or simply disliked humans. Nihlus and Garrus were exceptions, but her friendship with Garrus was almost fraternal. They were brother and sister in arms even if they’d never truly fought alongside each other. Nihlus, however…no, those feelings definitely were not fraternal. She found herself admiring the cherry hue of his plates, the brilliant emerald of his eyes, and the elegant sweep of the colony markings he’d been allowed to take upon joining the military. He was objectively attractive, she thought, with his broad shoulders and chest, his trim waist, his confidence, and the warmth of his smile once one got past the razor sharp teeth that lined it.
He was so different from Saren, whom she’d heard described as ‘ugly’ by many turians. She could admit that the—was it still fringe if it was on his face?—coming from his cheeks was unnerving and added to his sinister look. The fringe on his head wasn’t uniform like Nihlus’ and Garrus’ and his icy glare with those strange cybernetic eyes certainly didn’t help matters. It was Saren’s personality, though, that made him truly unappealing. Aside from the face, which could be gotten past, he had a decent body. He was tall and lean, bordering on lanky if he didn’t have so much muscle tone, and undoubtedly strong. He moved with a predatory grace that was simultaneously terrifying and beautiful, like one of the tigers she’d seen in vids from Earth, or perhaps a shark. Yes, he reminded her a bit of a shark. Beautiful in his deadliness, utterly unfeeling, entirely predatory. Nihlus was the tiger. And, oh, that purr.
She needed to pull it together. Saren was her mentor. Nihlus was assisting him in training her. She knew that Spectres had few regulations, but surely there were rules against fraternization there. It had to be a conflict of interest or something given that his opinion carried weight in the Council’s final decision on whether or not to grant her Spectre status. This would be like…gaining an interest in Anderson or something. He wasn’t in her direct chain of command anymore, but he was still a superior officer. Allowing an attraction to Nihlus was unwise and pointless and could only serve to distract her when her entire focus had to be on training. Damned if she could make herself move away from his hand, though.
Garrus stopped and scratched his fringe as he looked at her. Shepard wondered if she was truly that bad. He was a top-ranked hand-to-hand specialist and she was an infiltrator. It only made sense that he’d be better at this than she would. She hadn’t had hand-to-hand training since basic. It just wasn’t generally a part of the skillset required for someone who fought from distances up to a kilometer from her target. At least, it wasn’t when she wasn’t fighting Spectres. She knew that she needed to improve, but her real love was for her rifle, not her hands.
“You realize you have an entire body to work with, right?” he finally asked. “You aren’t just individual parts that make up a whole. You are a whole. How is it that you can use your entire body on the battlefield but not in a close-up fight? I know you aren’t afraid to get down and dirty or to get hurt. You can take a hit. It’s like…it’s like the pieces aren’t connecting. Do you dance?”
“Horribly,” she answered. Her horrendous dancing was the source of much amusement among her teammates.
“Okay, we’re not just going to think outside the box here. We’re going to take an M-920 Cain to it and blow the box up.”
“Now you’re talking my language,” she said. The Cain was one of her favorite weapons after the Black Widow.
“You’re going to learn to dance,” he told her.
“Aaand you lost me,” she said. “I don’t dance, Garrus.”
“You will by the time I’m through with you,” he said.
“You have lost your damn mind,” she said.
He scratched his mandibles thoughtfully. “What’s that human dance everyone loves? The tingo?”
“The tango,” she said, “and you are not going to make me tango.”
“He is if it will help your deplorable fighting style,” Saren said from the corner of the room where he and Nihlus were working on some sort of computer program on his omni-tool.
Shepard sighed. This was going to be more humiliating than anything she’d had to do thus far. She’d rather be forced to go around the ship cloaked and pretending to be dead again. Hell, maybe then she could get some sleep. The dead got to rest, right? It made no difference. Saren had spoken and his word was law. There was nothing she could do even though she really didn’t want to dance with Garrus. He was probably going to crush her toes.
He was actually a good dancer, she admitted a few hours later. She was the one stepping all over him. He teased her about it, but it was good-natured and the laughter kept her from feeling painfully awkward. The truth was, she just wasn’t graceful when she didn’t have a gun in her hand. Give her a weapon, and she could be a damn ballerina. On her own, she was just too…gangly.
“Stop trying to lead,” he said. “Follow.”
“Why do I have to follow?” she asked.
“Because you don’t know where you’re going,” he retorted.
“Perhaps she would find it easier with someone she considers a superior,” Nihlus suggested. “Saren?”
“I do not dance,” he said coldly. “Especially not with a human. You are welcome to do so if you wish. I will not.”
Nihlus shrugged and said, “All right. Let me try.”
She gave an internal groan as he began to strip out of his armor. Great. Now she was going to humiliate herself in front of Nihlus. On the bright side, maybe it would help dispel this ridiculous attraction she couldn’t seem to get rid of. And, if nothing else, she might get lucky and have the deck open up and swallow her. That would be a vast improvement over her current situation. She cursed Saren for putting her in this position while simultaneously thanking him for refusing. He’d probably strike her upside the head every time she stepped on his toes. On the other hand, that might help her learn it faster and be done with it.
Garrus stepped back and Nihlus took his place. Where Garrus had held her loosely, Nihlus threaded his hand through hers and splayed the other across her lower back. He pulled her close enough that she could feel the firmness of his plates through the fabric of his undersuit. He bent his head and said, “Close your eyes, stop thinking, and feel. Feel the music. Feel the way I move. Anticipate me here like you do in the field. Take what your eyes already know and apply it to the rest of your body.”
She closed her eyes and did as he asked. The music she’d chosen was an older piece and differed somewhat from what was normally used for this. It featured an electric guitar that seemed to sing along with the husky vocals. She focused on that and the rhythm of the drums. Once she had the beat, she turned her attention to Nihlus. This was definitely not going to make it easier to get past wanting him. He was too close. His chest pressed against hers and his hips were only slightly above hers even with the difference in their height. She realized that while he generally moved on the balls of his strangely-jointed feet, he was making an effort to stand flat-footed to make up for it. It didn’t help much. He still towered over her. His mandibles brushed against the top of her head and he began to move.
His plates were not as stiff as she’d thought they’d be. She had imagined them to be more like bone than anything but they weren’t. They had a little bit of give to them and were a lot warmer than she’d pictured. His entire body radiated heat and she remembered that turians generally did have a higher body temperature than humans. She probably felt cool to him.
The give in his plates meant that she could feel the movements of his muscles. As he’d predicted, it was easier to let someone she viewed as a superior lead than to let go that much with someone she considered an equal. She was used to taking orders and this was just another kind of silent order. She began to relax and allow him to move her around the makeshift dance floor. “There you go,” he said warmly and she stumbled. He chuckled. “Or maybe not. Try again.”
She recovered and they were moving together once more. He sent her out from him, but she lost her grip on his hand and he was forced to come to her. Follow, she reminded herself. Let him control it. This is Nihlus. He isn’t going to steer you wrong. She relaxed once more, and this time, she let him cast her out and reel her back in. His grin emboldened her and when he went to dip her again, she brought her knee up to clasp his waist as he bent her backward. He made that lovely purring sound again and murmured, “Careful, Shepard. I might forget we’re training.”
She didn’t know what to say to that, so she ignored it and continued to follow him around the floor. She could hear the song beginning to wind down and began to pay closer attention to what he was silently telling her. She discovered that as long as she remained relaxed, he was broadcasting what he planned to do next and she could easily read it. Remaining relaxed was proving to be a bit of a challenge, though. His thumb was stroking small circles on her lower back in time to the music and the look in his eyes when she met them was almost hungry. The way he moved, even when he wasn’t familiar with the dance, was utterly enticing. She wanted to jump him right here and damn the fact that Garrus and Saren were watching. It was almost a relief when the song ended.
He held her for just a moment too long before releasing her and saying, “Good. Now, do that when you’re fighting.”
Oh. Holy. Fuck. She was so screwed.
Saren tapped commands into the haptic display, changing the layout of the holographic field before them. Shepard watched closely as the new terrain came into view. The objective was a building containing important intel. He called up an image of a Mako beside a cliff through which ran a narrow chasm. That was the path to the objective but must be traversed on foot. He set up hostiles within the corridor itself and snipers on the tops of the cliffs surrounding it.
Beyond the chasm was a cluster of buildings guarded by mechs, including a single large mech which would normally be taken on from the relative safety of an armored truck or shuttle. She and her team would have to face it on foot in order to access the building with the intel. Sneaking past was not an option as the door was encrypted and decrypting it would take longer than the time her cloak allowed her to remain undetected. The heavy mech would obliterate her before she could get to cover.
“Select your team and infiltrate the building,” he said and stepped back to watch.
She directed avatars of herself, Vakarian, and Nihlus into the chasm. An interesting choice. When questioned, she said, “Nihlus is an engineer. Garrus can overload shields and electronics. He isn’t just a sniper.”
She moved the avatars through the chasm in her typical leapfrog pattern. Her method would be considered cowardly by turian standards as they led either from the front or the rear, and in this example, she did neither. She sent Nihlus and his drone in first to set up a defensive position and engage hostiles at close range before moving into position to take out the long-distance targets. She then left Garrus at the rear to cover their backs. He could see the logic in her approach, though. She was the weakest link in this team against these types of enemies. She placed her stronger members in the front and rear where they would be the most useful.
They reached a wide area in the chasm where there were paths carved in the rock that led to the top. She directed Vakarian to one side of the cliffs while she went to the other. She said, “In this scenario, Nihlus with his turret and drone is worth three fighters on the ground. Garrus and I can take out the snipers above and then utilize crossfire down into the valley to take out anything that he can’t handle.”
“Clean and surgical,” Vakarian said. “I like it.”
When they reached the outpost, she directed the other two into place and took cover behind a large metal crate. “Now, what?” she muttered to herself. She closed her eyes, mentally picturing the scene from her own perspective rather than that of an outsider looking in. A moment later, she nodded and began to direct her teammates. A chain overload from Vakarian took out the first wave of smaller mechs while she set up a sabotage for the second wave that would temporarily turn them to her side. Meanwhile, Nihlus’ turret provided cover fire for the others. She then turned her attention to the heavy mech, and after Vakarian and Nihlus had worn down its shields, they began to use tech bursts to burn through its armor.
When it was finished, he shook his head. “You succeeded but you could have done so with far less effort had you not been so short-sighted. Enemies do not always have to be faced head-on.” He took control of the avatars and directed Nihlus to the flank. “You were correct in stating that Nihlus is worth three fighters on the ground; however, you failed to utilize him to his full potential when given the chance. Had you sent him here, his turret could have held off the second wave of mechs while he and his drone divided the heavy mech’s attention. Sabotaging the mechs first would have increased your numbers while they fought amongst themselves, thus minimizing the ultimate number of targets you must fight and allowing Vakarian to overload them once the sabotage wore off. While the smaller mechs were occupied, you could have focused on the real threat, taken it down, and then picked off the remaining stragglers with far less risk to yourself and your team.
“You are their leader. That does not mean that you must do the majority of the fighting even when you are the least suited to do so. Were this a scenario involving numerous targets at a distance or where you could have utilized stealth, then it would be right for you to be the primary one to engage. You were not in this. Smart tactics also entail knowing when to hold yourself back and fully utilize your team if you insist on having one.”
She listened carefully. She always listened carefully. He knew that she would not make the same mistake again. She never repeated her mistakes once she had recognized them. It truly was a shame that she was human. She would have been a good Spectre. She was, honestly, one of the best students he had ever had. She rivaled even Nihlus. If only she were turian or even asari.
His plan was moving along surprisingly well. Nihlus’ unexpected attraction to her was a benefit. He was wearing down her barriers for Saren. He had not, however, anticipated that he would not want to do this. The regret that tightened his gullet when he allowed it to form was far too reminiscent of that day at the temple. He was honest enough with himself to acknowledge that he had developed a small measure of…affection for his protégé. That affection once more warred with duty. He had a duty to protect and safeguard the galaxy. When his resolve faltered, he had but to think of Udina on the Council for it to strengthen again.
Udina could not be allowed on the Council. If the humans had someone more like Shepard to represent them, then it was conceivable that they could be a benefit rather than a detriment to the galaxy. However, the Council represented not only their own species but the good of the galaxy as a whole. Udina cared for naught but his own power. Saren had personally witnessed him throwing over one of his own people in order to advance his own standing. Anderson, the only other option that he could see, would not be much better. Anderson was too emotional, too rash, and was willing to sacrifice countless others for the sake of one.
The good of the many must always outweigh the good of the few. It was for that reason that Saren had called down an orbital strike to kill his own brother. For Anderson to have sacrificed a mission for the sake of one woman was unthinkable to Saren. Killing those people had not bothered him. Knowing that he likely would not have had to kill them had the human done what he was told and truly valued the many over the few was something that had remained with him. It was reprehensible and Saren held Anderson personally accountable for each death. No, he could not be allowed to represent humanity. He, like Desolas, would sacrifice all other life in the galaxy if it meant saving or advancing his people. In his way, Anderson was as bad as the infamous Illusive Man of that human terrorist organization, Cerberus.
He simply could not allow Shepard to become a Spectre. He had no grounds to fail her and Nihlus would ensure that he couldn’t. She would not back down on her own. He considered discussing his concerns with her—something that would once have been inconceivable to him—but, while he knew that she despised Udina, she was loyal to Anderson. The man was more than a superior officer. He was a family friend. She would never believe Saren’s version of events. She would suggest that Anderson be put forth, or failing that, someone else. But who? Shepard was an anomaly among her species. The unfortunate truth was that Udina and Anderson were representative of humanity as a whole. He could not wait and hope that someone else would appear who would be more like her and more appropriate for the role. He had to do it. He did not have to like it. Now, to determine the shape of the trap itself.
Shepard yawned and popped a stim as she scowled at the datapad in her hand and walked across the crew deck. Her hand-to-hand skills had increased rapidly since she’d begun working with Garrus and she had improved her tech attacks with Nihlus’ help. She could now utilize energy drain to restore her shields from her opponents’. However, that wasn’t enough for Saren. He wanted her to be able to make her own changes to her omni-tool—which was not as simple as it sounded as she was terrible at coding—and familiarize herself with the majority of drone systems with which she might come into contact. It was a concession to her lack of skill that he wasn’t demanding that she be able to maneuver through all of them.
He’d said, “Each Spectre is chosen based on his or her own particular set of skills. We are not expected to be masters of every trade. However, we are expected to be proficient in all that we can. If your lack of familiarity with what is essentially a simple computer program can cause the failure of your entire operation, then you belong with your spec ops team where you may reasonably expect support from others rather than as a Spectre where you will regularly be operating on your own under adverse conditions. We cannot always call for help. Should you object to increasing your skill set, I will be more than happy to oblige you in your removal from candidacy.”
He was right. She knew he was right. She also knew that he was not being unreasonable in expecting her to learn this. That didn’t change the fact that lines of code might as well be written in Prothean for all the sense they made to her. She was fluent in seven different human languages, asari, quarian, and salarian. She was conversational in krogan and could read and understand the Palaveni dialect of the turian language perfectly, though the shape of her mouth and lack of a second larynx meant that she physically couldn’t speak much of it. She could calculate wind speed, direction, curvature of a planet, humidity, barometric pressure, distance, and speed of travel to line up a perfect shot in her head even without the help of a scope’s VI. Computer programming, though, was just…beyond her and she was beginning to get irritated. Commander Shepard was not accustomed to failure.
She slammed to a stop against a tall, armored body. “Shit. I’m sorry. I was just—” she stammered as she tried to figure out how she’d missed the sound of his door opening.
“Coming to my cabin, Shepard?” Nihlus said suggestively. That twinkle was in his bright green eyes again and her stomach flipped.
“You shouldn’t tease, Nihlus,” she warned.
He leaned forward and placed a forearm against the wall above her head, effectively blocking her in, before tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Who said I was teasing?” he asked.
“Joking, then,” she said, cocking an eyebrow at him.
“I can assure you I am perfectly serious, Shepard,” he said. “I always have been.”
“Oh,” she said lamely, her eyes widening.
He leaned in closer and she could feel the heat of his breath and graze of his mandibles against the side of her neck as he purred, “Your pulse is racing, Shepard. I can hear it. I can see it fluttering beneath your skin. Are you afraid, Commander?”
“No,” she whispered as he nipped lightly at her skin with his mouth plates. The hand still in her hair slid back to cup her head and angle her face up toward his.
“You are so beautiful, Shepard. So smart. So strong. So capable.” He punctuated each statement with a brush of his lips over her eyebrow, ear, jaw, throat. She stood in stunned silence for a moment as she realized that he was seducing her. She’d never been seduced before. Men didn’t bother. She was the woman they fucked secretively in their bunks between shore leaves when both parties were going stir crazy, the woman they viewed as one of the guys who just happened to have complementary parts to theirs, the woman they high-fived in the showers the next morning before going about their day. She wasn’t the type of woman to warrant a slow seduction and had long since recognized that she was more likely to intimidate a man than to be taken home to meet his mother. Paul had been the exception, but their relationship had formed from years of friendship and knowing each other from childhood. It had been the expected progression and they had followed the path their families had laid out for them.
Yet, seduction was certainly what Nihlus had done. Seemingly friendly, casual touches had turned into sliding himself in for the dance and now he was whispering sweet words in her ear as he caressed her hair and kissed her face. She didn’t have the first clue how to respond. She was more likely to clumsily proposition a friend for stress relief or bluntly state ‘I want you’ or brazenly flirt in what was inevitably an awkward manner that left men wondering if she was flirting or if she was sleep deprived.
When Nihlus reached her mouth, she sighed in relief. This was something she knew. This was something she could respond to. She brought her arms up to circle around his neck and stroked the thick, suede-like hide she found there. He groaned into her mouth and pressed more fully into her. She wondered where he’d learned to kiss like this. She’d never seen turians kiss. Granted, Solana and Nyreen were the only female turians she’d ever met, but the shapes of their mouths didn’t seem particularly conducive to this action.
Nihlus either didn’t realize that or didn’t care or had had enough experience with humans or asari to have learned to work around it. It was different from a human kiss. His lips were stiff and flat and angled in a way that she was not accustomed to, but he made it work. His tongue was thinner, rougher, and longer than a human’s, but it stroked hers like a lover. Desire flared in her belly and she brought an arm down to wrap around his waist and pressed herself against his armored chest. He responded by drawing her knee up to clasp his hip the way she had while they had been dancing, opening her to him, and rolled his hips. When she gasped, he whispered harshly, “Cabin. Now.”
She heard someone clear his throat and they froze. A sideways glance revealed Saren standing stiffly with his hands clasped behind his back and a look on his face that she couldn’t decipher. “Nihlus. With me. Shepard, I believe Nihlus’ quarian can assist you with the assignment I gave you.”
She quickly disentangled herself from Nihlus, but he stopped her and shot a look at Saren. “Can this wait?”
“No,” Saren snapped. “It cannot. If it could, I would not have taken the time to seek you out, now, would I?”
Nihlus looked back at Shepard and ran his fingers through her hair, straightening it back into place, and said, “Later.”
They left and she took a moment to collect herself before going to the lift and hitting the control for the engineering deck. She leaned her forehead against the cool metal wall and tried to wrap her head around what had just happened. She’d gone to Nihlus’ cabin looking for him because she needed help deciphering the program that Saren had told her to learn. Instead, she’d ended up making out with him in plain view of anyone coming into the mess hall from the starboard side of the lift and getting caught by Saren in the process. Saren. Who hated humans. Who undoubtedly viewed human/turian relationships as an abomination. Who would certainly have some creative new punishment in store for her. She was so fucked. The lift stopped and she went into engineering in search of Tali.
“What is this about, Saren?” Nihlus demanded. “If this was a thinly veiled excuse to get me away from Shepard because you—”
“Shut up, Nihlus,” Saren said without heat. “It was not. Whatever you and Shepard choose to do on your own time is none of my business. However, I will insist that you do so on your own time rather than on mine. She was supposed to be seeking your assistance on a program she does not understand, not seeking your tongue down her throat.”
“That would be my fault,” Nihlus conceded.
“She is a grown woman,” Saren said. “She does not strike me as the type of person who is incapable of saying no to something she does not want. You are both at fault.”
“To be fair,” Nihlus said, “she has no time of her own. You work her harder than you ever worked me. She barely has time to eat and rest. She fell asleep standing against the bulkhead while waiting for the doctor to bring her stims yesterday.”
Saren said, “I work her harder than I did you because she needs more work than you did. The Alliance does not train their soldiers to the standards of the Hierarchy. Why is she on stims? She has four hours per day to herself. If she is not utilizing her time appropriately, then that is a failing that needs to be addressed.”
Nihlus sighed. Saren truly didn’t know the first thing about humans beyond how to kill them, and of course, wouldn’t do more than cursory research on how to keep one alive for something other than torture or interrogation. “Humans can survive on less than four hours of sleep per day for a short time, Saren, not for months on end, and that is based on a solar Earth day, not a galactic standard day. In addition, she must use that time to shower, eat, dress, and perform her duties on the ship and for the crew because you do not allow her time for that. She is still the captain of this crew. She is still an Alliance soldier and the Alliance has not reduced their demands upon her in light of her training. She is performing all of the duties of a military officer along with her Spectre training and you are only giving her four hours per day to do so. You are going to kill her if you continue this pace. Is that your intention? Do you plan to simply run her into the ground so that you may discard her when she fails?”
“No!” Saren exclaimed. “I…forget sometimes that she is not turian.” Nihlus scoffed. Saren, forget that a human was a human? Impossible. Saren said, “That is incorrect. I simply forget that she does not have the same capabilities and needs as a turian. She does not complain. She has not requested additional time. Has she no survival instinct?”
Nihlus said, “And how would you have responded if she had? ‘You can sleep when you’re dead.’ She needs a minimum of six hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. If she was not so sleep-deprived, perhaps she would not be struggling so much to understand basic technical concepts that you and I both know she is fully capable of grasping. She also needs time to take care of her ship and her crew. Alenko has been pulling far more than his fair share of the weight even as her XO. If he so chose, he could likely report to the Alliance that she is being derelict in her duties and get the ship removed from her command. What would you do then? Take her on your ship? You know as well as I do that you utilize the Normandy’s stealth systems for your missions even more than she does for hers.”
“All right!” Saren shouted. “Enough! I will reevaluate her schedule. Stop berating me. I have new intel related to the Sonax Industries assignment and will need your assistance.”
Nihlus listened with one ear canal as Saren outlined the details. The rest of his attention was focused on the events that had just transpired with Shepard. He owed her an apology. Until he’d said it aloud to Saren, he hadn’t thought about the fact that she hadn’t slept at all in days and had been running on stims and hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since their last shore leave. She was not in the right state of mind to be dealing with his advances and he shouldn’t have given in to the urge to touch and kiss her when her judgment was certainly compromised by lack of sleep. He was actually grateful that Saren had interrupted.
Saren’s attitude toward her was puzzling. It was not entirely unexpected that he would eventually learn to respect her. Saren and Shepard were very similar in many ways. It was also not unexpected that he would feel conflicted about coming to like her. Saren had very, very few people he tolerated, much less respected and even liked to a certain degree. Nihlus had no doubt that Saren liked his new protégé. He was not simply working her more because she needed it more. He had never put this amount of effort into a trainee before. If they’d needed that much work, he’d cut them loose and failed them. Nihlus hadn’t expected Saren to do more than the bare requirements for a human trainee. Instead, Saren was truly mentoring her in a way he had not done for anyone since Nihlus.
That was especially puzzling given that he knew that Saren still felt that humans had no place in the Spectres and that having a human Spectre would lead to a human councilor, something he adamantly disagreed with. Was he playing a game with her? Was he playing a game with the Council in which she was a pawn? Was he putting all of this work into her simply to provide evidence that he went above and beyond while simultaneously plotting her downfall? Or did Saren see her as an exception to her species, something outside of humanity, and simply have difficulty accepting that?
There were also the subvocals that Saren had quickly suppressed upon finding them. Nihlus knew that Shepard couldn’t hear them, but until Saren had shut them down—a skill that few turians ever mastered as it implied dishonesty—he’d heard desire. While words could be misunderstood, subvocals did not lie and they did not miscommunicate. Saren wanted her. Or them together. He and Saren had been together for years and he could have understood his response had Saren’s eyes not been locked on Shepard. The idea of Saren desiring a human was ludicrous. Of course, a few months ago, he would have said that Saren willingly training a human would have been ludicrous.
If he desired her, then that would explain many things. It would explain his inner conflict. It would explain his thorough training of her while neglecting to learn anything about her species. Saren knew Shepard. That much was clear. In order to reconcile his desire for her and perhaps, affection, he would have to mentally distance her from her species. He would treat her…like she was turian. And, in doing so, he wouldn’t even realize that he was neglecting her most basic needs. Turians had slower metabolisms than humans. Turians needed less sleep than humans. Turians could survive longer on less food than humans.
Nihlus didn’t feel any sense of envy or possessiveness at the realization. Turians, both male and female, tended to be territorial with their partners, but they weren’t monogamous in the way that humans tended to be. There were far more males than females, especially outside of Hierarchy space, and relationships tended to be among three rather than two, especially when two males and a female had a pre-existing friendship. Saren had always seemed content with what they had and had never expressed a desire to bring a third in for more than play, and given the nature of their work and the differences in their personalities, the opportunities to do so would have been slim even if they had. He and Saren had shared a female on occasion, though those had tended to be more of the one-night variety and he wanted far more than that from Shepard. This would bear some consideration.
Nihlus wasn’t listening. Rather, he was listening but not with his full attention. Instead, his subvocals were thrumming with realization and contemplation. He sounded like he had just figured out the meaning of the universe. It was irritating, especially when combined with the considering looks he kept casting at Saren. “What?” he finally snapped.
“Just…thinking,” Nihlus said. “If we send Shepard in here, she could infiltrate the facility and disable the guards before they could set off any alarms. We come in, following the path she clears. You and I take care of security and Garrus can investigate.”
Saren nodded. Those had been his thoughts as well, but he knew that Nihlus was deflecting. He’d known the other turian for long enough to be able to read him well. Saren hadn’t hidden his subvocals in time. He’d been surprised by them and had shut them down as soon as he had been physically able to do so, but Nihlus was quick and attentive. He wouldn’t miss something like that and would quickly deduce the reason behind them. He could not even lie and pretend that they had been entirely directed at Nihlus.
Seeing Shepard in Nihlus’ arms had been the first time that he had witnessed her with her guard completely down and the first time that he had registered her as a potentially sexual being. Nihlus’ words about human similarities to turians and asari had come flooding back, and where he had not applied them to her then, he couldn’t stop seeing them in relation to her now. The sounds she’d made had been almost lascivious and Nihlus had barely touched her.
A part of him was disgusted by the idea of thinking of any human, including Shepard, in that way. Another, growing, part of him was intrigued. He was having his own difficulties focusing on the mission at hand. He could picture himself beside Nihlus with Shepard looking up at him like that. He ruthlessly shoved the mental image away. It was pointless and an unneeded distraction. He had a job to do.
Shepard didn’t even like him. She trusted him to an extent, but she didn’t like him yet. She certainly wouldn’t find him attractive when presented with perfect physical specimens like Nihlus and Vakarian. His fringe was too long and too uneven. His zygomatic plates were overgrown. He was barefaced. He was far too old for her. Besides, he fully intended to betray her. She was…somewhat attractive, though.
“Commander Shepard?” Tali stood in the doorway of the comm room where Shepard had just finished a briefing with Admiral Hackett.
“Yes, Tali?” Shepard said.
The quarian twisted her hands around each other and said, “I heard we’re going to the Valhallan Threshold.” Shepard nodded and Tali said, “I was wondering…you see, the Flotilla is in that system right now and, well, I just got news…they said…”
“It’s all right, Tali,” Shepard said. “Take your time.”
“It’s about my father,” Tali said. “He’s dead.”
“You need to go home,” Shepard said.
“For a little while,” Tali said with a nod. “If it isn’t too much trouble. I was going to book a transport but then I heard…and I thought…maybe you wouldn’t mind.”
“It’s fine, Tali,” Shepard said. “We can either detour or send you in one of the shuttles. You can rejoin us when you’re ready.”
“Thank you, Shepard,” Tali said with relief clear in her voice.
They were on their way to Garvug to complete their investigation into Sonax Industries. Garvug, by all accounts, was a miserable frozen rock whose small portion of habitable land had been destroyed by the krogan back when the Romans still ruled the Earth. It was now utilized by corporations and roving packs of krogan and vorcha mercenaries. It was also deep into the Terminus Systems where the Council, and by proxy, the Spectres had no true authority. Tali had unwittingly given them a cover should their presence in the area be detected.
Shepard moved through the facility, utilizing her cloak where needed and slipping silently from shadow to shadow where it wasn’t, taking out the guards as she went. She was impressed by her improvement in hand-to-hand techniques. She hadn’t even had to draw her weapon. Even one of the infamous drell assassins would likely be impressed, or at least, not disappointed. When she’d cleared the way, the other members of the team joined her. She continued scouting the facility while Garrus looked into the records and Saren and Nihlus finished clearing the area.
She turned a corner and found a locked room under guard. Her cloak allowed her to slip up behind one of them and snap his neck before crushing the trachea of the second. The third got a single shot off at her before she slit his throat with her omni-blade. When she was certain they were all dead, she went to work on the lock. Here, again, Saren’s training proved useful. Not that she would tell him that. His ego was big enough as it was.
The door slid open and she slipped inside. The room was empty but for a glowing green pillar in the center. She stopped and stared up at it in disbelief. It was unlike anything she’d ever seen before. Alien was not even an appropriate descriptor because this was different from any alien relic she’d ever learned about. Glowing script she couldn't decipher ran up the sides of the humming construction.
She put her hand to her ear and activated her comm. “Arterius, Kryik, come in.”
“We read you, Shepard,” Nihlus said.
“I’m sending my nav point to your omni-tools. There’s something here you need to see,” she said. “I…think it’s Prothean.”
“That would likely be a logical assumption given that we are here in search of Prothean technology,” Saren said.
“Yeah,” she said, “but this…it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
“Do not touch it,” he ordered.
“No shit, Sherlock,” she muttered.
“I heard that,” he said.
“We’re on our way, Shepard,” Nihlus said with humor in his voice.
A few minutes later, Nihlus, Garrus, and Saren cautiously entered the room. Garrus and Nihlus gaped up at the device. Saren looked at it warily. “Does anyone else hear something emanating from that thing?” he asked.
“I do,” Shepard said.
“So do I,” Nihlus confirmed.
“Everyone out,” Saren ordered. “Seal the doors. Nihlus, get that asari doctor here. No one goes into that room until she can identify it and ensure that it is safe to be around without some type of shielding.”
Shepard looked at Saren curiously. He seemed…afraid of it, almost. Nihlus and Garrus were looking at him with similarly stunned expressions. Shepard said, “Saren, is this the first time you’ve seen something like this?”
“Not…precisely,” he said but refused to elaborate further.
Liara arrived with Nihlus’ ship the following day. Shepard, Saren, and Kaidan escorted her through the facility. Garrus and Nihlus were back in the labs where Garrus was questioning the staff. When Liara saw the device, she gasped and said, “It’s a beacon!”
“What kind of beacon?” Saren asked. “What does it do?”
Liara began to explain theories about Prothean communication techniques. Shepard listened until movement caught her eye and she realized that Kaidan was getting far too close for comfort. She was already moving toward him when the air around the beacon lit up. She grabbed Kaidan around the waist and threw him back but found herself caught in some kind of force field. She registered her feet leaving the floor before her mind was overwhelmed by a cacophony of images and a sound that seemed to shred the very inside of her skull. The images had no discernable order and she could make no sense of them. She only knew that they made a cold dread settle deep into her bones as white-hot fear burned in her throat. The one message that stood out clearly from the rest was death. Destruction. They are out there and they are coming.
“Shepard!” Saren shouted, shaking her shoulders. “Damn you, Shepard, wake up!”
She groaned and brought a hand up to her pounding head. “What the—”
“Shepard!” he shouted again. He sounded…frantic. There was no doubt that it was stark fear in his voice even without the aid of being able to hear and understand his subvocals.
“I’m awake. I’m awake,” she muttered. “Stop yelling.”
“You fool!” he hissed. “Open your eyes.”
“Bright,” she protested.
“I don’t give a damn. Open your eyes,” he said again. When she responded to the urgency in his voice, he grasped her face by the chin and used his thumb to lift the lid further. He turned her head from side to side and seemed almost obsessively focused on her eyes. “T’Soni, Alenko, do you see blue in her eyes? Is anything abnormal about them?”
“No,” Liara said.
“I think it’s just reflection from the beacon,” Kaidan said.
“Be certain,” Saren snapped. “We must get her out into the light.” With that, he picked Shepard up in his arms and carried her from the room. Ignoring the corpses on the floor, he sat her down in the brightest spot and tilted her face up once more to resume his inspection. “Do any of you see abnormal coloration, orbs, anything at all out of the ordinary in her irises?” he asked again.
“No,” they insisted together.
“Her pupils are glowing,” Saren insisted.
“It’s the reflection of the light,” Kaidan said calmly. “Turn her head and it will move. It’s just the way our eyes are formed.”
Saren turned her head again and released her. He didn’t seem reassured by their answers. “Do you hear voices other than ours? Do you feel drawn to the beacon? Can you feel it? Do you feel a need to protect it?”
“No,” she answered in confusion. “I…voices, maybe. I don’t…I don’t understand the language. From the vision. I think…Protheans, maybe?”
“Describe it,” he ordered tersely as he scanned her with his omni-tool.
“Chaos,” she said. “War? Death. It seemed like a warning of some kind. People were screaming, running. There were these scenes of…implants. Like cybernetics. And through it all, the noise… That damn noise. Like talons inside my skull.”
“I may be able to help you make sense of it,” Liara said. “I have devoted my life to studying the Protheans. Perhaps I will understand it.”
“Do it,” Saren ordered.
“Do what?” Shepard asked.
“I can join my consciousness to yours,” Liara said.
Shepard wasn’t certain that she wanted a stranger inside of her mind, but the look on Saren’s face was both determined and somehow still fearful. He knew something they didn’t and if he thought this was necessary, then she would allow it. She closed her eyes and felt something that seemed to probe at her mind. She reflexively tried to push it away before forcing herself to relax and allow Liara in. It was a strange sensation, having someone else in her mind, sorting through her memories like files in a drawer. Liara found the vison and Shepard winced as it played through again. She was relieved when it was over and the asari released her.
“Well?” she asked.
“It is definitely Prothean,” Liara answered. “I agree that it is a warning of some sort. Unfortunately, I do not speak their language, so I cannot tell you exactly what it said. It was…unnerving. It almost seemed to be a record of their extinction. I need to…” Liara swayed and placed her hand on her forehead. “I need to sit down. I will do some research and see what I can come up with. Agent Arterius, I do not believe that there is any danger to the commander.”
“Is the beacon capable of…enslaving a person?” he asked.
“No,” Liara answered. “It is a communication device, nothing more. We simply are not advanced enough to fully utilize it. There are more of these throughout the galaxy. I have studied some of them myself. The Prothean archives that the humans discovered on Mars had a beacon similar to this. Though, none of them have contained such a message. It is a shame that it is destroyed. We could have learned so much…”
“Destroyed?” Shepard asked.
Kaidan said, “It, ah, shattered when it released you.”
“It is just as well,” Saren said. “Those things can be dangerous.” He cast another wary look over his shoulder toward the room and muttered, “Clarke’s third law.”
“‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,’” Shepard said, looking at him closely.
He stiffened and said, “Yes. Are you…”
She had the bizarre urge to reach up and touch his face. It was so strong that she had to stop herself midway and force her hand to drop. He looked so open and vulnerable and unlike Saren that she didn’t know if she was more shaken by the vision or by her mentor’s reaction to it. He seemed to realize that he was still touching her and pulled away as if she’d burned him. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just a headache.”
He nodded shortly. “Take her back to the ship. Dr. T’Soni, I need to know how to move this device without risk of it entrapping anyone else.”
“Shepard?” Nihlus said as he rushed through the doorway of the med bay with Garrus behind him. “I heard what happened. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “The doc’s already cleared me. I’ve got an increase in delta waves or something but otherwise am completely normal.”
“Damn, Shepard,” Garrus said. “You get all the fun. Don’t think I envy you this time, though.”
“I don’t think anyone should,” she said. “That was not an experience I’d like to repeat. Nihlus, walk me to my cabin?”
Once inside the lift, Nihlus turned to her and cupped her face between his hands. He looked searchingly down at her and gently stroked his thumb across her cheek. “Are you certain you are all right, Shepard?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” she said. “It was unpleasant but I’m okay. I am confused about something.”
“What?” he asked. The lift stopped and they walked together into her cabin where she took a seat on the couch. Nihlus rummaged through her drawers until he found a bottle of amino-neutral wine and poured two glasses.
“Saren,” she answered. “His reaction, I mean. He was…panicked. He’s seen something like this before. I know he has. Whatever it was, it was bad. The questions he was asking. Were my eyes normal? Had they changed colors? Were there orbs in them? Could I feel the beacon? Did I feel called to protect it? Could it enslave people? What the hell is going on, Nihlus? He was afraid. For me. He didn’t even yell at me.”
“He will,” Nihlus assured her as he sat beside her and passed her a glass. “Once he calms down. Has he ever told you about his brother? No? He wouldn’t. He hasn’t even told me all of the details and I won’t betray his confidences. Suffice it to say that a strange, alien device led to his brother’s death. Some of the details parallel your experience. I believe it hit too close to home as you humans say.”
“He's never mentioned a brother,” she said.
“He wouldn’t,” he said. “We had been friends for at least a decade and he was very drunk when he told me. Even so, I don’t know much more than what I told you and most of what I do know I had to dig to find. He doesn’t talk about it.”
“Do you think they’re connected?” she asked after a moment.
“I don’t have enough information about either one to hazard a guess. Saren is the only person who could answer that question,” he said. “Frankly, I’m more concerned about you at the moment.”
“I told you I’m…fine,” she sighed as his mouth met hers.
His green eyes remained on her as he cupped the side of her face and used an arm around her waist to draw her into his lap. His tongue flicked mischievously over her lips as he slipped his hands beneath the hem of her shirt. When his warm palms came into contact with her skin, he sighed. “Spirits, Shepard, you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do just this. You feel like silk.”
She reached up and stroked a hand along the top of his fringe. She’d never touched a turian’s fringe before that single graze of his during their mock battle, though she was fairly certain he would have allowed her to indulge her curiosity if she’d asked. He would have teased the hell out of her for it, but he probably would have let her. She hadn’t really been paying attention when she finally had touched it. She was paying attention now. The curved spines were as warm as the rest of him. Their texture was slightly rough, like a cat’s tongue, and pebbled. He let out a rumbling sigh that reminded her of a big cat and relaxed under her touch.
She cocked her head and measured his reaction. He was still gripping the side of her waist, but his body seemed languorous. His mandibles were relaxed into a loose smile and his eyes were closed. He looked utterly and completely content, like he could stay like this all day. She thought it must feel similarly to the way it did when her mother would stroke the top of her head when she was young and needed comfort. It wasn’t the reaction she’d been looking for, but he looked so relaxed. She hadn’t realized just how much tension he carried around his eyes until it faded.
“If you keep that up, I’m going to fall asleep,” he said.
Her lips quirked in a smile. She wondered if this was what it felt like to be in a real relationship with someone. She could almost imagine his head in her lap and him napping as she read something and rubbed his head. Cute was not a word she thought anyone would normally associate with Nihlus Kryik, but that was exactly the descriptor she would use for him right now.
That changed when she shifted her fingers to the underside of his fringe. He groaned and his body tensed as his hands tightened on her hips. Heat flared within her at this clear reaction from him and she did it again. The hide on the underside was much softer even than that on the back of his neck. It had a slight give to it that made his hands flex even tighter when she applied pressure to it. He leaned forward and drew his tongue slowly up the side of her neck. His mandibles brushed against her skin, trailing sparks behind them and she shivered. “I won’t bite,” he murmured into her throat. “Unless you ask, of course.”
“Maybe later,” she said dreamily as his teeth scraped lightly over her skin. She liked that. She liked it a lot. She also liked it when his hand moved up and splayed over her rib cage before moving around to draw his talons gently down her back. Another shiver ran through her. She was surprised and touched by the care he showed with her. There was just enough not to let her forget that he was a turian rather than a human but never enough to make her feel anything but cherished. She gasped when his other hand closed over her breast and stroked her nipple. His chuckle was full of male satisfaction. “Sure of yourself, aren’t you?” she laughed lightly.
“I might know a thing or two about human anatomy,” he said and drew his tongue over her ear. “Why don’t we get this shirt off?” She made a sound of protest as his hands left her, but then he drew the garment over her head and deftly flicked open the back latch of her bra. He had definitely been with a human before. Good. At least one of them knew what they were doing.
His mouth returned to her throat before nipping lightly at her collarbone and moving down. He leaned her back into his waiting hands and supported her as he trailed his lips and tongue over her breasts. When the tip of his tongue flicked against her nipple, she gasped and arched up into his mouth. She stroked the underside of his fringe before moving down and finding a spot where it met his neck that made him groan again and press back into her hand. “Right…there,” he sighed.
He stood in a smooth motion and strode toward the bed. After depositing her carefully onto it, he began to remove his armor. She propped up on her elbows to watch. She’d seen turians in the showers before. The ones on his ship were co-ed, and having served on many different Alliance vessels, it hadn’t struck her as strange to share a shower with a naked turian. Their bits were all covered anyway. She was the one exposed. They had all been polite enough not to look beyond an occasional surprised or curious glance and she’d done her best to return the favor. She hadn’t seen Nihlus naked, though, and she suspected that would be a very different thing.
He was, quite simply, beautiful. Those deep red plates and the slightly paler hide gleamed in the glow from her fish tank as it picked up the metallic sheen to his skin. His cream-colored colony markings extended down his body over his chest and across his back, elegantly outlining the angular plating that gave even his nude form a militaristic, armored look. Stripped bare of his armor and the trappings of civilization, he looked like what he was: an apex predator. She was able to put that out of her mind most of the time and see only Nihlus, her unlikely friend and somewhat-mentor, but now she was hyper-aware of him and the reminder that he could easily kill her with a touch was more thrilling than it should have been. Of course, she always had courted danger.
He stalked toward her and she lifted her hips for him to remove her trousers. She laughed lightly when she realized that she’d forgotten her boots. The laugh died in her throat when he tugged the pants over them and slid his hands up the inside of her thighs. Her arms trembled as her head fell back. He nuzzled her ear and said, “As beautiful as you are that way, don’t bare your throat to a turian even in bed unless you clearly state a lack of submission. It sends certain…messages.”
“Definitely not submitting,” she said breathily. “Just enjoying.”
“That’s such a strange human tendency,” he said as his lips ghosted along her neck and his hands trailed up her thighs. “Baring your throat to your partner.”
“I think…I think it’s a sign of…oh…a sign of trust,” she said between gasps. The air in the room suddenly felt thin and simultaneously heavy. His mouth moved down her body and she lost the battle with gravity as his tongue stroked between her folds. “Oh, god, Nihlus!”
He chuckled and she felt the vibrations in her core. “I told you I know what I’m doing,” he said lightly. His tongue circling her clit cut off any reply she would have made. She writhed against him as he licked her lightly and then bucked hard when she felt his tongue push inside of her.
“Oh, fuck,” she groaned. “Oh, fuck.” He slid his tongue out and replaced it with a finger. She didn’t have time to wonder or worry about his talons because he was circling her clit once more. His finger curled up inside of her as his tongue finally, finally flicked over her center and she cried his name as her release poured over her with almost embarrassing swiftness.
“It’s been a long time,” she gasped when she could breathe again.
“It isn’t a contest to see who can hold out the longest,” he said, moving up to place a kiss on her lips. “I like knowing that I can pleasure you. I like seeing you let go for me. You have no idea how beautiful you are to me, Shepard.”
“I think it’s your turn,” she said and deftly flipped him onto his back with herself astride.
He caught her hand and said, “Why do you withdraw when I tell you that you’re beautiful?”
She shrugged and said, “That’s…not really something people say to me. I don’t have a problem with it and I’m not self-conscious about my appearance. I just don’t know how to respond to that. Compliment my skill with a rifle and it means something. Compliment my appearance and, I don’t know, it just feels like a lie. I’m not really what you’d consider pretty by human standards. Facial scars aren’t really attractive,” she finished, gesturing to the marks that ran across her eyebrow and mouth that she’d acquired on Torfan.
He brought a taloned finger up and traced the marks lightly. “They give you character,” he said. “I like the way this one makes your lip quirk. You look like you’re constantly smirking even when you’re serious. It’s a bit disconcerting. And I didn’t say you were pretty. Pretty is for flowers and delicate asari maidens. You’re beautiful.”
“So are you,” she said, trailing her hands over his chest. The plates did have give and when her fingers slipped between them, he gasped. She leaned forward and grazed her teeth over his pronounced collarbone before sliding her hands up to trace the ridge of plates that lined his spine. She pressed her thumbs to either side of them and the sound he made was almost a growl. “Sorry,” she said quickly.
“No,” he said. “It’s okay. That’s, ah, just another spot that sends a message. Not quite dominance but protection. Like scruffing a varren. It feels…really good.”
“Humans carry a lot of tension there,” she said.
“So do we,” he said. “Spirits, do it again.”
She grinned and repeated the motion from the top of the ridge until it met his cowl. By the time she was finished, he was purring again. His hands came up to stroke the inside of her thighs again and she moved them away before trailing her tongue down the gaps in his plates. When she reached his abdomen and the thin, narrow horizontal plates there, he groaned and fisted his hand in her hair. “Shepard, you don’t have to—”
“I want to,” she said and dragged her tongue along the seam in his plates. She watched in fascination as they loosened and he gave a practiced roll of his angular hips that slid his length out from its protective barrier. This, she’d never seen before except in an issue of Fornax.
The basic shape was analogous to a human but that was where the similarity ended. He was more angular than a human without the softer head and with a bony ridge ran the length of the underside. It was somewhat like the fringe on his head, but where the soft hide beneath was concave on his head, it was definitely convex on his cock. His girth was impressive. She dragged her finger along the slick length and his hands fisted in the sheets. “Turian females are…less pliable,” he said breathlessly.
She bent her head and tasted him cautiously. It wasn’t bad. Tangy, a bit metallic, somewhat sweet, but not at all unpleasant. His reaction, though, made it entirely fantastic. He snarled and bucked his hips as his knee drew up and he gripped her hair tightly. “Spirits,” he gasped. “That’s, uh, a first for me. Turians can’t. Asari don’t…and humans usually don’t like the lubrication.”
“I do,” she said and drew him into her mouth. He called her name and then devolved into a language her translator didn’t understand. It certainly wasn’t Palaveni. She presumed it was the dialect of the colony where he was born and thought that if he’d lost the ability to speak his second language, she was doing something right.
He gave a tug on her hair and she complied, moving up his body. He rolled her beneath him and wordlessly moved her thighs apart before kissing her deeply. She wrapped her legs around his waist and felt him nudge her entrance. When she tightened her legs around him, he chuckled and nuzzled her cheek. “Easy, Shepard,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You won’t,” she told him.
He began to push into her. He was thick and the ridge of what could only be bone spread her wide for him. She gasped at the sensation as he stretched her. It was uncomfortable for a moment and she understood his concern but when she relaxed, her body adjusted to him and she rolled her hips up to meet his patient thrusts. Nihlus growled something under his breath and thrust more fully into her. She moaned and he did it again until he was fully seated within her. He paused and she said, “Oh, fuck, Nihlus. Don’t stop. Please don’t stop.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied with a wry grin and began to move, slowly at first but then with increasing confidence as she moved with him. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she scraped her nails along the hide at the base of his fringe. That seemed to loosen something in him and he began to pound forcefully into her as his teeth locked over her shoulder, making contact but not breaking the skin. The knowledge that she could do that to him, that she could reduce him to incoherence and instinct, was heady and exciting. Then he changed his angle and she could no longer think at all.
Her short, broken cries combined with his snarling groans to echo off of the bulkhead. “Oh, fuck. Nihlus! Nihlus, please!” she cried out, arching against him as his rough plates grazed over her skin. His hands gripped her waist and his teeth tightened on her shoulder, pressing in now just short of breaking the skin. She had no fear that he would sink them into her. She knew enough to know what it meant to mark a partner there and he was too honorable to do that to her. His miming of the action, though, and the sharp pressure of his teeth drove her higher and sensation coiled in her belly like a spring under pressure.
He drove into her hard and his talons pressed against her skin, matching the sharpness of his teeth. These he was not as careful with and she felt the prick of their tips against the skin of her hips. Her own nails raked across his fringe and he released her shoulder to say in a dark, commanding voice, “Let go. Now.” He pulled her into him with his talons locked into her flesh and the spring broke, flooding her body as she convulsed around him, gripping tightly to his cowl as if to keep herself from flying away. He went rigid and buried his face against her neck, pulsing hot fluid into her until finally, shaking, they collapsed into each other.
When she could move again, she brought a trembling hand up to lightly stroke over the top of his fringe. He purred and nuzzled the side of her neck. She whispered, “That was…”
“Awesome? Fantastic? Amazing? Best you’ve ever had?” he suggested in a sleepy, teasing tone.
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Though I’m not sure I should feed your ego any more.”
He laughed with her and nuzzled her again before saying, “You did call me a deity.”
“You are impossible,” she laughed.
“You like it,” he charged and pressed a kiss to her lips before sliding out of her.
Mention of non-con; not Shep or Nihlus.
Here comes the awkward part, she thought. This was the part where she and her partner generally figured out how to disentangle themselves, who was supposed to leave, whether they should say something before they did, if the other person wanted to hear lies about calling them later. This was the part that, after experiencing the comfort of lying in a lover’s arms through the night, had turned her off of one-night stands. Until now. Nihlus had gotten what he wanted. It was her cabin, so he would be the one to leave. She suppressed her sigh of disappointment as he rose from the bed. She’d thought that being with him would satisfy her curiosity and dampen the heat she felt when she looked at him. It hadn’t. It had only fanned the flames.
This had been a mistake. How the hell was she supposed to work with him now when every time she looked at him, she’d remember the way he’d moved within her? She wasn’t one to associate sex with love, but sex when combined with companionship, trust, affection, and humor went deeper than friendship and she could foresee herself wishing for things that could never be. It would have been better if she’d wondered but hadn’t known.
She combed her fingers through her hair to restore it to some semblance of order and looked down at her hips as she resolutely pushed her thoughts away. She would work with him just like she worked with everyone else. She would look at him just like she looked at everyone else. She’d gotten through Paul’s death. This was nothing in comparison. She just needed to clean up and get her head back on straight before morning. He’d left tiny nicks in her skin that were decorated with thin trails of drying blood. The small cuts were already beginning to close. They wouldn’t even need medigel.
The bed dipped and she looked up, startled by his silent reappearance. She forgot sometimes how quickly he moved and realized that he hadn’t donned his armor. “You didn’t think I was leaving, did you?” he asked and searched her face. “I mean, I’ll go if you want but I had hoped to stay.”
“Really?” she asked, taken aback.
“If that’s what you want,” he said. When she nodded, he gave a sigh of relief. “Good. I didn’t intend for this to be a one-time thing. I respect you more than that, Shepard.”
She smiled and leaned forward to kiss his mouth plates. “I like you, Nihlus,” she said. “I want you to stay.”
He returned the kiss and then began to wipe away the blood on her hips with the warm, wet cloth he’d gotten from the head. “I didn’t mean to break the skin,” he said. “I apologize.”
“I liked it,” she told him. “Don’t worry about it. They’re already closing. I heal fast.”
“I can see that,” he said. “And I’m glad you enjoyed it. I…do like using my teeth and talons.”
“Good,” she said. “I wouldn’t have slept with a turian if I didn’t like it a bit rough.”
“Such a strange euphemism,” he commented. “Your skin is red. There are oils that will help with that, but for now, a bit of medigel will do. Why do humans refer to sex as sleeping?”
She shrugged as he smoothed medigel over her chafed skin. “We can be kind of prudish. It’s more polite to say sleeping than it is to say having sex.”
“Humans are strange creatures,” he said lightly and then moved up to lie beside her. She laid her head on his chest and his arms came up to wrap around her. She could hear his heartbeat through the plates. It was slower than a human’s and had more beats to it. The sound was slightly jarring as she was accustomed to a different rhythm but soon turned soothing as he ran his fingers lightly through her hair. She drifted into an easy sleep.
And woke with a scream lodged in her throat from vague, undefined nightmares full of death and the discordant sound of something unseen but terrifying. Nihlus came to with his hand already on his pistol but relaxed when he realized the source of her distress. “Nightmare?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. She nodded, still not trusting her voice, and he pressed his lips to her head. “We get them, too,” he said. “I think everyone does.”
“Salarians don’t,” she said in a voice that sounded like a croak. “Their sleep cycles are too short. They don’t dream.”
“I think I envy them,” he said. “Don’t be ashamed, Shepard. I don’t think you can see what we’ve seen and not have nightmares on occasion.”
“It’s that damn vision,” she said quietly. “Something is coming, Nihlus, and we are not ready for it.”
“We’ll figure it out,” he assured her. “We’ll get ready. Though it would help if we knew a time frame. Is it coming now? Is it coming a thousand years from now? How much time do we have?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t even know what it is. Saren knows something, though.”
“Then we’ll talk to him,” he said.
Shepard trailed a hand down Nihlus’ chest and said, “Take my mind off of this. Tell me something about you.”
“Did I ever tell you about the time I faced down an asari justicar?” he asked.
“No,” she said, absently tracing the ridges of his plates.
“Do you remember the attack on Mindoir?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
He said, “The batarians took the colonists they didn’t kill to a no-name backwater planet out in the Terminus. I’d been assigned to investigate that particular slaver ring because they’d gone from attacking human colonies out in the Terminus to attacking human colonies in Citadel space and turian colonies on the outskirts of Hierarchy space. I was too late to stop the attack on Mindoir or to help the people there, but I was able to track the ship that took the survivors.
“When I got there, the batarians had them secured in muddy lots like cattle. No. Cattle are housed in better conditions. Most of them were working together in an attempt to survive. Some had given up. There was one, though, a human man. He’d turned on his people and sided with the batarians for extra food. I found him forcing himself on a child. I don’t know that this is going to help you sleep.”
“Go on,” she said.
“You have to understand, Shepard, I was raised on a merc colony,” he said. “There were no laws. There was no justice. There was no honor. We were criminals. All of us. Even me. The only rule was to take care of your own. We took slaves. We raided colonies. We fought with other merc groups. We were raided once by a rival group when I was nine or ten. I had a little sister. The things they did to her… They killed my father when he tried to stop them. My mother took me and ran. So when I saw that man, I…lost it. I beat him to death with my bare hands. He was unarmed. He was a civilian, a prisoner like everyone else, but it didn’t matter.”
“I’d have done the same thing,” she said.
He nodded. “I suppose you would. The child ran as soon as she was free. The justicar saw me after that. I suppose she’d been following the slavers as well. He was unarmed and a civilian. It didn’t matter what he’d done. I didn’t bring him in for justice. I took it into my own hands. Her Code obligated her to attempt to take me out.”
“I see she failed,” Shepard said with a small smile.
“She did,” he said, running his fingers through her hair. “She pursued me through the wilderness for two whole weeks, though.”
“Did you kill her?” Shepard asked.
“No,” he said. “I wanted to avoid that if possible. She was doing the same thing I was, seeking justice. I would have if given no other choice, but I chose to evade her. She was relentless.”
“How did you get away?” she asked as her fingers tripped lower over his chest. The first part of his story had been horrible, true, but it was no worse than many things she’d seen in the military. He’d saved the child. He’d saved the colonists. She could picture him running through the woods while being stalked by an asari matriarch. The hunter becoming the hunted. She wanted to hear how he’d turned it around as she was certain he had. He was too clever by far to have done any less. And she could listen to his voice all night.
“I redirected a river,” he said.
“You did what?” she asked with a surprised laugh.
“You heard me correctly,” he said with a grin. “I redirected a river. Sent it toward a village.”
“Why?” she asked.
“It was a choice between killing her or turning her Code against her. The Code obligates her to save innocents first. She had no choice but to break off the hunt and rescue the village. I knew she would be able to do it. She was an incredibly powerful biotic. But she couldn’t save them and continue tracking me. I was able to return to my ship and escape,” he explained. He hummed thoughtfully. “She’s the closest I’ve ever come to actually being killed. It was a levo planet and I had been out of supplies for a week and constantly on the move. She’d gotten close enough to get through my shields and injure me fairly severely. This scar here is from her.” He gestured to a line across the unplated sides of his waist just below his chest plates. She traced it with her fingers and he hissed in a breath. “And I…don’t think you want to talk anymore.”
“I’m still listening,” she said.
“Then I don’t want to talk anymore,” he said and rolled over her. She gasped as he slid into her and began to move. “Besides, I think this is a much better cure for sleeplessness.”
She had to agree.
Saren eyed the beacon with open suspicion. Alien creations that had the power to penetrate the mind were to be considered a threat regardless of their point of origin. He didn't care if the Protheans had created it. As much as he repeated Clarke's third law to himself while looking at it, he could not comprehend the type of technology that would allow information to be stored and accessed in such a way and that made it far too similar to the Arca Monolith for his comfort.
It had grabbed Shepard. She was a fool for rushing toward it and he wanted to strangle that idiotic whelp who'd caused her to get too close. That didn't stop his hands from trembling when he remembered it or the image of Ben Hislop wrapping himself around Desolas and throwing him into the Monolith from flashing repeatedly before his eyes. There were far too many parallels and he struggled to separate the events of the past from the present.
He and Desolas had shared their hatred for the aliens whose first appearance on the galactic stage had been one of flagrant violation of galactic law. The turians, understandably sensitive about the laws regarding the relays since the rachni wars, had opened fire on the aliens attempting to activate the dormant Relay 314. The humans had responded in force and all-out war had quickly broken out. Humans were arrogant, entitled, aggressive, fear-driven creatures who had refused to acknowledge any sort of wrongdoing or culpability.
However, once exposed to the Arca Monolith, which he had found on Shanxi, Desolas' hatred for humanity had changed and expanded until he had been possessed of an insane desire to force turian dominance on the galaxy. He had planned to use the Monolith to evolve the turian race into the creatures that he'd thought followed him. But what good did it do to evolve a race to their physical peak while sacrificing their intelligence? The creatures formed by the Monolith had no intellect or will of their own. Their only drive was to protect the Monolith and create more of themselves. They were not loyal to Desolas, but his brother had been unable or unwilling to see what that truly meant and where it would inevitably lead.
He pushed away the thoughts of his brother as the asari gave instruction on preserving and moving the shattered remains of the Prothean beacon. The image of Shepard running for Alenko, grabbing him by the waist, and throwing him out of the way before being caught by the artifact herself overlapped with the memory of Jack Harper attempting to do the same for Ben Hislop. Harper had been unsuccessful in saving his partner. In that case, Hislop had been the one to take the brunt of the relic's force while Harper had received an entirely different type of contact from it. Saren wondered if Alenko was experiencing similar effects with the beacon. Hislop had been changed by the Monolith while Harper had formed a connection to it but maintained his independent identity. Would Shepard now be changed by the beacon?
The two events were too similar to be mere coincidence. He had witnessed two parallel occurrences thirty years apart where both left behind visions of death and destruction in those who made contact. He had not been a Spectre for a quarter of a century without honing his ability to make fractured pieces form a coherent whole. The picture that was forming now made his blood run cold. The Monolith was not the same type of technology as the Prothean beacon, but it worked in a similar manner and gave off a similar message. They were connected somehow. That meant that whatever had created the Monolith had likely had contact with the Protheans. And all of the Protheans were dead.
He thought about the information that he had kept even from the Council, buried so deeply that no one alive knew of its existence. There was another artifact out there somewhere, and with the discovery of the Prothean beacon and its message, he thought now that it could only be connected in some way to these two. It could even be the final link between them and the key to the mysterious threat about which both Harper and Shepard had spoken. Finding out required finding it and finding it meant possible exposure to whatever fresh insanity waited for a new mind to come along. He was reminded of a type of arachnid on the human homeworld which lay in dark spaces and waited for victims to come too close before striking. The undiscovered artifact waited like that arachnid. He simply had to find a way to get close without becoming a victim. The thought struck him as being far easier to say than to do.
Saren had initially imagined that the alien artifact discovered by Edan Had'dah and studied by Dr. Qian was a weapon of some sort that would allow him to subvert and defeat the humans once and for all. He had been entranced by the idea and had killed both of them to get the data. It was not until he was faced with the realization that his plans sounded far too like Desolas' that he recognized the danger of his own way of thinking. The Relay 314 Incident was over. Humans, however hated, were a part of the galactic community. Should he turn a weapon against them to demolish them all, he would be forswearing his duty to the galaxy and his people. The peace between humans and turians would end. The humans would respond with war, and this time, the Council would likely support them. He had reluctantly locked the research away and attempted to forget about it.
Now, it seemed, he must once again turn to it. He had serious reservations about tracking it down, but if Harper and Shepard were correct, this looming threat could not be ignored. He would take precautions. He would allow the asari to study the Prothean beacon and he would review all of his reports from the Arca Monolith. He would study Qian's data extensively so that he would not go in blind again. He would be prepared. He would keep the beacon off of the Normandy and the asari under careful guard until he was certain that it was not capable of enslaving others in the way that the Monolith had those who came into contact with it. They would run scans on both Dr. T'Soni and Shepard. They would perform regular psychiatric evaluations. They would watch their eyes for signs of glowing, artificial blue. Like Harper's. Like Hislop and the other so-called Valluvian Priests. Like Desolas' there at the end. Like his.
As an additional precaution, he would send Nihlus away. His former protégé could aid in his research and in his search, but he could not be allowed near the relic. Should the worst happen, he was confident that Nihlus would make the same call that Saren had made with Desolas. Even for Shepard. Nihlus was not going to like Saren's plan to keep Shepard with him, but Saren needed her. She had seen the vision from the Prothean beacon. He had seen the Monolith. Between the two of them, they could piece together the puzzle. And, if Shepard was to become affected by the relic in the way that Hislop or Harper had been by the Monolith, then he would have a reason to keep her from the Spectres that no one could deny. Humanity would not gain their seat on the Council. He would not have to betray her. She would be collateral damage and he knew her well enough to know without a doubt that she would accept that role if it meant guarding the galaxy against...whatever it was that lay in wait.
He tried not to think of her lying unconscious after the beacon had released her. He was ashamed now of how clearly he had allowed his emotions to show. She was just a human. He shouldn't have cared. He shouldn't care at all. He certainly shouldn’t have panicked. He certainly should not have compared the possibility of being forced to blow up the facility with her still in it to killing his own brother. It cheapened his brother’s final moments and his own sacrifice to compare it to the death of a mere human he did not even like.
He admired her, to be sure. She was everything her fellow humans were not: dutiful, honest, humble, intelligent, willing to earn her place. He had noted how hard she had worked to overcome her failings. Even he had been unable to push her harder than she pushed herself. She never complained about difficulty or discomfort. She was like…a particularly clever pet.
Liar, he charged. At least have the courage to be honest with yourself. Seeing Shepard like that had affected him more than he wanted to admit. He had thought for a moment that she was dead and he’d…cared. He would have killed her, would still kill her, if the beacon had stolen her mind but it would be as quick and painless as he could make it. She had gotten to him like Nihlus had gotten to him. He didn’t like it but he couldn’t deny it. He didn’t want to betray her. He didn’t want to kill her. He didn’t want to see her fail. For the first time, he wanted to find another option.
Shepard was frustrated. It was becoming a familiar sensation while working with Saren. He had sent Nihlus and Garrus away when they’d docked at the Citadel to turn over the beacon and give their testimony to the Council, saying that two groups could find information more quickly than one. He’d then locked himself away in his makeshift cabin and snarled at anyone who came around. He refused to give her any information about what they were looking for and Nihlus had insisted that it wasn’t his story to tell. She didn’t like walking into a situation blind. She didn’t like having to rely entirely on someone else to spoon-feed her information.
To make matters worse, it was Christmas and the majority of the human crew were celebrating. Shepard didn’t mind the holiday and she didn’t mind her people taking a little bit of time out of their day to celebrate or have a little fun. Serving on a warship in peacetime could get monotonous even when they did regularly go on missions and it was good for morale. Their morale, at least.
The door to the observation lounge slid open and she heard Saren enter. More accurately, the lack of sound told her that Saren had entered. For such a large male, he could move extremely quietly. She didn’t know if he was looking for her or a drink, so she remained where she was and didn’t acknowledge him. She caught his reflection in the glass as she brought her drink to her lips. He was looking at her strangely. She supposed she did look a bit odd with her forearm propped against the window above her head and her head down as if she were trying to see the lower part of the ship’s hull.
He went to the bar and poured a drink. “What is Christmas,” he asked icily, “and why do people insist on wishing me a merry one? I am not merry.”
“Human holiday,” she said. “People get together with their family and friends and exchange gifts, decorate a tree, play music, sit by a fire, things like that.”
“Those jangling bells are meant to be music?” he sneered.
“I didn’t say it was good music,” she said. “I let them celebrate together because everyone is away from their families and that’s viewed as a bad thing on this particular holiday.”
“Then why are you drinking alone and staring into the void?” he asked in a disinterested tone.
She raised a brow and looked at his reflection. He was leaned negligently against the bar, sipping a glass of blue dextro whiskey. She wondered why he was asking. Saren didn’t make small talk. He clearly did not and would not care about a human holiday. He didn’t care about her. But Saren did nothing without a reason. So why had he asked? Was this a trick?
“Your efforts to figure me out are transparent,” he said. “I am not attempting to trap or to bait you. I need a distraction to allow me to look at something from a new angle. You are less distasteful than the rest of your crew.”
“What do you need to look at?” she asked.
“Answer the question, Shepard,” he said.
“I don’t have a family,” she said matter-of-factly. “Nothing to celebrate.” She hadn't particularly expected her mother to attempt to make contact with her as Hannah hadn't spoken to her since she'd told her about Paul but one could hope. It had proven to be a false hope. At least she'd gotten to speak with Nihlus.
“Don’t lie,” he said sharply. “You said that friends are involved. You have friends. You have one or two among the crew. That doctor. The pilot. Answer the question.”
She sighed and said, “Have you ever killed someone you love, Saren?” His stance shifted only slightly but it was enough. “That boyfriend I had, the one who died on Torfan? I’m sure you know about it. We weren’t just…fraternizing. We grew up together. His dad and my mom were in the same unit. We were engaged. I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I’m not a marine. I volunteered because…well, that doesn’t matter. Anyway, Paul was in charge of the diversion team. I knew he could lead it. I knew he was just as dedicated as I was to getting the job done. I knew he wouldn’t balk. I also knew they wouldn’t make it out. They were cannon fodder to get me into the mines undetected. He knew it, too. He went anyway. I gave the order that killed him, knowing that it was going to kill him. It was December 25, 2178. So, every year on Christmas, I drink a glass of his favorite whiskey and look out at the stars.”
“That’s why you killed the ones that surrendered,” he said.
“No,” she said. “I killed them because some people don’t deserve to live.”
“I agree,” he said.
“Of course you do,” she said.
“I killed my brother,” he said.
She was so startled by the admission, by the fact that he’d even offered up something of his own, that she almost dropped her glass. “Oh?” she asked, attempting to sound nonchalant. “Why?”
“Some secrets should stay buried,” he said cryptically. “Unfortunately, it seems that this one refuses to do so.”
“Does it have anything to do with you asking if my eyes had turned blue?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Like yours?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Was it another beacon?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “It was a monolith. It advanced people to their physical peak while enslaving them and destroying their minds. They became solely devoted to protecting it and creating more of themselves. A…devolution device, if you will. It seemed to work in stages. Direct contact created mindless slaves. Secondary contact forged a link of some sort with the device but left the mind and personality intact. Indirect exposure was the most insidious. It left no outward trace of itself but appeared to somehow convince others to do its will.
“Desolas’ contact with it was indirect at first and it…changed him. Then one of its slaves threw him into it. My own contact was secondary. I believe that the link was severed once it was destroyed, but the effects remained. I still have not been able to determine how it did it, but it was somehow able to implant its victims with some sort of cybernetics. The eyes were the first organs targeted. It was attempting to draw all of Palaven to it. To change my people into those…things. I locked my brother inside the temple where it was housed and called down an orbital strike.”
“You did the right thing,” she said.
“Of course I did, human,” he sneered. “I am an Arterius, yes, but I had a duty to my people.”
“What do you need to look at?” she asked again. “What has you locked away for hours on end? You said you need a new angle. Fresh eyes can give that.”
He set his glass on the counter and poured another shot. “There is a third relic,” he snarled. “Somewhere. It may be connected to the Monolith and the beacon. I don’t know what it is or where it is. I only know that it is.”
“Show me,” she said.
“You won’t be able to help,” he said. “It’s written in code. My programs can’t crack it. I doubt you can.”
“Try me,” she said, turning to face him.
“Fine,” he growled.
A few minutes later, she stood in his makeshift cabin, leaning over a table on which he’d spread a series of datapads covered in strange script. “It’s Mandarin,” she said after a moment. “It’s also encoded, probably something the author came up with himself, but that’s your first problem.”
“What is Mandarin?” he asked.
“An Earth language,” she explained. “Your translation software probably didn’t pick it up because it isn’t widely used anymore.”
“Can you read it?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “It would help if I knew what the cipher was keyed to. Who wrote this?”
“Dr. Shu Qian, a former Alliance scientist researching artificial intelligence,” he answered. “However, I have enlisted EDI’s assistance and it has been unable to decrypt it. What makes you think that you can do it?”
She explained absently, “I wasn’t always an infiltrator. I studied linguistic cryptography at the Alliance Academy on Arcturus before commissioning. That should be in my file. Qian…” The name sounded familiar but she was certain she had never met the doctor. “I’ve heard that name before. I mean, it’s a common Chinese name but it’s significant.”
“I am certain you never met him,” Saren said.
“No,” she mused. “Not him. Qian…Qian…H.S. Tsien! Qian Xuesen! He was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Lab. He was a scientist who worked on a design for an intercontinental space plane that led to the development of the American space shuttle. I wonder…”
She forgot Saren breathing over her shoulder as she alternated between the datapads and her omni-tool. She remembered him momentarily when she muttered that her work would be easier on a terminal after crashing her omni-tool with too many windows. A moment later, one appeared at her elbow. She thanked him before losing herself again in the puzzle before her. An indeterminate amount of time later—long enough for her back to protest when she straightened it—she sat back with a triumphant smile. “I found the key! It’s from Qian’s paper, ‘Rockets and Other Thermal Jets Using Nuclear Energy.’”
“You can decode it?” he asked, sounding stunned.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s a running homophonic substitution cipher keyed to Qian’s paper and with Qian’s Americanized name used as the key word. Classical cryptography. Very few people study this today beyond its historical significance to modern encryption techniques. It’s brilliant. Rather than utilizing a modern system that could be hacked with the right software, he went retro. The downside to it is that, once you have the key, it’s easy to translate. His mistake was in making it too obvious.”
“That was obvious?” Saren asked.
“To someone who studied the history of human spaceflight, yes,” she said. “It’s required in all Alliance military schools. All it took was someone with the right background.”
“And the ability to take seemingly meaningless pieces of data, apply them across multiple fields, and come up with a coherent whole,” he said. “Impressive, Shepard.”
She stopped and looked at him in disbelief. “Was that praise?” she asked incredulously.
“I do give credit where it is due,” Saren said haughtily. “I simply refuse to compromise my standards in order to do so.”
“Merry fucking Christmas!” she exclaimed with a bright laugh. A human had received praise from Saren Arterius. It was a historical moment. She set the computer to analyze the data and pressed her hands to her lower back. It was aching from several hours of standing bent over the table without a chair. She hadn’t noticed while she was working, but it was making itself known now.
She looked around the room for a place to sit and realized that she was truly seeing his quarters for the first time. They were as Spartan as she would have expected without a single personal touch. His narrow rack was made up with sharp precision. Everything but his weapons was stored in racks of drawers. The space was obsessively neat with not a single thing out of place. The only disorder in the room came from the scattered datapads on the desk and even those were arranged with a discernable pattern. She had known he was fastidious and had expected no less. His weapons were neatly arranged on a display rack that she thought was for accessibility rather than aesthetics.
While the program ran, she meandered over to the rack. She’d thought that she’d seen all of his weapons, but she had been mistaken. There were various omni-tools and an array of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, grenade and rocket launchers, and… “You have an M-920 Cain,” she gasped. “I’ve been begging the requisitions officer to find one for me.”
“Your penchant for destruction knows no bounds,” he said, but it didn’t sound like an insult.
“What is this?” she asked, gesturing to a disc-shaped metal ring with colorful stones embedded along the circumference. It looked both decorative and deadly and completely out of place among the high-tech modern weapons.
“Obsolete,” he said. After a moment, he added with a sigh, “It is called a dachtylidi. A traditional turian weapon.” He moved to stand beside her and lifted the disc, turning it so that the light caught the wicked edge. “It was thrown in a vertical arc and used to dismember an enemy. This one was used by my family a millennium ago.” He placed it back on the display and turned to face the desk. “How long will this take?”
“Two hours at most,” she said, recognizing the dismissal. He didn’t like having her in his space. “I’m going to go get some chow. It should be complete by the time I get back.”
When she turned to leave, he followed. She cast a curious look up at him and he said, “I do eat, Shepard.”
“And here I’d started to think you were a mech,” she said lightly.
“Insubordinate,” he said but his exasperated tone held just a hint of thaw from his typical icy demeanor.
He accompanied her up to the mess hall and seemed surprised when Gardner handed him a tray. “I know you aren’t human, Spectre, and probably couldn’t care less about our traditions, but I wanted to try my hand at a dextro version of our dinner.”
“Thank you,” Saren said stiffly.
Gardner grinned at her. “Hey, Commander. I was hoping you’d show up. Saved you a plate, too. These bastards would have left you with crumbs if I hadn’t,” he said, hooking a thumb in the direction of the crew gathered at the tables.
“Thanks, Gardner,” she said. Her favorite thing about Christmas was the food and she was pleasantly surprised to see what looked like real turkey and all of the fixings on her tray. “You are a prince among men.”
Saren looked uncomfortably around at the gathered crew. It was late in the evening cycle, and generally, the mess hall would be empty. Tonight, however, they’d pulled out all of the stops to decorate the area. Someone had found strands of lighting typically used to line the edges of the decks in case of power failure and wrapped them around the railings leading toward the main battery and the posts of the dining area. Someone else had taken cleaning rags and formed a wreath that hung from the back wall of the elevator. There was even a holographic tree by the med bay. Saren shook his head and she said, “It is the crew deck. If they want to decorate it, it’s fine. It’ll be cleared tomorrow.”
She expected him to take his tray and retreat back to his hole, but Kaidan waved at them and called out, “Shepard! Arterius! We saved you a seat.”
Saren growled under his breath but walked stiffly beside her and took a seat with his back to the wall. She placed herself between him and the Lieutenant. He looked distinctly uncomfortable and utterly disinterested in the conversation flowing between the tables. “Is this really that different from a turian ship?” she asked.
“It is different from my ship,” he said. “But, no, I suppose there are some things that transcend species. Camaraderie among soldiers is one of them.” The realization seemed to relax him a bit, and though he didn’t join in, he didn’t look like he was going to leave, either.
When she had cleared her tray, Dr. Chakwas leaned forward and said, “Commander, Specialist Traynor tells me you play the violin.”
“A little,” she said.
“Would you play for us?” she asked.
Shepard shifted in her seat, cursing Traynor for revealing that particular detail. She’d only told her because Sam had been a bit embarrassed by her revelation that she was obsessed with strategy games. She played for herself because it was soothing. She didn’t play for others.
“I don’t know,” she said slowly. “We have work to do.”
Saren cut a sideways look at her and said, “You did say two hours. It has been less than one.”
“Traitor,” she muttered under her breath. Of course, he’d seen her discomfort and, of course, he would exploit it. He’d probably run back to his quarters and leave her stuck up here with an audience.
“Come on, Shepard,” Kaidan said. “It’s Christmas.”
“Fine,” she said and pushed away from the table.
When she returned from her cabin with the instrument case, she was surprised to see Saren still at the table. He’d cleared his tray but had not left. The others had mostly finished eating as well and were waiting expectantly. She shook her head at Kaidan and took a seat on the steps leading up to the main battery. Saren sauntered over and began questioning her about the instrument. Answering him took her attention from the group watching her. She could give a speech to a crowd or run a staff meeting with complete comfort, but she hated performing in front of people.
He stepped back when she tucked the instrument under her chin and brought the bow into position. ‘Silent Night’ was a simple piece, so she chose that first. The mess hall was silent but for the sound of the bow drawn across the strings. Then, Gabby Daniels began to sing. Traynor joined her after a moment and was followed by Chakwas. Soon, the entire group was singing along, their voices rising together with the violin. She followed that with ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’ and then ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’ which made Saren snort as the gifts described became more outlandish. She wondered how it was translating to him.
When she played ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’ even those who hadn’t joined in before began to sing. She noticed a few of the younger crew and one whom she knew to have a new baby back home grow misty-eyed. After the last strains had faded, she placed the violin across her lap and looked out at them. “I know it’s hard being away from home on a holiday like this, especially when we’ve been spending large amounts of time running silent,” she said. “I know you want to be with your families and that what we do, being out here for long periods of time the way we are, can be difficult. It’s easy to forget when we aren’t at war that we’re still doing this for the very people we left at home. In light of that, my gift to you is that we will remain in range of the nearest comm buoy so that each of you may speak with your loved ones via tightbeam.”
While everyone on the ship had access to the extranet and the comm buoys when they were not operating under stealth, personal communications were treated similarly to those allowed to civilians unless routed through the official ship network. Bandwidth issues meant that there were usually at least slight lags in communications and delays in getting messages in or out. The ship’s network was generally restricted to official use only to avoid taking advantage of the priority that the military was allowed. Only the Council and Spectres had higher priority on the network. It was therefore rare that the crew was able to communicate in real-time with their families back home, and in general, they were only able to do so via holo when there was an emergency. This was the closest she could get them to seeing their families when they’d been out in the field for months now and didn’t know when they would get R&R back on their home planets.
“Can you do that, Commander?” Kaidan asked. “There are regs about that type of thing.”
“I can,” Saren said.
She looked at him in disbelief. “Who are you and what did you do to Saren Arterius?” she asked quietly.
“In spite of what you may believe, Shepard, I can be generous,” he said.
“To humans?” she asked.
“To you,” he said. “Consider it an expression of gratitude for your assistance with the data. I believe the appropriate response would be, ‘Thank you, Saren.’ And close your mouth. You look like a skald fish.”
“Thank you, Saren,” she parroted.
“I believe your program should be finished,” he said.
“You’re welcome, Shepard?” she suggested.
“Don’t push your luck,” he said.
Saren watched as Shepard pored over the datapads. He could simply use a translation software now that she had cracked the code, but he couldn’t deny that her help had proven invaluable. It probably would have taken him years to accomplish on his own as he was entirely unfamiliar with human classical cryptography and the details of their history. He might have come across the ancient Qian’s name and put the pieces together eventually, but it would have taken a significant amount of time. He was patient, but given the messages from the artifacts, he was not certain that he had the luxury of patience. Until they knew whether the threat was imminent or in the distant future, they had no choice but to respond as though it was an immediate threat.
He had not expected her to be able to help. He’d read her educational history, of course, but had not considered its use in this context. He realized that he was still viewing her through the lens of his prejudice. He prided himself on utilizing every tool available to him but had neglected to consider her because of her humanity. She rolled her head around her shoulders to loosen the tension in her neck and he said casually, “Shepard, if humanity were to be given a spot on the Council and you were allowed to choose the person to place there, who would you consider?”
“Admiral Hackett,” she said instantly. “He’d hate me for it but I think that would be a good thing.”
Her answer surprised him. He had expected her to name Anderson or Udina. “Why Hackett?”
“Why are you asking?” she asked without looking up from the datapad. “It’s a moot point. Humanity isn’t ready for a seat on the Council.”
That response and her casual delivery utterly shocked him. “Thought experiment,” he answered after a moment.
She turned in her chair and gave him a level look. “Admiral Hackett is a soldier, not a politician. He fought in the First Contact War, but he was instrumental in getting the Normandy project started. He doesn’t care what species you are. He cares about what you do. He’s straightforward, brilliant, rational, cool under pressure, and the best leader I’ve ever seen. Udina is an ass who cares only about himself.
“While I respect Anderson and consider him a friend and mentor as well as superior, I also recognize his flaws. He’s too emotional. He’s too rash. He lets his heart get in the way of his brain. I read his report on the mission he participated in with you and your testimony surrounding the events. I think I’ve come to know how both of you operate well enough to read between the lines and come close to the truth that lies at the center.
“He says you sent him ahead. I can’t see you doing that given that you were aware of the relationship he had with the hostage and already didn’t trust him. You could have been setting him up for failure or trying to get him out of the way, but that would have only made your job more difficult. So when you say that he broke off without your permission and alerted the guards, I believe you. However, I also understand that you acquired this information during that mission and I find it hard to believe that you just happened to stumble upon it. You knew it was there and that was your ultimate reason for going on the mission in the first place. Sanders was a cover.
“Blowing the refinery was the most expedient route to your goal and you took it because collateral damage is something that concerns you only when the Council explicitly tells you it should, especially when that damage is done to humans. I don’t, however, believe that it was your initial plan as it was too messy and had far too many variables not under your control. Regardless, Anderson’s actions ultimately led to yours and demonstrate that he is willing to sacrifice the mission to save one person. We may be at peace now, but that’s a dangerous attitude to have during wartime when choices regularly come down to a thousand over here dying so that two thousand over there can live.”
Saren nodded once. Her insight was unanticipated. He had thought that she would automatically side with Anderson out of a misguided sense of loyalty to one of her own. He should have known better. Shepard was not sentimental when it came to doing one’s duty. She was analytical and looked at the facts of a situation as they were and not as she wanted them to be. Her educated guess and her reasoning as to his motives were both correct. He could have completed the mission without blowing the refinery, but it would have been more difficult and taken more time. Where chaos initially would have been a detriment, it had worked in his favor once the guards were alerted. With them busy trying to save the workers, no one had been looking for him.
“I would also like to know why you believe that your people are not ready,” he said.
“That’s easy,” she said. “Human intergalactic relations are still in their infancy. There are many races who’ve been a part of the galactic community for far longer who have contributed far more than we have who still have not gained a seat on the Council and some, like the quarians, who don’t even have an embassy. I understand that that’s in large part their own fault like the krogan, but if they haven’t been able to correct that in three centuries then three decades is certainly not enough time for us. Most humans won’t listen when you try to tell them that, though. We’re taught from birth that we can have whatever we want, be whatever we want, do whatever we want as long as we follow the rules. We are individualistic, selfish, and entitled. We are immature, especially when compared to the other races. We contribute little and expect to gain far more than what we put in.
“We’ve been told all of our lives that we are the best and we believe it even in the face of empirical evidence that we are not. We aren’t as communal or disciplined as the turians and don’t have the sense of honor and duty that your people do. We aren’t as technologically advanced or scientifically inclined as the salarians. We don’t have the wisdom or peace-keeping skills of the asari. We shoot first and ask questions later. Hell, Saren, I could give a lecture on this that would probably rival anything negative you have to say about us. I’m loyal to my people, but I’m not blind. We can’t improve ourselves if we don’t recognize that there’s a deficit. We are in a period of rapid growth, but we are not yet ready to help lead others.”
“And yet if you become a Spectre, a Council seat would soon follow,” he pointed out.
“That…is a conundrum,” she said slowly. “We are going to have a Spectre at some point, whether it’s me or someone in the future. We can’t change that. We also can’t sit around and hope that someone better suited will come along or that humans will change significantly. Given human lifespans, that could take centuries. Udina will ensure that someone is accepted before then. If it’s inevitable, then we can only work with what we have and make sure that someone like him never gets into power.”
“You will likely have a say in the person chosen should you become a Spectre,” he told her. “The Council does not like or trust Udina. They will be familiar with you and will trust you if you are one of their agents. Your voice will carry weight among them. The person you choose to endorse will likely be the one they select. Think carefully about that choice, Shepard.”
She nodded solemnly. “I think that right now we should focus on one thing at a time. If we find that this…threat is coming decades or centuries in the future, then we can worry about humanity’s place. However, if it’s just over the horizon, then it demands our attention. And, as much as you and I both may hate to admit it, if what I saw is real then we’re going to need all the help we can get. The Hierarchy is the only military force in the galaxy that rivals the Alliance. We’re going to need both of them and we’re going to need someone leading my people who knows what he’s doing and knows how to work cooperatively with other species. That person will be Admiral Hackett. The bonus with him is that he hates men like Udina and he believes in earning your place.”
Saren had been privy to a few of Shepard’s pre-mission briefs with the human admiral. The man seemed…sensible…for a human. Shepard had deftly managed to do something that very few humans in his experience were capable of. She’d found a third option, one based on logic and reason rather than emotion. She had cast aside her feelings regarding the two most likely choices and had picked someone from outside of the box. Saren approved of a military commander. The Council was too full of politicians already. The admiral had not reached his position without some amount of political savvy, but he was not tied in to it. Hackett was brusque, no-nonsense, and didn’t particularly care how Shepard got the job done as long as she did.
It did not change the fact that they had not earned the place, but he was not an idealist and was well aware that the galaxy was not a fair place. It was harsh and oftentimes cruel. He hadn’t survived a quarter of a century as a Spectre without developing the ability to work within the confines of the resources available to him. If, as she pointed out, humanity’s place on the Council was inevitable, then their only choice was to work with the humans they had. This Admiral Hackett was certainly a better alternative than either Anderson or Udina and Shepard was willing to support him. The next candidate presented might not be.
He felt as if a knot in his chest that he hadn’t realized was there had loosened. He had not liked the idea of betraying Shepard. He was coming to genuinely like her and she had earned some measure of his respect. He could not claim to entirely understand her yet, but he was beginning to. She was the balance between himself and Nihlus. She shared his ruthlessness when it came to tactical decisions. She would kill the entire crew if it was necessary to complete her mission. However, she also possessed some of Nihlus’ warmth. She cared for her crew. She did not show it in flowery declarations or softness toward them. She pushed them hard, she expected nothing less than excellence from them, and she did not coddle them; however, he had seen that she did not want to play for them earlier and yet she did so because she knew that the crew had needed to view each other as family and her as their leader. She had given them something that she didn’t have to give, not because it would increase their loyalty toward her but because she had empathized with those who could not be with their families.
The following morning, he made a point to be in the mess hall when she gave her morning briefing to the crew at shift change. They had worked late into the night cycle studying and deciphering the data in Qian’s reports, but she did not seem affected by the lack of sleep. She accepted a mug of coffee from Gardner before taking her place on the steps to the main battery where she had been the night before. The way that the crew shifted almost as one to look at her told him that this was a regular occurrence.
He had never cared to be present for one of these briefings before and quickly realized that he should have been as it gave insight into her leadership style and the reason why her crew was so loyal. She did not run it as a turian would with the crewmembers lined up in formation and herself at the head dispensing dry duty rosters and daily assignments. Instead, the atmosphere was casual and she talked as they ate or lounged against the bulkheads and counters and back side of the lift. The way she spoke to them was just as notable. Her tone was more reminiscent of a turian parent than a superior officer.
After taking reports from the various departments and receiving a requisition list of needed supplies, she handed out assignments. “Gardner, the women’s latrines are filthy. Since Negulesco, Draven, and Traynor decided it would be a good idea to add ryncol to the drinks last night, they can help you out on latrine duty. Engineering is short-staffed again since Tali left, so I need Patel and Hadley to report to Adams. Joker crashed his terminal with porn again. Emerson, fix it again and this time make sure he can’t access anything coming out of Omega.” There was a chuckle from the group and she raised an eyebrow at them. “You’re all guilty of it, so don’t laugh. Also, I will find out who fucked on the poker table last night and not only will the cost of the new table be docked from your next paycheck, but you’re going to spend the next month on extra duty. Speaking of which, Dr. Chakwas tells me that someone brought scale itch on board. Every single one of you is to report to her by end of shift for testing. You are some sick and incestuous motherfuckers. Until the infection is clear, fraternization rules are under strict enforcement and the next person I see looking at a varren without a gun in their hand is getting dropped off on Tuchanka.”
“Humans,” Saren snarled. “Disgusting.”
“For once, I have to agree with you there,” she said drily. “EDI, check extranet sites for varren and send me the report. I’m serious, guys, that’s fucked up and I will find out where it came from.” She looked back down at her datapad and shook her head. “Damn, why is it always sex in these discussions? Do turian ships have this problem?”
“No,” Saren said.
“Yeah, but when do those cuttlebones ever get laid?” someone muttered loudly. A few people around the offender laughed and shot glances his way.
They fell silent as Shepard stood without speaking and walked over to the mess sergeant. She said something to him and he nodded and began to rummage through the cooling unit. A few minutes later, he handed something to her and she called the soldier and his buddies to the front of the mess hall. The expression on their faces was a mix of fear and dread as they snapped to attention in front of her. He felt a strange sense of pride seeing the men—all of whom towered over her—quivering in fear of her without her having to say a word.
She passed something long, thin, and white to each of them and said, “Since you are all so fond of the term ‘cuttlebone,’ from this point forward, anyone I hear using the word will be issued a fish bone. You are to carry it on your person at all times. You will give it a name. It will sit beside your tray at chow. It will sleep on your pillow in your rack. It will accompany you on fireguard. You will clean it in the showers. This is your new best friend, marines. In addition, Crosby, since you all think that names are so funny, you will now be known as Lieutenant Pyjak. Now, on your face and push until the Spectre gets tired.” Clever. Judging by the snickering from the rest of the crew, the humiliation factor alone would be intolerable. She did know how to fit the punishment to the offense. He'd been called far worse things by far better people and their comments did not bother him aside from the lack of respect they implied, but he appreciated that she didn't tolerate it.
She resumed her seat and said, “Jenkins’ mom died last night, guys. We’re docking at Arcturus today so that he can go home for the funeral. I need volunteers to take over his duties until he gets back.” Every hand in the room went up. “That’s what I expected. Alenko, adjust the duty roster accordingly. You may be some sick, twisted motherfuckers but you’re my sick, twisted motherfuckers. Negulesco, Jenkins, and Laflamme, report to the briefing room. Dismissed.”
“And this one?” Saren asked her.
“Do you feel tired yet?” she asked.
“No,” he answered.
“Then he can stay here and push,” she said as they walked toward the lift. “We have work to do. EDI, let me know if he stops. I’ll join you in a few minutes. I have to go with Monica while she tells Jenkins and Laflamme that one of them up knocked her up,” she said with a sigh. “That’s going to go over really well.”
“Your women allow men to hit them?” he asked incredulously.
“No,” she said. “It means to get someone pregnant. Maybe I should take them down to the shuttle bay. There’s less to break down there…”
“I don’t see what the problem is,” he said.
“Monica has been having sex with them,” she said.
“That is generally the way in which a female is impregnated,” he said sarcastically.
“Both of them. And here I thought turians were territorial,” she grumbled. “You’re telling me you wouldn’t react if, say, you found out that your mate was cheating on you with Nihlus?”
Saren snorted and shook his head. “Of course not. Prudish humans.”
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“Turians are non-monogamous. Didn’t Nihlus tell you?” he asked. “An overabundance of males and long deployment periods have created a polyandrous society. Where the default human partnerships are almost always between two, ours are generally among three.”
“Oh,” she said after a moment. “Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it? And, no, he didn’t tell me.”
“He should have,” Saren said. He was going to need to have a word with Nihlus. It wasn’t like him to overlook a detail of that magnitude. Shepard’s anticipation of violence told him that her reaction to his pre-existing relationship would likely be unpleasant. She would assume that he had betrayed one of them and Shepard did not take betrayal lightly.
“It’s a ship,” Shepard said, looking up from the datapads.
“What?” Saren asked, grabbing the device from her hand and scanning quickly.
“It’s a warship,” she repeated. “Ancient, powerful, unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”
“This vessel predates the Prothean extinction,” he said in awe. Even as a young child, Saren had been fascinated with the destruction of the Protheans. What event could be so catastrophic, so cataclysmic, as to wipe out an entire species and leave nothing but a few artifacts along with the mass relays and the Citadel behind? Theories abounded but even now, fifty thousand years later, no one knew what had happened.
“Like Atlantis,” Shepard said and he realized he’d been speaking aloud. He cocked his head curiously at her and she said, “A lost city in human legend. No one’s even certain it ever existed, and if it did, no one has been able to find it. There are people who are fascinated by it, who devote their entire lives to it. Like Liara with the Protheans.”
“Dr. T’Soni wishes to learn about them as a species,” he pointed out. “I am simply curious as to what caused their downfall. If it was able to happen once, it could potentially happen again. To us.”
“What if it wasn’t just once?” she asked. “Liara mentioned once that there were theories about races before the Protheans. Who were they? What happened to them?” She rose and began to pace the small room. “What if the Protheans weren’t the first, just the most recent? What if that’s what the beacon and your Monolith were trying to warn about? You said the Monolith wasn’t Prothean. What if it didn’t come after? What if it predated the Protheans? What if we’re next?”
“It wasn’t my Monolith,” he said automatically. “But…I suppose it is possible. What do you know of turian mythology?”
“Not much,” she answered. “Garrus explained your concept of spirits. That they aren’t ghostly entities that intervene on people’s behalf like some humans believe. It’s spirit in the sense of the essential nature of a thing or a place or a group. The spirit of the Normandy, or of hope, or of the Spectres as a whole. That kind of thing.”
“Yes,” he said slowly. “I wouldn’t have expected a human to understand that. Did he tell you of our ancient beliefs?”
“No,” she answered and settled in to what he recognized as her listening posture.
He said, “In short, our people once believed in a superstitious myth that titans roamed Palaven, reaching for the heavens. Temple Palaven was a place where turians believed that they could talk to their deities. The temple was home to the order of Valluvian Priests whom they thought were an advanced race. That belief was discarded when my people achieved space flight and realized that we were not alone in the universe. However, there was more to the legend.”
“There always is,” she said.
He nodded. “The Arca Monolith was not the only one. It had a companion. When my brother brought it and the devolved turians to the temple, they dug it up. We learned that what we had thought were priests were simply the meta-turians created by the original Monolith. My people had discovered their true purpose and sealed the temple to protect Palaven. If the legend has a basis in reality and goes back to the time of creation, then where did the Monoliths come from? It is possible that my people discovered what was already there and fell victim to Clarke’s third law. They would have seen technology beyond their ability to understand and believed it to be magic.”
She rubbed her forehead and said, “Okay, so it’s plausible that the Monoliths predated your species and were already in existence when the Protheans were destroyed. If so, we’ve got the Prothean beacon warning of destruction and we have the Monoliths doing the same thing. The Monoliths, the beacon, and this vessel all predate the Prothean extermination. And, if I’m reading it right, there’s also a possibility of mind control involved with the ship. It has to be connected somehow.”
“Mind control?” he asked, straightening.
“Keep reading,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Pay attention to both Qian’s writing and his observations on Had’dah.”
It quickly became clear that Qian was brilliant. Even so, he was unable to grasp the complexity and enormity of his finding. The ship was even more advanced than Prothean technology, rivaling the mass relays. Qian was a genius. Saren was intelligent, but he recognized that this was beyond his scope and these were just the notes, not the actual studies themselves. They would need to find someone who could understand it. If Shepard was correct about mind control, they could not risk direct contact until they understood how it worked and how to guard against it.
He saw what she’d meant. Qian had been losing his grip on reality, progressing into dementia. His decline was directly correlated to the amount of exposure he’d had to the ship. Even Had’dah had not escaped unscathed, though his own transformation was subtler, likely due to a far more limited amount of exposure. Even one brief incident, however, was enough to begin affecting him. Yes, they would have to be extremely cautious. Perhaps they could work through intermediaries, find a research team.
“It must possess some type of force field,” he mused. “Radiation or some other type of emission, perhaps? It seems only to affect those who actually make contact with it.”
Shepard was looking at another datapad and scowling slightly. “Why Qian?” she asked. “Out of all of the scientists in all of the galaxy, why pick one that specialized in artificial intelligence?”
“He believed that the ship could control the geth,” Saren said. “Had’dah wanted an army.”
“That’s why you were interested in it,” she said. “An army.”
“We have discussed this already,” he said without heat.
“But how would a ship control the geth?” she asked.
“You are overlooking a key possibility,” EDI chimed in. “It is possible that this ship is an AI, much like the Normandy with me installed.”
Saren and Shepard stared at each other with mouths agape, then began reading quickly through the notes once more. Shepard was nodding and Saren was growing both excited and afraid in equal measure. “An AI…” he said. “A sentient warship of tremendous power.”
“Oh…my…god,” Shepard said slowly. She looked up at him and there was real fear in her eyes. “Saren.”
He leapt over to the table where she sat, galvanized by the sheer terror in her tone. The datapad in front of her displayed an image of an enormous vessel that looked similar to a metallic sea creature. “What?” he asked sharply.
“That ship,” she said. “That ship was in the vision from the Prothean beacon. That’s what destroyed the Protheans.”
“Shepard,” he said patiently, “one ship, even a ship such as this, cannot destroy an entire civilization.”
“What if there’s more than one?” she asked quietly. “What if there’s a whole fleet of them?”
“Reapers,” he breathed, sinking weakly to the deck beside her. “Spirits. They’re real.”
“What are Reapers?” she asked.
He said, “According to legend, they were a hyper-advanced machine race that existed fifty-thousand years ago. I came across a theory once stating that the Reapers hunted the Protheans into extinction and then vanished, but I had pictured them as being fundamentally similar to the geth. It was just one theory among thousands. I never pursued it.”
“It fits,” she said. “And if there were other races that came before and if they’re planning to come again, then we’re in some sort of cycle.”
“This sounds insane, Shepard,” he said. “Even to me. The Council will never believe us without proof. We must locate this…Sovereign and find a way to prove both its existence and its nature.”
“And find a way to destroy it,” she said, moving to sit on the deck beside him. “How do we do that? We don’t even understand it.”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. He felt something slip into his hand and looked down to see her fingers entwined with his. She looked as if she hadn’t even realized she’d done it. He returned her grip and she took a shaky breath and leaned her head back against the bulkhead.
“Where do we start?” she asked.
We. Such a simple word and one that had not meant much to him since his brother’s death. Now, however, it was empowering. They were not alone in this. They had each other. They would have Nihlus, and through him, Garrus. Two Spectres and their candidates against the biggest threat to ever face the galaxy. The odds were impossible, but together, they represented the majority of the galactic military strength. If they could convince the Council, then they could unite the galaxy. First, though, they had to figure out exactly what a Reaper was. “We already have,” he answered. “We study everything that Qian and Had’dah learned. And we go to Illium.”
“Why Illium?” she asked.
“Nihlus said that Dr. T’Soni went there after we delivered the beacon to the Council. She wishes to find more information on it,” he explained. “She is our Prothean expert. If our theory has truth to it, she is our best hope to confirm it.”
“EDI, have Joker set a course for Illium,” she said.
“Uh, Commander,” Joker said a moment later. “I’m picking up a distress signal.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Looks like batarian pirates have raided a civilian ship. We’re thirty minutes out,” he said.
“Take us there,” Saren said. When Shepard glanced at him curiously, he said, “They had the audacity to raid a ship under a Spectre’s nose. I cannot let that go unpunished. We can spare an hour or two.”
She seemed to realize then that their hands were still linked. She looked down at them and slowly drew away. He rose and she followed him, coming to stand close enough that he could smell the clean scent of her hair. Her eyes locked on his in surprise and he looked down at her for a long moment, fighting a sudden and utterly ridiculous urge to put his forehead to hers. She still looked shocked and slightly vulnerable and he was shaken by the weight of the responsibility that had just been thrust upon them. A part of him regretted not pursuing the data when he’d found it. Another part of him shuddered at the idea of discovering this alone. She raised her hand slowly, giving him time to move away, and placed it on his chest. He trailed his hand over her elbow, feeling for the first time the silky skin there. They stood like that until he closed his eyes and whispered, “I am…glad that you are here, Shepard.”
“Me, too,” she said in the same tone.
This is where the graphic violence tag comes in. Shepard and Saren have some of their kind of fun with a batarian.
Shepard watched Saren move through the civilian ship. He had already severed the connection to the batarian ship and disabled the latter. Shepard had sent her people in to secure it. Though most of the humans on board the transport had already been moved, EDI was showing heat signatures within it. There had been something strange about the whole thing. The so-called pirates were far too disciplined and organized to be slavers. They had been interested only in a handful of people on board and had killed most of the rest before the Normandy had intervened. The ‘civilian transport,’ too, was more than it seemed. The ship had a top-of-the-line laboratory and far too many weapons.
Saren gestured for her to cloak and move ahead in the leapfrog pattern they used when scouting a potentially hostile environment. His cybernetic eyes allowed him to see her clearly while she was still hidden from view of others. She could do recon and relay the information to him before he moved up to engage any hostiles they found, leaving her ultimately at a distance where she could do the most good. She rounded a corner to a long passageway and heard shouting in the distance. A voice, human, female, echoed down the corridor. Another, gravelly, batarian, followed it. She held up a hand to communicate the likelihood of a batarian and his victim as she crept forward. Saren joined her at the door and she knelt to the side so that she could use the bulkhead for cover. She nodded and he opened the door and strode through with his pistol drawn.
“Go to hell!” the female shouted. She was pinned down by the batarian who had his back to the door and a wicked-looking knife in his hand. The knife was pressed into the skin under the young woman’s eye. She spat in his face. Saren clipped his pistol in and rushed the batarian in a single fluid motion. The knife vanished from the woman’s face as Saren threw him across a room and held him in stasis. The woman sat up on the table and gaped at him before turning to face Shepard. “Who are you?” she snarled in an accented voice.
“Commander Shepard,” she answered, coming into the room. “Alliance Navy. That is Spectre agent Saren Arterius. We intercepted your distress beacon and are here to help. What’s your name?”
“Oriana Lawson,” the woman—who, Shepard saw now, was really more of a girl—said slowly. “My sister was on the ship. Have you seen her? She looks just like me only older and with longer hair.”
“No,” Shepard answered, “but that’s a good thing. We haven’t seen any of the survivors yet. They’re with another group. I’ll call someone to take you to our ship and see if they can find your sister.” She put her hand to her ear and requested an escort for the girl.
Saren waited until they came and took Oriana away before returning his attention to the batarian. There was a look in his eye that she recognized and she cracked her knuckles in anticipation and stepped forward. He shot her a look of surprise that she wouldn’t have caught if she hadn’t known him and nodded almost imperceptibly. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Balak,” she said coldly. “I knew I should have killed you the first time. He tried to crash an asteroid into Terra Nova. I stopped him,” she said in an aside to Saren. “Left him for the Alliance.”
“Why?” he asked.
“A misguided attempt at atonement,” she said casually. “I got over it. You crossed paths with the Butcher once and survived it, Balak. You won’t again unless my friend here is feeling more merciful than I am. Do you feel merciful today, Saren?”
“That will depend on him,” he answered and she almost laughed aloud at his unexpected willingness to put himself in the position of good cop. Saren as good cop. This should be interesting, she thought. “What did you want from the girl?”
“None of your damn business, turian,” Balak growled.
“Ooh,” Shepard winced dramatically. “Wrong answer.” She slammed her fist into his gut and snarled into his ear, “You should be nicer to my friend.”
“I’m not a fool,” he said. “I know who Saren Arterius is. I’m not walking out of here alive.”
“Oh, good,” Saren said. “That makes this so much simpler. As it turns out, I am feeling a bit merciful at the moment. I will be so kind as to allow you to choose the manner of your death. I’m not a monster, after all. If you tell us what we want to know, I will grant you the mercy of a quick death. If you don’t…well, as you said, you know who I am. And you also know that she didn’t earn the title of Butcher without reason. What did you want with the girl?”
“Information,” Balak grunted.
“And you thought that you would get the information you wanted from a teenage girl?” Saren asked. “I don’t think so. I think you’re lying to me. I think that you hate humans and simply wished to torture her.”
“Why do you care?” Balak sneered. “You hate them, too. Or you did,” he added, glancing at Shepard with his upper set of eyes.
“You disgust me,” Saren said darkly. “You were going to torture a child for your own twisted pleasure. Sick bastard. Torture is only useful if it has a purpose.” With that, he kicked Balak hard in the knee. Shepard heard the joint snap and the batarian screamed. “Why are you here?”
“Slaves!” Balak shouted.
“Liar,” Shepard charged mildly, taking him by the wrist. “Batarians attack soft targets for slaves. This isn’t a soft target. Your people were looking for something. What was it?” He cocked his head in the direction that signified insult and she shook her own as she twisted, snapping his wrist. He screamed again but still refused to speak. “I guess mercy’s out, then,” she said. “That just makes my day.”
Saren jabbed a thumb into one of the batarian’s eyes and said, “Continue to resist and I will not only ensure that your death is painful but that your soul is unable to leave your body.”
“I don’t know!” Balak screamed.
“Bullshit,” Shepard said. “You were the mastermind on Terra Nova. You aren’t going to be left in the dark on something like this.” She activated her omni-tool and typed in a command that brought up a glowing orb at her palm. A thin mass effect field protected her skin from the super-heated plasma, but his skin began to char when she drew her hand down his arm. “Would you like to try again?” she asked.
“You’ll pay for this!” he wailed.
“Such a tired line,” Saren sighed. “‘You won’t get away with this,’ ‘You’ll pay for this,’ ‘Do you know who I am?’ I always get away with it, I never pay, and I don’t give a shit about who you are.”
Shepard pressed her glowing palm to the batarian’s face over one of his upper eyes. “Try again,” she said.
“They stole something from us!”
She pulled her hand back and said, “Very good. Now we’re getting somewhere. What did they steal?”
“I can’t tell you!” he shouted. “My government, they’ll—”
“What?” she asked disinterestedly. “Kill you?”
“My family,” he gasped.
“That’s too bad,” she said with false sympathy. He hadn’t cared about the families of any of the people he’d helped kill here or the girl he’d been about to mutilate. She didn’t have it in her to care for faceless batarians half a galaxy away. They chose to remain under the Hegemony. She had bigger concerns. “You do want to see them in the afterlife, don’t you?” she asked him as Saren took one of his fingers and began bending it back.
“No!” he screamed. “Intel! They took intel on an artifact!”
Shepard looked at Saren. On a normal day, that wouldn’t have set off many red flags, but this was not a normal day and artifacts had been showing up far too much in their lives lately. “What kind of artifact?” she asked without looking at him.
“I don’t know,” he said desperately. “I swear it!” He squealed as Saren snapped his finger and Shepard’s palm began to glow again.
“You only have two eyes left,” she pointed out as Saren moved to another finger.
“I don’t know! I really don’t! No one does!” he shouted in a voice turned raspy from his screams.
“I don’t believe you,” she said and pressed her palm to his face.
“Stop! I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you everything I know!”
She drew her hand back slightly and his one remaining eye locked onto it. A tear trickled out of the corner.
“They call it the Leviathan of Dis,” he whispered. “My people found it. They moved it to Kar’Shan twenty years ago and began to study it. It’s a ship of some sort.”
“Go on,” she said when he stopped. Her heart was pounding and she felt Saren still beside her.
“It’s inactive. Dead. A corpse,” he continued.
“Why do you call it that?” Saren hissed.
“Because it…it was alive once. I know it sounds crazy, but you have to believe me! It has power, even dead. It changes people, twists their minds. They become obsessed with it,” he said. “These humans stole our research and we were sent to get it back. That’s all I know!”
Shepard and Saren continued to work him over for several minutes but he maintained that he knew nothing more even when faced with the loss of his final eye. Shepard looked at Saren, who shook his head and then reached out and snapped Balak’s neck. The corpse dropped to the ground and Saren said, “We must find that data.”
“The lab?” Shepard asked.
“Possibly,” he said. “Or stored on a terminal.” He put his hand to his comm unit and said, “EDI, hack their systems. Find anything you can on an artifact called the Leviathan of Dis.”
Kaidan had escorted the surviving humans onto the Normandy. Shepard and Saren joined them. The girl they’d rescued came forward and thanked them for saving her and then pointed to a woman who could have been her twin had their age difference not been so apparent. A dark-skinned man stood beside her, talking intently. Shepard went to them. “Who do you work for?” she asked without preamble.
“Cerberus,” the woman answered and Saren hissed. Shepard shook her head. They hadn’t actually done any good by rescuing these people. They were just as rightly classified as terrorists as the batarians who’d attacked them had been.
“Who’s in charge of research?” she asked.
“Dr. David Archer,” the woman answered. “The thin man over there talking to your Lieutenant.”
Shepard nodded and went to the man. “Dr. Archer? I’m Commander Shepard. I need a copy of the information your people took from the batarians.”
“Why?” the doctor asked.
“That’s classified. Spectre business,” Saren answered. “Just do it.”
“Just a copy?” Archer asked.
“Yes,” Shepard lied.
“All right,” he said. He activated his omni-tool and transferred a file to hers.
“EDI?” Shepard asked.
“I have located and cleared all remaining copies from the device,” EDI answered in her ear. Shepard nodded.
“Thank you for your assistance,” Shepard said. “As your vessel is disabled, we will remain here until the Alliance can pick you up.”
“The Alliance?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said in a tone that brooked no argument. She and Saren turned and walked away without another word.
When they’d reached the lift, Saren said quietly, “So, we’ve confirmed the existence of more than one Reaper. Does this not strike you as incredibly convenient? We discover the first Reaper, and within hours, evidence of another one that no one has heard about since my early days as a Spectre.”
“It’s almost like it’s leaving clues, trying to draw us in,” she said. “Can it do that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “How would it know? Why would it want us?”
“I doubt it wants me,” she said. “You, though, are a Spectre. You have almost unlimited resources, incredible power, and can sway the galaxy with a word to the Council. If it were to…brainwash you, it would gain a powerful ally to aid in whatever their plan is.”
“Again, how would it know?” he asked, peering down at her with glowing cybernetic eyes.
Cybernetic eyes…cybernetics…the vision from the Prothean beacon slammed through her head once more, leaving her pressing her fingers sharply against her temples against the headache that always accompanied it. “Cybernetics,” she said. “You said the Monolith implanted them in people. In the vision from the Prothean beacon, there were a lot of flashes of cybernetic implants. If Sovereign is somehow connected to the Monolith and the Monolith could control people’s minds…”
His eyes widened and he turned on his heel. She jogged to keep up with his long, swift strides as he walked quickly to the med bay. Dr. Chakwas turned when they entered and he gestured at his face. “Get them out. Get them all out,” he ordered.
“Your implants?” Chakwas asked in a confused tone. “Agent Arterius, I do have experience with turians, but I am not an expert on cybernetics by any means.”
“I am,” a voice said from behind them. Shepard turned to see the older sister, Miranda Lawson, standing behind them. “I’ll make you a deal, Spectre. I will assist your doctor in removing any cybernetic implants you have, and in exchange, you and your friend allow Cerberus rather than the Alliance to come pick us up.”
“Why would I trust a human Cerberus operative?” he sneered.
“Because you saved my sister,” Lawson said.
“And because I’ll kill both her and her sister if she harms you,” Shepard said coldly. “And I would ensure that the entire wrath of the Alliance, the Council, and the Spectres was brought down on Cerberus’ head. We would end them and enjoy doing it.”
“You’re quite intimidating, Commander,” Lawson said coolly, “covered in blood as you are. Tell me, did you take his eyes?”
“Three,” Shepard said.
“Good,” Lawson said. “Ori said he’d tried to take hers. Don’t worry, Spectre. I’ll give you yours back.”
Saren looked from Lawson to Shepard and Shepard nodded. She couldn’t exactly say why, but she trusted the woman, at least in this. Perhaps it was due to a mutual respect for revenge. Saren tilted his head and went to sit on one of the beds in the med bay. Lawson and Chakwas scanned him with their omni-tools and then moved to confer over the readings. Shepard said, “Don’t let them put you under until I get back.”
“I don’t intend to,” Saren answered.
Shepard showered and changed into clean armor—she wasn’t about to go around without it with Cerberus on her ship—before joining Saren, Miranda Lawson, and Dr. Chakwas in the med bay. She didn’t know quite what purpose her presence would serve as she knew next to nothing about medicine, especially on turians, beyond basic field medicine. She trusted Chakwas to ensure that Lawson did not cause harm. However, she supposed that she did serve as both a deterrent to any attempts and as a reminder of what would happen if the woman screwed up.
She need not have worried. Lawson was thorough, professional, and the picture of competence. Shepard thought it was too bad that the woman had chosen to work for a group like Cerberus. The Alliance could have used someone like her. There was a toughness to her demeanor and something in her posture that made Shepard think that Lawson could easily have been an N7. She certainly was more than just a pretty face and Shepard was fairly certain that Miranda was more than proficient with the pistol she’d removed from her hip before scrubbing in.
While they worked, Shepard looked over the data from the Leviathan of Dis research. It was most certainly a Reaper like Sovereign and it, too, had the power to affect people’s minds, though not as quickly as Sovereign seemed to if the reports were to be believed. It was also very, very dead but had certainly been alive at one point depending on one’s views of what constituted life.
The thing that caught her attention, though, was a report of a piece of the ship being taken to a lab for study. People who had not been exposed to any other part of that ship also began experiencing symptoms similar to what Had’dah had suffered. Was there something in the metal of the ship itself that caused this? They had, however, discovered a way to shield the piece that prevented new victims once they put cause and effect together.
The reports, combined with Qian’s research and the vision, began to form into a cohesive idea in her mind of what they were dealing with, but it was still too complicated for her to truly understand. In addition to Liara, she resolved to bring Tali in on the mission. The quarian understood both ships and AIs. She would be their best resource for understanding it.
There were still more questions than answers, though. Was there a way to shield the entire ship? Would shielding work on a live Reaper? If nothing else, could they find a way to shield themselves from its effects? How did it affect people’s minds in the first place? What could kill one of them and how could they use that to kill Sovereign?
“Shepard,” Chakwas said and she looked up. The doctor and Miranda were looking at her. “You should come here. We have a problem.”
“What is it?” she asked, moving closer and trying not to look at the open turian on the table. She didn’t want to see him broken and vulnerable.
“Who implanted these?” Miranda asked.
“It’s a long story,” Shepard said. “It wasn’t willingly or consciously done.”
Miranda said, “We’ve removed the cybernetics from his eyes—and I have a lot of questions about those—but the technology used in creating them is like nothing I’ve ever seen and they aren’t limited to his eyes. The only descriptor I can come up with for these…things is nanites. Tiny, mobile cybernetic units that almost seem to have a mind of their own. We can destroy them but the problem lies in his arm. The sheer concentration of them there is daunting. I would guess that they entered his body through his hand and have been replicating and migrating through him ever since. The progression is slow but it’s there. If we destroy them, we will also destroy all of the muscle tissue in his arm. He won’t be able to use it. At all. If he truly wants all of it out, we must amputate.”
“Are you certain?” Shepard asked, looking at Dr. Chakwas.
“We’re sure,” Chakwas said. “Small pieces of the surrounding tissue die when they’re destroyed. We had to be extremely careful to remove them from his ocular nerves without destroying any of them. You can see them in that specimen jar over there. They move. Anyway, there are too many to remove in his arm and if they are allowed to kill the tissue, there will be nothing left. The only way that I can see to both remove the cybernetics and allow him to regain full functionality will be to remove the arm and fit him with a prosthetic.”
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked.
“He trusts you,” Chakwas said. “He can’t make this decision for himself.”
“Yes, he can,” Shepard said. “Wake him up.”
“Commander, the pain—” Chakwas said.
“He can handle it,” she said. “Wake him up and ask him. Quickly.” Nihlus could possibly make the decision for him but she couldn’t and wouldn’t. She had no idea how he would react to losing his arm. Miranda huffed and then retrieved a vial of clear liquid. “Wait!” Shepard said. “Restrain him first. He’s likely to wake up fighting. And back up. Let me talk to him.”
Miranda did as she suggested and Shepard leaned close enough that he could smell her in the hopes that it would register before he was even truly conscious. She nodded and Miranda depressed the vial. A moment later, Saren jolted into awareness, and as she’d expected, came up fighting. “Easy,” she said, pressing her fingers on either side of his spine to add the instinctive message of safety to her spoken one. “It’s Shepard. You’re safe. I know it doesn’t feel like it but you’re safe. This isn’t torture.” He relaxed slightly but still released a series of pained snarls every time he breathed. She quickly outlined the problem and the options for him.
“Take it off,” he said instantly. “And put me back under, damn it. You knew what my answer would be.”
She nodded again and Miranda pushed milky fluid into his IV. He was under almost instantly. “You heard him,” she said solemnly. “Take the arm.”
When he woke again, the procedure was over. Miranda and Chakwas had scanned him multiple times to be certain that they had gotten every single piece of what she was certain was the Reapers’ technology out of his body. “You really had to wake me up to ask me that?” he snarled.
“I thought you would say that,” she said, “but I couldn’t be certain and I wasn’t about to risk the career of the most decorated Spectre in the galaxy based on what I would have wanted if it was me. We’re on our way to Illium now. Operative Lawson has agreed to remain with us for a few days to ensure that they got everything. She’s also working to acquire a prosthetic that will integrate with your nervous system so that you’ll retain both functionality and feeling and the transition will be easier. I told her not to worry about cost. I figured the Council would pitch in if you couldn’t afford it all yourself.”
“Good call,” he said. “I can afford it. We don’t have time to waste. What have you learned?”
He listened as she told him what she’d found in the records. His eyes remained tightly shut and she imagined he was in far more pain than he was letting on, but he refused a higher dose of medication when Chakwas offered. He allowed only enough to make it so that he could think clearly through the pain. She hesitantly took his hand and he squeezed hard enough to make her bones grind together. She ignored it and continued. When she finished, he turned his face toward her and opened his eyes. She stifled a gasp and forced her expression to remain neutral.
He was still scary-looking even without the cybernetic glow, but his eyes were some of the most beautiful she’d ever seen. They were an icy, silvery-blue that reminded her of a picture of a dog she’d seen once, a…husky, she thought it was. The irises were almost white in the center in contrast to his pupil and a crystalline blue that made her think of the glaciers on Noveria on the outer ring. The silver and blue striated through the interior of the iris as if even his eyes were fighting themselves for dominance.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked warily.
“You have…really nice eyes,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“They’re just eyes,” he said dismissively. “My vision isn’t as good.” He cocked his head and she was reminded of a bird of prey as he studied her intently. He made a hmph sound and said, “I can see color again. Your…hair has red tones in it. I’d thought it was black.”
“Mahogany, I think it’s called,” she answered. “So that’s why you had to ask if my eyes were blue. I hadn’t realized.”
“What I sacrificed in color vision, I made up for in sharpness and depth perception,” he said. “I am not certain I like the change. Seeing the world in black and white seemed…appropriate somehow.” He seemed to realize then that he was still gripping her hand. She began to pull away as she knew that Saren didn't particularly like to be touched but he didn't release her. "No," he said. "It's...tolerable."
"About your arm," she said slowly.
He looked down at his shoulder with vague interest and said matter-of-factly. "I am a Spectre, Shepard. I am fortunate to have survived this long with all of my limbs intact. As long as I can still function, it matters little to me whether the part is organic or synthetic. Aesthetically, I am perfectly aware that I have passed my prime."
She shrugged nonchalantly and said, "Well, I think you're cute."
He gave her a withering look. "I am not now, nor have I ever been, 'cute.' You have become far too audacious. Perhaps I should begin sparring with you again. You might last more than a minute now."
His threats no longer intimidated her. She cocked a brow at him and said, "You'll have to get out of that hospital bed, first."
In the span of a blink, he was up and holding her by the throat with a triumphant look on his face. "You were saying?"
He wasn't applying enough pressure to kill her, but her own body weight and that of her armor pressed her down into his hand with enough force to make her lightheaded. She stared him down as she weighed her options. He wasn't going to just let her go. She'd challenged him. She could hang here until she passed out and then deal with the unknown when she woke or she could concede now. She really, really didn't like passing out. She also really, really didn't like giving up. He'd just had major surgery. He shouldn't even be out of bed. However, he was just stubborn enough to push himself to prove a point. She could give him this one. "Fine," she croaked. "You're a bigger bad ass than me."
"You're a bigger bad ass than me...?"
She almost laughed. That was more her style than his. She'd learned that Saren had a sense of humor, albeit a dark and dry one, but she still had not imagined him to be playful. Of course, his playfulness would come with a risk of death. It wouldn't be Saren otherwise. "You're a bigger bad ass than me, sir," she corrected.
He tossed her casually aside and resumed his seat on the bed. "Insubordinate human," he grumbled. "I don't know why I tolerate you."
"Because I don't walk away when it's time for things to get ugly," she said, thinking of Balak.
"You are certainly the only person in the galaxy who could possibly make me look like the good cop," he said.
"That'll only work with batarians," she said. "I do have a bit of a reputation built up there."
"It is still more than anyone else can claim," he said. "That trick with the omni-tool was clever. I tend to prefer more straightforward methods, but it certainly added fear to the equation quickly."
"I don't have your size or brute strength," she said, sitting back and propping her arm along the back of her chair. "I work within my limitations."
"Is there anything to which you cannot adapt, human?" he asked.
"Death?" she suggested.
"You're like a virus. Or a parasite," he said without heat.
"Am I getting under your skin, Saren?" she asked.
He looked at her without replying for long enough to make her resist the urge to shift in her chair. Had she given away too much? She would never admit it to him but over the past months, she'd formed a wildly different opinion of him from her initial impression. "You think you have me figured out, Shepard?" he finally asked.
"Getting there," she answered. "I think I'm closer than most."
"And what is it that you think you know?" he asked archly.
She studied him carefully before replying, "The key to you is that you're honest. Utterly. Absolutely. Without fail. Once you know that, everything else starts to fall into place. You'll avoid, distract, focus on an irrelevant part of the truth while ignoring the part that matters, allow false assumptions, skew and manipulate the other's view so that the truth looks different from what it is, reserve the right to change your mind at a later point, and pull any other amount of tricks in order to mislead, prevaricate, evade, or otherwise cause others to see what you want them to see. Everything you say is factually, if not functionally, true.
"As an example, let's say you decided to murder Nihlus." He snorted at the ridiculousness of the notion and she said, "I didn't say it was a realistic example. You're the one who says he can always find a reason to kill. Anyway, you kill Nihlus; I find out and take it to the Council and they call you to answer for your crime. You wouldn't outright deny killing him. You would 'resent the accusations' and state that Nihlus was a fellow Spectre and a friend. Anyone not listening closely enough would hear a denial. It can be absolutely true that you would resent a human accusing you and that you could see Nihlus as a friend and yet still murder him. Most people wouldn't recognize that because most people want to believe that those two things are inherently unable to exist within a single person. You would functionally deny it while factually telling the utter truth. As an aside, I know damn good and well that losing your arm bothers you, but I also know that you're going to deal with it and I'm not going to push."
"Wise," he said. "Go on."
She said, "Once one knows that about you, stops trying to see what they want to see when they look at you, and accepts that you are capable of anything, one can then begin to see what's actually there. You aren't a monster. You've just seen the absolute worst that the galaxy has to offer for so long that you recognize the hard truths that more idealistic people don't want to face. People will die. You cannot save all of them. Humans, especially, want to believe that we can save them all. If we lose even one, we consider it a tragedy. If turians save even one, they consider it a victory. You share that mentality, so deciding who to save and who to sacrifice comes down to simple math for you. It isn't personal. It isn't emotional. You don't enjoy killing them, but you don't mourn them. You adjust the sum total and move on."
"You do the same," he said.
"Yes," she said. "The difference is that I feel it. Later. When it's just me. I separate the Commander from the person. You don't do that with the Spectre and it's cost you, but at the same time, you're whole in a way that I'm not."
"Something you should learn," he said, "before the commander kills the woman and you are left with nothing but a shell."
"Nihlus successfully separates it," she pointed out.
"Nihlus is willing to do what it takes to complete the mission, but he still believes that he can do that with his honor intact," Saren said. "You and I don't."
"Why do you hate humans?" Shepard asked the following day when she went to the med bay where he was recovering. "I mean, beyond our many flaws."
"Were it not for the humans, I would not have had to kill my brother," he said.
"That's another factual but not functional truth. If it weren't for your brother's choices, you wouldn't have had to kill him," she said, referencing their conversation from the day before. "He was careless and power-hungry and he allowed himself to be exposed to something he admitted he didn't understand while knowing that it had the power to change people. His own foolish pride caused you to have to kill him, not humans. Try again."
"Do you know how many of my people I saw die at the hands of humans?" he snarled. "Your people were fools, playing with something they didn't understand like children with a loaded gun. We took a police action against them per Council law and they responded with all-out war!"
She could see his point. She knew about the Rachni Wars and the havoc they and the Krogan Rebellions that followed them had wreaked on the galaxy. A salarian expedition sent by the Council had activated a dormant mass relay leading into uncharted territory, opening a route to the rachni. War had soon followed, and because the queens dwelt underground in caves on worlds too hostile for the other races to survive, negotiations were impossible. The war had gone on for a century until the salarians had 'uplifted' the krogan to fight against the supremely intelligent, hive-minded creatures. The krogan could survive on the planets occupied by the rachni and strike directly at the queens. They had obliterated the rachni and the relay was closed.
In gratitude for their assistance, the Council gave the krogan the conquered rachni worlds along with others that had been uninhabited. The rapid birth rates of the krogan that had been used to help build their numbers to fight the rachni, however, meant that they expanded more rapidly than they were acquiring territory. They'd begun forcibly settling worlds that already belonged to Council races. The final straw had come when they'd refused an order from the Council to leave an asari world. The Krogan Rebellions had begun. The Council had foreseen this eventuality and had put together a covert 'observation force' consisting of salarian STG and asari huntresses known as the Office of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance, and thus, the Spectres had been born. They had fought hard against the krogan, but krogan numbers overcame the skill of the Spectres and the forces of the asari and salarians.
Enter the turians, newcomers at the time with a massive fleet and unparalleled operational discipline. The krogan had underestimated them, believing that brutality would cow the civilian members of society and turn the tide of public opinion away from the war. What they had not taken into account was that there were no true civilians beyond children, the elderly, and the infirm within turian culture. Every able-bodied citizen served and the turian mindset was one of total war. They didn't believe in simply defeating an enemy; they obliterated them and ensured that they would never be a threat again. The krogan had not been prepared for their response.
The turians had contacted the salarians and took possession of a bio-weapon developed by STG. The salarians had never actually intended to deploy the genophage, but the turians did not hesitate. The krogans' biggest weapon, their rapid birth rate, was taken from them and when combined with a renewed push from the turians, they had eventually surrendered. The turians had been given a seat on the Council and positions within the Spectres as rewards for ultimately saving the galaxy. The krogan were still bitter about their loss even a thousand years later.
Laws were passed to prevent an event like that from ever happening again. Activating dormant mass relays into uncharted space was strictly forbidden. The humans, of course, had not known this at the time, but the turian response to the violation was understandable given the serious consequences that had come before. The entire galactic community had been affected by the wars. The turian response had been justified. However, she believed that the human reaction had been as well.
"I understand that," she said. "I really do. But you should at least try to look at it from our perspective. The turians have been space-faring for thousands of years. You've known there was other life in the universe for millennia. I'm one of the last generation of humans born in a time when we thought we were alone. I was very young, but I remember the First Contact War. I remember learning that there were creatures out there that we hadn't known existed.
"There had always been rumors of aliens, but they were largely discounted as myths and legends. They were a good plot point for a video game or a science-fiction novel or a vid. Those vids were largely either ridiculously horrible comedies or horrors. By far, the most common theme was alien invasion and war with the aliens. Most of the people who came forward and claimed to have made contact with aliens had some sick sexual fetish that inevitably resulted in them allegedly being probed or raped or experimented on or all of the above before being returned to Earth. The message that invariably went out was: Be afraid because even when the aliens seemed peaceful, they almost always became violent by the end. Generally, they wanted to take over the Earth but much of the time there was no explanation given. They were just violent, aggressive creatures that wanted to wipe out all life.
"Now, take people who had been inundated by that mentality in all forms of entertainment, corrupt governments out for nothing but their own power, a period of rapid expansion during which we thought the entire galaxy was ours for the taking—and, yes, I recognize the irony there—and throw in aliens which we didn't know existed, whom we could not understand, and who shot first. It was absolutely inevitable that your people would have been seen as hostile and the humans would have prepared to go to war. Had someone, anyone, stepped in and made contact and attempted to explain what we'd done wrong and why we had been attacked, it might have been avoided. You compare it to a child with a loaded weapon. I agree the weapon should be taken away, but you don't shoot the child to show that it's dangerous.
"I wasn't there. I didn't see the war. I was too young. But my parents did and my father was killed on Shanxi by a gray turian with blue face paint. How many colony designs are blue, Saren?"
"One," he said.
She nodded. "That's right. Garrus Vakarian's father killed mine. They have no uncles. Their grandfather died shortly after their father was born. The only male military-aged member of the Vakarian family at the time of the First Contact War was Lieutenant Castis Vakarian. And yet his children and I are friends. His son is probably my best friend. Garrus isn't at fault for my father's death. I am not at fault for the deaths of those my father killed before Lieutenant Vakarian took him down. The war is over, Saren. Given what's coming, we all have to accept that and I don't just mean the humans and the turians. I mean the humans and the turians and the salarians and the krogan and the asari and, hell, the quarians and the geth if we can get them working together. We don't have time for old grudges. It's time to get over it."
Without waiting for his reply, she stood and left the med bay.
“Damn it,” Saren snarled as the ball he’d been attempting to squeeze dropped and rolled across the floor once more. Shepard ignored it and him as she continued reading in the corner.
They had come to Illium and met with Dr. T’Soni, who’d agreed with their assessment and decided to join them on their mission, before he’d gone to the hospital in Nos Astra to have his prosthetic arm grafted. The surgery had been successful and his recovery time blessedly short. The prosthetic looked remarkably similar to his real arm. Unfortunately, it did not yet feel like his. He couldn’t control the damned thing and that made him angry.
Shepard had been correct in her assumption that the loss of the limb had bothered him. She generally was correct in her evaluations of him lately. It was his dominant arm, and while he’d trained himself to fight with either one, he still felt lopsided and clumsy without it. At first, he’d loathed having Shepard of all people seeing him like this, but she paid no attention and seemingly did not care. She was more likely to tell him to quit feeling sorry for himself than show pity. It was strangely comforting. Nihlus would have been hovering by now.
“Hackett contacted me,” she said in a bored tone as he retrieved the ball. He glanced up at her when she didn’t continue. “He wants me to go to Feros. One of our outposts there, Zhu’s Hope, is reporting difficulty of an unspecified nature.”
“Feros,” he said. “ExoGeni’s headquarters.”
“Yes,” she said. “I can make a quick run out there and come back for you or we can go after you’ve completed your physio.”
“That will likely take time you don’t have if something is truly wrong there,” he said. “Go ahead.” He didn’t like the idea of being left behind, but it was the most logical option. He needed to learn how to use this new hand and Shepard still had a job to do. There was no sense in leaving the Normandy in dock for him. Besides, Nihlus would be meeting them here in a few days and this would give Saren an opportunity to speak with him. He had planned to tell Shepard this afternoon, but if she was going on a mission, she didn’t need the distraction. Saren didn’t have an abundance of faith in her team. They were still green and she needed to be attentive.
Saren certainly did not miss Shepard while she was gone. He absolutely did not worry about her. Missing Nihlus was one thing. He had long ago accepted that he enjoyed working with Nihlus as much as he enjoyed working alone. He had simply grown accustomed to Shepard’s presence over the past months and could admit that he’d come to appreciate her insight into things.
He was admittedly concerned about her success with her team. She had elected to take Alenko and T’Soni. Alenko had proven himself to be acceptable for a human, but the asari doctor had had little fighting experience before joining up with Nihlus and even less with Shepard. He should have ordered her to send updates. She was, after all, his student. The Normandy should have returned by now.
He was distracted from his thoughts by the opening of the door. He looked up, expecting to see her, and was greeted by Nihlus. Nihlus’ face changed from smiling to shocked in an instant. Oh, yes. He’d neglected to tell him about the surgery. “What the hell happened to you?” Nihlus demanded.
“Long story,” Saren said.
Nihlus, never one to hold back, reached out and trailed a hand over his arm. “Can you feel that?” he asked, accepting Saren’s reticence.
“Yes,” Saren answered.
“Are you all right?” Nihlus asked.
“I’m fine,” Saren said. “It was necessary.”
“Spirits,” Nihlus gasped. “Your eyes! What did I miss?”
Saren sighed and gave him a brief overview of the events that had transpired. He hadn’t explained why he needed Nihlus back. He’d simply told him to come and Nihlus had obeyed. He explained it now and Nihlus listened attentively, still absently running his hand up and down Saren’s arm. It was…pleasant. This separation had been shorter than most they experienced but more eventful than most.
He didn’t resist when Nihlus pulled his forehead down to meet his. A shuddering sigh ran through them both. This was what he had wanted but had been unwilling to accept from Shepard when they’d first discovered the evidence of the Reapers. Comfort was not generally something he needed, sought out, or accepted, but this situation was different from any that had come before. The knowledge that he was not left to face this threat alone was a reassurance that even he had needed.
“We’ll figure it out,” Nihlus assured him.
His hands, one organic and one synthetic, came up to rest lightly on Nihlus’ shoulders as his former protégé and current lover nuzzled the side of his neck. Why someone as desirable as Nihlus chose someone like him was a constant source of confusion for Saren. He was well aware of his flaws. Their personalities were entirely dissimilar. Their tastes in others tended to be very different except, apparently, where Shepard was concerned. Nihlus preferred asari and humans. Saren preferred his own species. Neither of them was at all attracted to men that weren’t each other.
Nihlus could easily find bedmates of any species. Saren could not. His fringe was uneven. His zygomatic fringe was unappealing to most. His plates were dull and marred with age and unpleasantly uniform. There was little contrast in his coloration. He was tall even for a turian and too lean. He preferred weapons to people and was perfectly content with his own company while Nihlus’ sociability was on the extreme end even for a turian. Nihlus was serious only when the situation called for it while Saren’s sense of humor was admittedly atrophied.
For some reason, though, they worked. Their differences, strengths, and weaknesses complemented each other. They understood each other on a fundamental level. Nihlus didn’t judge his ruthlessness but didn’t compromise his own way of doing things to match it. Saren didn’t ask him to. Nihlus was one of the few people with the courage to stand up to him and was one of the few whom Saren allowed to do so.
Saren had been content with just the two of them before Shepard and didn’t mind Nihlus’ philandering. Though, his ardor now told him that he had not been with another since they’d parted and spoke volumes about his feelings for Shepard. Nihlus had chosen a third. It wasn’t common for a triad to take on a V formation, but it wasn’t unheard of. Whether or not that V would close would be up to himself, and ultimately, Shepard.
He pushed thoughts of her away for now and focused on the slide of Nihlus' hands over his carapace as the other man removed his tunic. Saren cupped the back of Nihlus’ neck and massaged the bundle of nerves below the fringe, making his lover purr with delight. Nihlus was so easy to please. He used the prosthetic hand—which he’d finally mastered—to pop the seals on Nihlus’ Phantom armor. It fell to the floor with a clatter and Saren, displaying his own impatience, kicked it lightly out of the way as he felt his plates begin to shift.
When they were both nude, Saren led Nihlus to the bed in the center of the generically upscale Nos Astra hotel room and bent him over. Nihlus complied without hesitation and reached back to stroke Saren’s hip spurs. Saren closed his eyes and allowed the sensation to wash over him while running a hand over Nihlus’ ass to loosen him up. Nihlus’ subvocals went haywire as Saren began to push into him and Saren felt a familiar rush of satisfaction. He strived for excellence in all that he did and that included the bedroom. He took pride in his ability to reduce his lover to incoherence. And, oh, that familiar hot, gripping slide was utterly welcome.
Shepard kept her pounding head up as she walked through Nos Astra. Saren had warned her that despite its appearance, this place was truly no better than Omega. She remained alert and wary even as she imagined the hot tub in her hotel room. She would report to Saren before going next door, opening a bottle of wine, and soaking her aching body for an hour or five. The mission had been…successful, if one could truly call it that given that the colony was dead. For once, however, the high death toll was not entirely her fault. It would have been an utter disaster had Liara not been there.
The majority of the ExoGeni workers and the colonists had been brainwashed and turned into zombie-like creatures that had begun attacking the ones who remained. Shepard, Liara, and Kaidan had eventually discovered something that she would not have believed if she had not already accepted that there was a race of sentient machines intent on wiping out all life in the galaxy. Given that as a baseline, a sentient plant that was over fifty-thousand years old was not beyond the realm of credibility.
Her head still rang with the influx of information it had been attempting to assimilate over the past few days. The Thorian, as the creature was called, had been observing sentient life for longer than Shepard could imagine. It understood organic life in a way that few beings could. It had passed on its knowledge of the Protheans to Liara in exchange for…what some would say was far too much. The information they’d gained, though, had been all but invaluable. It was a cipher that, when Liara had melded with her and transferred it, allowed her to decrypt the information from the Prothean beacon.
She was eager to share her findings with Saren and more certain than ever that the Reaper was somehow guiding her path, but she hadn’t slept in days and exhaustion was making her footsteps drag. A full debrief would have to wait. Knowing Saren, though, he was going to force her to relay all of it before he allowed her to go. She debated simply going to her room and speaking with him once she’d gotten some rest but didn’t want to face his fury when he found out.
She keyed in the code that he’d given her for the door to the room and came to a sudden halt just inside the doorway as her sluggish mind tried to process what her eyes were seeing. Her first thought was that Saren and Nihlus were fighting. She was stunned to see him here as he hadn’t mentioned joining up with them when last they’d spoken. He was naked. So was Saren. They weren’t fighting. They were fucking.
She lifted her foot to turn on her heel and Nihlus heard the scrape of her boot. He looked up and said, “Shepard!” in a tone that was far too happy for a man who’d just been caught by his…girlfriend?...with another man’s cock up his ass. She turned back to face him with a confused expression on her face.
Saren stopped moving and sighed deeply. “I told you to tell her,” he said.
“I was going to,” Nihlus said. “I got busy. Someone has had me running around the galaxy lately.”
“Nihlus,” Saren snapped. “I don’t think you understood me. Human relationship groups consist of two, not three. You should know this given your experience with them.”
“I’ve never dated one before,” Nihlus protested as his eyes widened and he looked at Shepard with dawning realization.
“Non-monogamous. Right. That’s what you were trying to tell me. I’m just going to…go,” Shepard said slowly, trying to ignore the rush of anger and sense of betrayal that the sight of the two of them brought on. How long had this been going on? Why hadn’t one of them just told her? Why had Saren hinted at it rather than saying it outright? She had expected cultural misunderstandings to arise when she and Nihlus had moved their relationship to the next level but… No buts, she told herself. It’s a cultural misunderstanding. Nihlus wouldn’t have looked so happy to see her if he’d known he was doing something wrong. He wasn’t cruel. Saren wasn’t, either. At least, not with her. And he’d done his best to tell her without overstepping his bounds with Nihlus. It took intent to betray.
“Or you could join us,” Saren offered off-handedly.
She stopped again and turned back to them. Saren was watching her studiously. Nihlus looked cautiously hopeful. “I don’t want to intrude,” she said.
“You aren’t,” Saren said, understanding that her comment was directed more toward him. He was the one who didn’t like humans. He was the one who didn’t like to be touched. Aside from that moment in his quarters where they’d stood together before getting called to the Cerberus vessel and the few minutes after he’d woken from his surgery, he’d never touched her. He had never shown any desire for her at all.
She couldn’t deny her own attraction to him. She had already admitted that she found him beautiful. It was a different type of beauty than what Nihlus possessed, a harsher and more predatory beauty, but it was still there. She’d wanted him but had denied wanting him out of a sense of loyalty toward Nihlus. But if Nihlus approved, which his face clearly showed that he did, then there was no reason to hold back except for Saren himself. She reminded herself that Saren didn’t lie. If he said she wasn’t intruding, then she wasn’t.
“All right,” she said slowly.
Nihlus disengaged from Saren and came over to her. Saren seemed to sense that they needed a moment and remained where he was. Nihlus’ dark red forehead with its elegant cream-colored markings bent down and met hers. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I didn’t think. I didn’t intend to hurt you. If you aren’t okay with this, we can talk about it.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “I was just surprised. You could have just told me.”
He pulled her into his arms and she returned his embrace, breathing in the metal and gun oil scent of him. “It didn’t occur to me that you didn’t know,” he said. “We weren’t hiding it. If you were turian, you’d have heard it in our subvocals. I forget sometimes that you can’t interpret those. I also didn’t think about human relationship structures.”
“It really is okay,” she said, stroking his mandible. He leaned into her touch. She glanced over to Saren who was waiting on the other side of the room. “Is he…?”
Nihlus chuckled. “He wants you,” he said certainly. “In fact, I’d kind of hoped that something would develop between the two of you while I was away. I should have known better. You wouldn’t act thinking that you were betraying me and he wouldn’t make the first move with a human.”
“Is that going to be a problem?” she asked in an undertone.
“No,” Saren answered for him and she flushed. She sometimes forgot how good their hearing was. “My desires are ultimately based on respect. However, as I’ve said before, I’m well aware of my shortcomings. If you are uninterested, you need only say so. The three points of a triad do not always connect.”
He was self-conscious, she realized with a start. She couldn’t imagine Saren being anything less than completely confident and yet the careful disinterest on his face was far too calculated to be genuine. Nihlus’ hands tightened on her in encouragement. He would accept whatever she chose, but he hoped that she would choose this. He let her go when she stepped back. She walked up to Saren, who looked down at her with wariness deep in his silver eyes.
She raised her hand slowly, an echo of their contact in his quarters, and he allowed her to place it on his chest over his keel. It was more prominent than Nihlus’ but still not as bony as some armor suggested. His plates were smoother than Nihlus’ as well with edges that were slightly rounded like a rock that had been worn smooth over time. He held himself very still before cautiously bringing his hand up to cup her elbow. His thumb swept slowly over the joint on the inside and she could feel it through the gap in her armor. Her heart fluttered.
They stood like that, each of them measuring the other, until Nihlus came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. “You’re overdressed,” he informed her.
“I agree,” Saren said.
Saren watched attentively as Nihlus pointed out and unfastened the seals on her armor. When she was down to her undersuit, she held up a hand and both of them froze. “I reek,” she said.
“You smell like battle,” Nihlus murmured into her ear. “Fire and blood and adrenaline.”
“And sweat,” she added as she tilted her head to the side to allow his lips to graze over her skin.
“It’s intoxicating,” he said. “But…if you’re concerned about it, I’m sure there’s a shower we can use.”
His hands slid confidently down the front of her body and she leaned her head back against him. “I wouldn’t object to a shower,” she said breathily.
“This way,” Saren said and led them to a small room off of the bedroom. In addition to the massive tub, there was a large shower in the corner. It was more like a glass-walled section of the room with a showerhead and a drain than a traditional stand-alone shower, which made it perfect for the three of them. She hadn’t entirely expected him to join them but was glad he did.
Nihlus stripped her undersuit down her arms and over her torso. She winced when he reached her abdomen and Saren stepped in and pulled her into the shower. He turned the water on and drew the showerhead down before taking a knee in front of her. Nihlus went back into the bedroom as Saren wet the fabric and she probed at the area with a muttered curse. She hadn’t realized that one of the colonists had gotten her when it happened and then had been utterly consumed with the Thorian.
Saren carefully peeled away the section that had fused to her skin. The side of her waist was covered in dry, dark red blood and she could see a bruise forming around the wound. The round had just pierced through her armor enough to graze her skin and it wasn’t as bad as it looked. She was honestly surprised that he was taking the time to work it off slowly rather than just peeling it away and slapping medigel on it. Gentle was not a word she would have applied to Saren Arterius.
Nihlus returned with a packet of medigel as Saren finished cleaning the wound and knelt down to smooth it over her skin. The sight of a pair of big, strong, turian Spectres on their knees with expressions of concern over a flesh wound on a human was both amusing and endearing. She reached out and stroked Nihlus’ fringe, making him purr, and started to do the same to Saren but hesitated. “It’s all right,” he said.
His fringe was far longer than Nihlus’ but not as symmetrical. The ends were ragged and uneven and the tops and sides of them were pitted and scarred. He didn’t move into her touch the way that Nihlus, did but he didn’t move away from it, either, and she heard a hesitant rumble echo off of the tile. Her eyes widened, but she didn’t otherwise react. She laughed as Nihlus moved closer in a clear bid for her attention as well. It was like having a pair of cats vie for position to be petted. She brought her other hand up to stroke him as well and he nuzzled into her belly.
The difference between their attitudes was striking. Nihlus was confident, secure in his welcome and her desire for him. Saren was hesitant, unsure, and looked as if he expected a single wrong move to result in his being sent away. She heard his quick intake of breath as her fingers slid between the spines of his fringe to stroke the softer hide beneath. He moved slowly and drew her underarmor the rest of the way down her legs.
Nihlus nuzzled her belly again and she gasped as his tongue snaked out and flicked against her center. Saren’s rumble grew louder as her hand tightened on his fringe. He reached up without dislodging her and hooked the showerhead to the wall again, bathing them with warm water. Nihlus snorted and shifted her without missing a beat, pressing her up against the wall and lifting her leg up over his cowl. She cried out as he slid a finger into her, stretching her in preparation for his girth.
She opened her eyes to see Saren still kneeling by Nihlus. He was watching intently while his hand stroked the back of Nihlus’ neck. She hooked her own behind his and found the spot that always made Nihlus purr. She was pleased to learn that it had the same effect on Saren. His eyes drifted closed and his hand came down to trail over her leg. Nihlus flicked his tongue over her clit as he curled his finger inside of her. He caught her as her knee buckled and lowered her to the floor of the shower.
Breathing heavily, she said, “I thought we were going to wash.”
“Are you complaining?” he asked with a grin.
“No,” she answered. “No, I am not.”
He gave her a hand and lifted her to her feet. Saren rose and stepped back to allow her room to step under the spray. The medigel had dried, so she plucked a bottle of sweet-smelling asari soap off of the shelf in the corner. Nihlus stepped in and took it from her. “Allow me,” he said and poured the soap into his hands. He moved behind her again and ran his hands slowly from her collarbone to her waist before sliding down to the insides of her thighs and nipping her neck. She sighed and relaxed against him, feeling the tension slowly drain from her body under his attentions.
“Do you want to help?” Nihlus asked.
Saren said, “I believe you are quite capable.”
“Not the point,” Nihlus said. “You need to learn her anatomy. It’s easier with the lubrication of the soap. You just glide over her skin.”
Saren huffed but a moment later, his hands were on her shoulders. “Is there anywhere I should not touch?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “Well, the bottom of my feet are ticklish and you’re likely to get kicked in the face if you do, but that’s the only spot.”
He nodded and drew his hands down her arms. He spent time studying her hands and she took the opportunity to look at the prosthetic arm. It was well-made, and in time, would be indistinguishable from the rest of him as they’d fitted it beneath the plates on his shoulders and had matched the pattern of plate and muscle and skin on the other. She reached out hesitantly and drew a finger down his forearm. The synthetic muscle twitched at the contact, but he didn’t draw away. It felt only slightly different, and if she hadn’t known it was not real, she wouldn’t have been able to tell but for the talons.
Turians could sheathe their talons. It was one more way in which they were at least as much like a cat as a bird. Saren’s artificial ones, however, did not retract. They were fixed into place and just as sharp as his real ones. He was careful, though, and she wasn’t worried that he would cut her with them. Saren was nothing if not precise. He didn’t seem to mind her perusal of the limb as he was looking with open curiosity at her own hand.
“They’re so delicate,” he mused. “Simply looking at them, one would not think that you could handle that massive rifle you are so fond of.”
“I manage,” she said absently as Nihlus nipped her shoulder. She could feel him hard and slick against her ass and she sighed as he rolled his hips, sliding up against her.
Saren moved on from her arms to draw a line across her clavicle and up her throat. His eyes were locked on hers as he explored the sensitive skin there with his hand. She had to remind herself not to tilt her head back and close her eyes. She wasn’t sure that submitting to Saren would be a good idea right now. Or ever. That kind of thing took trust and that kind of trust came hand-in-hand with emotions that she didn’t consider wise in connection with Saren Arterius.
She trusted him to have her back on the battlefield, but she did not trust him with her emotions. Despite Nihlus’ assurance, she wasn’t entirely convinced that Saren was here because he wanted her and was not simply indulging Nihlus or her in order to secure his place with Nihlus. He could very well simply be tolerating her. He certainly wasn’t acting like he wanted her. Where Nihlus couldn’t seem to keep his hands off of her, Saren seemed almost reluctant to touch her, and when he did, he was studious and almost clinical in his reaction. His groin plates were shut tight.
Of course, she wasn’t showing much enthusiasm in touching him, either. She was being incredibly passive due to a combination of her own uncertainty and his. She wasn’t sure if she was wanted here and she had a personal rule against going where she wasn’t wanted. Unless she was going in with guns blazing, of course, but she wouldn’t force her way in with Saren.
She reached out and ran a hand experimentally down his keel. He hissed when she made contact with his abdomen but didn’t pull away or stop his slow perusal of her skin. Encouraged, she splayed her hand out and drew it over the slim horizontal plates of his tight belly. His mandibles relaxed slightly and she realized he’d been gritting his teeth. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” she whispered.
“I want to,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I simply don’t know where to touch you. This would get a reaction from a turian.” He ran his fingers lightly along her collarbone again.
“Do you want me to show you?” she asked.
“Spirits, yes,” he said emphatically.
“You just had to ask,” she replied with a grin. She took his hand in hers and drew it down her sternum and over her ribcage before coming back up to cup her breast. His thumb grazed her nipple and she gasped.
“That is clear enough,” he said seriously.
“She likes her waist, too,” Nihlus said from behind her as he stepped back to run his soapy hands over her back. “And her spine. Anywhere on her back, really, is sensitive. Her hips. This spot where her ass meets her legs.” He drew his talons over the aforementioned spot and she drew in a breath and rose up onto her toes. “Behind her ear,” he said and licked there. “Below her jaw.” He trailed his mouth down and nipped her lightly. “The top of her shoulder.” His teeth scraped over her skin.
“Nihlus,” she groaned.
“Yes, Shepard?” he asked with mischief clear in his voice.
“Tease,” she said.
He returned to her ear and said in a low voice, “Oh, Shepard, surely you know by now that I have every intention of taking you into that bedroom and fucking you until you cannot walk without feeling me inside of you.”
“Oh, fuck,” she said and her hand tightened on Saren’s which, in turn, tightened on her breast. She moaned and gasped, “I’m clean enough.”
“I don’t think so,” Saren said and slipped his hand out from beneath hers. More confident now, he poured more soap into his hands and ran them down the side of her ribcage. They were careful around the wound on the side of her waist and slipped around to stroke her ass. She grasped his shoulders for balance.
“He’s an ass man,” Nihlus informed her as he knelt and ran his hands over her legs. He stood and shifted both Saren and her so that the water cascaded over her hair. When it was wet, he moved them again and poured shampoo into his hands. She cocked her head at the sight of it. Most non-human hotels didn’t carry human products and hers were in her room. He said, “I stopped and picked this up. I like the smell and didn’t know if you’d remembered to bring yours from the Normandy.”
“That’s…really thoughtful of you,” she said, surprised. She admittedly didn’t have much experience with actual relationships, but that seemed like a very domestic thing to do.
“I’m a thoughtful person,” he said with a grin as he began to massage the shampoo into her hair. She moaned and her eyes fluttered closed. “Oh, yes, she loves this, too. She’s downright turian in her response to her hair. Pull it, scratch—lightly!—on her scalp, run your fingers through it, anything, and she melts.”
“May I?” Saren asked. She nodded and he traded places with Nihlus. “What is the purpose of this?” he asked as he brought his hands up to her hair.
“Clean the strands of the hair and the skin of the scalp,” she said in a dreamy voice. “Our skin produces oils that get on the hairs and collect dirt. It’s easy to clean but has to be done regularly. If Nihlus is as attentive as I think he is, there’ll be another bottle as well that you use after the shampoo. That just goes on the hair itself rather than the scalp. Some oil is good as it protects the hair shafts. The shampoo strips it all. Conditioner adds the right amount back to keep it soft.”
“Like caring for our plates,” he said as he began to massage the shampoo in.
“Yes,” she agreed. Turians had to exfoliate their plates to get embedded dirt out and most, Nihlus had explained, applied an oil afterward to make them shine again. They’d had fun with that. “Oh, shit, that feels good,” she said as his talons scraped lightly against her scalp.
“Do be careful,” Nihlus warned. “The skin is thin there and bleeds a lot.”
“Experience?” Saren asked.
“He got a little enthusiastic once,” Shepard explained as Saren rinsed the soap from her hair and began to condition it.
“Careless,” he chided.
“I know,” Nihlus said, bending to take a nipple into his mouth. Shepard groaned and ran her hand beneath his fringe. He purred and said, “Hurry up, Saren.”
“Always so impatient,” Saren sighed but moved to rinse her hair again.
When they were clean and dry, they returned to the bedroom and Saren took a seat at the head of the bed, looking uncertain once more. Nihlus, moving confidently, lifted Shepard and placed her in Saren’s lap with her back against his chest. Saren’s arms came up around her in a move that seemed almost automatic. The bed dipped as Nihlus joined them, stalking on his hands and knees until he was over her. He bent his head and kissed her deeply and her arms went around his neck. Saren stroked her hips before reaching up to draw his talons over Nihlus’ collar. Nihlus hissed in a breath and reached behind her to draw Saren forward. Their heads touched briefly and then Shepard, taking a chance, turned and placed her lips against Saren’s.
He didn’t seem to know how to respond but allowed her to guide him. His hand tightened on her hip as her tongue swept past his teeth and he rumbled again as it met his. He’d watched Nihlus and seemed encouraged when she groaned into his mouth as he copied the slow slide of his tongue against hers. She wouldn’t have dreamed six months ago that she would come to love kissing turians but she did. Heat burst in her belly and she tightened her grip on Nihlus’ fringe.
Saren drew back and bent his head to run his mandibles across the top of her shoulder. His tongue, when he drew it over her skin, was hot and almost teasing. She tilted her head to the side to allow him better access and his hands slid up her ribcage to cup her breasts. He chuckled softly when she arched into his touch and then Nihlus’ hands were on her thighs, drawing her attention. “You have a problem,” she said with a grin.
“One you’re all too happy to benefit from,” he shot back warmly. “She says I have an oral fixation,” he explained to Saren.
“You do,” Saren agreed, running his thumbs over her nipples. “Like a varren cub.”
Shepard lost track of their bantering as Nihlus’ tongue swept over her and Saren’s hands tightened on her breasts. Saren trailed his mouth up the side of her throat and she shivered lightly as her head fell back onto his shoulder. He licked under her jaw before moving down her neck again and over her collar. He pulled her higher onto his shoulder and bent his head further to wrap his tongue around her nipple. She cried out and dug her nails into his thighs.
Between the two of them, they were going to drive her insane. Nihlus, already familiar with her body, knew exactly what he was doing to her. She decided to turn the tables on him and found the spot below his fringe with her fingers. A light touch would make him purr. A firm one…he growled and she felt the vibration of it through her core. Her hips bucked and Nihlus slid a finger into her and then followed it with a second, stretching her thoroughly. Saren’s teeth grazed lightly over her breast and she moaned as fire began to lick through her veins. There was at least the illusion of danger there, a threat that might or might not be real, and it was thrilling.
Nihlus moved his fingers in time with his tongue as Saren’s hands slid down her ribcage to rest on her hips. When she tried to move them to change Nihlus’ angle, Saren held her still. The flames in her bloodstream pooled between her legs. “Please,” she gasped, pressing back into Saren’s warm chest. “Nihlus, please.”
“Now there is something I never thought to see,” Saren said against her ear. “Commander Shepard, begging.”
She felt his plates begin to shift and repeated, “Please. I need…”
“I know what you need,” Nihlus assured her as he stalked up her body. He briefly nuzzled her shoulder before drawing her legs up around his waist.
“Yes,” she gasped, gripping him tightly. He groaned as he bent his head to kiss her and pressed against her entrance. Saren’s hands returned to her breasts and he tweaked her nipples with his fingers as Nihlus pushed into her in a single smooth stroke that felt like he was parting her. Her sharp moan filled the room as he began to thrust almost urgently into her. He broke the kiss to lean over her shoulder, pushing him deeper into her, and nip at Saren’s collarbone. Saren’s fingers entwined with hers on the back of Nihlus’ neck as he slid fully out of his sheath. Their position placed his erection between her ass cheeks and she felt his rumble as Nihlus’ movements slid her against him. The hand on her breast tightened and he leaned forward and bit down on Nihlus’ shoulder.
The dual sensations of Nihlus pounding deep inside of her and Saren’s smooth, wet slide against her ass had her writhing between them. She begged shamelessly and each cry of, ‘Oh, gods, please. Nihlus, harder. Saren, please, fuck, please!’ seemed to increase Saren’s arousal. That was confirmed when Nihlus rumbled in her ear, “He likes it when you beg.”
“I like it when you beg, too,” Saren said and pressed in on the spot below Nihlus’ fringe.
Nihlus jerked his hips and snarled. The motion was enough to send Shepard over the edge and she strained between them as she convulsed around him. Nihlus collapsed onto her, breathing heavily into her neck. “I missed you, Shepard,” he said when he’d brought his subvocals back under control. “And you, Saren.”
Saren hummed acceptance as Shepard said, “I missed you, too.”
He bumped his head against hers and then sat back on his heels. “Your turn,” he said to Saren. “She has a short cooldown.”
“Just tell all my secrets,” she said with a grin.
“I already know your secrets, Shepard,” Saren said and licked the side of her neck.
“Not all of them,” she said.
“I will,” he said and she thought it sounded vaguely like a threat.
Saren was still holding her and his hands trailed lightly over her arms in a move that was almost a caress. She couldn’t see his face and wondered if he was really into this or if his body was just reacting to physical contact. She leaned her head back to look at him and found him watching Nihlus. He brought a hand up to stroke her hair as the other slid deliberately down her torso and onto her thigh. She thought that there was something going on here, some message that she was missing, and then his hand slipped between her legs and she stopped thinking.
She shifted into his touch as he trailed his finger gently between her folds. He found her clit and circled it the way Nihlus did with his tongue. When he dragged his finger over it, she made a broken sound and arched up into him, bringing her hand up to cup the back of his neck. He rumbled lightly as her fingers pressed in on either side of the ridge of plates lining his spine and she felt some of his tension fade away.
He shifted beneath her and she felt his erection slide against her before lining up and pushing into her in a single agonizingly slow stroke. He nipped lightly at her shoulder and began to move just as slowly as he’d entered her while holding her still with a hand on her hip and running the talons of his prosthetic hand lazily over the inside of her thigh. His pace was languorous and she was taken aback by his gentleness. She couldn’t tell if it was care or caution and whispered, “I won’t break.”
“Of course you won’t,” he said. “You and Nihlus both could stand to learn the benefits of patience. There is no need to rush. Relax, Shepard, and just feel.”
He was as meticulous in his slow exploration of her body as he was in everything else. Her body was open to him and he took advantage of the position to touch her everywhere, seeking out the spots that made her tremble, the touches that made her gasp, the motions with his hips that made her moan. It was mesmerizing and she was soon lost in a wave of sensation. She touched him where she could reach, stroking his fringe and the back of his neck, trailing her fingers over the spurs on his calves and the tender skin behind, running her hands up his thighs.
When she turned her head and licked the soft hide under his throat, his arms tightened around her and his hips bucked, driving him in deeply enough that he hit a new spot inside of her, making her cry out. His rumble grew louder, but rather than sounding threatening, it made her feel strangely safe. She was almost certain that he liked it, so she did it again. He responded by threading his fingers through her hair and nudging her head forward. “Don’t move,” he ordered quietly. “I won’t hurt you.” She felt his teeth scrape over the nape of her neck and lock down just short of piercing the skin. There was pressure but no pain and his hand slid out of her hair and around to frame her collarbone, holding her in place as he continued his slow glide into and out of her.
“Relax, Shepard,” Nihlus said softly from the foot of the bed. “That’s a good thing.”
Shepard remembered what Nihlus had told her about that spot sending a message of protection rather than dominance. She thought that she’d just unwittingly told Saren something and he’d responded in kind. She allowed herself to relax into the hand holding her up and he rumbled against her back, sounding pleased, and released her. His tongue ran over the points where his teeth had been, soothing the slight sting, and he pulled her back into his chest again and resumed his indolent movements.
She stroked the underside of his fringe, drawing a low growl from him and he stroked his thumb across her clit and then down around the place where they were joined. She gasped and arched against him, scraping her nails across the soft hide. He chuckled and said, “She is certainly responsive.”
“Sorry,” she whispered.
He caught her hand before she could move it away and said patiently, “Shepard, I have never been with a human before. Responsive is good. I am certainly open to feedback here.”
She relaxed into him again and he continued his slow, deliberate pace. “I want to see you,” she said.
He paused. “All right,” he conceded. He lifted her up and rolled her carefully onto her back before settling his hips between her legs. He raised a brow plate as if asking if that was all right and she nodded. He propped himself on his elbows and framed her face with his hands. “You are…attractive,” he said slowly.
Her lips quirked and she said wryly, “Damned by faint praise, hmm?”
He sighed. “Do not tell me you are as vain as Nihlus.”
“I’m not,” she said, “but your tone was…grudging. At least to my ears. You aren’t obligated to tell me things you don’t believe.”
He shook his head as he slid into her once more. “You know me better than that,” he chided. “Was it not you who said that I do not lie?”
Her response turned into a long, low moan as he seated himself inside of her, hitting that place again. He repeated the motion and then groaned softly as her legs tightened around his waist. She realized that in this position, she could now touch him. He seemed startled when she brought her hands to his face. He continued to move within her but there was a stillness to him that spoke of uncertainty bordering on discomfort. She wondered if she should stop but then remembered that this was Saren and if he truly disliked it, he wouldn’t let her do it. He was nervous, not displeased. “I love looking at you,” she said softly. “You are beautiful.”
“What the hell happened on your last mission, Shepard?” he asked. “Because it is clear now that you have lost your mind.”
She said, “I saw a picture once from Palaven. It showed this jagged silver mountain range with enormous peaks that looked like fangs and the sun setting behind them. The sky was a strange mix of yellow and green and orange that should have looked noxious but instead reminded me of autumn on Earth. One of the moons had partially risen and it was crimson against the sunset. The contrast between the brilliantly colored sky and the harsh landscape below always struck me as particularly beautiful in a brutal and unforgiving way. That’s the kind of beauty I’m talking about.”
“Astute as well,” Nihlus said. “She’s right, Saren.”
“You’re both insane,” he said, but there was a softening in his silver eyes as he stroked her hair. He bent his head and kissed her softly.
She circled his neck and traced the line of his cowl. He pushed deeper into her, causing her to bow up into him. The motion pressed her thighs down on his hips and he groaned into her mouth and tightened his hands in her hair. She moaned in response as heat built inside of her like a tidal wave growing slowly but inevitably as it crossed the ocean. “Harder, please,” she whispered.
“Spirits, Shepard,” he said as he drove harder into her, “even I only have so much control.”
She cried out and tightened around him as the wave began to race toward the shore. “Saren, please!”
“She can take it,” Nihlus said.
Saren snarled and pulled out of her before flipping her over and driving back into her. She could see Nihlus now, leaned back at the foot of the bed, slowly stroking his cock. The desire in his emerald eyes burned hot. She drew herself onto her knees in the position that he loved so much because it accentuated her waist. Saren gripped her hips and she felt the talons on both hands press into the skin without breaking it. She pushed back into him and called his name as he thrust into her with that same slow precision but far more force. He seemed determined to drive her insane. His hand left her hip to circle her neck and he pulled her up into a kneeling position with his hand around her throat. He used his grip to move her on him and her head fell helplessly back. The hand on her hip tightened and she could both hear and feel the low growls rolling in his chest.
The bed shifted and Nihlus ran his tongue over her, flicking lightly over her clit before moving back to circle Saren’s cock as it moved inside of her. He licked them both as he stroked himself and Saren growled, “Come for me, Shepard. Now.” He shoved her down onto his cock and the sound that ripped from her throat as the wave crashed over her was akin to a scream. She clenched tightly around him and he buried his face in the crook of her neck as his body gave a quick, hard shudder and he pulsed inside of her.
She sank bonelessly into his arms and tried to catch her breath. He regained his composure far more quickly but seemed content for the moment to simply sit with his arms around her. His hands ran gently over her neck and collarbone as he brushed his mandibles over her shoulder. Nihlus, on the other hand, rocked back onto his heels and said, “Spirits, that was hot.”
“Your turn will come soon enough, Nihlus,” Saren said. “I have not forgotten that we had not finished.”
“Sorry,” she said, her voice hoarse.
“No need to apologize,” he said. “Your inclusion was welcome.”
“More than welcome,” Nihlus said. “I’m glad you’re here. It feels…complete with you.”
Saren sighed and said, “Yes, I suppose it does.”
Shepard nuzzled Nihlus’ neck before turning her face to Saren. “Thank you,” she said quietly. To her surprise, he leaned down and brushed his forehead against her temple. Nihlus’ eyes widened and she heard him rumble something. Saren huffed and shot him a bemused expression, making Shepard wonder what she’d missed. He lightly rubbed his forehead against the spot behind her ear in a gesture that was both affection and dismissal. She cupped his face for a moment before sliding out of his lap and rolling onto her back at the foot of the bed.
Nihlus and Saren hadn’t seemed to have any problem watching each other with her, so she rolled onto her side and watched them with open curiosity. There was no hesitance here. Both knew that they were wanted and their years of experience working together and, likely, being together spoke in the confident way that they touched each other. Their hands didn’t need to explore because they knew precisely where and how to touch to bring forth the desired reactions.
They lay facing each other as their hands roamed and their mouths ran over each other’s throats and necks. The difference was subtle but it was there. Nihlus never touched the front of Saren’s throat. He nipped his mandibles, licked under his jaw and chin, scraped his teeth across the side of his neck, but avoided the area over his trachea. Saren, on the other hand, did not hesitate to draw Nihlus’ head back and lick and nip at the front of his throat. He closed his teeth over it and Nihlus shuddered but didn’t protest.
She had expected something far rougher but this was surprisingly intimate. Dominance had long been decided between them and they were simply acknowledging it but submissive by no means meant weak when it came to Nihlus. He submitted to Saren in the same way that she herself submitted to Anderson or Hackett. There was respect and deference there, but subordinate did not equate to passivity. Nihlus was just as active a partner and Saren accepted his touch in a way that she would not have expected.
The difference between them was striking. Dark against light, bulky against lean and sleek, hard against sharp. Nihlus was elegant. Saren was dangerous. Nihlus was vocal. Saren was quiet. Nihlus made her feel small. Saren dwarfed both of them. Nihlus was colorful. Saren was pale. They were like a work of art, a study in contrast.
She was surprised again when it was Nihlus who entered Saren. She had been almost certain earlier that she had walked in as Saren was finishing but she hadn’t anticipated the possibility of Nihlus reciprocating. Nihlus caught her look and said in a voice turned slightly husky, “Sexual position among us is not synonymous with dominance or submission. We both give and take. If he didn’t like it, he could have me out and pinned in an instant whereas I would take it as long as it didn’t cause harm simply because he enjoyed it.”
“We can give sex ed later,” Saren said. “Focus.”
Nihlus gave her a chagrined look before turning his attention back to Saren and she chuckled. Of course Saren would expect his partner’s undivided attention. Nihlus looked at her again and then withdrew, drawing a scowl from Saren. “Trust me,” he said and moved so that he was sitting up and Saren was in the position she had been before with him. Nihlus motioned her over and said, “I think we should show him what humans can do.”
She looked at both of them searchingly before moving. This was their time and she’d already cut into it once. But Saren nodded slowly and Nihlus slid back into him without hesitation. Shepard moved so that she was kneeling in front of Saren and stroked her hands up his thighs. He relaxed back into Nihlus but watched her carefully with that wary look back in his eyes. Wariness turned to confusion as she bent her head and licked up the inside of his thigh. It then morphed into surprised understanding when she ran her tongue along the base of his erection. “Shepard,” he said warningly.
“Trust me,” she whispered. “I won’t bite.”
He snorted but made no move to stop her. She licked his length again before taking him fully into her mouth. He hissed, “Spirits!” and Nihlus grasped his hips to keep him from bucking into her throat. She kept her movements slow, matching Nihlus’ pace and demonstrating that they weren’t the only ones who knew how to work as a team. Saren’s hand fisted in her hair but he didn’t attempt to change her rhythm. He simply held maintained contact. Her hands roamed over his thighs and up to his hips and waist as her mouth moved on him.
She heard Nihlus’ surprised hum as Saren’s subvocals began to fray and looked up. He was nipping at the side of Saren’s neck and Saren had leaned his head back to rest on Nihlus’ collar. It wasn’t a submissive posture but it was one of utter and complete trust and something she had never thought to see from Saren. The hand that wasn’t in her hair was entwined with Nihlus’ and resting on his abdomen. It struck her as strangely peaceful and she was reminded of the way that Nihlus would relax when they were finished and lying together. He’d said once that turians viewed sex as a form of stress relief. She hadn’t realized just how literally he’d meant it. And Saren, of course, wouldn’t take that with anyone he didn’t fully trust. She was once again shocked that he’d even allowed her to be here.
She gentled her touches, copying the way that he had touched her, and his grip on her hair loosened until he was simply holding his palm against her head. He sighed and she saw them once again on the night when they’d found out about the Reapers, sitting against the bulkhead with their hands locked together as they tried to come to terms with their horrific discovery. She remembered the way that he’d allowed her to touch him and the careful way he’d touched her, how they’d stood together like that until Joker had interrupted.
They had both been seeking comfort from each other and both unable to risk enough to be the first to truly give it. It was only now when Nihlus was with them that they could do so, both trusting Nihlus rather than each other to catch them should the other let them fall. They were too alike and, while that served them well in combat, it was an undeniable detriment in their personal lives.
She had wondered how he and Nihlus had ended up together even before she’d understood the extent of their togetherness and she realized now that Nihlus had been the one to bend. She and Saren were both hard, tough, unyielding. It was their strength but it was also their weakness. Nihlus was flexible, soft only in the way of a tree that would bend long before it broke. In some ways, he was stronger than them both.
Nihlus’ breathing grew ragged as his more limited store of patience began to run dry. His pace increased slightly and Shepard matched it without hesitation. She shifted her grip on Saren’s hip, pressing down, and he bucked and groaned. His hand tightened in her hair once more and this time, he began to move her. She followed his silent instruction, listening to the combined rumbles and growls of her lovers, and scraped her teeth lightly over the bony ridge of Saren’s cock. He snarled and pushed her head down sharply enough that she could feel him nudge the back of her throat. Nihlus’ tone changed and he bit down on Saren’s shoulder. Saren’s talons scraped over her scalp as he tried to tug her away. She remained where she was and he groaned as he poured into her mouth. Nihlus hissed and gave a warbling call as he stiffened behind Saren.
Later, much later, as they lay tangled in the sheets with Shepard between them, Saren said, “What did you find on Feros?”
She rolled onto her back and threw her arm over her eyes before saying, “Do turians have zombie legends?”
“What is a zombie?” Nihlus asked.
“Undead, shambling, brain-eating things that used to be people,” she said.
“Like the priests?” he asked.
“Sort of, but not quite,” she said. “These weren’t evolved to any kind of peak. They looked like walking corpses. Rotting, decaying corpses. One…ruptured on Alenko. He spent the entire trip back in the showers. Eighty-five percent of the colonists had been turned by the time I arrived. ExoGeni was experimenting on them.” She explained the thorian and the cipher.
“How did you get it to give you that information?” Nihlus asked.
“I made a deal with it,” she said.
“What kind of deal?” he asked.
It was Saren rather than Nihlus that she turned to when she answered. She knew she wouldn’t see censure in his eyes. She didn’t think she could take it if she saw it in Nihlus’. “I gave it the ExoGeni workers. I had already killed the rest of the colonists. The ones who hadn’t turned yet were already brainwashed. It was only a matter of time. And then I called in the Fifth Fleet and bombed it from orbit. Zhu’s Hope is gone. I also leaked the information about their activities to a reporter friend of mine on the Citadel. Emily Wong. ExoGeni is finished.”
Saren nodded as she’d known he would. Nihlus said carefully, “You destroyed the entire outpost?”
She flinched and Saren said, “No. ExoGeni destroyed itself.”
“I’m not judging,” Nihlus said quickly, wrapping his arms around her. “I just sometimes forget that you’re not the only one with a scorched-ground policy. When we’re like this, she’s so…”
“Like you?” Saren suggested evenly.
“Yes,” Nihlus said.
“She is the balance between us,” Saren said.
“That’s funny,” Shepard said. “I was thinking the same thing about him with you and me.”
“That is true as well,” Saren conceded. “You made the right call, Shepard.” She slid her fingers between Nihlus’ and leaned her head forward to rest against Saren’s chest. He stroked her hair and hummed thoughtfully. “Remember what I said about merging the two. You cannot allow the woman to suffer for the commander’s decisions.”
“It isn’t that simple,” Nihlus said.
“It is when it’s necessary,” Saren countered. “You can separate without suffering. She cannot. In that way, she is more like me than she realizes.”
Nihlus’ arms tightened around her. “Sleep, Shepard,” he said. “We’ll be here.”
They picked up Tali on the Citadel when they went back to pick up extra dextro supplies for her and the two additional turians on board. Shepard ordered a separate cooler for dextro food and medications so that none of it got mixed up. Most of the food wouldn’t make someone sick unless they had an underlying allergy to the item itself but the medications could be harmful and the food did little as far as nutrition for someone of a different chirality. It wasn’t quite at the level of starving with a full belly but it certainly wouldn’t keep someone alive for much longer than nothing at all if that was all they had available since the body required so much energy to convert it to useful sugars and proteins.
From the Citadel, Liara directed them to Virmire where she’d learned of another Prothean beacon. Virmire was a lush frontier world on the edge of the Terminus Systems. It was warm and humid, covered in tropical vegetation, and rolling blue oceans. Shepard thought that this was what paradise must be like. Every so often, rumors surfaced about one corporation or another turning it into a resort world but the threat of raiders from the Terminus always overcame the appeal. Few could afford to settle it and fewer were willing to live so far from civilization for long enough to do so. Thus, it remained a lovely but largely uninhabited planet.
“I could retire here,” Shepard said as she drove the Mako through a series of shallow streams bracketed by rock formations.
“You? Retire?” Nihlus asked with a snort. “You’ll retire about the same time Saren does. Sometime around never.”
“I could see it,” Garrus said. “Warm, tropical. We could all get famous saving the galaxy, retire, and live off of the proceeds of the vids. Virmire: The Spectre Retirement World. We wouldn’t have to worry about getting bored. There are enough fools out there stupid enough to try raiding us to keep us entertained.”
“Exactly,” Shepard said. “You and me, big guy. We’ll let these two work themselves into the grave if they don’t want to come along.”
Saren grumbled and Nihlus almost laughed at the fact that the most notorious anti-human in the galaxy was getting irritated at the thought of his human lover with another turian, especially when she was so clearly joking. Of course, Saren’s sense of humor wasn’t the most developed and she didn’t have subvocals so it was possible he thought she was serious. That only made it more entertaining. He said, “You’d be begging us to let you come back in a month, raiders or no raiders.”
“Come on, Nihlus,” she cajoled. “Think about it. No one else for hundreds of light years. Big, open stretches of perfect sandy beaches. Oceans to swim in. No need for swim suits.”
“Turians don’t need swimwear,” Saren said. “We don’t swim.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Garrus drawled. “We swim. I mean, it’s mostly flailing and splashing interspersed with the occasional bout of drowning. Okay, yeah, we don’t swim. We’re too dense. No buoyancy.”
“You can’t swim? Any of you? And you let me take you to an ocean world?” Shepard asked incredulously.
“I can swim,” Saren said. “Not well, admittedly, but I won’t drown.”
“This isn’t an ocean world,” Nihlus pointed out. “Kahje is an ocean world.”
“Arvuna is an ocean world,” Saren said.
“Proteus,” Nihlus added.
“Yamm,” Saren said.
“Trident,” Shepard said. “Ninety-five percent water.”
“2181 Desponina,” Saren said. “It has no visible land masses.”
“You win,” Nihlus said.
“Don’t I always?” Saren countered. “Shepard, please, either pay attention or let me take the wheel. Does the Alliance not teach their soldiers how to drive?”
“They do,” she said. “Have you ever driven a Mako before?”
“No,” he replied, “but I could do better than this.”
She scoffed. “I doubt it. The problem doesn’t lie in the skill of the driver but in the maneuverability of the vehicle itself. This thing handles like a drunken elcor. Of course, it could be worse. It could be the Hammerhead. Still, I don’t know why we didn’t just take the Kodiak.”
“Vega took it out joyriding on the Citadel,” Garrus said. “Joker felt it would be wiser for us to wait to tell you until after you were off the ship so you didn’t endanger the crew.”
“So you tell her now,” Liara said. “While we’re trapped in a vehicle with her for at least another hour.”
“Damn,” Garrus said. “My timing could have been better.”
“Vega did what with my shuttle?” Shepard asked carefully.
“He, ah, crashed it,” Garrus said uncomfortably.
“Into what?” she asked.
“The, ah…” his voice lowered to a register that Nihlus and Saren could hear but Shepard could not.
“Louder,” she ordered.
“The krogan monument in the Presidium,” Garrus muttered.
“Why wasn’t I called?” she snapped. “Someone from my crew crashes my shuttle into a monument on the Presidium—the krogan monument of all things—and I didn’t get a call? How was this not on the news? How is Vega not out of the damn Alliance on his ass? Why is he still on my ship?”
Garrus rubbed the back of his neck and said, “I might have pulled some strings with C-Sec to keep it quiet.”
She turned to glare at Garrus over her shoulder. “Thank you for making sure the Normandy didn’t get involved in some damn news story with a headline about human xenophobia and terrorist attacks on the Citadel. However, the next time that something like this happens and you don’t tell me immediately, I will toss your ass out the nearest airlock. I don’t care who your father or mentor are. I’ll give my condolences to Solana. She’ll probably thank me. Clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Garrus said, his subvocals laced with humor.
“Shepard!” Saren snapped again.
“What?” she asked.
“Turn left. Now,” he ordered sharply. She turned to the left just in time to avoid driving directly over a drop-off. Saren rubbed his forehead and grumbled something about human drivers.
Since their night together on Illium, Saren had softened further toward Shepard and she, in turn, had softened toward him. It was still clear to Nihlus that both of them were more comfortable with him and that neither of them were certain of the other’s feelings about them. The lack of subvocals on Shepard’s part were making things harder on them. Shepard couldn’t understand Saren’s, so didn’t know that they lightened when she walked into a room. Shepard didn’t have any and Saren didn’t see the way her eyes softened when she looked at him and he wasn’t watching.
They were certainly friendlier with each other and they turned to each other outside of the bedroom more often than they did to him, which was somewhat amusing as it occasionally made him feel like they were speaking their own private language and had forgotten his presence which left him free to think and observe. There was a hesitancy there, though, when they were together in the bedroom that had them using him as a buffer more often than not until they were each certain of their welcome. Since neither was the type to concede first, Nihlus generally ended up being the go-between to encourage one or the other to join. Once they were both involved, he could sit back and watch them together.
They never sought each other out on their own, though, the way they both did with him. That needed to change if they were to be a true triad. They would be together constantly over the next year and a half while his presence wasn’t guaranteed. He didn’t want the whole thing falling apart because he wasn’t there. Sex wasn’t as important to Saren as having a companion who understood him, so he could be content in a relationship where there was little physical contact, though he was far more physically-oriented than he liked to admit. Shepard, on the other hand, would begin to feel like he was tolerating her presence within Saren and Nihlus’ relationship rather than an actual part of it if she was not welcomed wholeheartedly by all parties into all aspects.
Nihlus had made a serious error when he’d failed to tell her about Saren. He truly had not intended to leave her in the dark or to trick her into a relationship with them. As he’d told her, a turian would have already known. He’d made an assumption and had been wrong. He’d forgotten that humans had to have things spelled out because they couldn’t understand the sounds that carried so much nuance to one of his own kind and consisted of the majority of their communications. He had to remind himself consistently that he needed to tell her things with words. Saren was even worse. He wasn’t an expressive person in general when it came to his emotions. Even his subvocals were hard to read on occasion because he withheld so many of them. With Saren, that was simply due to his need for privacy within his own head but with others it was generally a sign of dishonesty and added to his reputation among turians. With Shepard, his insistence on stoicism was proving to be a true issue and it would have been far easier to navigate had Nihlus told her from the beginning.
A sudden blast rocked the Mako and Shepard's driving instantly went from haphazard to intensely focused. It didn't improve much—the vehicle truly did handle like a drunken elcor—but it was noticable. Garrus slid up through the hatch on the roof without need for instruction and began firing. In front, Saren had the scanner up and was calling out locations of hostiles. In back, Nihlus, Liara, and Tali looked at each other in frustration. There was nothing that they could do. The Mako was designed to be capable of being manned by three people. They were little more than weight and could only help by staying silent and out of the way while the others focused.
"What are they, Garrus?" Shepard called out. The Mako's front cameras were clear enough to show the terrain but, given the distance from the targets, the things firing at them were fuzzy and undefined.
"I don't know," he said. "Some kind of mech. I've never seen them before. They're big, though."
When the mechs were down and the area clear, Shepard stopped the Mako and the team exited the vehicle. Shepard nudged the remains of one of the massive...things with her toe and looked between himself and Saren. "Have either of you ever seen one of these?" she asked.
"No," they said in tandem.
Tali moved forward and knelt down. Her omni-tool began to glow as she scanned the damaged machine. "That can't be..." she muttered and shook her head.
"What?" Shepard asked.
"Nothing," Tali said. "My readings are off. They have to be. If...if I see anything to change that assumption, I'll let you know. Until now, I'm not going to put forth wild theories."
Shepard nodded and said, "All right. Back to the vehicle. Tali, run the data again."
They met more of the colossal machines as they drew closer to the purportedly abandoned compound built around the beacon. A well-timed shot took down the Mako's shields and then Nihlus, Tali, and Liara had their hands full patching the damage with omni-gel. The time it took for the gel to cure was tense. They were still in hostile territory but, fortunately, the things didn't seem to move much and could only fire in a straight line. As long as she was able to prevent the Mako from rolling out of cover—no small feat as it seemed determined to do so and would only sit still when on perfectly flat ground—they were safe for the moment. It wasn't reassuring.
"Go," he finally said when the omni-gel changed colors, indicating that it had sealed itself to the hull and Saren informed them that the shields had fully recharged.
They reached the compound without further damage but after a tense standoff with a trio of the mechs. Saren scanned the area and informed them that the immediate vicinity was clear but the facility was full of hostiles with the majority centered around the area they believed contained the beacon. "Like they're guarding it," Saren said to Shepard. There was a wealth of meaning in his subvocals that told Nihlus that Shepard now knew even more than he did about Saren's past and Saren expected her to fully understand the range of context surrounding his statement. Her reply told him that she did.
"Mechs, though?" she asked. "That's new. Why? Is it really connected or are we seeing it everywhere we look because we're looking for it? We need new eyes."
Again, they were speaking their own language and Nihlus was struggling to keep up and to put together the pieces of what he did know. They'd shared only the most pertinent details and explained the situation in broad strokes. He'd thought at first that they'd done so because he was the only one of them without formal education—his tech training was second to none but based in application rather than theory—and they didn't think he'd understand it. Now, their gaze slid to him and he realized exactly why they'd been keeping him in the dark. He was their control. He knew just enough to put information into context but not enough to allow him to see something that wasn't there simply because he thought it should fit. If he saw it, too, then they knew that it was worth looking into. If he didn't, then they knew they had to question their conclusions.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked.
To his surprise, it was Shepard who answered. She crouched down and used her gloved finger to sketch out a rough diagram of the facility in the sand. "We're going to go in two groups. You take Garrus and Liara. We'll take Tali. That gives each group biotics for crowd control, tech for the mechs, and range. You and your team are the heavy hitters, so you'll go in through the front. Meanwhile, Saren, Tali, and I will sneak in through the back. Your job is to keep the heat off of us while we figure out what these things are and what their purpose is. We'll rendezvous at the beacon site and allow Liara to investigate."
Nihlus nodded as his gut began to roil. Something was very wrong here and he had the sudden idea that he wasn't going to see one of them ever again. It was enough to make him disregard the three teammates surrounding them as he strode over and pulled Shepard and Saren's foreheads together to meet his own. He heard Garrus' exclamation of surprise at the public display and something that sounded suspiciously like a sentimental sound from Tali and Liara but ignored them. "Take care of each other," he said in a low voice.
"We will," Shepard said, bringing her hand up to fit along his mandible. "You, too. See you on the other side, okay?"
He nodded and drew back. The sounds coming from Saren were not reassuring. Nihlus wasn't the only one who felt the wrongness here.
Shepard was rethinking her retirement plan. She didn't mind hostile territory and it was a very pretty place to fight but there was something in the air here that set her teeth on edge and scraped across her nerves. It just felt...wrong. She knew that Nihlus and Saren felt it, too. Nihlus was incredibly affectionate and couldn't seem to keep his hands off of her when they were alone but he was the consummate professional around others. Their relationship was not known to the crew aside from Garrus who could hear their subvocals. It would take true unease to make him choose to perform such a private, intimate action in front of a group. The fact that Saren had allowed it spoke as loudly as the subvocals that had rumbled in his chest. She couldn't always interpret them but she knew discomfort when she heard it. She knew fear. Something was wrong with this planet.
They rounded a corner and were met with a wave of fire from a group of bipedal mechs that moved more like people than robots and had legs shaped remarkably like... "What the hell is that thing?" Shepard demanded as she returned fire. The beacon hadn't managed to turn people into robots, had it?
"Keelah!" Tali shouted back. "They are geth!"
"They're what?" Shepard demanded as she sent a cryo blast to freeze a pair of mechs. "I thought your people destroyed the geth! They haven't been seen outside the Veil in hundreds of years. What are they doing here?"
"I don't know!" Tali answered. "Disable one for me and I might be able to answer that but I have no idea."
"Do you know how to fight them?" Shepard asked.
"They're networked," Tali said. "Their intelligence lies in their numbers. They'll fight harder as those numbers drop but they'll also lose their intelligence. I might be able to hack some of them. Cover me!" A few moments later, one of them sparked and then began fighting the others. Shepard grinned and deployed a sabotage of her own while Saren relayed the information to Nihlus' team.
The geth had come beyond the Veil. They had come to a world that, while on the edge of the Terminus, was still technically part of Council space. They had set up a base here. AIs were illegal within Council space and for good reason. (Shepard didn't consider EDI an AI and didn't feel at all hypocritical about having one installed on her own ship. She'd become part of the crew.) Legally, this could be considered an invasion, an act of war. Why would the geth do this when they'd been all but forgotten for centuries? Had the quarians done something to provoke them? The reason wasn't as important at the moment as the response but she had the nagging sensation that she couldn't allow herself to overlook the why and Shepard had learned to trust her gut.
She said to Saren, “The geth are—”
“Sentient machines,” he said instantly. “As are the…”
“Yeah. An alliance?” she suggested.
“An army,” he agreed.
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask—”
“But are they guarding—”
“Bait?” he mused.
He shook his head. “No. Not here.”
“Right,” she said, discarding that thought. “Us, though.”
“They know we’re looking,” he said.
“Trap?” she asked.
“Probably,” he confirmed.
“Shit,” she said.
“My sentiments precisely,” he agreed.
“Would either of you care to translate that exchange?” Tali asked.
“No,” they said together.
The fighting was brutal and by the time they met up with Nihlus’ team outside of the room holding the beacon, they were all bloody and exhausted. Nihlus said, “Geth beyond the Veil. I’m guessing you two already have a theory.”
“Yes,” Saren said.
They left Nihlus, Garrus, and Tali to guard the door while Shepard, Saren, and Liara went inside. The room containing the beacon was cavernous with an upper and lower level. It was empty but for the device. Shepard and Saren approached it warily. Liara looked up in awe. “Real, working Prothean technology,” she said breathlessly. “I have waited my entire career for an opportunity like this.”
Shepard and Saren flanked her as she approached and began scanning the relic. Shepard could feel it, a slight hum just below the skin, beckoning for her to approach. She resisted the call and looked at Saren. He appeared not to sense anything. Liara was fascinated but drawn to it only by professional curiosity. Liara finally stepped back and said, “It is another beacon. As I had suspected, it is a communication device. It stores messages, cultural memories, warnings. Like a time capsule for the mind. We have nothing that can even begin to compare in our own technology but rest assured that it is simply advanced technology. It can only deliver messages. It cannot exert control.”
“So it’s safe to access,” Shepard said. “Are you sure?”
“I can find no evidence of tampering,” Liara said. “If your mind can handle the onslaught of information that we are not yet sufficiently advanced to entirely comprehend or utilize, then it is relatively safe.”
“Shepard,” Saren said warningly.
“We need more information,” she said. “We don’t know anywhere near enough. What if this holds the answers we need?”
He growled but nodded and she stepped forward and activated it. The beacon caught her and her surroundings fell away as a barrage of disjointed visions, chaotic emotions, and violent sounds slammed through her awareness. It moved so quickly that she was left with little more than impressions of images but there were a few things that repeated and caught her attention. She was prepared this time and was able to relax and allow it to flow through her, knowing that Liara would be able to help her fully sort through it later. When it released her, she fell to a knee but regained consciousness.
“Shepard!” Saren shouted, kneeling beside her.
“I’m all right,” she said, rubbing her forehead.
“What did you see?” Liara asked.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Shepard said. “It moved so fast.”
“I can help you,” Liara said.
“I’m going to let you,” Shepard told her. “But for now, if it’s all the same to you both, I’d like to get off this planet.”
But when they ascended to the upper level, their attention was drawn by a glowing red panel that had not been there before. Shepard and Saren looked at each other before moving slowly forward. “I don’t like this,” Liara said as a glowing red holographic projection of what could only be a Reaper formed in front of them. Shepard activated her omni-tool and began to record.
Saren put his hand to his ear. “Nihlus, be ready. Normandy, prepare for extraction.”
“Ready for what?” Nihlus asked.
“Anything,” Saren said as the Reaper said his and Shepard’s names. It spoke haughtily of their ignorance and lack of understanding, their inability to comprehend even its nature.
Shepard said, “EDI was right.”
Saren shook his head. “EDI was reductive,” he said as it continued to talk of their insignificance and impending extinction, of cycles beyond counting, forming, thriving, and extinguished at their apex. Saren tensed beside her as she stepped forward to challenge it. He started at the revelation that it was not the Protheans who created the Citadel and forged the mass relays. It was the Reapers themselves. Behind them, Liara gasped in shock, undoubtedly rearranging everything she thought she knew. “Harvest,” Saren said. “Like cattle. But why?”
Shepard began to lose patience as Saren questioned it and it spoke of itself like it was a god. Each a nation, eternal, no beginning or end. Bullshit. “You’re not even alive!” she exclaimed derisively. “Not really. You’re just a machine and machines can be broken.” It continued to spout on about their destruction and her fist tightened. She was about to tell Saren to walk away when the windows behind them blew in and it vanished.
“Commander!” Joker called. “We’ve got trouble!”
“Hit me, Joker,” she said.
“There’s a ship. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s coming your way and it’s coming hard. You need to wrap things up in there, fast,” he said and she could hear the tension in his voice.
“Let’s move, people!” she called out, drawing her weapon. They turned and ran from the room, waving Nihlus and his team on with a shout of, “Go, go, go!”
“Talking to it was foolish!” Saren snarled as they ran. “We knew it was a trap and allowed it to spring it on us to satisfy our curiosity.”
“Berate us later,” she said. “At least we learned some things.”
“What was that thing?” Liara asked.
“A sentient ship,” Shepard said.
“Clarke’s third law,” Saren said, repeating it like a mantra.
“Exactly,” she said with a nod as they dove behind cover and began to fire on the geth that were converging on their location.
“If the geth have allied with it…” he began.
“No!” she shouted as she lined up a shot on a distant geth. “Don’t even go there. We are not giving up straight out of the gate. The entire galaxy will rally. They have to. We will stop it!”
“How, Shepard?” he shouted. “You heard it. Countless cycles have failed to do so! And you think that you will prevail where they have not?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted, “but I’m damn sure going to try.”
“Stubborn human,” he snarled.
“Damn right,” she said as she fired another round. “Humans don’t give up and neither do turians. Are you dead yet, Saren?”
“No,” he ground out.
“Then why are you so ready to show your back?” she demanded. “I never took you for a coward.”
“Shepard,” he snarled.
“No!” she said. “You don’t get to ‘Shepard’ me here. You know I’m right. You heard it. Organic life is a mistake, a mutation. What the hell would it do with an alliance with us? Are you going to turn on your own people to save yourself? Are you going to betray everything you stand for, everything you’ve fought for over the past quarter of a century, because you’re afraid?”
“We do not have a large enough fleet,” he said sharply.
“Then we’ll build one!” she shouted. “Don’t let it get in your head, Saren. This is what it wants. If we’re too afraid to fight, then we’ve already lost!”
“She’s right,” Liara said. “We have to fight! Isn’t it worth trying, at least?”
They reached the space port as the Normandy flew in. Joker already had the shuttle bay doors open and she saw Kaidan standing in the open doorway. Shepard motioned Tali, Liara, Garrus, and Nihlus onto the ship. She turned to look back at them and saw Nihlus’ expression change to one of horror as the roar from her visions tore through the air. The sound made her blood turn to ice in her veins and she turned back slowly, too slowly, to see Sovereign land less than a hundred yards away.
“Get out of here, Joker!” she shouted.
“No! I’m not leaving you! Get in the ship!” the pilot shouted desperately.
“There’s no time!” she shouted back. The Reaper had opened a set of massive plates on the front of its body, revealing what looked like a giant laser that was very clearly priming. The seconds that it took for them to reach the ship would mean the difference in it escaping or being shot down. “That’s an order!”
Joker cursed and she heard the thrusters fire behind her as the ship took off, leaving Shepard and Saren to stare helplessly up at the enormous ship. They were going to die here. She could feel it in her bones as a malevolent red beam cut through the air, ripping the landing pad apart. Saren threw himself into her and she forced herself to go boneless rather than responding to an attack as he called forth a shimmering biotic bubble. The beam slammed into it, engulfing them in light and heat, before angling up toward the Normandy.
Shepard rolled onto her back and held her breath as Joker began a series of evasive maneuvers that she was absolutely certain no other pilot would have been able to accomplish. Saren grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. “Run!” he shouted as he dragged her across the shattered tarmac. She cast a look over her shoulder to see the Reaper priming its laser for another shot. It seemed to be looking directly at them.
She faced forward and called on every iota of strength in her body as she raced alongside Saren. She registered distantly that he was much faster than she and easily could have left her behind. He was slowing himself down for her. He ripped open the door to the facility and pushed her through it toward a stairwell. “Down!” he ordered and they sprinted down the stairs into the belly of the building as the walls and ceiling exploded behind them.
When she would have followed a hallway, he blocked her and kept her moving deeper into the stygian darkness. Above them, concrete was raining down and the Reaper was screaming. The stairwell shook violently under their feet and she clung to the railing and to Saren’s hand, trusting his superior night vision to lead them. Another blast ripped through the building over their heads and Saren threw himself over her, allowing his stronger shields to take the brunt of the impact as more chunks of the building rained down on them. Dust was thick in the air and she stumbled as a wracking cough seized her. Saren dragged her onward, refusing to allow her to stop.
They reached the lowest level and he pushed ahead of her, pulling her after him through the inky darkness. She stumbled over debris that had rained down from the ceilings even at this depth and heard the ceiling crack as the building shook again. “Where are we going?” she shouted.
“As far away as we can,” he answered.
“Good plan!” she said as another puff of dust flew down the hallway.
“Next time, wear a helmet,” he growled as she coughed again.
“How are you…still breathing?” she gasped.
“Lung tissue in our bones,” he said shortly. “Do you still think you can defeat this thing?”
“We’re still alive, aren’t we?” she countered.
“Momentarily,” he said.
“The story of our lives,” she panted. Her muscles burned, her lungs were screaming, and claustrophobia was beginning to set in.
The darkness, the closeness of the air, the sensation of the walls pressing in on them as the ceiling threatened to collapse, crushing and trapping them here for eternity reminded her of Torfan. She had sent the diversion team in to provide a distraction while she and a pair of explosives experts had infiltrated the mine, setting charges as they went. She had already been heading out when she’d gotten the comm from Paul.
We aren’t going to make it.
What are you talking about, Paul? Get the hell out of there!
It’s no use, Shepard. They’ve found the charges.
Then we’ll find another way!
There is no other way and you know it.
I’m coming back for you.
No! You aren’t going to throw your life away!
Shepard, there’s a room full of dead kids down here. Give the order. Blow these bastards to hell.
Damn you, Paul.
I love you, Katy.
I…love you, too. Do it, Andrews.
Saren was saying something but Shepard hadn’t heard. He sounded like he was talking to someone but she couldn’t hear him over the chaos surrounding them and there was nothing on the comm. Her boot slammed into something heavy and her hand slipped from his now-slick grasp as she tumbled forward. Her hand landed on the body of a geth and she realized that they’d reached a part of the facility where they’d already been. Saren hauled her up again and said, “Damn it, you can’t see anything, can you?”
“No,” she told him.
“And yet you’ve followed at a full run,” he said as he began to actively guide her through the dark.
“I trust you not to lead me over a balcony or something,” she said, pushing the voice of her dead lover from her head so that she could focus on the living one.
“Fifty yards,” he said.
“To a balcony?” she asked.
“To the door,” he answered. “This is where we came in. The basement is built into the side of a hill. If we are fortunate, the Normandy will be waiting on the other side.”
There was something in his voice that caught her attention. He sounded as if it was a great effort to form each word. His hand was slick in hers and threatening to slip again. She wondered how much blood he’d lost and how badly he was injured. He didn’t slow, though, and it was almost a shock when they burst through the door into the bright sunlight. She looked around wildly for any sign of Sovereign but the Normandy flew in without pursuit. The shuttle bay was still open. They hadn’t broken atmosphere. Joker had obeyed the letter of her command but not the intent.
She decided to chew his ass later. Now that she could see again, she was painfully aware of the extent of Saren’s injuries. Cobalt blood was seeping through his armor at the joints and one of the spines of his cheek fringe hung at an odd angle. The others were a deep blue color that she assumed was from bruising, though she hadn’t realized that turians could bruise. His prosthetic arm was clamped over his abdomen and the ablative armor on his back was burned away. He was limping heavily even as he ran. Together, they sprinted into the ship where Nihlus and Kaidan were waiting with their assault rifles at the ready.
“Go, Joker!” she shouted as they stumbled through the bay. “Alenko, tell Chakwas to be ready! Saren’s hurt!”
The door behind them raised and slammed shut with a reverberating boom and Saren collapsed onto the deck. The scent of blood and ozone surrounded him and Nihlus asked, “What’s that smell?” as he dove to his knees beside Saren.
“He fried his amps,” Kaidan said urgently. “They need to come out, now. They’re burning him.”
“Move,” Shepard ordered as she reached forward and turned Saren’s head. She located the amp ports and winced at the sight of the singed flesh around them. She popped them out and threw the useless chips across the room. Nihlus looped an arm around one of Saren’s shoulders and she took the other. Kaidan ran to the lift and held it open as they dragged his limp body into the elevator. She cursed its slowness as it rose and said, “Hold on, Saren. Don’t you fucking die on me now. I’ll bring you back just to kill you myself.”
The doors slid open and Kaidan cleared a path for them. Chakwas was waiting and she motioned them toward one of the beds. Shepard and Nihlus deposited Saren as gently as they could and then the doctor was shooing them from the room. She and Nihlus looked at each other and planted themselves by the door with their arms crossed. They weren’t going anywhere. Chakwas sighed and said, “Fine. At least decon if you’re going to stay here. You didn’t come in through the airlock. There’s no telling what you have all over you.”
She had a point. Obediently, they ran themselves through the decon cycle and then took a seat together on one of the beds. Nihlus’ hand found hers and he drew her face toward him. His forehead met her temple and he let out a shuddering sigh. “I thought you were dead,” he said.
“I thought we were, too,” she admitted. “He didn’t leave me. He could have left me and he didn’t.”
“Of course he didn’t,” Nihlus said. “You still don’t get it, do you? And he’s too stubborn to tell you.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“He loves you, Shepard,” he said.
Saren was in surgery for four hours. The blast from the Reaper had ruptured his barriers and sliced through his shields. If it had been moving even a tiny bit slower, he’d have been immolated. As it was, his back was badly burned, his plates charred and cracked from the heat. The debris that had rained down on them had broken the spine of his cheek fringe and bruised the bones of those on his head. He had a concussion and further burns from the biotic amps that had literally fried in his head. Chakwas worried that she would have to remove the ports but decided that they were salvageable.
He’d dislocated his knee and fractured the spur on his leg and had lost enough blood that both Nihlus and Garrus had to donate before the surgery was finished because the Normandy’s supply of turian blood had been so limited. Shepard resolved aloud to correct that and ensure that there was enough for Tali and Liara as well should something happen to them. Saren had been lucky in that he was not the only turian on board. Tali and Liara did not have that same luxury and blood for Tali had to be specially filtered and treated before it could be used even if it was synthetic.
Nihlus was simply grateful that both of them were alive. The premonition that had caused him to publicly declare himself to them had almost come true. Had Saren not acted so quickly, Nihlus would have lost them both. If Shepard had not come to trust Saren so completely and, rather than rolling with him when he slammed into her, had instead instinctively fought him, Nihlus would have lost them both. If Joker had not been so capable and stubbornly determined not to leave his commander behind, Nihlus would have lost them both. It was far too close.
When Saren woke, they were both waiting for him. Nihlus had sent Shepard up to her cabin to shower and change after Chakwas had finished treating her and had done so himself when she returned. He’d still been out then and they’d sat beside his bed with Nihlus holding Shepard close as she had explained the conversation with the Reaper and their harrowing escape after the Normandy had taken off.
“I shouldn’t have gotten on the ship before you,” he said when she finished. “I should have jumped off when I realized you wouldn’t make it. I shouldn’t have left you behind.”
“Then we’d all have been dead,” Saren said thinly. “I could not have covered three of us. I wasn’t certain I could stretch my barrier that way. I am not…accustomed to allowing anyone inside of it.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Shepard said with relief clear in her voice. The look on her face as she leaned over and pressed her lips to Saren’s head took the sting from her words. Her eyes were screwed shut and her hand was tender on his face as she maintained the contact and seemed almost to breathe him in.
This was the side of Shepard that Nihlus saw, the side she never showed to Saren. Don’t push her away, Nihlus all but begged through his subvocals. Saren reached up and took her wrist in one hand as he slid his hand through her hair and guided her head to his shoulder. Shepard let out a sound that he would have called a sob if it had come from anyone else. Saren’s arms came awkwardly around her and he said in a stilted voice, “I am fine, Shepard. We are fine.”
Nihlus wanted to go to them, wanted to touch Saren as well and reassure himself that he was really there, but he was thrilled to see his lovers finally connecting in a real and open way and did not want to break the spell. Saren heard his happy trill, though, and reached out a hand. “I suppose you need comfort as well,” he said with a sigh.
“Shut up, Saren,” Shepard said and kissed his forehead again before straightening and stepping aside to give Nihlus room.
“At least you recover quickly,” Saren said but his voice was almost teasing rather than biting.
Nihlus placed his head against Saren’s and said, “Spirits, am I glad to see you.”
“I will be glad to get out of this miserable bed,” Saren said but stroked a hand over Nihlus’ fringe. Warmth and comfort flooded through him and he wished he could return the gesture. The bruising would make that impossible for at least a few days. “Have you interpreted the beacon’s message?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Shepard said. “I didn’t want to leave for that long.”
“I am awake now. The danger is past. Go,” he said.
Nihlus saw something that looked like hurt flash over Shepard’s face before she resumed a stoic expression and nodded. She turned on her heel and walked out. “Did you have to be harsh?” Nihlus asked softly. He didn’t want a fight.
“Shepard is a soldier,” Saren said. “She knows her duty comes first. We almost died for that information. She should have done it already but I…understand her concern.”
“She’ll figure it out,” Nihlus said, straightening. “But at the moment, with emotions still high, she feels like you rejected her in favor of me.”
“I should send you out, too,” he said. “The time for using you as our control group is at an end. We know what the threat entails and that it is aware of us. You need to read the data we have found. We must figure out our next move if we are going to fight.”
“So you aren’t giving up,” Nihlus said in relief. Saren’s words on Virmire had been unlike him and had Nihlus worried.
“No,” Saren said. “I believe that the Reaper was affecting my mind. Perhaps I am more susceptible to it than the rest of you due to having been exposed to what I now believe was its technology.”
Nihlus took a seat and said, “What did you mean about it being a trap?”
Saren ran a hand over his fringe and winced before saying, “Dr. T’Soni found the information on the beacon too easily. It has remained hidden for thousands of years and now, when we are looking for them, one appears with minimal digging and happens to be guarded by a race of sentient machines from the very area where the Reaper had been hiding? It was far too convenient. Sovereign set a trap specifically for us and we walked right into it. That cannot happen again.”
Nihlus sat back and thought for a moment before saying, “But if it was luring us there to kill us then that means it sees us as a threat. It was willing to risk coming out of hiding to deal with us. It’s afraid of us.”
Saren looked at him and there was something in his eyes that made Nihlus’ gullet clench. He said, “I don’t think that thing fears anything. I think it is ready to make its move. We are out of time.”
Shepard returned almost an hour later. Liara was with her but didn’t seem to see them as she moved weakly through the med bay to her quarters in the AI core, rubbing her head as she went. Shepard sank down into her seat beside Nihlus and rubbed her temples with her fingers. Nihlus stood and began to massage the back of her neck with his thumbs. She always got tension headaches when she joined with Liara. He didn’t know if it was a result of the joining itself or due to the images she saw when she did.
“There’s something important about the Citadel,” she eventually said. “The visions showed it over and over. Something to do with the tower. And that mass relay monument in the Presidium. Liara says we need to go to Ilos. She recognized it in the visions.”
“Ilos is in the Terminus Systems,” Nihlus said.
“More importantly,” Shepard said, “Ilos can only be reached through the Mu Relay and no one knows where it is.”
“I do,” Saren said and they both snapped their heads up to look at him. He explained, “The Council sent me on an undercover mission to Peak 15 on Noveria to investigate claims that Cerberus was attempting to bring back the rachni. They had opened a lab under the umbrella of a shell corporation and were running experiments.”
“The rachni have been dead for thousands of years,” Shepard said.
“Not anymore,” Saren said. “Cerberus got their hands on an egg and not just any egg. A queen. I shut them down but before I killed her, she gave me intel.”
“How did she know anything useful?” Shepard asked. “She was born and raised in a lab.”
“Genetic memory,” Saren said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “The studies were actually quite interesting, though irrelevant to this discussion. The location of the Mu Relay was among the intel I acquired from her. The coordinates are on my omni-tool.”
Shepard nodded and then said, “So do we go to the Council or Ilos first?”
“The Council,” Saren and Nihlus said together.
Saren said, “We now have enough to present to them. We must warn them and have them prepare. We will not, however, inform them of our next destination.”
“Joker, set a course for the Citadel,” Shepard said.
“Now, get me out of this damn bed,” Saren said.
Shepard insisted upon Saren staying in her cabin while he recovered. It would take a few days for them to reach the Citadel and they would likely not be staying long. He needed to be back in condition before then and she said that his narrow rack would not promote healing. He did not care where he slept while on a mission but could not deny that he would greatly prefer a real bed even if it was not designed for a turian. It was decently comfortable and, as a bonus, was large enough for all three of them. He generally chose not to sleep with them after their forays but Nihlus was able to change his mind on occasion and he’d found it acceptable even if it did mean waking with Shepard’s hair tangled in his mandibles.
Shepard. He was still uncomfortable with the depth of his emotions toward her. He was comfortable with his feelings for Nihlus. Nihlus had been his partner for years before their relationship had shifted and sex had come long before emotion. Shepard, on the other hand, had been a whirlwind from the beginning. He still hated that she was human but had learned to separate the individual from the rest of her species. She was…exceptional.
Affection had come first with her and attraction had followed. He still struggled on occasion with the knowledge that he found her form appealing. Sex was nowhere near the top on his list of priorities and it was, at times, difficult not to feel like a xenophile for desiring her. He had spent decades loathing those who formed partnerships with filthy humans and now he found himself among their number. It was a bitter pill to swallow and was made palatable only by her nature.
He knew that she sensed his reserve with her but had not realized that it caused her pain until Nihlus had pointed it out. He had seen the look of surprise on her face when she’d realized that he had slowed his pace to allow her to keep up with him as they ran from the Reaper and had felt it himself when he had realized that she was following him without being able to see where she was going. He knew human vision was poor but had not realized that she had been quite literally blinded by the dark. She could have gone for the light on one of her weapons though it could have easily made them a target but had chosen to trust him to lead her. She trusted him with her life but genuinely believed that he allowed her into his and Nihlus’ bed solely to humor Nihlus.
He didn’t know how to change that belief. He remembered the way she had reacted when he’d awoken and remembered vaguely the urgency in her voice when he’d collapsed. She had not panicked but her voice had been more forceful than he’d ever heard it. She’d sounded almost turian. He thought he recalled her threatening him in the elevator. There had been fear rather than anger if he was reading her flat-toned voice correctly. When he’d woken from his surgery, she had come to him without hesitation and, while he was admittedly unskilled at reading human facial expressions, he’d gotten used to reading hers. There had been pain and relief and something deeper that he could not name. He’d heard Nihlus desperate plea for him to accept her and that had been the first he had realized that there was a real problem. Even Nihlus believed that Saren did not care as deeply for her.
He’d done his best to comfort her and to show her that he would not turn her away and then he’d screwed up. He, too, had seen the hurt flicker across her features before she’d hidden it. He hadn’t thought much about it until Nihlus had spoken out. It was only when she’d come back that he realized the extent of his blunder. She had not touched him again since. He could attribute it to a fear of hurting him but she’d seen Nihlus maintain his affectionate nature without harming him. It wasn’t that she was not in the mood to touch or be touched as she did not hesitate with Nihlus. No, this was an issue between the two of them. Shepard did not go where she was not wanted and she did not believe that he wanted her.
Shepard came into the cabin the day before their arrival at the Citadel. She was dressed in her armor, which was unusual for her while on the ship and he wondered when she had managed to come in and get dressed for a mission without alerting him. The medications intended to speed his healing kept him asleep for most of the day but he generally could be roused with the slightest sound. She was a better infiltrator than he’d given her credit for being. Her head was down when she walked in and he heard the scrape of her boot against the deck. Concern shot through him. Was she injured?
He stood from the couch where he’d been reading through her report of the vision again. Through the glass of her display case, he saw her register the movement and his presence and watched as she transformed from open and vulnerable to closed and hard once more. “How are you feeling?” she asked as she walked into the room.
“Better now,” he said. She could translate that as better now that he’d rested or better now that she was here.
She chose the former. “I’m glad. I didn’t wake you earlier, did I? Hackett asked us to make a detour,” she explained as she went to her armor locker and began to pop the seals.
He hesitated and then went to her. She stiffened as his arms slid around her but didn’t step away as his hands took over her task. “What did he need now?” he asked, stripping away her breastplate.
“He needed me to deal with a crazy biotic commune,” she said and there was just enough blandness to her tone to alert him when combined with the way she’d looked when she’d entered the cabin.
“Oh?” he asked and knelt down to untie her boots. She insisted on wearing the old-school style with a soft leather sheath that tied around her ankles under her greaves rather than the single piece that clipped into the greaves. She said she preferred the grip of rubber soles and that the magnets still worked when she required mag boots.
She said tersely, “A man calling himself ‘Father Kyle’ formed a biotic commune. The Alliance thought it was odd, so they sent people to investigate. The cultists killed two of them, so he sent me.”
“The one they call when things go wrong,” he said, stroking his hands up her thighs.
“Yeah,” she said. “Pretty sure Hackett wanted him dead by that point. I’m good at making sure that happens, too. As the former Major Kyle made sure to point out before I killed him, too.” Her voice was bitter as she said, “Don’t you ever get tired of it?”
“Killing?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Knowing you’re not a good person and being reminded of that over and over.”
“There are no good people, Shepard,” he said. “There are only people. Good is a subjective term with no true definition and no real meaning. What makes a person good? Are we not good when we save people? When we give up the option of having a so-called normal life and family and relationships that don’t end within a decade or so with a folded banner or flag and condolences from the Council or the Hierarchy or the Alliance? Yet we are somehow not good for choosing to take the route that is most expedient, for choosing to remove criminals rather than waste people’s time and money on trials and imprisonment, for understanding and accepting that sometimes civilians cannot be saved or must be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good. How can that be, Shepard? How can we be good and not good at the same time? Good is an arbitrary concept. Disabuse yourself of the notion that you must live up to it.”
Though his words were harsh, he kept his tone and hands gentle as he resumed his position behind her back. She had relaxed a bit when he was in front of her but stiffened again with him behind. “Do you still not trust me at your back, Shepard?” he asked.
“No! Yes! I mean, I do,” she sputtered, shocked out of her melancholy as he’d intended. “Why do you always stay behind me where I can’t reach you? You don’t do that with Nihlus.”
“Because it is where I can keep you safe,” he said. “When I am in front of you, you cannot see past me and you cannot see behind you. You are effectively blind to any threat for the time it takes me to act. When I am behind you, your back is covered and we can both see ahead. Nihlus is taller than you are and can see over my shoulder. We are able to watch each other’s backs.”
“You don’t have to protect me, Saren,” she said.
He stifled his automatic reaction and reminded himself that she didn’t understand. She hadn’t intended to insult him. She simply did not know better. And, perhaps, he had inadvertently insulted her as well. “I have a duty to protect you, Shepard. It does not mean that I do not respect you as a warrior in your own right. You are perfectly capable when armed and armored of defending yourself against almost any attack. However, when you are like this, you are vulnerable. You have no natural protection or weapons as I do. Your senses are not as sharp. You are not as fast. I am descended from a predatory species. You are a descendent of prey which has learned to utilize tools in order to become a predator. Additionally, you have submitted to me whether intentionally or not. I am ultimately responsible for your safety when we are together.”
“That’s…huh,” she said. “Okay.”
“Additionally,” he added in a deadpan tone, “it gives me greater access to your body.” He ran his hands from her collarbone over her breasts and across her ribs before trailing over her waist and scraping his talons lightly over her hips. She gasped and raised onto her toes, pushing herself closer to him. He could see her pulse fluttering. It drew him and he dragged his tongue across it, marveling that he could feel it beneath the skin. Sleek, hard muscle bunched and shifted under hands that trailed over skin the texture of silk. Her hand came up to rub the back of his neck but when she began to put pressure on either side of his spine ridge, he moved it beneath his fringe.
He sensed that this flare of desire between the two of them was tenuous and that any hint of rejection on his part would shut it down on hers but that area was not hers or anyone else’s to touch. He was the protector with those few about whom he cared, not the protected. By moving her to a place he actually enjoyed, he was able to teach her how to touch him without making her feel unwanted.
She was so strong that discovering this part of her that was remarkably fragile was almost unnerving. Generally, he would find a weakness like this and plan to exploit it at a later date. At one point in time, he would have done so with her. Not so now. Now, he saw it as a gift. She had entrusted him with a secret weapon and the faith that he would not turn it against her. He should have picked up on it long ago. It was written between the lines in her files and in the distance she maintained even with Nihlus and in the incredibly small number of friendships she had formed.
Shepard was as content with her own company as he but the way she responded to Nihlus told him that there was more to her. She drank in his attentions like a flower blooming beneath a scorching desert sun. Nihlus did the same with hers. He knew the reason for Nihlus’ need for contact. It was not hard to deduce that the reason for hers was similar. It was what drew Shepard and Nihlus to each other. Both had lost their fathers. Both had felt betrayed by their mothers. He did not know if Shepard was aware but Nihlus had been forced to kill his first girlfriend when she had been revealed as a spy for a turian separatist faction. Saren had known Xiana and had been the one to uncover her treachery. Shepard had killed her lover.
The two of them had either killed, lost, or been betrayed by everyone they’d cared about until they’d found him and each other. Nihlus had admitted one drunken night that he thought that there was some essential part of him that was missing. Shepard’s admission to believing that she was a bad person was similar. They both felt that they were unlovable and undeserving of love. He wondered at times if they were drawn to him because he was the only person they knew whom they felt was a worse person than they themselves were.
He recognized their feelings on the matter because he shared them, though he cared far less than they did about concepts such as love. Lack of care about the concept did not mean that he was incapable of experiencing it. He could. He had loved his parents. He had loved his brother. He loved Nihlus. He suspected that he was coming to love Shepard. He simply did not need to love or be loved in return as they did. It was…nice but it was not necessary.
Shepard’s short…nails (not talons; hair, not fringe) scraped across his hide, sending sparks racing down his spine and calling him back into the present. He realized that his hands had stilled on her body and she was looking at him with reservation and curiosity in her eyes. He nuzzled her shoulder in silent apology and she said, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. I understand.”
“What do you think you understand?” he asked.
“Well, for one, you’re still recovering,” she said. “And…I get it, okay? Whatever…this is between us, it’s more cerebral than physical.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked. Better to ask than simply to assume that she found him unattractive. She had said on multiple occasions that she thought him appealing and, while he didn’t entirely believe her, he didn’t think she was deliberately lying, either. She knew she didn’t need to pander to his ego.
“I’m human,” she said as if it should be obvious. “You aren’t attracted to humans.”
“In general, no,” he agreed. “But I am attracted to you.”
“Then why are you closed up tighter than Fort Knox?” she asked, wiggling her hips slightly to give meaning to her words.
“Because I am not as impatient as you or Nihlus,” he said. “I am also older than either of you and have better self-control. I do not expose myself at the first brush of an appealing body against mine as he does.”
“You do with him,” she said carefully.
“Nihlus and I have been together for a long time,” he said. “Stop worrying and just feel.”
He slid his hand—his hand, not the one that still felt foreign—between her legs and stroked her boldly. Her reply died on her lips as her eyes closed and her head came back to rest against his chest. He bent his head and scraped his teeth lightly over her shoulder. He would not break skin here as he did with Nihlus because she was not yet ready to be his mate but pantomiming the action was still headier than it should have been even with a human he cared about. He felt his plates begin to loosen as arousal made the muscles holding them closed grow lax and pressed against her ass so that she could feel the change as he slid a finger into her.
“Oh!” she cried out, flexing her internal muscles to draw him deeper into her wet heat. That particular ability was one of his favorite parts of being with a human and he withdrew his finger to feel her do it again. She was incredibly responsive even without the aid of subvocals and he was learning to read both her body language and her single-toned voice. She was close, far closer to release than he was to exposure.
He had not been lying when he’d said that he and Nihlus had been together longer. That was true insofar as it went. However, the real truth was that, while his mind and heart were drawn to her, his body was not yet accustomed to responding to a human. She didn’t put off the right mix of pheromones and didn’t make the right sounds that told his body that she was both willing and compatible. He knew it logically but still had to work to convince his body to cooperate with his wishes. Nihlus’ presence helped because Saren responded to him automatically by now. He wondered if it would help if he showed her how to coax him out. As long as his body actually cooperated. If it didn’t, it would only serve to reinforce her belief that he did not want her. That could wait. He would plan it with Nihlus so that if it didn’t work, Nihlus could surreptitiously aid him. Perhaps he could even train himself that way.
He licked the shell of her strange and delicate ear and nipped his way across her jaw. She turned her head to kiss him and, oddly enough, that was one of the human things she did that he enjoyed the most. It was almost as good as having her mouth around his cock. He really, really liked that, not least of all because a part of him truly did enjoy the sight of a human on her knees before him. That it was his human made it all the better.
He brought a hand up to her soft breast and brushed his thumb over the nipple. That part, at least, was somewhat familiar as turian females did, contrary to popular belief, have breasts. They did not have nipples as turian babies were born eating solid foods. The turian breast was solely for sexual pleasure as they did not have the nerve clusters below that humans did. Learning to work the nipple into his foreplay had been a simple matter. Her reactions were not as pronounced as a turian’s would be but she was still clear about her enjoyment and he liked it as well.
He paused in surprise as the hand that had been trailing up his thigh slipped around to stroke over his ass. She’d never touched him there before and he allowed a rumble of pleasure to let her know that he wished for her to continue. She couldn’t understand the nuances of their subvocals but she’d learned that one and grew more confident in her touch. She squeezed experimentally and then traced her fingers along his rear seam, turning his deliberate rumble into an involuntary groan. “That’s clear enough,” she said huskily as his frontal plates shifted. It wasn’t enough to expose him but it was a start and made him think that there was a chance she could do it on her own after all. “This would be easier if I was facing you,” she said.
“Yes, but then I couldn’t do this,” he purred and curled his finger inside of her as he tweaked her nipple. She cried out and her entire body tensed around him, digging her fingers into his ass. He nipped her shoulder harder than he’d intended and saw white lines form across her skin from his teeth. He hadn’t broken the skin but he’d certainly scraped it and his eyes caught on the rapidly fading mark as she writhed in his arms.
The door opened and his biotics flared as he instinctively turned her away from the potential threat. He relaxed instantaneously as Nihlus walked through. Shepard caught it and looked over at the doorway. She hadn’t even bothered to tense as his reaction had lasted only a moment and his immediate relaxation told her all was well. Nihlus paused in the doorway and looked at them hungrily but did not move to join.
“Hi,” Shepard said softly, sounding almost chagrined at being caught in Saren’s arms. Saren nuzzled her neck to reassure her that it was all right.
“Hey,” Nihlus said, flashing a grin at her. “Looks like you two are getting along well.”
“You could say that,” Shepard said, stroking her hand absently along Saren’s ass. He purred into her ear and licked the side of her neck.
“Good,” Nihlus said happily. “I’ll leave you to it, then. I just wanted to make sure you were all right after earlier.”
“You don’t have to go,” Shepard said. No one assumed an invitation but they all made a practice of inviting the third in if that person came around while two were involved. It meant a little less one-on-one time but none of them had a problem with asking for that beforehand if they needed it and doing it this way ensured that no one felt unwelcome or uncomfortable when they inevitably did walk in on the other two. It was simply unfortunate that Saren had not realized that Shepard needed time alone with him before they started.
He couldn’t tell if she genuinely wanted Nihlus to join in or if she was inviting him because he was there and that was what they did. He didn’t mind Nihlus joining and would be glad to have him but he also did truly need time alone with Shepard at some point. He would just have to make sure to plan ahead next time. Nihlus would not only understand, he would be happy that they were connecting on this level.
Nihlus nodded and walked over to them. When he would have gone first to Saren out of propriety, Saren caught his eye and glanced pointedly at Shepard. This is about her. Nihlus hummed approvingly and kissed Shepard before bumping heads with her and then doing the same with Saren. Shepard took the hand from the back of his neck and tugged playfully on the collar of Nihlus’ armor. “You’re overdressed. You need to catch up.”
While Nihlus stepped back to strip out of his armor, Saren began to nibble on the side of Shepard’s neck again. His plates had closed when the door opened but her soft strokes against his ass were loosening them again. Her clitoris was always overly sensitive right after orgasm so, rather than apply direct contact to it, he circled it with his finger. “Saren, please!” she gasped, writhing against him. Her plea, as always, went directly to his groin. He loved hearing people beg in general and hearing it from his lovers, knowing that he had brought them to a point where they were reliant on him for completion, was intoxicating. His plates shifted further, allowing some of his lubrication to seep out and he rubbed against her ass, letting her feel his response to her, showing that it was there with only her touch and her voice.
Then Nihlus returned to them and drew his talons over Saren’s waist and he slid out against her in a rush. She stiffened again and, this time, it was not with pleasure. Nihlus had been able to do with a touch what she had been unable to do in almost an hour of foreplay. He leaned his forehead against the back of her head and simultaneously rumbled an apology to her and a frustrated growl at Nihlus. Nihlus gave a chirp that was both hurt and inquiring and Saren sighed. Shepard steadfastly refused to look at either one of them.
“What did I just do?” Nihlus said. “I know I just fucked something up but I can’t know what it was unless you tell me.”
“Nothing,” Shepard said in a tight voice. “It’s not you. It’s me.”
“Shepard,” Saren sighed.
“No,” she said. “It’s all right. I need a shower anyway. I still have blood in my hair.”
He reluctantly let her go, for once uncertain as to what he should do. She walked into the bathroom with her shoulders stiff and Saren sat on the bed and put his head in his hands with a frustrated sigh. Nihlus crouched down in front of him and said, “Seriously. What did I do?”
Saren glanced at the door and, when he was certain it was closed, said, “I’d been trying to open for her for almost an hour. I was just getting there and beginning to convince her that my difficulty in that area was not a lack of desire for her when you touched me.”
“And you responded automatically,” Nihlus sighed, pressing his forehead to Saren's, “which made her think she was right all along. Damn it. You could have shaken your head or something to let me know that there was more going on than met the eye. I was afraid that if I turned her down, she’d think that I was upset at finding you two together.” He paused and said, “Huh. It’s a bit funny. I expected the adjustment issues when bringing a human into the mix or even a third partner in general. I hadn’t expected a miscommunication between us.”
“I didn’t expect her to run,” Saren admitted.
“She didn’t run,” Nihlus said. “She retreated to regroup. There’s a difference. Did she tell you about the mission?”
“Broad strokes,” Saren said.
Nihlus shook his head and said, “It was bad. The entire compound attacked. Kyle really drove the whole Butcher thing in and then twisted the knife by bringing up her dead partner. She didn’t speak the entire shuttle ride back to the ship. Did you know she carries his dog tag?”
“No,” Saren said, somewhat surprised by the information. Shepard wasn’t sentimental in general.
“She pulled it out and just stared at it. She wasn’t hiding it, let me look at it when I sat down beside her. She’d just never mentioned it before,” Nihlus told him. “She came straight here when we got back to the ship. I figured she wanted to talk to you. You understand that part of her better than I do. I figured I’d give her space for a bit and then come check up on her.”
Saren found it strange that Nihlus thought that Saren would better understand that part of her. The Butcher, yes. The aftermath, no. There was a time when something like that would have disturbed him but he’d done it so many times since that it had lost its power. Nihlus was the one who agonized over decisions he made that cost lives. He was able to reconcile it quickly but he had to take time alone to review every part of it, identify any mistakes he’d made and areas he could have improved, and formulate a plan to avoid it in the future before he let it go. Saren did something similar but it revolved around evaluating his own performance rather than minimizing loss of life in the future. Collateral damage could not always be avoided and he’d learned not to dwell on it when it happened. Shepard understood that but it hit her harder once the mission was over.
As Nihlus had predicted, Shepard returned. Instead of coming back to him, though, she went first to Nihlus. He stifled his disappointment. He should have anticipated that response. She knew without doubt that she was wanted with Nihlus and that was where she would go when she was uncertain of her welcome. Saren reached out for her and her eyes shuttered but she allowed him to thread his fingers through her hair and draw her in for another of those human kisses. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, hoping that the very fact that he, of all people, was apologizing to her would tell her just how little he’d wanted to hurt her.
“It’s all right,” she said. “Like I said before, I get it.”
He huffed in irritation and said, “No, Shepard. I don’t think you do.” She gasped in surprise as he pulled her away from Nihlus and rolled her onto the bed. She visibly forced her muscles to relax and allowed him to pin her beneath him. Her eyes were still distant and wary as he used a light stasis field to hold her wrists in place above her head. Nihlus be damned, he was going to show her how much he wanted her.
“What are you doing?” she asked. She tugged at her arms, testing the field, but showed no fear.
He nudged her head back and nipped at her throat before sliding his hands down her body and letting out a pleased rumble. Her eyes widened and she moved slightly into his touch. It was a start. He nuzzled her ear and said in the low voice that he knew aroused her, “Turians communicate desire through scent and sound. You, my dear, are not turian.” He licked her pulse and slid a finger against her center. “You communicate desire differently. Different scents. Different sounds.” He pushed his finger into her and buried a hand in her hair, tugging her head back so that she was looking up into his eyes. “My mind recognizes this. My body does not yet. It will take a different set of signals from you to train it to respond as it has been trained to respond to Nihlus. Had he not touched me, I would have been out for you within moments anyway. I would have explained that to you had you not reacted like a coward.”
She winced and he heard Nihlus’ objection in his subvocals. He snarled a warning to the other turian. This wasn’t about Nihlus. This was about himself and Shepard. It was rare that he played his dominance card but he would do so now without hesitation because if she walked away tonight thinking that he was merely tolerating her and only mildly interested, their entire relationship would become exactly as she had described it earlier: cerebral. As much as he loved her mind, her intellect, her personality, everything she was, it was not all that he wanted from her.
“Now, would you like for me to teach you or not?” he asked in the same tone that he had used in the past when faced with something she didn’t already know and had turned stubborn about figuring out for herself.
“Yes,” she ground out through clenched teeth. The coward remark had stung but it had had exactly the result he wanted. She was angry now. He could handle an angry Shepard. They had butted heads like a pair of krogan often enough over the past months for him to know exactly how to deal with her anger. He did not have the first clue how to handle a hurt Shepard. The very concept was still foreign to him.
“That’s better,” he said and released her hands. He caught her fists as they lashed out and pressed her into the bed with a deep kiss. She groaned and clasped his hips with her thighs. When he broke away from her, he said, “Nihlus will teach you so that you can see that the difference in response is physical rather than emotional. You may touch me anywhere but my throat and scruff.”
Shepard nodded seriously and then burst into laughter. “Wait. Wait. You actually call it scruff?” she said, her eyes twinkling.
“Yeah,” Nihlus answered. “Have you never seen a turian mother pick up her child by the back of the neck when he’s misbehaving?”
“I’ve never seen a turian child,” she said.
Saren added that to his list of cultural deficiencies that he needed to remedy in her. A Spectre did not only need to know how to fight. She would also need to know how to interact with members of all species in all age groups and to be able to blend as seamlessly into a formal dinner party as she did into the shadows of a battlefield. Thus noted, he pushed thoughts of work away and moved off of the bed so that he was standing in order to give them full access to his body. “Nihlus,” he said, “you originally wished to train her. So train her.”
“Gladly,” Nihlus said with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Come on, Shepard. We’re going to tag team him. I’ll teach you how to have him turned to putty in your hands within minutes.” Saren narrowed his eyes at Nihlus, but Nihlus ignored him and he didn’t say anything that would ruin the playful mood that he was so carefully building. If teaming up against him would give Shepard more confidence, then so be it.
Nihlus grew momentarily serious and said, “The first thing you need to realize is that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, Saren isn’t a very tactile person to begin with. It may be impolite to mention this, but we’ve shared partners before. He’s never let any of them touch him. The very fact that he’s not only allowing this but initiated it sets you apart and tells me, at least, that he truly does want to make this work.”
“All right,” Shepard said slowly. “So what do I do?”
Nihlus said, “Well, with you, since he doesn’t have the physiological clues to tell him you’re interested, it would help if you stated it. I have experience with humans. I recognize the pheromones and the difference doesn’t faze me anymore. I had a similar problem at first but had the benefit of having been with asari and their scent is similar to humans so it was easier to overcome. Saren has only ever been with turians.”
Shepard’s flat white teeth flashed as she bit her lip. There was a flash of pure vulnerability as she stepped toward him. She hesitated before placing her hands on his chest and rising on tiptoe. He bent his head to meet her and she shivered slightly when he pressed his lips to her jaw in encouragement. “I want you,” she said slowly against his ear canal. He brought his hands up to her waist and she trailed her lips across his mandible before saying more confidently, “I want you to take me.”
His talons flexed on her waist as he groaned and felt his plates begin to loosen. “Spirits, I love it when you talk like that,” he said, testing his newfound theory that she might need it stated as clearly as he did.
She flashed a grin at Nihlus and ran her hands down his keel to his waist and said, “I want you to bend me over and fuck me like you own me.”
He shuddered hard and Nihlus came up behind her and guided her hands down over Saren’s waist, curling her fingers so that her nails dragged along the hide at the base of his hip spurs. “There,” Nihlus said into her ear. “Keep going.” The sight of Nihlus’ hands on hers, dark against pale, three fingers meshing with five, was strangely erotic and Saren’s breath caught. They’d had him between them before but he’d never had both of them facing him, their attention focused solely on him.
Shepard scraped her nails along his hip spurs again and said, “I want to see you fight to maintain your control, to hear you groan and know that it’s for me.”
Nihlus brought one of her hands up to stroke the spot below his fringe as the other splayed over his lower back. He rolled his hips forward in response and Nihlus drew their hands down over his ass. Saren’s eyes closed and his head dropped to rest on Shepard’s shoulder. On her own, she stroked the underside of his fringe, careful to avoid the areas that were still bruised from their escape on Virmire. Then Nihlus took his own hand and probed carefully at the back of Saren’s neck while rumbling a question. When Saren nodded, Nihlus took hers in his again and circled the amp ports under the sides of his fringe. That was a spot that only Nihlus knew and the fact that he was sharing it with her told Saren just how much Nihlus, too, wanted this to work. Saren’s subvocals went haywire and his plates shifted almost fully.
“Oh, I like those sounds,” Shepard said. “I want you to touch me, Saren.”
He slid his arms around her and cupped her ass in his hands, pulling her into him. She made a soft sound of want and then turned her head and licked the sensitive hide around his ports as Nihlus slid her fingers along the seam of his ass. “Shepard,” he groaned loudly as he slid out along her belly.
“And that is how you get Saren out of his plates,” Nihlus said warmly. “See? It’s not that hard when you know what you’re doing. You’ll be able to do it on your own next time.”
Saren ignored Nihlus as he lifted Shepard and wrapped her legs around his waist. A couple of quick strides brought them to the bed and he lowered her down onto it. “You really want me to fuck you like I own you?” he asked.
“Yes,” she gasped. “Fuck. Please, Saren.”
He reined himself in and forced himself to wait. He turned her head so that she was looking at him and said, “Do you trust me? Implicitly? Do you understand that I will never harm you?”
“Yes,” she said certainly. She might not yet trust him with her heart but she trusted him with her body. It was a starting point.
“Good,” he said. “All you have to say is stop and I will.” It would be hard. Spirits knew it would be hard, but he would do it. He’d likely hurt her feelings by pouncing on Nihlus whom he knew he could bite and claw and fuck halfway through the wall but as long as he was able to stop before truly hurting her, he could deal with emotional fallout.
He pulled her head back and locked his jaws around her throat tightly enough to ensure control of her entire body but not enough to risk damage to the delicate tissues there. He would have to maintain tight control of himself as he could easily pierce a vein or crush her trachea. There was a very real risk of death here for her and the fact that she allowed it told him clearer than her words that she truly did trust his control. His talons dug into her hips and these he would allow to break skin but not yet. She wasn’t ready yet.
He lined himself up with her entrance and pushed into her with a single long stroke. Her body yielded to his without hesitation and again he felt as if she was trying to draw him into her. He withdrew almost completely before slamming into her again. The pace he set was just short of brutal and her nails dug into his cowl as she clung to him but she did not fight him. He drove into her, losing himself in the sensation of her silken, pliable body.
She cried out and he bent one of her legs so that her shin was against his chest and her thigh was against hers the way he’d seen Nihlus do, thanking the spirits for human flexibility. The change in position opened her further, allowing him to go deeper than he’d ever been. It also allowed her leverage to push him away if she chose to but instead, she pressed the ball of her foot into his hip spur and he groaned into her throat.
His hands slipped around to her ass and he pulled her up into him as he pounded into her body. She was letting out a string of broken cries now that had his name mixed in with them as she entreated her deity. The way she phrased it made it sound like he was the god and he licked her throat in reward. From the corner of his eye, he could see Nihlus sitting on the couch and watching with avid interest as he stroked his cock. He’d never been much of an exhibitionist and Shepard was the first partner they’d shared whom Nihlus had been content to simply watch but knowing that he was doing so and turned on by what he was seeing increased Saren’s excitement.
He was approaching the limits of his control as Shepard began to beg in earnest. He deliberately loosened his grip on her throat but moved his hands back to her hips and flexed his talons. She bucked up into him and her foot dug into his hip as the leg around his waist tightened, pulling him in deeper. When he flexed them again, allowing them to just pierce the skin, she cried out, “Oh, god, Saren, please! Harder!” He grinned ferally against her neck and drew his talons along her belly. He could disembowel her by doing that but the motion only served to drive her higher.
He slid his hands beneath her, bowing her spine, and dragged his talons hard down the tight muscles of her back. She let out a throaty, ragged cry that could only be called a scream and clamped down around him. He felt her internal muscles convulse almost violently around him as her nails raked over the hide on the back of his neck. He released her throat completely and turned his head to bite down hard on one of the pillows as his entire body went white-hot and he spilled helplessly inside of her.
When she went boneless beneath him, he rolled onto his side, carrying her with him without removing himself from her body. She laid her head against his chest and fought for air as he rumbled comfortingly and stroked her hair. She was riding an endorphin high, he knew, and he wouldn’t rush her in coming down. Nihlus, having taken care of himself, appeared at the side of the bed with a bottle of water and a packet of medigel which he placed within reach on the nightstand and drew the blanket gently up over her before nuzzling her neck and Saren’s mandible. It was enough to assure both of them that he was more than all right with what he’d just witnessed and let them know that he would be there when they were ready. He then returned to the couch and kicked his feet up on the low table in front of it.
Shepard’s breathing slowed and Saren kissed her shoulder before leaning over to retrieve the medigel. She gasped and tightened around him as another wave of pleasure rolled through her, more gently this time. He held her through this one, too, and then tore open the medigel packet and smoothed it over her hips and back. He didn’t mind the idea of leaving marks on her—liked it, in fact—but she hadn’t agreed to permanent ones and he wouldn’t leave them untreated. There would be time now, he thought, for more to come later.
He looked down at her as she nuzzled into his chest and chuckled lightly. Nihlus made an inquiring sound and Saren said quietly, “She’s asleep.”
Nihlus moved to the bed then and slid between the sheets. “I think that went well,” he said. “You two have no idea how hot you are.”
“Do you think she realizes it now?” Saren asked.
“I think she’s too smart not to,” Nihlus said, bringing his arm over her to rest on both her waist and Saren’s. Saren glanced down, wondering if he wanted his turn now and how he was going to indulge him without disturbing Shepard. Nihlus shook his head and said, “Let her rest. We’ll have time later.”
Shepard looked up from her seat on the couch in her new apartment as Nihlus walked into the room. Her chest was still bandaged and she’d removed her shirt, stating that it caught on the bandages. The white fabric stood in stark contrast to the multitude of livid shades painting her skin. The news was playing on the vid screen and she snorted at it as she brought a glass of whiskey to her lips. “Now I’m a hero,” she said derisively. “They should make up their minds. Am I a sadistic butcher or a savior? What will I be next month?”
“They don’t know what to think of you,” Nihlus said mildly. “You aren’t within their realm of experience or understanding.”
“‘I’m on the wrong side of heaven and the righteous side of hell,’” she said sounding like she was quoting something. “God won’t take me and the devil doesn’t want me.”
He took a seat beside her and really looked at her. Dark circles shadowed her glowing eyes and she had a new series of scars across her face courtesy of the shrapnel that had temporarily taken her vision. She was too thin and too pale after the series of surgeries required to save her life. She moved stiffly but her muscle control was improving. She scowled at him as he plucked the whiskey from her fingers and sniffed it. Dextro. She wasn’t getting drunk. Good. He took a sip and passed it back to her.
“Emily’s too nice to me,” she said, gesturing at the vid screen again. “She gives me too much credit since I helped her.”
“Is that a problem?” he asked.
“I guess not,” she said. “But in this case, al Jilani is right. I didn’t hesitate to let Alliance soldiers die to save the Council. I needed the Council’s loyalty. We can’t win this on our own. If humans had to die for that, so be it. Emily makes it sound like I had some altruistic purpose. I didn’t. It was practicality.”
He put his arm carefully around her shoulders, making sure not to apply actual weight that would make her work to support him. Her torso was still healing. She wasn’t even supposed to be out of the hospital yet but she’d insisted and Dr. Chakwas had cleared her to come home. He looked around the spacious apartment, cataloguing the differences from his own. This was definitely human in design but she’d already made concessions for him in the recliner designed for turians and the bed upstairs that was far more malleable than those designed for humans in order to accommodate his angles.
One of the few perks that came with Spectre status was an apartment in Tiberius Towers, a building in the prestigious Silversun Strip. The Towers were home to Spectres, dignitaries, and high-ranking military officials. One of her admirals and her captain had units on one of the lower floors. Nihlus’ was next door and Saren’s was at the other end of the hall. This particular one had been left vacant since Saren had moved in on the floor. It seemed that Nihlus was the only one willing to live that close to him or whom Saren was willing to tolerate until Shepard.
“Have you talked to him?” she asked quietly, seeming to follow the train of his thoughts.
“Yes,” he said. “He said the headaches are getting better.”
“Good,” she said and returned her attention to the vid screen with far more interest than an ad for Fish Dog Food Shack deserved.
“Give him time,” he said.
“It’s been more than a month,” she said, tightening her hand around the glass.
“It’s going to take more than that,” Nihlus told her. “He isn’t used to feeling guilty.”
Nihlus heard Saren shout for Shepard to move and turned, knowing even as he did that he was too far away and would be too slow. He watched in horror as Saren’s prosthetic arm rose and his finger squeezed the trigger of the modified pistol. He heard his own shout of denial as Shepard’s body danced like a marionette with its strings cut. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. On and on until the heat sink was depleted. Round after round at almost point blank range right in her chest. Her shields had failed on the first shot. Her armor, already damaged by the blast she’d taken from a geth sniper who’d had Nihlus’ head in its crosshairs, failed.
He gave the order for Garrus, Tali, and Liara to continue engaging the too-intelligent geth unit as he ran for Saren who’d thrown the now-useless pistol aside and engaged his omni-blade. Nihlus threw himself across Shepard’s limp body, expecting to feel the bite of the blade at any moment. It didn’t come. Something landed heavily beside them and he looked over to see a severed arm. A horrified glance up showed Saren with his face contorted in pain as he pressed the super-heated blade to the empty socket of his shoulder, cauterizing the wound he’d created. Saren dropped to his knees beside them with a keening wail.
Across the garden where the Petitioner’s Stage had dropped them when it collapsed, the geth went down and the team began to run to them. Above, the Normandy broke away from the rescued Destiny Ascension and engaged the Reaper directly. Below him, Shepard made a gurgling sound that made Nihlus’ blood run cold. He’d heard that sound too many times not to recognize it for what it was. She coughed and bright red alien blood spewed from her mouth, splattering a face the color of chalk. Nihlus ripped her chest piece off and opened the compartment on her armor that held her supply of medigel. He shouted for Saren to help him as he hurriedly slathered the medicated gel over wounds that were bubbling blood like an underground spring that had found its way to the surface. The medigel couldn’t find a seal.
It was Garrus, not Saren, who pressed a stack of thick white gauze against her chest in an attempt to stem the flow of blood and give the medigel something to grip in order to seal it. They knew it wasn’t enough. It would keep the blood in her body but it would continue to flood her internally if she didn’t receive immediate medical attention. Liara scanned her and informed them in a shaking voice that the rounds had missed her heart but one had clipped her lung. She was drowning on her own blood. Tali shouted in her comm for a doctor, a medic, C-Sec, anyone. Saren simply stared blankly as blue blood trickled from his nose.
The explosion as the Normandy took down the last of the Reaper’s shields and the combined forces of what was left of the Alliance and Citadel fleets threw everything they had at the sentient ship threatened to deafen him. He threw himself over Shepard again as the Reaper ripped apart and came crashing down around them. Chunks of ship and shrapnel flew through the air and a piece of metal lodged in his collar. When he looked down, Shepard’s face was bathed in a purple mix of his and her blood. It was insult added onto injury and he launched himself through the rubble at Saren who didn’t even fight back. It was that lack of resistance that made him truly look at the other Spectre. Saren’s eyes were empty and distant and only came back into focus when the last piece of the Reaper fell.
Saren looked around the scene of the destruction and his eyes fell at last on Shepard. His mandibles fell away from his face and he reached for her. Garrus snarled and knocked him back, crouching protectively between Shepard and Saren. “Spirits,” Saren said in a tone of pure horror. “What did I do?”
“You killed her, you bastard!” Garrus shouted and Nihlus was just quick enough to knock the gun from his hand before Garrus pulled the trigger.
“Look at him!” Nihlus shouted. “It wasn’t him!”
“It damn well looked like him when he was pulling the trigger!” Garrus hissed.
“Stop! Now!” Liara shouted with more force than he’d have ever expected from her. “Shepard is dying while you fight over who is responsible! Cast blame later! We need to get her to the hospital!”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Shepard said, absently rubbing the bandages over her chest. “Sovereign…”
“You and I know that,” he told her. “He thinks he should have been able to resist it.”
“He almost killed himself resisting it,” she said. “He warned me to move. He wasn’t in control of the arm. We didn’t know Sovereign could hack the VI in his prosthetic.”
“He didn’t let them put one in the new one,” Nihlus told her. “It’s reduced his sensation to awareness rather than actual feeling but he’s the only one who can control it now.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” she said again. “I could tell him that if he’d talk to me.”
“Give him time,” he repeated.
The honest truth was that he didn’t know if time would help. Saren wasn’t used to feeling guilty. He blamed himself for Shepard’s injuries and didn’t feel worthy of her anymore. It was just a wonder that he was still allowing Nihlus in, though he was short and distant with him as well. The last time that Saren had seen Shepard, she’d been allowed out of the hospital for her induction ceremony. Saren had seen the thick bandages on her chest through the loose uniform shirt she’d worn, the scars from the muscle and skin weaves that the doc had suggested, and had taken a single look into her cybernetic eyes and turned away. He’d informed the Council that he felt that Shepard’s training was complete and recommended her for full Spectre status and had left without a word directly to her. She’d kept her head up and no one but Nihlus had been able to see the devastation in her features. She had spent that night staring at the wall of the Huerta hospital room and demanded to be released the next day. Saren had been off the Citadel as much as possible since.
I decided to time hop here as everyone knows how Ilos and the Battle of the Citadel go. Without Saren and just the geth (who probably wouldn't be on Ilos if Sovereign invaded directly, so they'd just need Vigil), Ilos wouldn't have much going on. Therefore, I thought that flashing back to the things that might have changed would be a good way to illustrate it without boring everyone to tears. It also gave me an opportunity to give her some of the physical upgrades she gets from Cerberus since her joining them doesn't fit with this universe and would likely be the final death knell of her relationship with Saren if he figured out that TIM is Jack Harper and she was working for him. Also, I really like the Citadel apartment, so I gave it to her early.
Also, the song lyrics quoted in this chapter and the title of the work are from Five Finger Death Punch's "Wrong Side of Heaven." Awesome song and, as the wife of a veteran with major PTSD and a TBI, I really appreciate the message of the video and what they're doing here to illustrate the very real aftereffects of war. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_l4Ab5FRwM
“What do you mean, you don’t want the justicar?” Garrus demanded, looking up from the stack of dossiers Liara had provided. Among them was one for an asari justicar named Samara. She and a drell assassin, Thane Krios, were currently on Illium where they were docked.
“Did Nihlus never tell you the story of the time he spent two weeks attempting to evade a justicar?” Shepard asked.
“Oh, that,” Garrus said. “Do you think it’s the same one?”
“Do you want to take that chance?” Shepard countered. “The justicars are even more dedicated than we Spectres are. If she ever finds him, she’ll try to kill him. If it is the same one, we’ll lead her right to him and we can’t afford to have him distracted right now when he’s trying to help Saren figure out the key to stopping the Reapers.”
It still burned that Saren would work with, sleep with, and otherwise interact with Nihlus but had yet to come to her. Nihlus’ words about time had lost their meaning over a year before. Saren didn’t seem willing to entirely let her go. They exchanged messages and the occasional vid call, but he was conveniently never on the Citadel when she was and his breaks always coincided with times when she was out on a mission. They technically lived right down the hall from each other but she hadn’t seen him since he’d approved her Spectre status.
She tried to tell herself that it didn’t truly hurt. She’d always known that his heart, what there was of it, lay with Nihlus. She was the interloper into their relationship. He’d allowed her in and had gone far out of his way to accommodate her inclusion for Nihlus’ sake, but he had treated her as a friend that he occasionally fucked and nothing more. Even that was more than she could reasonably ask for given that she was asking it of Saren Arterius. She’d been lucky he hadn’t betrayed her or slit her throat.
Instead of focusing on what she’d lost, she had held to what remained and thrown herself into her work. Nihlus loved her, of that she was certain, and she and Garrus had elected to team up rather than work independently of each other. His relationship with Nyreen had cut short when Nyreen chose to be with Aria T’Loak instead. Turians might regularly enter into triads. Asari did not. Garrus had been the one to suggest working together when the Council had assigned her to investigate the disappearances of human and turian colonies. Nihlus had thought at first that she wanted Garrus to take Saren’s place as her own third but it wasn’t like that. Garrus was her best friend and they worked well together. They were a team but they were not lovers. Garrus had found Nihlus’ assumption amusing but had assured them both that he did not in any way have a fetish for humans.
Together, they’d discovered the group behind the disappearances. They’d also figured out what they were going to have to do to stop them. She hadn’t yet told Nihlus that the team she was gathering was for the purpose of going beyond the Omega 4 relay. It would only upset him and he might insist on coming along. As much as she’d like to have him there, she wouldn’t commit him unnecessarily to what was likely to be a suicide mission. She and Garrus could handle it. Saren needed Nihlus. The galaxy needed both Saren and Nihlus. The Council actually listened to Saren in a way that they did not listen to either Shepard or Garrus and Nihlus had the charisma to bring the various factions of the galaxy together.
“I suppose you’re right,” Garrus said. “Though, if we don’t make it back from this, it could eliminate the threat to him entirely.”
She considered that for a moment. The idea certainly held merit. And, if they did return and assuming it was the same justicar, she could potentially utilize that connection to explain the situation and call her off. If nothing else, Shepard could kill her herself when the mission was over. She would simply have to keep the asari away from Nihlus. That, she decided, wouldn’t be terribly difficult as he rarely came aboard her ship. She would just have to meet with him off of the Normandy and not allow the justicar access to her apartment.
Having an asari on the team could be beneficial. She had lost a significant amount of biotic power in her team since Liara had remained on Illium chasing the Shadow Broker with whom she’d somehow managed to cross paths and Saren was no longer working with her. Kaidan had been assigned to the colony of Horizon in an attempt to discourage an attack there. Jack was a strong biotic but she was unpredictable and unstable. Mordin, Garrus, Grunt, Kasumi, Zaeed, and Tali were not biotics. This assassin was reported to be one but the information on him was spotty and she didn’t know how powerful drell were. An asari matriarch, on the other hand, was virtually a guarantee.
“Good thinking,” she said. “We’ll get her. But we don’t say a word about Nihlus until we’re sure it isn’t the same one.”
It was the same one. A quick message to Nihlus with the picture of the asari from her dossier confirmed it. Shepard conferred with him on whether or not to add her to the team. It was, after all, his life she’d be endangering by doing so. Nihlus agreed with her that the potential benefits outweighed the risk and so Shepard, Garrus, and the new assassin, Thane, went out in search of her. Detective Anaya seemed earnest, if a bit overwhelmed by the presence of both a team of Spectres and a justicar in her district, and Shepard was grateful to her for inadvertently supplying her with a potential lever to use in order to secure a promise from Samara not to go after Nihlus again should they survive. As frustrating as it was to have to go hunt down information for her, the potential gain was worth it. Besides, it was an opportunity to evaluate the assassin and to kill Eclipse mercs.
“Shepard, there is a turian in the room,” Thane said through the comm after they’d used a drugged volus as a distraction to get into the main room where the information on Samara’s target was being kept.
“Yes, Thane, I’m aware of that,” she said, wondering why he’d chosen to inform her of Garrus’ presence.
“I do not mean Vakarian,” Thane said, sounding vaguely insulted. “There is another turian.”
“Oh. Sorry,” she said. That certainly was worth noting as Eclipse did not employ turians. That meant that there was another player involved here and that changed the situation. They were now dealing with an unknown and had no way of determining his or her loyalty to any given side nor of anticipating his actions. She scanned the room but saw nothing out of place. “Where is he? She?”
“He,” Thane said, “is up on the catwalk in the back room and is moving in our direction. Adult male, white and black armor with the same emblem on the arm as Vakarian’s armor.”
“Are you certain?” she asked. “About the emblem?”
“Yes,” he said. “I can see it clearly through my scope.”
“He’s right,” Garrus said. “It’s another Spectre. Lonar, perhaps?”
“No. Anaya would have said something if it was him,” she said. Lonar Maerun had been mostly inactive since a failed assassination attempt on Lira Spreight, the woman responsible for hiding the Prothean beacon they’d found on Garvug. The Council now sent him only on minor issues they felt needed to be looked into but didn’t call for the extreme care generally required from Spectres. He didn’t seem to realize that he’d outlasted his usefulness. In fact, he was one of the most arrogant turians she’d ever met. He strutted about like a peacock. Pretty, but useless. If Lonar were here, Anaya would have mentioned it. That meant…
“Saren?” she whispered as the unidentified turian brought out a familiar assault rifle. She might not be certain of his identity when in full armor she hadn’t seen before and without him moving but she would recognize that rifle anywhere. It was a modified Phaeston and she had taken it apart and put it back together blindfolded enough times to know it almost as well as her own Black Widow. He vaulted over the railing of the catwalk and landed lightly on a stack of crates before leaping silently down and slipping into cover.
It was him. She had no doubt about that. Her question was, what was he doing here? The last she’d heard, he was chasing down a lead in the Traverse. Illium was on the edge of the Terminus Systems near the Traverse but the Ismar Frontier was still not close enough to imagine their paths would cross. He had to know that she was here and why. He was still in contact with Liara and had been using her in place of the Broker whenever possible since she’d gotten into the information business as he believed that it was unhealthy to rely too heavily on the Shadow Broker.
He wouldn’t have come here for her, though. If he’d wanted to speak with her, he would have done so on the Citadel or would have contacted her directly. He wouldn’t insert himself into one of her missions without alerting her first. That meant that he had not expected her to be in this particular spot at this particular time which meant that they could very well be working at cross purposes. “Hold,” she said to her team. All she needed was the name of the ship that had transported the Ardat-Yakshi. She wouldn’t risk blowing his cover and interfering in whatever his assignment was. She could get the name of the transport when he was finished.
There was a crackle in the comm link and then Saren’s voice was in her ear. “What are you doing here, Shepard?”
“Looking for the name of a ship that transported an Ardat-Yakshi offworld,” she told him, trying to still her racing heart. “What’s your target?”
“The leader,” he told her. “This group is smuggling red sand into Citadel space. The Council sent me to deal with it.”
She said, “Well, in that case, want some help? We were looking forward to killing some mercenaries.”
“Who is the drell?” he asked.
“Thane Krios,” she said. “An assassin. He’s capable.” And wasn’t that an understatement? She was still trying to process the speed with which he’d moved while dealing with Dantius and her mercs.
“You wouldn’t have him if he wasn’t,” Saren said. He paused. “All right.”
Across the room, he leaned out of cover and she heard the familiar burst of his rifle. “Engage,” she told her team. They chose targets without speaking and she marveled at how quickly and how well Thane had integrated into their team. She hadn’t had to give him an order in a fight yet.
The merc leader was tough but she was no match for three Spectres and she knew it. Apparently deciding that Saren was the biggest threat, she focused her attacks on him. Shepard ordered Garrus and Thane to take down the asari’s barrier and exchanged her rifle for her pistol before cloaking and moving across the room. She was a few meters from Saren when the asari began using her biotics to throw crates of the red drug around.
Shepard remembered what the volus, Pitne For, had said about the drug. This wasn’t red sand. This was Minagen X3. It looked indistinguishable from red sand but was toxic to the point of being deadly to its users. Saren didn’t use drugs but he wouldn’t be concerned with exposure to red sand as it would only enhance his biotic abilities. Minagen X3 could kill him and he didn’t know to avoid it. She threw herself between Saren and the crate, holding her breath as it crashed against her, releasing a red cloud into the air. Saren used the distraction she’d created to get in close and finish off the asari while Shepard rolled out of the way into clean air.
“Why did you do that?” Saren demanded when the room was clear. “Red sand will not harm me and I am in no danger of addiction from a single exposure.”
“That wasn’t red sand,” she told him as she moved to the desk and began to search for the datapad the merc leader had been holding before the shooting started.
“She may have just saved your life, Arterius,” Garrus growled at him before Shepard held up a hand to stop him. She didn’t need the two of them at each other’s throats. She was having enough trouble controlling her reaction to being so close to Saren after so long.
“What do you mean?” Saren asked. Thane explained the nature of the drug while Shepard and Garrus searched. She found the datapad and showed it to Thane. He had explained the nature of his memory to her and she had decided that it would be a useful tool. He wouldn’t forget the name of the ship even if she and Garrus did.
With her mission complete, she turned to Saren. Garrus grumbled under his breath but motioned Thane aside with him, leaving the two of them in relative privacy. Shepard looked him up and down, wishing that he would take off the helmet so that she could see his face. She could, however, see his eyes through the window of his visor. She was struck again by how beautiful they were. They were perfect, really. “You have such pretty eyes,” she sighed.
He looked startled but she didn’t care. He was here. She’d missed him and he was here. Like she’d summoned him. She wondered vaguely if she was dreaming. That might explain the red tint to her vision. She laughed to herself as she thought that, for the first time, she was seeing Saren through a rose-colored lens. Though, rose-colored shooting glasses might be more accurate. He scowled at her and she thought it was adorable and told him so. He shook his head and pulled something out of a compartment in his armor. It looked like a cloth. She gave him a curious look as he stepped forward and began to wipe her face with it. That was such a strange thing for him to do that she giggled.
She froze as the sound left her mouth. “Did I just giggle?” she asked him very seriously. “I imagined that, right? Because I’m Commander Shepard, you know. I don’t giggle.”
“You are stoned,” he informed her. “Foolish human. You knew the drug was dangerous and yet you exposed yourself to it anyway.”
“But you didn’t know,” she said. “I couldn’t let my boyfriend’s boyfriend die, now, could I? Nihlus would be verrry upset with me. And I would miss you. I miss you now but I’d miss you a lot more if you were dead. Shit. I need to stop talking.”
“Yes,” he said mildly. “That would be wise.”
She slipped her arms around his neck and attempted to pull his forehead down to hers. He froze and growled a warning. She stepped back, chastened, and said, “Oh, yeah. I forgot. Can I go home now?”
“That would be for the best, I believe. Vakarian, Krios,” Saren called. “Get the commander back to her ship and see that she is treated for Minagen X3 exposure. Your ship’s doctor should know how to treat her.” His voice turned exasperated when Shepard trailed her hand over his helmet. She knew she shouldn’t and that he didn’t want her to but she couldn’t seem to make herself stop touching him. “And make sure she isn’t seen. She is as helpless as a child in this state. Her impulse control is shot. She would likely kiss a krogan at the moment should the notion take her.”
“I don’t want to kiss a krogan,” she informed him. “I want to kiss you. I could die on this mission, you know. We’re ‘boldly going where no man has gone before.’ Into Omega and through the relay to the Collector base we go,” she sang to the tune of a holiday song she’d heard once. It was almost Christmas, after all. “Do you remember Christmas on the Normandy?” she asked. “You let my crew use the Spectre channels to call home. I thought that was really sweet. You’re a marshmallow, Saren Arterius.” With that, she attempted to lean up and kiss him but passed out against his chest instead.
“What did she mean by that ridiculous song?” Saren demanded of Shepard’s companions as he maneuvered her into Vakarian’s waiting arms after she blessedly passed out. Let her new lover take care of her. Spirits knew he himself had lost that right long ago. That didn’t stop him from feeling a sense of dread at the image her nonsensical words had conjured.
“Nothing,” Vakarian said as he shifted her so that her head was resting on his cowl. “She’s high.”
He was lying. Saren could hear it in his subvocals. As a rule, turians did not lie but Saren had long known that Vakarian would do anything to protect her. “What relay did she mean?” Saren asked with thinning patience. “And what was that about the Collector base?”
“You heard her, Spectre,” the drell said. “I should think her meaning would be obvious.”
“She intends to go through the Omega 4 relay,” Saren said as cold dread settled in his gullet. “No one has ever done that and survived.”
“We know,” Vakarian said.
“Has she informed Nihlus of this?” Saren demanded.
“No,” Garrus said. “She thinks that he’ll insist on joining us and she doesn’t want him to die.”
She was right. Nihlus would insist on accompanying them. If she had a mission that she felt was important enough to knowingly walk into her own death, he would feel duty-bound to go along both in order to attempt to protect his mate and to aid her. And if she and Nihlus went, he would find a way to go, too. Then there would be no one left to warn of the Reapers. So, of course, she would simply do it and not tell him. He understood her logic but felt a surge of anger that he tried to believe was solely on Nihlus’ behalf. Saren had no right to expect anything from her. “Was she planning to leave without a word of goodbye to him? To simply disappear without a trace?”
“No,” Garrus said. “She left a letter with Admiral Hackett in case we don’t return.”
“A letter?” Saren repeated. “She would bid him farewell in a letter? Abandon him without allowing him an opportunity to say goodbye? She is his mate!”
“She was yours, too, wasn’t she?” Garrus said with a challenge in his voice. “That didn’t stop you from abandoning her.”
“She was never my mate,” Saren snarled. The dagger had hit far too close to home. “You saw what I did to her. You know precisely why I have left her alone.” He turned before Vakarian could respond and strode from the room.
Back aboard his ship, he set the VI to return him to the Traverse before sinking down on his bed and cradling his head in his hands. Real flesh met synthetic and he jerked the prosthetic away from his head and clenched the fist. The artificial talons dug into his palm and the false limb sent the message to him in a neurological burst that contained no true pain. He could not feel with this arm the way that he could with the one before it and was glad for that fact. In his mind, he could still feel the inexorable pull of the traitorous finger on the trigger. If only he could cut that memory out as easily as he’d cut the offending limb.
He never should have trusted a pair of humans with an operation as delicate as the one to remove the nanites and cybernetics had been. They had retained his vision without having to replace his eyes but had missed enough of the delusive nano-technology that had hidden itself within his body to allow the Reaper to take control of the false arm he’d allowed to be installed on his body. It had attempted to exert its indoctrination over his mind and he had been able to resist its call enough to attempt to warn Shepard but not enough to react in time to stop the part of himself that didn’t belong to him from harming one of the only two things in the galaxy which he truly loved.
He didn’t deserve her forgiveness and he certainly didn’t deserve her care. He knew that he should stay far away from her. He should allow her to move on with her life without any more reminders of him than were absolutely impossible to avoid without severing his relationship with Nihlus in order to do so. He had no business instructing EDI—which was still installed aboard the Normandy at the AI’s request—to forward her mission reports to him along with the Council or continuing to correspond with her or taking missions that were beneath him on the chance that it would allow them to cross paths so that he might catch a glimpse of her and see for himself that she was well.
He was terrified for her. She was going to die very soon. She had to know that her mission would fail. No one had ever gone through the Omega 4 relay and lived to tell the tale. Even he had no idea what was beyond it. The only thing he knew was that the Collectors were able to traverse it where no one else could. Unless…. Shepard was many things, reckless being one of them on occasion, but she was not a fool nor was she suicidal. She would find another way if she were certain that she could not successfully do this. That meant that she had a plan. Her letter for Nihlus told him that she wasn’t sure of its success but she was at least confident enough that she was willing to attempt it. She was going to find out what allowed the Collector ships to move freely through the relay and exploit it.
That realization made him feel less treacherous for deciding to keep her secret from Nihlus. He did not know for certain that she would die. She was a Spectre. Death was a very real possibility for her every day. This simply gave him the foreknowledge that it was more likely than normal at a certain point. He would monitor the Normandy and have EDI send him updates and alert him when the ship went through the relay. That would allow him the chance to clear his schedule in order to be there to support Nihlus should she not return.
She had risked her life for him today. She’d known that he was not aware of the nature of the drug clouding the air and that he would not have hesitated to expose himself to it in order to temporarily bolster his biotics under the impression that it was red sand. Recreational drug use was not strictly forbidden but he chose not to use them of his own volition due to the high standards to which he held himself. Drug addicts were not fit to be Spectres. However, he was not above using the tools at his disposal in a fight. She knew this about him and had put herself at risk in order to prevent him from doing so.
She’d called him her boyfriend’s boyfriend. He winced at the memory. She had placed Nihlus between them again. It was no less than he deserved. He had not shown her any of the commitment he still felt toward her. He should simply be surprised that it had taken her this long to give up on him. And yet, she’d said she missed him. How could she miss him after what he’d done to her? It had to be the drugs talking, making her think that she did. He had killed many people during his career and had mortally wounded almost as many. She was the only one who haunted him. He could still picture her lying in a pool of her own blood, with the bright red fluid covering her teeth and staining her lips like a caricature of a streetwalker’s cosmetics, could hear the gurgling in her lungs as she’d drowned in her own bodily fluids, could see the stunned hurt and betrayal in her eyes as she’d watched him raise the pistol, knowing that she couldn’t move away in time.
He remembered how surprised she’d been when he’d saved her on Virmire rather than leaving her behind. It was ironic that he had done in the end what he’d planned in the beginning and had subsequently decided not to do. He had discarded months of planning and yet had done it anyway. He didn’t know if he was more pained by her ultimate forgiveness or by the acceptance he’d seen in her eyes as she’d fallen. She had never stopped expecting him to betray her.
She’d known all along that he would be the one to turn on her and she had given herself to him anyway. And how she had given herself. When she’d finally let go, she’d done so freely and without reservation. She had allowed him to use his biotics on her, had allowed him to use teeth and talons, had allowed him the use of her body and possession of a piece of herself, knowing that he would be the one to crush it and hoping that she was wrong. And she had accepted it when it became clear that she wasn’t because, as he’d known all along, she didn’t truly believe that he cared.
Nihlus looked at the report in front of him in stunned disbelief. The Omega 4 relay had gone active twenty-eight hours before and, rather than the Collector vessel he would have expected, a frigate had gone through. A frigate bearing an Alliance call-sign and carrying one of his mates and his former protégé. Garrus had gone with Shepard through the Omega 4 relay and neither of them had told him they were going.
To make matters worse, Saren had known about it. That was the only logical explanation for Saren’s abrupt conclusion of his latest assignment and swift return to the Citadel. Saren knew and he didn’t expect her to come back. There was no reason for any of them to expect her to come back. No one came back through the Omega 4 relay but Collectors and she was not on board a Collector ship. She was on the Normandy. The Normandy which, according to his reports, had spent the last two months undergoing upgrades to her weapons, shields, and kinetic barriers. The Normandy which had last been seen docked at Omega.
The datapad slipped from his fingers and clattered on the table as he held his head in his hands and keened mournfully. His hand slid over to trace the bite mark on his shoulder that she had left the last time they were together. He’d marked her a year ago but she’d refused to do so on him, citing the fact that her teeth were not designed to pierce flesh in the way that his were and stating that she didn’t want to hurt him. He knew it went deeper than that and was largely due to his relationship with Saren. She was his but she still did not fully believe that he was hers. She thought that he would someday have to choose between them and she would not be the one he chose.
Shepard was so strong when it came to her duty, to leading her people, to getting the job done at all costs. She did not create or play into the dramas that seemed to occupy so many of her people. She accepted what was freely given and gave her all in return. She was a loyal friend. She was a capable leader. She was absolutely fearless when it came to her life. She had been called hard and cold, ruthless and heartless, brutal and merciless. The Alliance commander, the first human Spectre, the captain of the Normandy was all of those things.
Shepard herself, the woman, was not. She was warm and loving and compassionate. She was haunted by the decisions she’d been forced to make. And she truly believed that she was wanted only for what she could do rather than who she was and that she was disposable. He had long ago recognized that his mother had sent him away to improve his station in life but he’d once thought it was because she did not want him. He understood that pain. Shepard lived with it every day. He’d seen her files. He knew about her relationship with her own mother. Hannah Shepard hadn’t spoken to her daughter since Shepard had told her what she’d done on Torfan. The one person who was supposed to be all but obligated to love her unconditionally and care for her no matter what she did had discarded her because she’d acted in a way that the woman couldn’t understand. If her own mother could not love her, then who could?
Of course she would doubt Nihlus’ devotion to her, especially when combined with the way that human relationships worked. When there were three involved, it was all but inevitable that one would eventually have to choose between the other two. It was the source of conflict in a large part of their fiction and entertainment. She had been told all of her life that the default was two and that anything else would result in one of the parties being rejected. Given that he and Saren had a relationship that predated her, that they were of the same species, that they had been friends for over a decade, she would automatically assume that she would be the one to go when the time came even if she didn’t doubt his love for her. She didn’t realize that he could no more choose between them than he could choose which hand to cut off.
He wondered how much of that had played into her decision to go through the relay without telling him. Had she simply assumed that what they had came with an expiration date and chosen to remove herself before he could send her away? Had she thought that he could be happy without her because he had Saren? Why? Why had she left him without so much as a word or a chance to say goodbye or a chance to make his own choice about his fate and at least try to help give her a better chance of coming home? This, at least, explained the last time that they had been together.
The door opened and Nihlus looked up to see Shepard walk through it, clad in nothing but a short black robe and the glare of neon coming through the windows. She placed a finger to her lips and tugged at the satiny belt that was the only thing keeping her covered. The fabric fell away, revealing a line of pale skin stretched over toned muscle that shifted and played as she walked. Her hips swayed invitingly and she came to sit across his lap.
“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” he said, sliding his hands between the fabric and her skin to smooth them over her waist and hips. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Consider it a going-away gift,” she said with a quirk of her lips. “We ship out again tomorrow.”
“If this is how you’re going to start saying goodbye, I’m going to ask the Council to start sending you out more often,” he said with a grin. “On short runs, of course. Am I to assume that this is not going to be a short run?”
“No,” she answered. “I don’t think it is. In fact…I’m not entirely sure when I’ll be able to get back.” She ran her hands over his shoulders and said in a lighter tone, “So, Spectre Kryik, I was thinking that we should…stock up on some things to remember each other by when I’m gone.”
When I’m gone, she’d said. When, not while. It rang with finality now in a way that it hadn’t at the time because his attention then had been on the flare of her hips and the seductive tone of her voice as she’d slipped her fingers into the gaps between his plates.
“That sounds like a fantastic idea,” he said, leaning his head forward to nip lightly at the bond mark she’d allowed him to place on his birthday the year before. She’d said that she was his birthday present. Turians didn’t commemorate their dates of birth in the way that humans did. For a turian, it was a day on which they marked another year but the recognition was for the mother as she was the one who’d worked and suffered to give them life. He’d understood the human tradition and its significance, though.
“I suspected that you would appreciate it,” she said, tilting her head to the side and letting out a sigh before rising and leading him into the bedroom.
She took control then, pushing him back onto the bed and ordering him not to move. She crawled up his body, trailing her soft tongue along the sensitive parts of his hide, and kissed him deeply. There was an urgency there that surprised him but it was the tenderness that truly took his breath away. She touched him like…
Like it was the last time, he realized. Like she was trying to memorize him. Like she was drawing a map of him in her mind that she expected to take with her into her final moments, to call upon when her own strength of will faltered and the fear of imminent death threatened to undo her. She was forming an image to hold in her mind while she was dying because she’d known that she was not going to come back to him. She was also giving him a memory, an image of herself to call upon in the dark, lonely nights to come.
Shepard rose over him in the darkened room, the splash of light through the window dappling her skin and accentuating the peaks and valleys of her beautiful alien body. She drew him into her slowly, for once not engulfing him in a rush of heat and passion. She savored and drew out that moment when they first joined their bodies, fitting forms that had never been designed to come together but somehow fit anyway. Her hands were gentle on his waist as she used her knowledge of his body to play him like that stringed instrument she loved so much.
He brought his hands up to cover her hips, noting yet again that they were large enough—or she was small enough in comparison to him—for him to almost completely encircle her waist. When she took him in fully, he could feel himself from the outside when he ran his hand over her belly and he marveled at her body’s ability to accommodate him. She loved it when he filled her and he loved the sensation of being so deep inside of her that he couldn’t tell where he ended and she began.
When he was gasping for air and all but begging her to speed her pace, to take him harder, deeper, faster, to send them both over the edge they rode together, she leaned forward and placed her teeth against the shoulder that did not bear Saren’s mark. He clasped the back of her head, holding her to him, as he said, “Please, Shepard.” She’d dug her fingers into the hide alongside his spine ridge, activating the nerve clusters that told him without words that he was safe with her, that he could trust her, that she would be there for him.
He moaned and thrust up into her as her blunt teeth locked onto his flesh. There was pain. He’d known there would be pain. He didn’t care. He was a Spectre. He was used to pain. This one, though, meant that she was claiming him as she’d given herself to him already. This was the completion of the bond, the sign to those who knew to look that he belonged to her. It meant that his part in their triad was sealed. He was unavailable, mated, whole. She pierced the hide and soothed the wound with her tongue as he poured himself into her and, for the first time, locked.
She hadn’t expected that and he realized too late that he hadn’t warned her. She didn’t seem to be upset by it. Instead, her nails raked along his neck and she bit down again, harder this time, as she moaned into his shoulder. He’d moved as fully as he could within her, stretching her around him without breaking free of her body, and she’d all but screamed his name as she convulsed around him.
When they were finished, she nuzzled the side of his neck and whispered, “I love you, Nihlus Kryik. I will always love you. Don’t you dare forget it.”
Never. He would never forget it. He would never forget her. He would never stop loving her. No one could take her place. The second slot in his heart and his life that was hers would remain unfilled for the rest of his days. Turians mated for life. The death of the other partner did not sever the bond. Only his own death would do that for him. He would love her until the day he died. Knowing that he would go through the rest of those days without her left a void inside of him that had him fighting to drag air into his lungs. Shepard was gone. She was gone.
He heard a scrape behind him, an announcement of a presence, and then Saren’s teeth closed gently over the back of his neck. Some of the pressure in his chest eased and he allowed himself to be drawn back into his other lover’s arms. Saren rumbled soothingly as he stroked the top of his fringe and there was grief in his subvocals, too. Nihlus realized that, despite the distance Saren had put up between himself and Shepard, he was not grieving alone. “Why?” he asked. “Why did she tell you but not me?”
Saren loosened the grip on his neck, turning Nihlus to face him and pressing their foreheads together. “She didn’t intend to tell me,” he said. “She was drugged.”
“Drugged?” Nihlus asked. “How?”
Saren had mentioned seeing her on Illium but had been stingy with the details and Nihlus hadn’t pushed. He listened now as Saren related running into her, Shepard throwing herself between Saren and the potentially lethal drug, and the conversation that followed. He winced as Saren told him that she’d known that he would try to follow. At least, he thought, she knew I love her that much. Aloud, he said, “She did, you know. Miss you. She wouldn’t say it, but she loved you. She never blamed you.”
“I know. Spirits, I was such a fool,” Saren said in a tone that did not hold back the depth of his anguish. Nihlus wrapped his arms around him and he and Saren held each other tightly, mourning together. “I cannot even honestly call her mine. I did, though. ‘My human student’ became simply ‘my human.’ It made it easier to accept what she was. I never made it true, though, and now…I am a fool.”
Multiple POVs here. I did my best to keep it clear who's narrating.
Shepard fought to stay upright as the lift rose to her floor. She wanted the peace of her apartment. She wanted the soothing warmth of her hot tub. She wanted Nihlus. She wanted Saren and Nihlus but would be happy to simply see Nihlus and to feel his arms around her. She needed him to help her forget. She’d managed to save her crew—including Kaidan who’d somehow managed to get taken on Horizon without her knowledge, keep her team alive, and destroy the Collector base with its myriad abominations. In addition, she'd secured a vow from Samara to leave Nihlus alone unless she saw him commit another violation of her Code. Since that was unlikely to happen, Shepard counted it as a win.
That did not, however, save her from watching the colonist Kaidan had identified as Lilith dissolve in that pod. It didn’t take away the scent of liquefied humans and turians that she was almost certain still clung to her hair. It didn’t take away the sight of row after row of pods lining every available surface or the horror she’d felt upon discovering that those people had been liquesced and combined together to form something that was neither human nor turian but entirely Reaper. She had a feeling that she would be seeing it in her nightmares for the rest of her life.
The lift stopped and she cast a longing look at the red-locked door of Saren’s apartment. It was always red, always locked. Nihlus’ biometrics were keyed to the lock. Hers weren’t. It remained closed against her. She turned away from it. Nihlus’ was likewise locked but that meant nothing. He’d made sure that she could come and go as she pleased. She passed her hand across the panel and it instantly turned to green. The door slid open and she dragged herself into the familiar entryway.
His apartment was set up with almost the same floor plan as hers but that was where the similarity ended. His furniture—aside from the couch he’d acquired to sit with her, a barstool, and a chair at the dining table—was designed for turians. The proportions were off, the angles uncomfortable, the design foreign. It didn’t matter to her. He’d made a place for her within his space as she had done for him. Where her apartment had been artistically designed by some unknown decorator with more budget than sense and felt more like a gallery than a home, his was truly artful and homey.
Large photographs of different worlds graced the walls and strange pots and pans hung from a rack over the kitchen island. She knew that there were weapons hidden in every room—though, according to him, not as many as she or Saren had—and where each of them was. The floor was marred by nicks from the talons on his feet, the ultimate sign that this was a space in which he allowed himself to truly relax. Her own floor had similar markings for the same reason.
He was not in the living area or in the kitchen. She was wondering if he was home at all when she heard a gasp and turned to see him bounding down the stairs, taking them three and four at a time before running across the room to her. He skidded to a halt and she said with a weak smile, “Honey, I’m home.”
She knew that he knew when he dropped to his knees and buried his face between her neck and shoulder. His arms wrapped around her and she flinched and reached back to rearrange them. Dr. Chakwas had treated the burns from the Collectors’ particle beam guns but they hadn’t yet healed. He let her move them and then released a sound that she’d never heard from him as his entire body began to shake almost violently.
“Hush,” she said softly. “Hush, sweetheart. I’m here. I’m back.” She bent over, ignoring the pain in her back, and tilted his head to the side so that she could get past his fringe and locked her teeth over his spine as she did her best to mimic the soothing tones he made when he did it to her. I’m here. I’ve got you. You’re safe.
“I thought you were dead,” he said in a hoarse voice.
“It was close,” she admitted, thinking of the moment when she’d hung suspended in the air, knowing she hadn’t had enough power in her jump and that the Normandy was too far before Garrus and Tali had caught her and pulled her in. “But, like I told you, heaven doesn’t want me and hell won’t take me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.
“I didn’t want to lose you, too,” she said. “And Saren needs you.”
“And you don’t?” he said, looking up at her with his emerald eyes flashing.
“Of course, I do,” she said, stroking his mandible. “You know I do. But I needed you to live with him more than I needed you to die with me. I wasn’t alone. Garrus and Tali were with me every step of the way. I had my crew. This is what we do, Nihlus, and you know it. We go and risk our lives alone or with other people because we have capabilities that others don’t and a responsibility to use those to protect our galaxy. The Collectors were working for the Reapers. We struck a blow to them. That’s worth dying for.”
He stood and framed her face in his hands. “Shepard, I know that. I just…wish you’d told me. We’re mates. We’re supposed to support each other. You didn’t let me do that for you.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not very good at this whole partner thing.”
He pressed his forehead to hers as the door opened behind them. She reached for her pistol as she began to turn and heard, “Nihlus! The Normandy is in dock. She looks bad. Have you heard from…Shepard! Spirits! You made it.”
“Saren,” she said as Nihlus’ arms tightened around her waist.
There was a look in Saren’s eyes that she didn’t understand and she heard his subvocals rumbling but didn’t know how to translate them. Nihlus held her in place as Saren crossed the room in three quick strides and then his mouth was on hers and he was pressing her back into Nihlus’ chest. She hissed in a breath but when he would have pulled away, she threw her arms around him and held him close. She didn’t care that he only wanted her body. She didn’t care that Nihlus’ plates were scraping her back through the fabric of her shirt. She didn’t care that she felt like she barely had the strength to hold herself up. Saren was here and his hands were on her waist and his tongue was in her mouth.
He swept her up into his arms and she heard Nihlus laugh as Saren’s long gait carried them across the room and up the stairs. She looped her legs around his waist, using his hips for leverage, and began popping the seals on his armor. The pieces fell forgotten to the floor, creating a trail into the bedroom and then she, Saren, and Nihlus were tumbling to the bed together. Nihlus took over the removal of Saren’s armor as she stroked Saren’s fringe and he stripped her clothing off, taking the efficient route of simply using his talons to part the fabric.
“You’re alive,” he breathed into her hair as his tongue glided up her throat. “You came back.”
She was on fire. Her body was burning and heavy and his hands left trails of flame as his talons stroked her skin. She neither wanted nor needed a long buildup or a slow burn. She wanted this conflagration that would sear the images from her mind at least for a time. She wanted to forget everything but these two men she loved so deeply. She scraped her nails over the spot below his fringe before circling his amp ports as she stroked his waist and fringe. He snarled into her throat as he slid out, hot and hard and heavy between her legs.
Shepard cried out below him as Saren pushed into her. He couldn’t wait. He could only hope that she was prepared enough and that his own natural lubrication would ease his entry into her. Every instinct he possessed was demanding that he join with her, that he reestablish his connection with her, the mate he’d thought he’d lost. He didn’t know what was between them. He only knew that she had claimed a piece of him as surely as she’d claimed Nihlus. He didn’t deserve her and he didn’t have a right to her but he was selfish enough to take what she would give before she changed her mind.
She was hot and tight around him and her breathless voice calling his name stripped away the layers of control. He had just enough presence of mind to register the raised marks along her back and avoid them so that he did not hurt her. His teeth scraped over her skin and something inside of him demanded that he bite down, mark her, claim her. He fought the urge even as he skated the line, refusing to cross that boundary while riding along it.
He had almost killed her. She still bore the scars on her chest from his rounds. He had marked her in a way he could not forgive even if she had. He wouldn’t disrespect her by removing her opportunity to find someone who would do the right thing for her. He wouldn’t take away her ability to be with Vakarian who, as she herself had said, had been with her every step of the way. He would, however, take this last chance to be with her.
Her nails scraped over his neck and between his plates as she bit down on his collar. His talons buried themselves in her hips as he seated himself fully into her, feeling her stretch and conform to him like she was made solely to hold his body inside of hers. His subvocals began to fray and then Nihlus’ hands were on him and on Shepard as he, too, reached the end of his patience. She turned her head to kiss Nihlus and the sight of his lovers together around him again was wholly intoxicating. He scraped his talons over Nihlus’ back, not needing to worry about causing injury with him as he did with Shepard and began to pound hard into her as need coiled within him.
She tightened around him and cried out, “Oh, gods, Saren, please!” He brought a hand down to stroke the bundle of nerves that drove her wild and she tightened like the string of the bow for her violin and clenched tightly around him. Her voice dropped to a breathless whisper and he heard her say, “I love you, Saren.”
What little control he had left snapped. He was going to hurt her. Again. He tore away from her and tackled Nihlus, pinning him to the bed as he buried his talons in his hips. Nihlus gasped and pushed back into him, taking him in deep, understanding from his subvocals that he was too far gone for caution or restraint. His eyes caught on the pale ring of flat teeth marks opposite his own bond mark and the mental image of Shepard burying her blunt teeth into Nihlus’ flesh inflamed him further. He was suddenly obsessed with the mark, envying his lover its meaning and its presence, and he licked it before scraping his teeth over it. Nihlus growled a warning he didn’t need. He didn’t want to cover it. He wanted to consume it.
Shepard watched the two turians on the bed beside her with a kind of stunned confusion. One moment, Saren had been deep inside of her, focused on her with a kind of intensity that he generally reserved for people who were about to die by his hand, driving her into an orgasm strong enough to strip her of her reason and her reservations. Then her mouth had overrun her mind and he’d torn himself away from her like she’d burned him and pounced on Nihlus. She felt like she’d broken their silent agreement that it was just sex, nothing more, and now he was showing her where his true passion lay.
She had ceased to exist for them and, as she watched, Saren’s teeth flashed and his mouth covered her bond mark on Nihlus’ shoulder. He didn’t bite down but the message was clear enough. He could, if he wanted, remove her from the picture. Suddenly, he turned his head and buried his teeth in Nihlus’ opposite shoulder. Nihlus talons raked hard over the hide of the back of Saren’s neck, drawing blood, as they crashed into each other. She felt like she was seeing for the first time the true extent of what they had together. This was violent, passionate, raw, and it was exactly what she wanted but could not have with them.
She felt like she was intruding. There was no place for her here among flashing teeth and slashing talons and her presence was forgotten if not unwelcome. The sounds coming from them were unmistakable. She recognized the tone that Nihlus used when wordlessly expressing his emotions for her. This was harsher, louder, but it was the same. And Saren echoed it in a way that he never had with her. She’d told him she loved him and he had turned to Nihlus and returned it to him instead.
She slipped from the bed unnoticed and gathered the tattered remains of her clothing before discarding them again. No one else lived on this floor and they’d ensured that there were no cameras but their own in the hallway. If either of them noticed her leaving the room, they didn’t comment. She went to the balcony and leaned over it, watching the flash of the skycars zooming outside the window as she debated what to do. There was something going on in the bedroom behind her that she didn’t fully understand but it was clear enough that she was not a part of it.
She would go, give them space to work out whatever it was that they were working out. If Saren was claiming his territory, she would let him do it. She’d always known that she was the odd one out in their relationship. In the future, she would simply stay out of Saren’s way. Nihlus made a point of making time for her and she’d never felt like he gave her Saren’s castoffs. Saren was gone so often that it was likely that she and Nihlus had seen each other since they had. Nihlus knew that she was alive. He knew where to find her. He would come to her later and they would continue their reunion.
With that decided, she pushed off of the railing and made her way down the stairs. Without the drugged high of endorphins and desire driving her, exhaustion claimed her once more. She would go home, soak in her hot tub, have a drink, and sleep while she waited for Nihlus. Saren would leave the Citadel soon. She had just completed a major mission. The Normandy needed repairs and would be in dry dock for a few weeks. Both she and her crew had earned some real R&R. Neither the Alliance nor the Council would object to her taking some leave before returning to the fray. Nihlus could catch her up on their progress and then she’d go out and join them again. Perhaps she could even convince him to come back onto the Normandy for a while.
Her VI greeted her as she entered her apartment and informed her that she had new messages. She disregarded the alert and wearily climbed the stairs. She slipped gratefully into the bubbling hot tub and let out a deep sigh as the water washed over her, drawing the tension from her muscles. Her head fell back against the edge and she closed her eyes. Images flashed against her lids of the desperate race to open the vents before Legion got overheated and deactivated, the cavernous room full of pods, Lilith dissolving before her eyes, her stolen crew stumbling out of the pods, Kaidan’s golden eyes looking at her in relief and confusion. She heard Jack begging her to hurry as she, Garrus, and Tali fought their way through the Collectors and their minions as the seekers slammed against the biotic barrier in dark clouds.
She saw the faces of her crew, exhausted but game, as she rallied them for the final fight and heard Garrus’ gasp of horror as the Reaper creature came into view. She saw him fall and felt herself racing down the collapsing platform after him, determined not to lose her best friend after everything they’d been through together. She saw in his eyes the months of training together, all of the times they’d pulled each other’s asses out of the fire, and the utter certainty that she wouldn’t let him fall this time, either. There had been horror after horror but there had been moments as well where she’d known with absolute conviction that this was what she was born for, this was exactly where she needed to be, and that her crew had followed her into hell with unwavering faith that she would lead them back out again.
It had been life-changing. She hadn’t realized that she could inspire that kind of loyalty. She was a leader in her own right and she felt that she had come into her own on the other side of the Omega 4 relay. Nihlus loved her. Her crew loved her. So, Saren didn’t. She could live with that. She would share Nihlus with him because it made Nihlus happy. But she would be damned if she let Saren take him from her. She might be the third member of Nihlus’ triad but she was just as much a part of it as Saren. She wouldn’t let him shove her out. She wouldn’t let him make her feel unwelcome. She should have put herself back in there, Saren’s wishes be damned, and staked her claim. She didn’t go where she wasn’t wanted and Saren didn’t want her but she knew that Nihlus did. She wouldn’t walk away from him again.
Nihlus reached out for Shepard as Saren pounded into his ass and he pushed back to meet his thrusts. Spirits, he loved being filled like this. He loved the thrum of Saren’s subvocals as they went haywire in his ear. He loved the clash and scrape of their plates. He loved the way Saren’s teeth lodged themselves in the muscle of his shoulder, claiming and holding him in place. The only thing that could make it better would be to have Shepard under him, enveloping him in her wet heat, gasping his name as he felt her skin give around his own teeth and her legs lock around him to encircle both him and Saren. He wanted to see Saren’s hands on her alongside his own.
He was momentarily distracted from his search when Saren rolled his hips and snarled above him, setting off waves of pleasure inside of him as Saren’s hot fluids shot into his ass and his own poured out onto the bed. It had been so long since Saren had truly let go with him and he’d needed it almost as much as Shepard had. He reached for her again, expecting to feel her hand entwine with his, and met only fabric. He turned his head to look and saw that the bed was empty.
“Where’s Shepard?” he asked.
Saren lifted his head from Nihlus’ shoulder and looked around the room. “I don’t know.”
“She didn’t leave, did she?” Nihlus asked, pushing up onto his elbows.
Saren stilled and cocked his head. “I don’t hear her downstairs.”
“Fuck!” Nihlus snarled. “She left. Of course she left. We forgot she existed.” They had always been so careful in the past to make sure that she was included but this time, Saren had lost control and Nihlus had been swept away in it. He groaned, imagining what she’d thought she’d seen.
“Why would she leave?” Saren asked. “Even if we were momentarily…preoccupied, that did not mean that she could not join in.”
“You bit her bond mark,” Nihlus said. “Even I thought for a second there that you were going to bite down. She’s a human who’s still trying to understand turian ways. To her, that probably looked like a territorial display. And I let you do it. She thought you were pushing her out.”
“Why would I do that?” Saren asked, sounding genuinely confused. “Even if I cared nothing for her, I would not disrespect your choice by doing so.”
Nihlus sighed. Saren still didn’t get it. He rolled onto his back and said, “She thinks you only want to fuck her. She thinks you despise her otherwise and resent her presence in our relationship. Humans don’t mate for life the way we do, Saren. If a human husband spent over a year avoiding his wife, refusing to see her, deliberately rearranging his schedule to keep him away from her, and yet was consistently available for another, the marriage would be considered over. In her mind, you left her. Long absences don’t mean as much to us as they would to her because we view the relationship in terms of a lifetime rather than individual years. She doesn’t. And she has no reason to think that there’s anything left there or that you view her as anything more than my other lover because you never marked her. You never told her how you feel about her. Your stubborn pride wouldn’t allow you to go to her and simply tell her what you feel.”
Saren leapt off of the bed and began to pace. He stopped and faced Nihlus with a torn expression before shouting, “I tried to kill her, Nihlus! She still bears the scars from that day! It doesn’t matter what I feel. I have no right to her!”
“Is that what you think?” Nihlus demanded, pushing up onto his elbows. “You think you’re being noble or selfless by breaking her damn heart? Show her some damn respect! She’s an adult, a soldier, and she’s damn well strong enough and smart enough to make up her own mind! What you have no right to do is to make the decision for her! Spirits, for someone as intelligent as you are, you are the most dense, idiotic, foolish man I know. Get out of my way. I need to go talk to her, see if I can put the pieces you broke back together. Again. I’m getting sick and damn tired of cleaning up your mess, Saren.”
Saren stopped him before he could push past him through the door. “No. You’re right. I’ll talk to her.”
Nihlus glared at him. “Fix this, Saren. And I swear on Palaven that if you hurt her again, I’ll beat you bloody.”
Shepard stood in front of the window overlooking the bright lights of the Strip. The resolve she’d found in the bath had wavered when she’d stood and seen the marks of Saren’s talons on her hips. Gods, she’d been so happy to see him. Feeling his arms come around her, feeling him slide into her, had felt more like coming home than walking into her own apartment. She missed him. She didn’t just miss having sex with him, though that was part of it. She missed talking to him, brainstorming with him, working and fighting and living alongside of him. She missed having him on her ship. She missed being able to turn to him and see the light in his eyes that told her he was thinking along the same lines that she was.
It had hurt when he’d turned away from her the day he’d made her a Spectre. She’d waited in the hospital for him to come to her and he hadn’t. She’d wanted nothing more than to push herself out of her wheelchair and throw herself into his arms when she’d finally seen him again. He’d looked at her and then through her. His tone had been cold, distant, professional. It had been as if everything that had happened between them had meant nothing to him and they were back at square one. And then he’d left and she hadn’t seen him again until Illium. It had hurt when the drugs had lowered her inhibitions enough to allow her to admit to missing him and he’d responded with annoyance. She’d woken up the following morning alone in her cold bed aboard the Normandy, wondering where he was and wishing he was there beside her, remembering the night on the planet so long before that had ended so differently.
Somewhere along the way, she’d fallen madly in love with Saren Arterius. What a fool she’d been. Saren loved no one but himself and Nihlus. She’d been an amusement for him, an anomaly to explore, nothing more. She’d known even as she’d given her heart to him that he was going to destroy it and she’d been stupid enough to give it to him anyway. Why couldn’t she have been content with Nihlus? She loved him just as much and had no doubts that she was loved in return. Knowing how their relationships worked, she could have continued to share him with Saren without attempting to insert herself into what the two of them had. Saren had been willing to share as well or he’d have run her off before she’d gotten involved with Nihlus in the beginning.
It was only when she’d tried to connect with him that things had fallen apart and why wouldn’t they? Saren hated humans. It was naïve and ridiculous of her to think that he would get over three decades of hatred for her species simply because they worked well together and he felt a little bit of desire for her. A turian most likely could have taken that third arm of the triad. A human could not. She was meant to be a point on the V and nothing more. If she had simply done what she did best and followed her head rather than her heart, she would have realized that and never tried.
The door opened behind her and she clinked the ice together in her glass before saying, “I’m sorry I left like that. I just couldn’t…” She stopped as the reflection in the window became clear and she realized that it was not Nihlus behind her. “What do you want?”
“We need to talk, Shepard,” he said.
The words sent blades spearing into her heart. She knew it was over. It had been over for a long time. That didn’t mean that she wanted to hear him say it. Her hand tightened on the glass until cracks formed and it shattered in her grasp. She ignored the burning in her hand, straightened her head, and said, “So talk.” The words tried to catch behind the searing knot lodged in her throat and she had to force them past.
“Spirits, Shepard,” he said and she heard him cross the room to her. When he would have taken her bleeding hand in his, she jerked it out of his grasp.
“It’s nothing,” she said and flexed her palm open. The skin weave was already working, pushing out the intruders, and the motion gave them the final push they needed to fall to the floor in crimson shards. The skin began to close. “Burns are the only thing that still take time to heal. Talk,” she said again. “Just get it over with.”
“I’m sorry, Shepard,” he whispered and she stiffened as his arms came around her from behind. She bit her lip and tried to swallow the lump that was threatening to choke her now. “I’m so sorry.”
“For what?” she ground out.
“I never meant to hurt you,” he said. “Seeing you like that, broken and bleeding, dying…it was my fault. I wasn’t strong enough and you paid the price for my weakness.”
She sighed. “Saren, I forgave you for that a long time ago. It wasn’t you. It was the Reaper. You tried to warn me. I remember looking up and seeing you with your arm gone, your shoulder burned, and blood coming from your nose. You did everything you could and you beat it. What more did you expect?”
“You don’t understand, Shepard,” he said in an exasperated tone. “I have a duty to protect you. I failed you.”
“So you decided to make it better by cutting me out?” she asked. “Pushing me away like I’d done something wrong? Don’t twist the truth. I know you don’t…care about me the way you do about Nihlus. You never have. You don’t have to pretend you did.”
“You’re wrong, Shepard,” he said, turning her to face him. She couldn’t look at him without cracking so she stared instead at his collar. She winced when his forehead met hers. “I love you. I have loved you for so long. Long before you came to Nihlus and me on Illium. I love you still.”
She glanced up at him warily. “What’s your game here, Saren?” she asked.
“No game,” he said. “I love you and I am so sorry, not only for harming you but for hurting you. I thought I was doing the right thing by stepping aside and allowing Vakarian to take my place. He is far better suited to you and completely devoted to you. You deserve that, not someone more than a decade your senior who still harbors ill-will toward your species. Nihlus is the only thing I have ever loved that I have not destroyed. I don’t want to destroy you, Shepard.”
She searched his eyes and found an openness and vulnerability there that she had never seen before. She reminded herself that Saren did not lie. He would twist the truth but he would not lie. He meant what he was saying. “Garrus and I aren't together. What do you want from me?” she asked.
“Everything,” he said. “I want a true triad and I want you to be a part of it. An intrinsic piece, not an add-on that can be installed and removed at will. You are not interchangeable, Shepard, and you are not replaceable. We are lost without you. I am lost without you. I need you just as much as I need Nihlus. You complete us.”
“I miss you,” she whispered.
“And I, you,” he said. “Spirits, how I have missed you.” He tilted her face up and trailed his lips across it, brushing over her cheekbones, nose, and chin before nipping carefully at her jaw and pressing his mouth to hers. “I love you, Shepard,” he said again. “I will tell you as many times as I must until you believe it.”
“I love you, too, Saren,” she said hesitantly. He groaned and pulled her tighter to him.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said. “You take me to the edge of my control and over and I don’t know if I can hold back. That is why I turned to Nihlus. He can take it.”
“I won’t break, Saren,” she assured him. “And I trust you not to rip out my throat.”
His mandible twitched in what could have been amusement. “That would certainly put a damper on things.”
She framed his face in her hands, stroking her thumbs over the fringe on his cheeks. “You have to talk to me, Saren. You can’t just run. We’re both bad about that. We’ll walk away before risking getting hurt. It has to stop. We have to be able to trust that the other is willing to fight for us. We can’t use Nihlus as a buffer. It isn’t fair to him or to us to keep him in the middle. I’m not turian, Saren. There are lines that you can’t cross and just waltz back over whenever you feel like it and know that I’m still going to be standing there. Humans choose to continue to love their partner even when things get hard and we don’t feel it. I will choose to keep loving you for the rest of my life unless you walk away again. You can’t leave me for years and come back when you’re in the mood. You stay. You fight. You go toe-to-toe with me if it’s necessary.”
“You must do the same,” he said. “Stop assuming that you understand things and leaving without first confirming your theory. If we do not want you, we are both confident enough to tell you that. If we have not stated clearly that we do not want you around, then we want you there even if we may not be focusing on you at the time. We each get lost in one of the others from time to time and that is normal. There are four relationships here. There are Nihlus and me, Nihlus and you, you and me, and you, Nihlus, and me. Each of those relationships must be nurtured. If two of us wish to be alone, we will say so. You cannot assume that your part is finished because the focus shifts any more than he or I do when it temporarily shifts from us. We understand that you are not accustomed to this and will do our best to accommodate but you must be confident in your place. If you feel left out and we have not told you that we wish to be alone, insert yourself. We will make room for you. Why do you feel that you are capable of loving us both and yet we are not capable of doing the same for you?”
When she dropped her eyes, he said, “It is because of your mother, is it not? Shepard, there are some things that transcend species and a parent’s duty to their children is one of them. It had to be painful for your mother to walk away like that. It is character that makes a parent stay with their family. When a parent walks out, the flaw is not found in the child. The flaw is in the character of the parent. You are not undeserving of love because your mother cannot see your worth.”
His hands were surprisingly gentle as they wiped the moisture from her cheeks. She pressed her face to his chest as the knot inside of her unraveled and she fell apart in his arms. It was not strange that it would be Saren who saw her so clearly and was able to reach into her and draw out the thing that hurt her the most. It was, however, strange that he would be the one to know exactly what to say to begin mending the pieces.
Another pair of arms surrounded her and Nihlus, whom she hadn’t heard come in, nuzzled her jaw. Saren turned her to face Nihlus and moved her hair aside. She felt his breath bathe her skin and then his teeth closed over the back of her neck. Nihlus crooned, “It’s all right, Shepard. Let go. We’ve got you.”
They carried her up to her bedroom and quietly undressed her before reaching around her to undress each other. She felt drained, empty, and strangely at peace. Nihlus climbed onto the bed and sat with his back to the wall. Saren laid her back into his embrace and Nihlus’ hands stroked her sides as Saren’s tongue ran across her neck. “Everything, Shepard,” he whispered. “The good and the bad. I want it all.”
“Don’t run away again, Shepard,” Nihlus said. “We’ll just come after you. Even you can’t evade the two most highly decorated Spectres in the galaxy.”
Saren’s hands roamed over her body, unerringly finding the places that made her gasp and sigh, driving her up until she was arching into his touch. Her hand came around to the back of his neck and the look she gave him was both challenge and request. He nodded slightly and she pressed her fingers into the muscles lining his spine. He shuddered hard as his eyes closed and he drove into her. Rather than beginning to move, he simply held their bodies together and pressed his lips to her shoulder. When she turned her head and pressed her own to his neck, he stiffened and she realized that she was on his throat. She started to pull away but he caught her and held her there. Experimentally, she drew her tongue across the soft hide and he moaned. “This is not…” he gasped and then devolved into pure subvocals.
“He wants you to understand what you’re doing,” Nihlus said into her ear. “When the head is tilted back, allowing full access, it’s a sign of submission. This is not that but for a dominant turian to allow any contact with the front of his throat at all is absolute trust. It’s the most vulnerable part of our body. There are no plates and the skin there is thin. Even with your teeth, you could easily rip his throat out. Protecting it is instinct and it takes conscious thought to allow another to go there. That’s why turians generally fuck from behind. He doesn’t even allow it with me very often and it is always a deliberate statement made when there is distance between us he wants to close.”
“Use your teeth,” Saren said huskily. “Gently.”
She scraped her teeth lightly across his skin, making contact but just barely. She felt both of his larynxes vibrate under her lips as he groaned loudly. She knew surrender when she saw it. Somehow, he managed to convey complete and utter surrender to her without submission and it told her more clearly than any words could say what she meant to him and what he wanted to be to her. His teeth scraped over her shoulder. “Mark me,” she said softly against his throat.
“Not yet,” he said and she ignored the pang of disappointment and waited for his explanation. He gave it freely. “It didn’t hurt when Nihlus marked you because I am certain he had you almost out of your mind with desire. You are not now. Bond marks are not normal bites. They are deeper in order to make a lasting mark. I don’t want to hurt you. Rest assured, however, that by the time we leave this bed, the galaxy will know that we belong to each other.”
With that, he began to move inside of her. Nihlus’ hands were on both of them and she soon found herself in the midst of a tangle of limbs and tongues and roving hands. She did not need to divide her attention between them as they were both an intrinsic part of what they were doing together. She felt Nihlus’ plates shift and he slid out behind her with a groan as she stroked the underside of his fringe. She gasped when he pressed up against her and Saren stilled and said, “Let us take you together.”
Her head fell back against Nihlus’ collar and she forced her body to relax. When she nodded, he rolled his hips, nudging into her in a slow, controlled slide. Saren licked and nipped at her throat, accepting her own surrender, as his thumb traced circles around her clit and he moved in a way that massaged Nihlus into her through the wall that separated them. Nihlus was thick and they had never done this before but he knew exactly what he was doing and how to read her. He and Saren worked well together and they applied their teamwork skills to drawing increasingly rapid cries from her.
She felt more filled than she’d ever been and she could feel them stroking against each other and her inside of her. She clung helplessly to them as they worked together to drive her up and, when she was begging them for release, she felt their teeth on each of her shoulders. Saren swiped his thumb directly over her clit and she writhed at the contact. As one, they bit down hard and she shattered between them.
When she caught her breath again, Nihlus drew out of her and moved so that he was behind Saren. She felt Saren sink deeper into her as Nihlus entered him and Saren paused in licking the blood from her shoulder. His talons dug into her thighs and his vocalizations broke when she closed her own teeth over his exposed shoulder and he whispered, “Please.”
Shepard glanced up at Nihlus, who placed his own teeth on the back of Saren’s neck before nodding. She bit down, working her teeth through the thick hide, and Saren drove into her hard. His talons raked down her back, somehow missing the wounds there, and he closed his jaw over her shoulder again, reopening the already healing bond mark. Here was what she’d seen between him and Nihlus. Here was the loss of control, the total release of the mind to the demands of the body, the faith that she could take what he had to give and not break. This was what she’d been looking for from him. Her teeth pierced through and he slammed home inside of her and released into her with a snarl and a shudder that sent her flying again. Behind Saren, Nihlus thrust a few more times and let go as well.
They collapsed onto the bed, breathing heavily. After a few minutes, Nihlus rose and returned with a damp cloth. He bathed the wounds on her shoulders in lieu of medigel which would prevent scarring and pressed his forehead against hers. “That was…perfect,” he said. He turned to Saren and did the same for the mark she’d left on him. “You, too. It’s about time you pulled your head out of your ass.”
“Impertinent,” Saren muttered and nuzzled Shepard’s throat. “I do love you, Shepard.”
“I love you, too, Saren. And you, Nihlus,” she replied.
“I know,” Nihlus said with a cocky grin. His family was finally complete. She’d never seen him so happy.
When Saren turned to him later in the night, Shepard sat back and watched them. There was familiarity and tenderness there that she would not have guessed at had she not known them as well as she did. She felt a rush of emotion for them, her two great loves. This time, instead of turning away, she nuzzled Saren’s shoulder and he turned his head to kiss her. Nihlus dragged her beneath him and pushed into her without hesitation. Saren’s arms came around them both and held them close.
“Nihlus, do you see her?”
“Where is she?”
“She has to be here.”
“Garrus, did you hear that? Liara, Kaidan, lift that pillar! I think she’s under there!”
“Gently, damn it!”
“Alive, Saren. She’s alive. Let’s get her to the hospital.”
“…the damage was too…”
“Can’t you fix…”
“What do you mean, she’s…”
“…sorry, Spectre Kryik…”
“…everything we can…”
“…live without an arm…she can live without…”
“…can’t leave us…”
“What if…never comes back...”
“…might not ever…”
“…has to wake up…”
“…a fighter, damn it!”
“…only so much fight…”
“…not give you leave…die on me, damn you!”
“You must…patient, Spectre Arterius…can’t threaten your way into…”
“Shepard! Wake up! If you do not, I will name Udina to the Council and allow him to sell Earth to the batarians in reparation for Aratoht.”
“Shut up, Nihlus. Shepard, I am warning you. The fate of Earth is in my hands and I will let it fall.”
“Liar,” she grunted through a mouth that felt like sandpaper.
“What did I tell you?” Saren crowed to someone. “Shepard, wake up.”
“You lied,” she said again. “Like the star brat. Heard EDI. Said she’d die. Lied. Like you.”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said. “Open your eyes.”
Bright light flooded her vision and she squeezed her eyes shut again. There was a click and the room went dim beyond her lids. She tried again. It was better this time. Saren and Nihlus peered down at her and she saw relief pass over their features. One of them ran a hand over hair that felt too short. “You lied,” she said again. “Udina’s dead.”
“And Earth is safe,” he said without remorse. “As is the rest of the galaxy, thanks to you.”
“Normandy?” she asked.
“They are safe,” Nihlus said soothingly. It was his hand on her hair. Saren’s was the one gripping her hand.
“Reapers?” she asked.
“Gone,” he said. “Dead.”
“I did hear EDI, right?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “EDI is fine.”
Saren chuckled and a moment later was holding a straw up to her lips. “She still has her priorities,” he said to Nihlus.
“Home?” she asked when he removed the straw.
“A bit worse for wear,” Nihlus said, “but still standing. Shepard…”
“What’d I lose?” she asked. “I heard something about living without something.”
It was Saren who answered, “You had a piece of rebar through your knee. You were bleeding heavily and badly burned but we had nothing that could cut through the metal.”
“So you cut through my leg instead,” she supplied. He nodded. “You?” He nodded again.
“I am sorry, Shepard,” he said.
She shrugged lightly and said, “I guess that makes us even for your arm?”
“I suppose it does,” he said with a shake of his head.
Shepard opened her eyes to find silver ones looking down at her in the dark. She raised a hand to his face and he nuzzled into it. “What’s wrong?” she whispered, trying not to wake Nihlus who still slept beside her.
“I thought we had lost you,” he said. “What happened up there? What makes you wake screaming from nightmares you refuse to talk about?”
Because it was Saren, because he had never flinched from the worst parts of her, she admitted, “I killed Anderson. And I thought I was killing EDI and the geth. There were other options but I chose genocide. Again.”
“What were the other options?” he asked.
“Synthesis,” she said. “Combining synthetic and organic life in a massive evolutionary step. I considered that one but…Mordin warned against evolving a species before it was ready. Or control. Like the Illusive Man wanted.”
He sneered at the mention of Jack Harper’s pseudonym and said, “Then you know that was the wrong choice.”
“I killed him for you,” she said. “Did I tell you that?”
“No,” he said. He brought his forehead to hers and breathed, “Thank you.”
“Desolas can rest in peace,” she said. “And so can you. Saren…what if I can’t die? What if I really am on the wrong side of heaven and the righteous side of hell?”
“Then we will walk the in between with you,” he said, drawing her close. Nihlus rolled to face her and put his arm around them both. He snorted when her hair, which was returning to its former length after being burned away in the Crucible, brushed over his nose. She smiled over her shoulder at him and Saren shook his head indulgently. Their hands met on the back of Nihlus’ neck and he purred in his sleep.
Saren moved his hand away to stroke it down the synthetic flesh of her prosthetic leg. He drew it up over his hip and she gasped as he slid into her and began to rock slowly. Nihlus’ arm tightened around their waists and she felt his lips brush the back of her neck before he settled deeper into the pillow. Saren’s eyes never left hers as he pulled her hips closer and whispered, “I love you, Shepard.”