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Play to Lose

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“Poker. Social game, human primarily, but similar games of chance evident across culture lines. Primarily--”

“Deal, Mordin,” Ashley said, swigging her beer.

Mordin started, blinking away the flash of irritation at a good lecture interrupted, but he nodded and deftly began to deal the cards. Ashley never expected a Salarian to be any good at cards, but Mordin was holding his own. Beside Ashley, Vega tore his gaze away from Traynor’s rack long enough to toss in the blind.

It had been his idea, though for the life of her, Ashley couldn’t figure out why Vega continued to play cards. He had been losing steadily all night, and considering the turn the game had taken, he was in good spirits about it. The original suggestion to wager clothes instead of chips had come during one of Mordin’s (many) dissertations on the history of games of chance, but it had been Tali who brought it up, surprisingly. It made sense that a Quarian wouldn’t understand strip anything.

She’d been tossing cards with Vega and Traynor, whiling away their off-shift hours. Shepard was planetside with Garrus and Javik, dealing with some Cerberus issue. Ashley still had plenty of thoughts about Shepard and Cerberus, none of them kind. There was more than a little tension between them, enough that Ashley couldn’t really blame the Commander for not bringing her on more missions.

She got her fair share of rotations, but even Ashley had to admit, it wasn’t the same as it had been before. Trust had been broken, and no amount of professional skill would or could replace it. It helped a little that Thane had come with her, reluctantly agreeing that he could consult for Shepard. Ashley still wasn’t sure if he’d agreed to come out of loyalty to the Commander or loyalty to her-- his had been the first face Ashley had seen when she woke up on the Citadel, he had been her constant companion through physical therapy, a needed confidant when considering whether to accept the offer to become a Spectre, they’d survived the attack by Cerberus together… whatever his reasoning, she felt better to have him there, knowing he had her back.

The crew was more accepting-- either old friends or Alliance, they were more than willing to give Ashley a second chance. Garrus was the exception, but Ashley wasn’t stupid or blind; she could read the look in his eyes perfectly fine, turian or not. A man in love looked the same no matter the species.

It wasn’t the same, but she was working with a crew that mostly trusted her and helping fight a good fight. It was close enough.

Card games were a familiar way to pass the time, and off-shift meant she could have a cold beer, even during armageddon. The crew played prolifically when they weren’t on duty; there wasn’t much else to do, except sit and worry and clean your weapons for the hundredth time. She had initially been looking for Thane and a decent sparring match, but found Vega and Traynor playing Blackjack in the lounge, instead. Thane had been there, but his color was bad and his breathing seemed strained. He’d smiled at her when she came in, but she didn’t miss the relief in him when she joined the card game and left him to his book.

It wasn’t impossible to play poker with three, but Vega had managed to wrangle Mordin out of the lab to be their fourth. The female Krogan had followed after, and where Eve went, Wrex had a way of turning up. Of the three additions, Wrex was the one that bothered Ashley most...ly because he’d bluffed her out of her shirt, leading her with an unsuited big lick.

Six and nine, he’d said with a leer, and laughed in that slow, drawling way. Big lick. Off with the shirt.

Ashley had been in the military too long to for modesty, unconcerned by played up leers and wolf whistles, though she’d felt uncomfortably warm when Thane looked up from his book and studied her for a long moment. Thank God, Traynor had been forced to bet her shirt a few hands after, leaving both women in their bras.

Traynor had a fantastic eye for lingerie, Ashley supposed, if the way she was studying Ashley’s silk and lace were any indication. Ashley wasn’t usually one for impractical frills, but lately she’d had a hard time resisting the impulse to buy herself fancy underwear. A side effect of the end of the world. Or at least, that’s what she decided to believe. It was either that or the company she kept.

She folded her next hand, uninterested in bluffing, even with a king high. Mordin was blinking too often, an easy clue he was holding. She wasn’t paying too much attention to the game-- Vega was down to his tank, so there was some good flesh on display-- when Shepard arrived. She wasn’t kitted out and her hair was wet, slicked to her head, so Ashley assumed she’d been back a while.

“What’d I miss?” Shepard asked, walking past them to the bar. She hunted up a beer of her own, held them up in offer to the crew playing.

“Not much,” Ashley said. “Wrex bluffed me out of my shirt, but he’s got sh--nothing this hand.”

“You going to trust a topless human, Salarian?” Wrex asked and Mordin cocked his head, considering. He nodded once.


“Yes. Despite recent trend of loss, Lieutenant Commander Williams demonstrates a firm understanding of krogan body language. Raise.” He tapped his chest plate to indicate his wager.

“You’re playing strip poker with a salarian and a krogan?” Garrus’s drawl came from the door, and Ashley tilted her head back to see Shepard toss him a dextro-bottle. He snagged it out of the air without turning his attention from the game. “Spirits, I don’t think any of us wins that game.”

“Aw, shut it, Scars. You too yellow to play or what?” Vega asked, spreading his arms in challenge.

“Oh, I think I can hold my own,” Garrus said, shifting his weight and lifting his chin slightly.

“Deal us in,” Shepard said, settling into one of the free seats. Wrex immediately tossed down his cards and began to gather the deck. Mordin protested that this was forfeiting, while Wrex maintained that he was allowed, since they’d received a direct order from the Commander. This argument lasted until they were resettled around the table. Shepard took over dealing without comment.

Tali sat at the table, but held up a hand when Shepard went to deal her in. “I cannot, Shepard. I have nothing to bet with,” she said, tilting her head. Her tone was rueful. “Quarians are not meant to play strip poker, I guess.”

“Hold on,” Traynor said. Shepard stilled in the act of shuffling and they all watched Traynor leave the room. When she came back, she was dragging Liara behind her. “Tali was just watching, because she couldn’t bet. But Liara, if you didn’t mind, you could stand in for her? Tali could play and bet--”

My clothes?” Liara asked, head cocked. “How exactly would that work?”

“Well, you’d have to be willing, of course, but who doesn’t want to see an Asari lose at strip poker?” Traynor asked, then added belatedly: “Ma’am.”

Liara shook her head, but her lips were curled upward at the corners. She settled herself next to Tali at the table, across from Traynor. Her eyes were bright with mischief, and Ashley decided to get herself another drink rather than consider the implications of that.

She stopped by Thane on her way back, tilting her head to study him. His breathing was definitely more strained than usual. “Did you take anything?” she asked, in a quiet voice.

He shook his head, but didn’t look up from his book. “There is nothing to take, siha,” he murmured. “You do not need to worry.”

“Thane,” she said, flinty.

He looked up, then, but his gaze was slow, lingering as it traced over her skin and up to her face. He blinked once at her, slowly, knowing he’d thrown her with the look. Damn him.

“Nothing stops me from dying,” he said, in an undertone, “and the things that stop the pain also cloud my mind. I would like to be clear headed for a while. Go play your game.”

Ashley blew out a frustrated breath and went back to the table, aware of his gaze on her bare back. Let him look, stubborn damn alien. Shepard was watching her when she sat down, the Commander’s eyes seeing too much. Ashley glared at her, but dropped her gaze to her cards, determined to focus on the game, instead.

Shepard liked cards. She had grown up military and cards were a soldier’s best friend. They didn’t take up much space, they weighed very little, and everyone you met knew at least some version of Blackjack and Poker, no matter what race they were. Poker was a great game for a commanding officer to learn-- if you couldn’t read a bluff or a tell, you rarely lived long enough to regret it on the battlefield.

Shepard took Vega out on cowboy kings. He was mostly defeated anyways, and an easy read, always willing to go big if he was going to bet at all. He would try to get himself out of trouble with bravado and distraction, which rarely worked in his favor. Shepard felt Garrus’s amused eyes on her as she won Vega’s boots, socks, belt, shirt, and pants in successive hands.

“Damn, Lola, you don’t play. That wasn’t a game, that was a massacre,” Vega said, pushing away from the table. Several sets of eyes followed him as he went to get fresh drinks for everyone. Tali leaned back in her chair to get a better view when he bent to get glasses.

“Lacks subtlety,” Mordin said, though whether he was commenting upon the open admiration of Vega’s loss or Shepard’s strategy remained unclear.

Shepard grinned at Mordin. “I’ve always wondered what a Salarian looks like, naked,” she said and Ashley almost snorted liquor up her nose in laughter.

“Mostly like you’d imagine, except they have a little ridge, here,” Tali said, holding her hand up chest high. She looked up to find everyone staring at her. “What? I went on Pilgrimage, didn’t I?”

“One day, you will have to explain that connection to me,” Eve said, from her spot nearby.

Tali won the next hand, to her delight. Shepard lost her boots, Wrex lost his hump-guard, Garrus removed his gauntlets, and Traynor and Ashley both lost belts. Mordin tried to rally, but without much success. Tali was good at running odds and reading body language, but inexperience handicapped her luck. A few times, she mixed up body language-- what was obvious pride for salarians looked like defeat to a quarian. Ashley and Traynor kept up, though Shepard had known Ashley was a decent player from previous experiences. She was distracted by Thane’s presence-- any time he coughed, she lost her focus on the game. The easy tells were catalogued away as Shepard focused her attention on Wrex. Garrus and Shepard whittled away his armor bit by bit, but the sheer quantity was daunting.

They were saved from learning about krogan anatomy when Eve fell into a coughing fit. Wrex and Mordin cashed out to see to her, leaving the room significantly emptier.

Garrus made his first move shortly after that, betting Shepard out of her shirt. She usually didn’t worry about when he would; with his damn sniper’s patience, she knew he could out-wait her, so giving him much attention beforehand was rarely worth it. He flared his mandibles in amusement as he flipped over eights wired, giving him trip eights.

“You bet your shirt on a beer hand?” Ashley asked when Shepard turned over her seven and two. Shepard shrugged and pulled off her shirt. She wore a black lace bra and a truly breathtaking array of scars.

“Bluffing big has always been a strong suit of mine,” she said, tossing her shirt at Garrus.

“I’ve never known you to bluff at all,” he said, folding her shirt and setting it on the table as a trophy. “Eyes up, Vega.”

Vega’s eyes snapped to Shepard’s face. He caught himself and scowled. “Man, what’s the fun in playing if you can’t look at the losers?”

“I look at things, too,” Garrus remarked, as Shepard dealt out a new hand. “Mostly though the crosshairs on my scope.”

“Good point,” Vega said, settling in next to Tali and Liara to ‘help.’


“If you didn’t want him to look, you should have bought my bluff,” Shepard said, keeping her face blank. “Look away, Vega. Maybe you’ll find a good place for that tattoo.”

“I think he is blushing,” Tali said, considering the man. She poked a finger at his shoulder.

It took a few more hands to take out Liara. Traynor took the liberties, winning on a flush with the eight and six of clubs. “Quarian hand,” Traynor said. “Curvy and suited.”

“I don’t understand,” Tali said, frowning at her hand. “I thought a seven and a two were a good combination? Why would Shepard challenge Garrus with it otherwise?”

Vega laughed, leaning in close to look at the cards. “They call it a beer hand because it’s a good time to get a beer, Sparks. Not a good way to go out, no? She was bluffing him.”

“Well. Your prize,” Liara said, stripping off the scrap she wore as a bra. She was an excellent example of her species, completely lacking modesty. She smiled without malice at the eyes on her. Traynor took the bra, trying desperately not to stare at the indigo tips of Liara’s breasts.

And failing.

That was the end of Traynor. It only took two hands before she was also topless. The room was warm enough for them all to be comfortable, and she joined Liara on the couch with Thane to watch the next hands. She watched the next few rounds in silence, keeping her attention firmly on Ashley, Garrus and Shepard. Ashley kept her back to them, but Traynor noticed that the woman was watching them in the mirror on the wall. Whatever was distracting her, it proved to be enough to weaken her game. Shepard took the kill shot, taking her out easily.

Ashley put her bra on the pile and stalked to the bar, mixing herself a fresh drink. Traynor watched the way Thane’s gaze followed her, the way he watched Ashley bend over. She caught Liara’s eye and they went to sit beside Vega and Tali on the other couch, ignoring the bland look Thane gave them.

Ashley made no comment as she sat down beside Thane, fully nude and completely unconcerned by it. She handed him the drink. “I know you have one on you. Take it.”

He stood up and shrugged out of his jacket, retrieving a small bottle of pills from an inner pocket before draping it around her shoulders. He took one and washed it down with a gulp of whiskey, settling beside her again. “You should not let this bother you so, siha,” he murmured. “There are more enjoyable things to focus on.”

“Like your memories of my tits?” she asked, catching him off guard. He began to protest before he caught the look in her eyes, of amusement and sorrow, of fire and ice.

He turned his attention back to the game, instead.

“You two play poker the same way you fight,” Traynor said, watching Shepard collect Garrus’s boots. The Commander herself was barefoot already.

“What?” Shepard asked, shuffling.

“You and Garrus, you play cards with the same strategy you use when you run sims or combat missions.” Traynor leaned forward, getting into her theory. “Shepard, you take the frontal assault--”

“He was the one who won my shirt,” Shepard protested.

Traynor rolled her eyes. “I meant that you attack a player more directly. If there’s a confrontation, it’s usually you and the opponent.”

Liara’s eyes widened as she caught on to the pattern as well. “Oh. That’s true, Shepard. Most of the final hands were between you and another player.”

“That’s you,” Garrus agreed. “I told you, you’re getting too predictable.”

“And you! You pick off key pieces!” Tali jumped in, jabbing a finger at Garrus. “You take up support... s-sniping! Sniping off bras!”

She had put on Liara’s bra, Shepard noticed. Over her suit. “Liara’s bra goes well with your emergency induction port,” she said.

“Thank you,” Tali sniffed, tilting her head up. “I wanted to try on Traynor’s, but it wouldn’t fit over my suit.”

“Story of my life,” Traynor said, with a sigh.

“So, this game should go the way our missions usually go?” Shepard asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m good with that,” Garrus said.

Shepard dealt the cards out with practiced flicks of her wrist. “Really? I didn’t take you for an exhibitionist, Garrus.”

He glanced at his cards, looked up at her. “Call. Remind me what you said in the Collector base, Shepard? Was it ‘Garrus, help!’ or ‘Garrus, get these Collectors off me now!’? ‘Garrus, I’m getting overrun’?”

“Shepard’s going to win this hand,” Ashley said in an undertone to Thane, tucking her legs up under her on the couch. Her knees rested against his thigh, a warm, comfortable weight.


Vega overheard and shook his head. “No way. Garrus has this locked up,” he said.

Liara cocked her head, studying the table. “No, I think Ashley is correct. Garrus is trying to distract her.”

“We can hear you,” Shepard said. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Vega. Hooters, Vakarian. Don’t break a talon on those clasps.”

Tali peered at the pair of threes Shepard was showing, which beat Garrus’ king high. “Why are those called hooters?”

Shepard scooped up one of the cards and turned it to show her, setting off a fit of giggles from Tali. Garrus grumbled as he clicked off his gorget.

“Ah! Breastplate, too. Welshing already, Vakarian?” Shepard asked.

“They’re separate pieces of armor,” Garrus countered, rubbing at his cowl. His new armor might be more durable than his old stuff, but it itched.

Shepard looked over at their audience. “We’ll let the judges decide,” she said, gesturing to the mostly drunk, mostly naked crowd. She wondered if she could convince EDI to leak the footage back to the Illusive Man. He’d hate that she was using his resources this way.

Garrus was already removing his breastplate by the time they were satisfied they’d fully voiced their agreement with Shepard. He sighed and stretched, dropping the heavy piece of armor beside her chair.

“Shepard!” Liara gasped when she saw Garrus’s back. “Goddess, do you have any idea how hard it is to scratch up a turian’s back like that?”

“Do you?” Shepard asked, interested.

“That is not the point,” Liara said, though her smile betrayed her.

Shepard was thinking about how Garrus had gotten those scratches, and he won the next hand. She quickly won back lost ground, focusing on the task ahead.

There was something she would do with her neck, a way of touching an old scar that seemed to distract Garrus, Ashley noticed. He completely lost focus when she did it, and she thought she heard him growl once. The turian’s attention was firmly locked upon her, as Shepard gathered up the cards to shuffle.

She watched her commander deal what was surely the last hand.

Beside her, Thane exhaled, the pain medication having hit him hard. His fingers were tangled in her hair, playing with the strands absently. His hand crept up her back, until he was stroking the nape of her neck. The light touch sent a shiver down her spine and when she looked at him, his gaze was heated. She shifted her weight, uncomfortable with her nudity for the first time. Or maybe just uncomfortable with their audience.

Thane turned his head and coughed into his free hand. It was forced, but not as fake as Ashley would have liked. “If you will excuse me,” he said, watching her. “I am overtired. Siha,--”

She cut him off, rising off the couch and pulling him up. “Goodnight,” she said. “You can leave my clothes outside Life Support, skipper.”

Shepard waved her a lazy salute, not taking her eyes off the game.

There was an intensity to her gaze that made Traynor realize it was time to go as well. “I think that is all for me,” she said. She nudged the others when neither spared her a glance.

Tali looked up at her, then back at the game before she caught on. She laughed. “Oh! Oh, yes. Right. Give him hell, Commander. Keelah se’lai,” she said as they all got up to leave. Liara caught Vega by the ear when he made to stay.

Shepard broke Garrus’ gaze as the doors to the lounge slid shut behind the others. “You want to play the last hand?” she asked.

Garrus’ leaned back, flared a turian grin at her. “You know me, Shepard. I never walk away from a lost cause.”