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2180 : Three Years Ago : Cipritine

Blessed Heat. Even in the evenings, Palaven warmed his bare body. A modest breeze filtered over the balcony railing, tickling the sensitive hide between his russet plates. It was the first time in four months he’d spent any length of time without his heavy custom armour. He could still feel the ghost of it when he moved his shoulders, a phantom weight.

Cipritine was how he remembered the Capital of his people’s planet to be. Grand architecture; bold lines to represent strength and unity. The entire city was built up with stone and metal; the seat of the Empire. He thought it fitting that it was where Saren had grown up, the Arterius clan being one of the most prestigious. One of the oldest.

The colony he had belonged to was industrial but on another, dirtier level. If he tried hard enough, Nihlus could recall the scent of oil and rust which permeated the soil, the air and clothes. Even his mother had smelt like it, as much as she sought to mask the scent. He’d thought he’d never get the smell from his nostrils, then she’d sent him to enlist at seventeen.

Two years late. He’d suffered for that. His stubborn streak had been too ingrained by then, unfortunately hot-headedness was not a trait which would’ve gotten him elevated up the hierarchy.

His mother had meant well, the only consolation. A balm to sooth his resentment towards her. She’d wanted a better life for him and the military had been a chance to keep him from a less savoury path.

“What are you pondering out here?” Saren came out onto the balcony.

They were the only two in the apartment, though Nihlus had heard his footsteps and recognised his gait the instant he’d exited the bedroom. As light-footed as the older Spectre was by habit, Nihlus’ senses were honed to a razor point. Saren had not attempted to sneak up on him, and even if he had, Nihlus would have picked up on it. They both knew it.

He glanced over his shoulder, clamping down on the urge to rumble his affections. He found it increasing difficult to catch himself. Saren wouldn’t have been angered by it, but he would think it foolish for Nihlus to become so attached. Spectres did not live long, and Saren did not settle down.

Bare as he himself was, a common occurrence when turian’s were in the privacy of their homes, Nihlus couldn’t help but appreciate Saren’s lithe, yet muscular form. His mandibles fluttered. He’d left Saren in a tangle of ruined sheets after their reunion.

“The past,” he admitted, answering his earlier question. Saren remained silent, but studied him with an intense gaze which had drawn Nihlus to him even when he’d hated the other man’s guts. Back when Saren had been his mentor, and Nihlus had nearly been consumed by the chip on his shoulder.

“And the future…”

“What of the future?” Saren shifted his focus to the scenery. The heart of the city, lit from within. He was good, Nihlus would give him that. Despite years of knowing him, he could have almost believe Saren didn’t already knew the news he had to share. But Nihlus did know him, perhaps better than anyone since Desolas had passed.

“I am going to take on a trainee. A protege.” He announced, nonetheless.

Silence.

Nihlus waited.

“You know my thoughts on the matter.” Saren returned, clipped and cold.

“Because she is human?” Agitation slipped into his harmonics. Hide them as he did, Saren remained able to read the duel tones of a turian’s vocal cords as well as any. He knew it was futile to fight with Saren over the topic of the newest addition to the Citadel’s races, and yet he couldn’t help but defend her.

Shepard. He’d yet to meet the woman in person, though he had felt something akin in her when he’d read her files after hearing of the lone survivor of Akuze. She’d dragged herself from nothing. As he had. If he could teach anyone, pass any knowledge on, it would be to her.

He admired her headstrong streak. Her disposition for survival.

It had taken him nearly a Citadel year to sort the paperwork alone, and convince the Council but he hadn’t become a Spectre without having a relentless will.

“Their race are but children,” Saren retorted. As quick as a whip, or one of their people’s ancient warriors throwing knives, whose statues encircled the towered parliament building; Palaven Command.

“They are not ready.” Saren was worked up. Nihlus was aware he risked their relationship with his choice, but he had always been rebellious when it came to his former mentor.

“You know this.” Saren settled on, cutting his rhetoric short. With his mandibles fixed tightly to his face, Nihlus judged his moods and emotions on his true blue eyes alone. Pale plates unclothed, he was able to see the tense lines in the older Spectre’s shoulders.

When his lover turned to leave, Nihlus felt his traitorous heart repel in spite of his resolve. “Saren-”

“Do as you will, Nihlus.”

The breeze became a chill. Everything had already been set in motion. He could not alter it. Nihlus had made his choice, and if it was up to him, he’d see Shepard become a Spectre with enough skill to rival even the Council’s tops operatives. Spirits help him, she might even rival Saren himself.

Chapter Text

2181 : A Year Later : Clasified Jungle Planet

Perspiration beaded on her forehead. The strands of choppy pale hair stuck to her skin were the only obstacle keeping the liquid from tracking down into her eyes. Sweat slicked along the back of her neck to creep beneath her armour and skin-tight under suit. Humid did not even begin to cover the discomforting weather. Despite the questionable research centre being underground, that fact unfortunately only lowered the temperature a fraction.

When the com degraded to static in her ear, Shepard knew the situation had turned from bad to worse. Easing into cover against the nearest outcropped wall, she pressed two fingers to her ear piece. Tech was not her area of expertise by any stretch of the imagination, and Nihlus had assured her his hardwiring would pierce the blockers they had in the facility.

After five months of Spectre training, she had come to learn that if something could go wrong, it generally would. Had Nihlus not also been caught in the crossfire on more than one occasion, she would have thought he’d orchestrated it all to test her. The instructors at N camp had taken far too much satisfaction in their unpleasant mission parameters. Nihlus was near tame in comparison. Not that their tasks so far hadn’t been brutal, it was by no means a walk in the park. More like a run through a minefield.

While sometimes being blindfolded.

“Kryik,” she spoke in low tones. Shepard had yet to see anyone but that only made her more suspicious. A firefight meant she was on the right track, and there was no ambush laid in wait. Pausing for an answer, she eyed round her cover to note the stuttering beams of white light overhead. Deep underground, sudden lack of light was an eerie prospect should the power fail. Humans had one of the worst night vision capabilities, meaning she’d have to rely on her visor for heat signatures.

“…pard… nt... es...” The com cut out completely.

“Bloody great.” She muttered. If she managed to get out of this insulated grave, mentor or not, Shepard would have a few choice things to say about his jury-rigged com line. It wasn’t necessarily that he’d left her in it alone without communication, it was that he’d been so confident his makeshift tech would work. Spectres and their bloody pride.

There was only one thing for it. Complete the mission then get the hell out. According to their intel and her loose map of the complex, the data they needed would be just down the hallway. Nihlus - and subsequently her – had been sent to apprehend and prove the guilt of a scientist who’d been using illegal methods to increase the effectiveness of biotics in humans through new and unsafe amps. As of yet, she’d yet to see a single soul and so the data would at least be one bird with one stone.

They’d already found evidence in another facility on the frozen planet of Noveria, which Nihlus had not so subtly despised, of what happened when one of the altered amps blew. A bad way to go. The cell had been covered in gore and brain matter. Even Shepard’s stomach had churned and she was accustomed to the scent of acid burnt flesh. Nihlus had regretted his heightened senses; smell most of all. His mandibles had twitched before being pulled taunt; the reaction was the most affected she’d seen him be, not that she was an expert in turian expressions or mannerisms.

Clicking off the green dot sight on her pistol, she rose from cover smoothly and advanced down the hallway with steady, measured steps. Straining her hearing, while checking for sound influxes on her visor, her suspicions grew when the only sound to register was the dripping of water or some unidentifiable liquid from a vent in the ceiling.

Weaving through the scattered boxes, Shepard came to the end of the corridor and timed her movement into the next room with the bulbs flaring overhead. The scene laid out before her was grisly. Her grip tightened on her weapon. Bodies littered the ground. Hired guns who protected the so called scientist. Crouching down, Shepard used the torch on her gauntlet to inspect the fresh corpses.

The trajectory of the bullet holes meant they’d been taken by surprise. Some of them. Once the first few had been dispatched, the others had turned face on to take the heatsinks into their chests, and heads. Despite the blood, it was clean work. She would have thought a squad dispatched them, had the shape and size of the wounds not come from the same weapon. A high powered pistol. Expensive and well modded.

Increasingly weary, and always trusting her gut, Shepard attempted to get through to Nihlus. The static buzzed once, then went silent. The deeper she went into the underground building, the more powerful the signal blocker became. She had two options; leave and inform him about the change in situation, or finish the mission alone while facing whomever had slaughtered the guards.

Finish the mission it was.

Someone who could kill an entire team of well-armed mercs was perhaps more dangerous than the scientist, if in a different, more immediate way. Shepard in good conscious couldn’t leave without discovering the culprit. On top of the new threat, she refused to allow them to find the data themselves. The operation was currently a small time business, but it wouldn’t stay that way if a larger company got their greasy hands on it.

Her boot slipped in a pool of blood as she stood. Grimacing, she blanked out the bodies dotted in her path, beneath her feet and headed for the final door. Biotics shimmered over her form, honed and ready. On reaching the doorway, she shifted her shoulder to the frame for slight cover before she smacked the sensor in the middle with a fist. It took three seconds for the doors to hiss and slide open. Enough time for whoever was inside to hear, rotate and aim directly for her.

Ducking in, finger posed to squeeze the trigger, Shepard glanced a single person stood by a large console at the far side of the room. She made out silvered armour and white plates before the unknown target shot her in the shoulder. Expensive pistol indeed. A single shot had been close to bringing down her shields and tearing through her armour. The kickback alone would have surely broken a weaker wrist, like her own.

“Who are you?” She called out, back up against one of the operating tables between them. Glancing under the metal slab, she was able to see a portion of the lone shooters legs; a turian. There was only a single turian she knew with plates as pale and he was more inclined to bite out her throat than act civil. The Council had tried to lump her off on to him instead of Nihlus, but Arterius had refused venomously.

“You’re slow on the uptake, human,” he returned, disinterested. Shepard recognised the craggy, sinister voice of Saren Arterius. Nihlus’ former mentor and one of the oldest Spectres in the business. He then had the audacity to turn his back on her.

Shepard cautiously came out of cover. Just because he hadn’t fired on her more than once didn’t mean she trusted him. In fact she trusted him about as far she could throw him without biotics; not an inch. He tapped away on the console with bare talons, back offered to her in insult. Her trigger finger itched for payback, but if she shot him back, he’d go for the kill. His posture almost dared her. Even with the assistance of biotics, he far outweighed her when it came to close combat hand to hand. He’d snap her neck.

“What are you doing here?” Her mind worked. The mission cache had been sent to Nihlus alone. She knew because she’d asked, wondering if Spectre’s competed to earn the Council’s favour. A modern version of a Roman colosseum. Nihlus had told her no, they didn’t and only worked together on rare occasions. Each mission was picked and sent to a chosen Spectre by the Council themselves.

Saren ignored her. Each rasp of his razor sharp talons on the console she needed caused her nerves to bunch and tighten. Her pistol was lowered but still primed.

Tense seconds passed, equalling maybe half a minute before he backed away from the console. Like Nihlus, he was more than two heads taller than her. She’d only ever seen him in vids, or from a far, never up close and personal. It had become an unofficial galactic law to keep the two apart, lest they create another war between their people by offing each other.

“You ought to be quick, Shepard.” He remarked, expression a mass of weathered plates and promised violence.

Teeth gritted, she asked to his retreating back, “What do you-”

The console beeped. Shepard made a choice. She rushed to it to find he’d left a bug in the system. In less than sixty seconds the console would wipe its files and blow, causing a chain reaction. Several dark curses flittered onto her tongue. She choked on them, as her hands worked over the keyboard.

Tech. Was. Not. Her. Strong. Suit.

As rapidly as she could, forty five seconds and counting, Shepard collected as many of the files as she could to her omni-tool. Not enough. She yanked the wire from the port in her gauntlet, collected her pistol from the side and ran.

Back out in the hallway she slipped in the congealing blood, cracking her knee on the ground as she fought to remain in motion. Her boots did their best to grip as she took large strides back through the complex. She had less than ten seconds to scale the steps up to the jungle floor.

She wouldn’t make it, she knew – but that didn’t stop her from pumping her muscles.

As the facility began to fill with electrical flames, the blockers were brought down. Nihlus’ voice cut into her ear canal, loud, invasive in her skull and panicked. “SHEPARD!”

The flames reached the bottom of the steps, rushing up in a fiery tornado. The exit was too far. “Nihlus, I won’t-”

Heat surrounded her. On instinct her biotics snapped into place, a thin form of protection as her armours shields shattered. She had been spared from the worst of it. When the metal steps faltered, the entire structure dropped.

Shepard plummeted into darkness

Chapter Text

2182 : Nearing Two Years Later : Citadel

Night cycle darkened the city scape beyond her window. The neighbourhood was quiet, her window blissfully void of neon lights or traffic. A far cry difference from the hovel she’d grown up in. Sometimes when she was waxing nostalgia, Shepard would miss the near constant rain or snow falls. Weather simulations were a feature the Council had turned down when it had been proposed. While peaceful, the Citadel was often stifling; too still. Too safe. Her line of work made her appreciate the slower moments when she returned for a short while.

From her seat in the living area, Shepard saw the flashing blip of her personal terminal at her desk, under the wide main window. Dropping her data pad onto the light stand, she tightened her long robe and went over to it. Usually she liked to hold off on reading emails when she had designated down-time, but there was no rest for the wicked. Urgent alerts would bypass the sleep mode, meaning whoever had lit up her inbox was important. 

The holo-screen came to life, illumining her face in the dim office space. A large file awaited her. Encrypted from the Council. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard. While balancing her duties to the Alliance, Shepard received regular mission briefs from the Council. Her last had been the month prier. It had only been two days ago she’d returned from a fortnight long mission aboard the Normandy, under Captain Anderson. The Council were about due to tug their leash. A hefty data pack unravelled on her screen when she entered her ID to accept.

She scanned the mission summary; a theft. An artefact of some kind. Whatever it was, the Council very much wanted it found. The intel and mission parameters were staggering in size, and yet on a first glance she couldn’t find any details on what the object actually was. The only thing made exceedingly clear was the classified nature of the task, and the upmost discretion was needed. Shepard had to be a shadow.

A year had passed since she’d completed her training, becoming the honouree first human Spectre. Subterfuge wasn’t her go-to method, but she wouldn’t turn the mission down. The Council weren’t blind, as much as they infuriated her. They could have sent the task to any number of operatives at their disposal, so they would have chosen Shepard for a reason. She would know more when she read the files fully.

Her tired eyes nearly missed the fine print. The data pack hadn’t only found its way to her inbox. From the two other codes at the top, Shepard could assume they’d asked for more than one Spectre’s assistance. Sending two operatives was not unheard of, but mostly avoided unless they had already proven they could work together. Unsurprisingly, making soldiers who were above the law and with completely different methods of achieving a goal work side by side frequently had not so optimal results.

What she could not understand were the chosen operatives. Shepard knew those codes off by heart. One she had trained under, the other she avoided. Nihlus Kyrik, and Saren Arterius. Nihlus was a pleasure to work with, despite the odd tension between them. If Shepard ignored that it was there, they were able to work past it with somewhat ease. But putting Nihlus together with her, and Saren? The Council had to know that the three of them were an explosive mix.

An uneasy feeling settled in her gut. For the Council to send not one, not two but three Spectres? The mission wasn’t a simple shakedown run. Not only that, but risk her working with Saren? The two of them hadn’t exactly seen eye to eye, or been quiet about it. The pale turian liked to undermine her on every occasion he got. For the Council to openly disregard their history, and still ask for the both of them to be assigned? Shepard would have to read the files in more detail, dig deeper to find the secrets to why such an artefact would have the Council chance an incident. Two Spectre’s murdering each other was not good publicity. Made them look weak. Unable to control their own agents.

Shepard closed down her terminal with a shake of her head, and was about to go to bed when it lit up again. She clicked, wondering if it was all a mistake and the Council had receded it. Thinking better on adding components that had a high likelihood to react badly; namely herself and Arterius. It was not the Council coming to their senses.

There was a message from Nihlus. She hadn’t spoken with him in months, hadn’t seen him in person for longer. There had always been something unspoken between them. When she had become his equal in status, it had only become more noticeable. She hadn’t known how to feel about it; never mixing her personal life with that of her work outside of friends, and Anderson. Instead of stepping on Saren’s toes – not knowing the extent of the twos relationship - she’d chosen to back off, blaming the lack of communication on work.

She hesitated, but clicked read. They would be working together on an impressive task, meaning she would have to bite the bullet and let him into her life again. If for a few months, before she could go back to pretending she didn’t think about him more than was usual with her colleagues.

027603N: Have you seen the data pack?

She typed a reply. A small smile drifted onto her lips at his familiarity with her, even after the long gap between messages. It dropped when the reality of working with Saren hit home again.

035449S: Yes, just now. I thought it was a mistake.

He replied just as quickly. Talons must have danced over the keys. The computer worked equally fast to alter his letters into something legible for her; Citadel standard. A common tongue altered for when humans had shouldered their way into the galactic community.

027603N: Not a mistake. This is a big one. We should head out tomorrow, find an unmarked ship to take us to the destination. Discuss more details when we’re all present.

All sounded fine, except the pink elephant in the room. She asked the dreaded question.

035449S: And Saren?

There was a pause, long enough for another message to appear. This one was addressed to both her and Nihlus, and was from someone she had never corresponded with through the extranet. The fact that he knew her private email was just creepy. Though if she’d learnt his to be weary, then he must have done the same. Loath as she was to have something in common with him. Unless he’d stored hers away in his dastardly mind, awaiting the day he had something to blackmail her with. The second scenario was more likely. More Saren.

002287S: I have a ship. Meet me at the docking bay D34. 0620 Citadel time.

Such an exact time. Shepard felt her fingers flex just at the thought of his high handed assumptions that they would fall in line. Switching to the chat with Nihlus alone, she typed out a curt remark.

035449S: Guess that answers my question.

A reply buzzed through before she could close the tab.

027603N: Will you be alright? Working with him?

035449S: I am a professional, Nihlus.

Then she added, as an afterthought:

035449S: I’m hitting the bunk. Good night.

Shepard signed off, sending the encrypted mission details to her omni-tool as she did so. She had a sneaking suspicion that night was going to be her last good patch of sleep for a while. Especially if Saren had anything to say about it. His presence alone would have one of her eyes constantly glued open.

Settling into bed, her sheets fresh and chilled from the automated air filters, Shepard keyed in an alarm for 0500. Her bag was already packed, it always was. Her armour and weapons had been cleaned and were stored away in their own regulated cases. The only thing for her to do was read through the files, and come to terms with sharing breathing air with one of the people she despised the most in the wide, wide galaxy.

Chapter Text

2182 : Two months till 2183 : Present Day

 

At 0600, Shepard rode down in the elevator which led to docking bay D34. It was habit since she’d joined the Alliance at eighteen to be near half an hour early, for anything and everything. Her mind still swirled with data and info, discovering in further research that morning that the Council hadn’t just wanted her on the mission for her combat skill, but for her translation abilities. Having an Earth born background gave her an edge the two turians did not.

The co-ordinates they’d been given, encrypted to high heavens, so complex that even she took a few minutes to figure them out, led to the edge of the terminus systems. Specifically a mining colony, one inhabited by those who had left Earth in search of the pay, working the minerals underground could bring. Though Shepard had a sneaking suspicion it was linked to a cover-up, otherwise why would they have tech the Council was willing to risk three Spectres to collect?

With a weary sigh, Shepard decided it was futile to conspire about the possible outcomes until they actually touched down. That would be a hurdle to come, but she was faced with a much more imminent problem; sharing a small space with Arterius. Shepard would never admit that she had fretted about it through the night. Residual anger still burned through her veins, and she would be hard pressed to quench it.

Her professional pride, and reputation would be the only thing keeping her from igniting. There was a reason she kept far away from him, and that was her fatal flaw; the grudges she held, and the need for vengeance. She would have never held a job in Csec, not with the choking red tape. When someone was vile enough to deserve to die, she was one person willing to pull the trigger if she thought it would better the galaxy.

In that sense, she would grudgingly admit she was somewhat similar to Saren, but that was where the similarities ended. She did not agree with his wasteful attitude to life, and his carefree collateral damage. If she saw a chance to save the innocent, then she would take it. Even if it put her own life in danger. A vanguard learnt early on to disregard the self-preservation instinct.

The elevator door opened, leaving her no time to retreat. With a steadying breathe, she stepped out of the metal box. Pack hung heavily over her shoulder, she made her way past the sleeping ships, attempting to figure out from appearance alone which one her fellow Spectre had chosen. Shepard didn’t know why, it wasn’t as if she knew Arterius very well. In fact, she made it her personal life goal to avoid any, and all information about him.                        

If he wasn’t coming to kill her, she didn’t much care what atrocities he was committing in the name of the Council. That was his, and their business. Only, she would have to witness it for the foreseeable future. Until they succeeded in their mission, or gave the Council a mighty fine reason why they had not. That left her in a foul mood, and a precarious position.

The docking area was quiet of traffic, more so than usual, even for the early hours. Noting the lack of people, even those in Csec blues, Shepard came to a sobering halt when she saw a lone figure posed beside one of the docking terminals. They clicked away on the holo-screen, polished talons catching the florescent lights. Blood rushing to her ears, she was momentarily transported to the last time he’d given her his back.

For a fleeting moment, she’d thought it might be Nihlus, but the gait and body language wasn’t her former mentor and friend. No, the uptight posture belonged to a severely particular and narcissistic individual. Eyes travelling up the alien form, there was no mistaking the pale white plates, weathered and beaten. The uneven fringe, and steel grey armour.

She hated this being.

A small, ridiculous side of her hoped he hadn’t heard her approach. She could still refuse the placement, and instead join the Normandy on its next mission away from port. Shepard could claim the Alliance needed her. But even without being a Spectre, he was still a turian, and their hearing was far more sensitive than hers. He’d have clocked her the second she exited out from the elevator.

Shepard never had run from a fight, and damn her luck, she wouldn’t start then. Not because of some pale faced, loathsome tempered psychopath.

He rigidly peered over his shoulder, cybernetic eye bright in the shadowed socket. Shepard was briefly taken aback; finding him to be made of more metal than plate. His face was extensively altered, as if he had taken substantial damage to it. His left arm, well, that was completely gone and had been replaced by a large prosthetic. Her features swiftly became blank; the ultimate poker face, before she met his unnatural gaze.

Any injuries he’d suffered were karma, and karma was a bitch.

No matter how she structured her features, there was no hiding the hate in her eyes. There was also the sick satisfaction, the justice she felt in knowing he had hurt possibly as much as she had. Shepard knew she shouldn’t, felt ashamed of it even, but couldn’t deny it was there.

He turned back to the terminal, then gestured with a three fingered hand to the plane ship beside them. “Minerva, class zero.” He listed off points from its manual, info she already knew. Shepard wouldn’t have pegged him for a simple ship owner, but then their brief had mentioned discretion. In hindsight, the Minerva was not a bad choice. But it’s size. While it was one of the larger models, it wasn’t exactly a frigate. 

“This isn’t your ship,” she stated, when he had finished. His voice grated on her nerves; metallic and harsh, if that were even possible. He sounded far from human. It had been overloud in the silence of the empty docking bay; highlighting the fact that they were virtually alone. The presence of security cameras were the only eyes on them, but they were above the law. Though not above the Council, and that fact alone stayed the blue flare itching in her palm.

His sharp mandible flicked out, slowly once, and Shepard got the sense he had held himself back from a crude remark. It’d be a long trip if they tried to draw blood in the docking bay, and the Council would be less an amused. She didn’t want to deal from a lecture from Sparatus; someone she disagreed with almost as much as Saren, and didn’t wish to be the first human Spectre removed from service due to dishonourable conduct. She would not become a CAT-6 case.

“No, it is not.” He forced the words out, as if communicating with her was physically painful. “You have read the mission brief, I assume. The Council calls for upmost discretion, and the owner of this ship does not exist, meaning it cannot be traced to us.” His tone worked its way under her skin. She wasn’t a raw recruit, but she would let him whittle on.

Setting her pack and weapons case onto the ground, a sensible distance away from him, Shepard took a seat atop them. Very soon there would be no choice but to be in close contact with one another, and she wanted to make the most out of the breathing space. Shepard theorised to aim for nonchalance when it came to Saren, otherwise the urge to throttle him would become unbearable. Even after twenty months, she still recalled the lick of flames as the heat rushed over her, near swallowing her whole with only unpredictable biotics to shield her from it.

Twitchy slightly, Shepard watched the elevator shaft. “Where’s Nihlus?” She asked, to fill the silence. Her biotics wanted to crackle along her skin with the tension, with a need to send him flying into the ship he’d acquired. She wanted to be anywhere else, rather than wasting her words on him, but alas the galaxy had not granted her wish. She’d have even taken Tuchanka over the current situation.

“I’d have thought you knew better, where he would be.” His body language keyed her in to his attempt to act as if she was not even there. She was just an irritating voice at his back, over-lapping the demons in his head, Shepard imaged.

Her eyes narrowed at his connotations, ones she didn’t fully understand. Nihlus hadn’t been quite as secretive as he thought when it came to his relationship with the white plated turian and so he should have been the one to know. Unless they were no longer together, which had absolutely nothing to do with her. He was delusional.

Any rising argument was cut short, as their subject of conversation stepped out onto the docking bay. Signature midnight armour, and russet plates were unmistakable. She had always thought he was unusually stunning; even in the beginning, when she’d felt guilty over finding a turian anything but an alien race they had unpleasant history with. The elegant white clan markings were stark along his face, which her eyes caught upon.

His evenly shaped mandibles flickered into a smile when he saw her, and Shepard felt an answering tilt on her own lips. It felt oddly comforting to see him again, a feeling she wasn’t entirely pleased to have. A deeper relationship with Nihlus would be too complicated, and not something she had time for. When she felt Saren’s unpleasant eyes shift between them, the smile dropped from her face, leaving a guarded mask in its wake.

“We’re all here then,” Nihlus said, in way of greeting. Strolling up to them. His eyes teased, “Hello stranger.”

“Some earlier than others,” Saren rebuffed, while appearing to finalise some paperwork on the terminal. Shepard grimaced, at his rebuke of an equal and the scrape of his voice. She was certain it was never something she would become accustomed to, and wanted to be rid of the scratching sound from her ears. It was even worse that her translator had to work to make sense of him.

Nihlus let the unnecessary words slide off his plates, like waves lapping over the sturdy rocks below a cliff. He cocked his head to her, giving her a tense smirk, before turning his attentions back to Saren. “So, this is the transport you chose.”

“It is entirely suitable,” Saren retorted, and with a flick of his wrist, the ship doors opened. “Board, and place your belongings in the hold. I will not have them littering the walkways.”

The old spectre stooped to collect his own pack resting next to him. She hadn’t paid it much attention when she’d arrived, more focussed on him and the dangers being so close to him presented. He didn’t wait before he boarded, heading in the direction of the cockpit.

Shepard took up her belongings, a strange air between herself and Nihlus. She couldn’t imagine it was easy on him, having a lover and former mentor who had history in the same, confined space. She glanced up at him, and offered him a tight smile to his searching gaze.

“It’s… been some time,” he spoke, as they walked side by side over the boarding bridge. Into the small airlock with led to the belly of the small ship. Directly to their left was the cockpit, which doors were currently sealed. “…Since we worked together. I look forward to it. We made a good team, you and I.”

Shepard couldn’t deny that they had. He filled in for her weaknesses, those being tech and decryption, along with firepower. She had been his brute force, while he controlled his turrets and combat drones from a distance, Shepard had been the upfront carnage. She opened her mouth to answer, but the ships doors slid loudly closed behind her. Strands of hair whooshed over her face, as the decontamination protocol started. The beams of light lit his poison green eyes.

“We better put our equipment away,” he continued, when they were allowed to enter the ship proper. “It’s a short jump to the mass relay and then we ought to have a debrief. All of us.”

Shepard nodded, and followed him through the tiny available space. With herself, two very large turians and Saren’s ego as an entity of its own, it was going to be a squeeze and Shepard didn’t relish it. It would be a miracle if they made it to their destination without some confrontation. It would remain to be seen whether their inevitable clash would be bloody.

Chapter Text

 

[Shepard]

Stood at the table in the mess, Shepard was faced with the reality of how compact the ship layout actually was. Especially with two armoured turians, who nearly couldn’t stand fully. It was a ship meant for one, and the three of them were expected to live and work within it. Standing in military rest, Shepard closed her eyes and thought about the logistics.

The majority of the ship was taken up by the cockpit in the front, and the engine in the back. In the middle was their bunk room, which doubled up as the equipment hold and then there was the mess, which also housed the levo and dextro food and medical supplies. It was on the dining table where Nihlus had spread the data for their debrief.

When the floor rattled beneath her feet, she knew they had passed through the relay and were heading for terminus space. With a deep breath, she opened her eyes and met those of Nihlus. He did not ask her what she was thinking on, there was no need – it was obvious, the fact that she wouldn’t just have to share breathing space with Arterius, but also personal space. To eat and sleep in the same rooms. It would be a test of her will.

The door leading to the hallway opened, and her shoulders tensed with the new presence in the room. Arterius had become their designated pilot. Nihlus had warned her that he wouldn’t allow anyone else to fly the ship. The paranoid bastard was all about control.

“Saren,” Nihlus greeted, his sub-vocals spoke in a way she couldn’t fathom. “Will you join us?” When the older Spectre didn’t immediately move, he added, “We ought to discuss the mission. Together.”

 

[Saren]

Inputting the Council’s co-ordinates into the VI, Saren remained to oversee the jump through the relay. Having hardwired his own flight system into the basic ship, he was relatively unconcerned with leaving it to pilot itself while he dealt with… other matters.

He told himself that he hadn’t lingered overly long in the cockpit, before he span on his feet and stalked through the hallway to find the two Spectres he’d been forced to work with. There was a twist in his gut when he thought of Nihlus, but he clamped down on it as practiced as he did his sub-harmonics. Saren would not tolerate such a weakness in himself, it would be the death of him, and he did not intent to die just yet.

His hearing picked up on them, and he altered his path to the mess. On passing through the door, he had to deal with their combined scent. Nihlus’, he was used to, even if they had not seen each other in years. The human on the other hand, hers was unfamiliar and stuck in his nostrils like the foul scent of Varren.

“Saren.” He brought his cutting gaze from the girl, to his former trainee and chose not to acknowledge the persisting emotions in his sub-vocals; he owed that to Nihlus. “Will you join us? We ought to discuss the mission. Together.”

Together. The word was emphasised, in a tone above the human’s sense of hearing. Mandibles clamped close to his chin, Saren came to stand with them at the dining table, a curt sound emanating from his throat; warning Nihlus not to expect anything out of him. He was a Council agent, he would not go against their direct orders when it came to working with her, but he would not play nice. If she showed a level of work unacceptable to him, he would let it be known.

Nihlus threw his head, but let the subject drop. Saren waited. He had read through the brief several times thoroughly since receiving it, had already formed a plan of action inside his mind but he would allow them to discuss it, and he would spectate. Saren was almost curious to see what the human could come up with, and whether his former trainee had managed to teach her anything.

“Continue,” he remarked, hands clasped behind his back. The tips of his uneven fringe grazed the ceiling as he dipped his head to Nihlus.

“Assuming we have all read the brief, as we are all Spectres,” he tried for humour, which was received with silence from both himself and the girl. Despite himself, and his displeasure at sharing the ship with a human, Saren couldn’t help but scrutinise her. While Nihlus was clearly fond of her, she showed no outward signs that they were… together.

The Alliance restricted relationships within their ranks, but she was a Spectre, and so there would have been nothing holding her back from Nihlus’ charms. His brow plate came down over his cybernetic eyes. From what he had seen of human courting, they were sickeningly emotion creatures, unable to keep business and pleasure apart. Either she was colder than most, or he could not read her well enough.

He caught himself, and again listened as Nihlus went over the information he had already stored away in his memory. The girl nodded slowly, accepting that her place was to assist them in translating; for those who lived on the colony were not known for their galactic inclusiveness, and found no reason, or could not even pay for the translator chips. The pyjaks might even find offence at himself and Nihlus being there; turian as they were.

“Do we even know what this classified object looks like?” She finally spoke, putting the question to them, though she did not even glance in his direction. He sneered. Pretend as she might that he was not there, but Saren would not let her forget it. He would be watching her every move.

“It does not matter,” he interrupted, before Nihlus could explain more politely. “We have its signature, and our sensors will pick it up.”

Nihlus smiled at her, a human habit he had picked up. There was no need for the action when speaking with one of his kind, the emotion was in his duel-toned voice. “That is why I am here.”

She nodded, and spoke nothing more on it. Which surprised him. The girl obviously trusted in Nihlus’ skill. He had found it was a turian trait, to not question another in a combat situation. They were trained in boot camp that you had your job, and you did it, respecting the others in your squad to do theirs. Humans he had found, liked to stick their noses where they weren’t needed and deviated in their military roles. Saren saw no reason for a medic to ponder or dictate strategy.

“When we land, we will have to remain anonymous,” Nihlus followed up. “If they believe three Spectres are sniffing around, whomever has this artifact may even bolt, or greet us with fire. The Council wants us to keep collateral damage to a minimal.”

Her shoulders grew tense at that, and Saren expected a remark on his methods. But she held her pink tongue, and remained steadfast in ignoring his presence. It irked him, and he could not say why.

“A cover is needed,” Shepard agreed. “Only, you two are… conspicuous.”

“They are miners,” he cut in. “Do you truly think they will recognise either myself, or Nihlus?”

For the first time since they’d met on the docking bay floor, she met his eyes. He could feel the hate in them, and welcomed it. If working with him forced her to do better, than so be it. He would be the object of her loathing.

“Do you want to risk it?” She quipped, tone unreadable to him.

No, he did not. But he would not admit that to her.

Nihlus cleared his throat, and let his sub-vocals add an undertone which only Saren could pick up on. “I will remain on the ship, where I can work more optimally. I can attach my sensors to you two, along with vid feeds in your suits. Shepard, you will be Saren’s translator.”

This peeked his interest; he had thought along similar lines, but he had been the one to tactical cloak, and Nihlus has been the one to work with the girl.

“And Arterius?” She had to bite out the words; his name. The plates on the back on his neck prickled, hearing his families name in her hollow voice.

“A business man.” Whatever unspoken conversation the two of them were having, Saren could not read it. He glowered. Nihlus was too soft, and had spent far too much time outside of his own species if he was able to create facial expressions unknown to even his own kind.

“Hoping to acquire a deal for the minerals produced there, and perhaps even a tour.” Nihlus clearly thought his idea was brilliant. His headstrong pride was what had gotten him into trouble with their military, and what had drawn Saren’s eye to him.

The girl thought on it, and eventually gave a simple, “I see.”

She didn’t want to work with him, that much was evident from the disgust she displayed. The feeling was mutual, but he was a professional, and if the plan was the one most likely to succeed, then he would do it. He had his reputation to think of, and wouldn’t let her tarnish it.

“Are we all in agreement?” Nihlus pressed, eyes scanning from her, to him.

She dipped her chin once. Then the two of them looked at him. They thought he might decline, knowing his… dislike of humans. He would have thought Nihlus knew him better than that. Saren made a sound of agreement in his throat, and spun to leave the room.

While he would work with her, he would not share the same sleeping space and so the cockpit would be his bunk for the duration of their trip. Before he crossed the boundary of the hallway, he snapped over his shoulder, “ETA in thirty six hours.”

 

 

Chapter Text

[Nihlus]

He settled himself down onto his bunk, and kept his gaze from wondering to the bathroom, where he could hear Shepard using the sink. The first time he had seen her cleaning her little blunt teeth, he had been startled, yet curious. His mandibles flickered at the memory. Shepard had been his trainee then, and she had been concerned as to why he stood at her shoulder, studying her actions.

His mandibles pulled tight when he caught sight of Saren’s bunk. It hadn’t even been made, as he had no intentions of using it. Nihlus understood his reasoning, and knew Shepard was similar in that regard; neither trusted the other enough to be so vulnerable. Still, he found it overly stubborn of Saren to remain in the cockpit. He would get a kink in his neck from resting in the pilot seat.

Though it was not his place to worry over him any longer. They had never been in an official relationship, but they had not shared a bed since Shepard had first come to stay on his ship, over twenty months ago. They had not even had a conversation which did not link to their work. Nihlus had grieved, as foolish as he was to become attached, but still he cared. He could not help it, being softer than he should have been, than Saren would have liked. The older spectre had insisted that Nihlus would meet an early grave unless he changed the fact about himself.

When Shepard appeared from the separate bathroom, Nihlus jolted from his thoughts. She wore simple black shorts, and a sweat top. Pale, yet scarred limbs were on display. Human feet still freaked him out, but hers were rather small, and less strange than others. Or perhaps it was because he was fond of her, that he was willing to overlook their differences. He felt his heart beat under his keel.

She knelt to store her tooth brush in the travel pack beneath her bunk, and drew the corner of the towel resting over her shoulders across her mouth. “This time,” he couldn’t see her face when she spoke, and so his hearing tried to pick up on the subtle changes of her single toned voice. “Ask before you use my toothbrush.”

She jested, he recognised the sarcasm. At first he had struggled to know the difference, with her dry humour, between what she meant and didn’t. He chuckled, and was pleased when she shot him a quick, teasing smile over her shoulder.

“I can’t promise that.” She flicked his knee with her towel, and sat down on her own bunk opposite his. He flashed his pin pointed teeth. “These need a lot of work.”

She didn’t flinch at the sight, only shook her head. Shifting her flat pillow, she laid on her back and glanced at him. “With the sticky meat you turians are so fond of, I’m not surprised.”

He groaned, feeling his stomach grumble, “Don’t remind me. We only have dry crackers and meat paste in our supplies.” Nihlus too, laid himself down. He had to shift his head in her direction, to not spear the bunk with his fridge. He rested his talons on his chest plate, getting comfortable as he tried to forget Saren and his choice to remain in discomfort. The stubborn turian would have to lay in the bed he’d made, as the human saying went.

They were silent for some time. It was not unpleasant. Nihlus had missed the quiet breaths she made, and her presence beside him. She was only the third person he had met who he found himself completely at ease with. His mother had been the first, Saren the second and she the third. He counted himself lucky for having found so many, people he considered family, in a sense. When he was younger, he had no one and nothing.

He couldn’t blame Shepard or Saren for remaining distant, but that did not prevent him from caring about them; for wishing they were more.

“Nihlus,” her voice cut through his fantasies. He abolished himself, wondering if she had picked up on his rumbling sub-harmonics.

“He is staying in the cockpit, isn’t he?”

Nihlus paused, but answered truthfully. “He will.”

She rolled onto her side. Good. Her unspoken reply rang in his skull. Despite his wants, they would never see eye to eye, and he would continue to be torn between them.

Chapter Text


[Saren]

 

The two of them were in the bunk room. Nihlus, and the human girl. Commander Shepard. There was once a time when Saren would have gone to Nihlus, not to share a bed in sleep, but to relieve stress as it were, while they had the chance.

It was these forays that had eventually endeared them to one another. Saren should have known better, that all actions have consequences and that attachments would be formed. In retrospect, he should thank Shepard for being an instrument in coming between himself and Nihlus.

These were all things he told himself, and he grew agitated the more he didn’t believe them.

When he made his eleventh mistake in the program he was hacking, Saren closed down his omni-tool with a single swipe, turned the flight mode to VI controlled and stood in the compact space of the cockpit. Bent over the controls, he willed himself to get a grip.

After long hours of remaining in the cockpit, Nihlus had finally entered Saren’s space heralded by a swish of the doors, and a sure gait that paused before he could make it half way. Saren, who prided himself on predicting people, on knowing their move before they did and countering them, hadn’t known if Nihlus would breech the isolation Saren had put himself in. He was unpredictable.

Saren-” He worked on controlling his sub-harmonics. The older Spectre had been surprised to find affection remained in Nihlus’s secondary tone relating to him, and it had resonated in Saren’s chest without his say so.

“You and Shepard.”

Those were the wrong words to greet him with. Saren had been titling his head towards his former protégé, now he dismissed Nihlus completely. He would have hoped Nihlus had more sense, in knowing that attempting to entreat and endear the human girl to him was futile; a simple farmer raging at the Spirits.

But Nihlus was nothing if not persistent, head strong. “You are acting like magnets with opposite attractions,” he barely caught the emotion in his sub-tone that time. He was hurt by their actions. Saren sneered. “This can’t continue.”

“Why is it that you come to me with this concern? Why not the human girl you are so infatuated with?”

He’d expected Nihlus to rile at his words, to loose his temper as he rarely did. When he only remained where he was, otherwise silent but for the echos of sub-harmonics he clamped down upon, Saren shifted his head to look at him. Nihlus’s mandibles were pulled tight, unhappily to his jaw, but his body language was otherwise peaceful.

Saren had miscalculated.

“You left her in an underground bunker, after you’d set the timer to detonate in 60 seconds. 60 seconds, Saren. Were it not for her biotics and the debris of the stairwell that fell on her, she’d be dead.”

His retort had been immediate. “A Spectre prepares for any outcome. Should she have died... well, she was not fit to join our ranks. You were too soft a teacher Nihlus.”

“Yes, I’m quite aware of your methods, Saren.”

Saren narrowed his eyes. “You resent my teachings?”

Nihlus shook his head, but the action encapsulated more than an answer to his question. The human gestured and how Saren knew this, was unsettling. It left a foul taste in his mouth.

“Eventually, you will have to come to a truce. The both of you, for the betterment of the mission.” When Saren opened his mouth to give voice to his opinions on that subject, Nihlus cut him off. “Both of you are too stubborn for your own good, but I will bend. I’ll mediate between you, if only so I don’t have to see one of you snap.”

The last had been spoken as if to himself. Then he had left, leaving Saren to chew on his words.

He was an Arterius, a Spectre. His brother would scoff at the lack of control he had over his thoughts, to be pining over a past lover. To be going over their last conversation as if it had any merits.

Besides, Nihlus had Shepard. His former protégé had always had a soft spot for bedmates outside his species, even before they’d established a physical relationship. Of which Saren could never fathom. Granted, the asari were intelligent, but their skin was too soft, their bodies too mailable. Humans seemed even more so.

His sub-harmonic’s rattled, a sound mistaken to be a snarl by non turian. He didn’t want to think of humans as bedmates, the idea was completely unappealing, so he thrust himself away from the pilot controls and stalked to the mess.

He drank kava very rarely, and only when it was black but prodding the machine’s screen with the tips of his talons would keep his mind on something that wasn’t so irksome.

Had Nihlus intended for him to feel regret over the situation Saren had put Shepard in? Had he been the laughing sought, he would have, harsh and grating. It was a ridiculous notion. Regret gave the impression he’d done something wrong, and as a principle, Saren regretted nothing. He made a choice at the time, and there was no changing it. Regret clouded the mind.

While crossing the room, his gaze caught on the data pads left on the table. The two of them had been working together to research and gain more information than given to them on the council datapack since they’d boarded. A sensible dose of caution, which doubled up as professional curiosity and he would kill anyone who said it was snooping, made Saren pause and draw the closest one to him. It wasn’t code locked, meaning at his touch the screen awakened.

He scanned the scrolling data. What had at first been intended as a quick glance, for he’d do his own research, became Saren picking up the datapad to read more fully. It was written in the stout letters that made up the universal human tongue, which his translator shifted into something he could read, and scattered with pieces of council common, meaning it belonged to Shepard.

Their research was thorough - as much as it could be without his assistance - from what he’d found on the other datapads, one of which was clearly Nihlus’ from the open turian dialectic familiar to him, and the way he ordered his thoughts and findings. They’d collected the most sound information, and compiled it into several more pads; numbers, dates, trade. These all in council common.

Saren set the last datapad down, just as his hearing pricked with a rather muted sound of footsteps; bare human feet. He’d left the door open when he’d entered, intending to be quick, and so Shepard had been stood, observing him for far longer than he’d realised.

“Found what you were looking for?” Her tone near mimicked his own, for its rigid lack of emotion.

The reply he’d intended, Saren held onto when he glanced at her. She wore only small patches of covering, leaving her fragile hide unprotected. Though that wasn’t what caught his eye. On her left side, there was damage, a collection of deep groves and raised scars. He’d seen what acid could do to a body, to a corpse, but he could not recall seeing what it did to human skin.

She held his gaze, and even the hate that was usually present in her eyes was masked. Shepard then, was as unreadable to him as the Keepers were. Their purpose was clear, but whether they felt or thought was completely unknown.

“There are gaps in your research.”

There was a pause. He’d expected her to bite at his observant, statement of fact, but she didn’t. There was no resentment as she stated in return, “Usually we’d employ an information broker, but there is no time. And the council wants no traces.”

That was correct. Saren was surprised that someone so paragon, would have bought information in the past, information brokers were not exactly legal, but it showed she might have some capacity for complex thought in her skull. For thinking outside the box.

“There is another way,” he found himself saying, dangling it in front of her like a varren with rancid meat, in the cage matches the Krogan were fond of.

Her jaw worked. “Show me,” she finally settled on. Her ugly feet carried her the rest of the way, though she stood an arms length apart from him. Saren set her datapad on the table, and in order to see, she was forced to shuffle an inch closer.

Her scent caught in his nose, stronger than the traces she’d left in the ship, so he focussed on breathing through his mouth as his talon clicked on the screen. Aided by his omni-tool, Saren activated a few high level hacks.

The data revealed to them reflected in her unsightly eyes as she read. Saren too, was interested in what they found. The planet was registered as a mining colony, but they had more ships bringing trade into the planet, than off world. The numbers that were originally found didn’t add up, meaning they had been fabricated.

“Can I take this?” She gestured to the pad with her hand.

“It is yours.”

He dismissed her, and went to the kava machine. As he had years past, Saren offered her his back. Not so much as an insult this time, but her attention was fully on the datapad he’d dropped back down. Shepard picked up her pad, and with her head in it, began walking back to the bunk room. She caught herself halfway, went over to collect the cup fit for her lips, ran some tap water into it, and carried on her way.

Saren realised he was watching, and turned away sharply. He would have thought one of them was practiced in hacking, but it appeared neither had thought of it, or if they had, hadn’t come to ask him for help. Now he saw why the council had asked him on this mission, besides him being the best, and he had yet to see why they’d also involved Nihlus and Shepard.

He would have worked better on his own. Infiltrating the facility instead of using this farce of a cover. With quick and measured movements which boarded on aggressive, Saren made his kava. On his return to the cockpit, his taloned feet slowed in the hallway. The bunkroom door was closed to him, but he could hear their muffled voices together. Discussing, planning.

If he was in the mind too — which he wasn’t, Saren could almost envision them sat face to face on their bunks, knees near touching as they bent over the new information he’d unlocked. Nihlus’ mandibles would expand with excitement, his calculating mind placing the new puzzle pieces where they would best lay to fit his tactics.

Saren turned his back to it.

He wasn’t jealous. That would require more emotion than he held for his fellow turian. If he ever suspected he’d succumb to that weakness, Saren would put a bullet in his own skull. Save Shepard the pleasure.