The hum of the engines was giving Garrus a hell of a headache.
It hadn’t bothered him before Donnelly and his crew installed the silly torque compensator into the guiding of the starboard cannon. Either there was a loose panel on the compensator, or the tech team hadn’t returned the panels in proper positions, and now there was a sickening resonance with one of the lower frequencies of the FTL core. Garrus had demanded that the engineering crew come back and reassemble the entire thing, but Donnelly wouldn’t hear of it. Literally. Garrus brought him in and told him what to listen to, where to put his hand to feel the vibration. He even produced the spectrum of acoustic waves present in the battery, with the offending peak clearly visible — and positioned just outside the range audible by humans. Donnelly shrugged and suggested they take the question to Miranda, but Garrus said no. He’d rather stand it for a couple days. Eventually he’d learn to filter it out.
Perhaps the headache was from grinding his teeth the entire day. It wasn’t just the damned resonance. The reality of serving on a human ship was taking its toll on his nerves. There was an entire array of little issues he’d learned to live with on the original Normandy, but forgot about in the interim: from the position of the toilets and the height of the chairs in the mess hall, to the whole assortment of unshielded devices that generated magnetic fields strong enough to produce unpleasant sensations in his plates, the many sources of irritable noises humans were deaf to, like the lights and the air filters and the circulation fans and even the damned microcarbon wiring that ran the length of the main power conduit. In each component whose final design diverged even slightly from the underlying turian engineering, there was at least one element that offended at least one of his senses. The air was too cold, the water in the dispensers not cold enough, the beds were too narrow, the pillows too small and the blankets too short. Not to mention he could only hope for real food once a week at best and had to eat the disgusting nutri-paste every single day.
You’re not on shore leave, Vakarian, he censured himself as he descended into the empty mess hall. Stop whining and relax a bit. He flexed his shoulders up and down and in circles, trying to loosen up his neck, then gaped his mouth as wide as he could, trying to uncramp his jaw. On top of the headache, his right eye was twitching — a nervous symptom he’d acquired on Omega. So, when Shepard turned up from the hallway, he was in the middle of rolling his head back and forth, with his jaw wide open, and one hand busy trying to massage his eye under the visor, all at the same time.
“And they tell me turians don’t dance.”
“Shepard? What are you doing here?”
She dismissed his confusion with a grin. “Glad to see you too, Garrus.”
There was a large box in her hands and now she put it in one of the tables and sat down.
“Got something for you,” she said, motioning him to sit beside her. The box was wrapped in many layers of thin cryoplastic foil, so he could guess there was something edible inside. He sniffed the air, but all he could pick up was her scent, alien yet unquestionably feminine. She was taking her sweet time unwrapping the foil.
“What is it?” he said, drawing a little closer.
“Can’t pronounce the name for the life of me, but I hope you’ll like it… There!”
The foil was off and she opened the box, revealing the most unexpected treasure: a whole pile of pomdargentis-ex-wienensis, a rare delicacy from Palaven. The fruit was endemic to a narrow region south of the Waynon Range, and refused to grow anywhere else, including artificial environments. Of course, there were many genetically engineered variants that were easier to produce and cheaper to procure, but any well-bred turian could tell the difference even from a cursory glance, and these were real. They must have cost a fortune! Just looking at the silvery skin of the plump little bundles made his mouth water. They smelled like home, like safety, like family, and for a moment, he was overwhelmed. And to think, he actually dared to whine about the food on the Normandy, and about serving among human crew. What turian, planet-side or elsewhere, had ever done something like this for him?
Humbled and ashamed, he didn’t know what to say.
“Pomdargents, Shepard – that’s the name. Pomdargents. And I haven’t seen one in years. Not since I was last on Palaven.”
“You’re welcome.” She smiled, and he felt an urge to pull her to and give her a good strong hug but all he dared do was spread his mandibles in affection and lower his voice into the deep registers reserved for friends and family:
“Thank you, Shepard. It’s a… it’s my favorite fruit.”
He could tell she didn’t understand the change in his voice. If he were to use that particular tone with a turian woman, she’d either slap him or hug him, or perhaps laugh at him — but he’d have laid his cards down. With humans, you had to spell everything out, either in words or in facial expressions. What turians lacked in expressiveness they made up for (and then some!) in the wealth of information they could encode in vocalizations. Unfortunately, even aliens with sensitive hearing, like the hanar and the drell, had great difficulties learning to interpret them properly. And humans definitely didn’t have very sensitive hearing.
He sighed. “Pom-“
She repeated after him. “Pom.”
“Pom-dar-gent. Ah! I get it: the silver fruit?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, calculating. “Not just because of the color?”
“No. There’s actual silver in the skin.”
Shepard nodded, gleaming with childlike fascination. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her like this on the original Normandy: hair loose, informal clothing, informal chatter. She’d used to broadcast a well-defined aura of professionalism, strictly business, chain of command, no fraternizing. Or perhaps back then he’d been attuned to receive those particular emissions and missed the others? So much had changed since those days. Nothing was certain any more other than the bare basics — friendship, trust, faith. He’d used to be the curious one, the naughty boy, and she, the grumbling, stern teacher. There was nothing left of that relationship now, it was all new, and it made him feel old.
“So… what are you waiting for?” she asked, studying him. The silence of his thoughts was long enough for her to notice — notice something.
“Nothing. I was just thinking of home.”
It wasn’t exactly a lie.
He took off his gloves and impaled a juicy pomdargent on his first talon. It gave a satisfying pop and the heavenly smell spread through the air. He ate it whole, chewing it a few times just for fun, to squeeze its sweet juice out. This time his grunts of enjoyment were impossible to misinterpret and Shepard relaxed back into her chair, watching and grinning. She grinned a lot more than she’d used to.
“I have to ask.” He gestured towards the box. “What’s the occasion?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I saw ‘Palaven’ in the ad and I thought of you. Wanted to give you something nice for a change, you know? Something that doesn’t have to do with guns and ammo.”
“I like guns.”
“So do I, but I like chocolate too.”
“That a hint for our next one-on-one? Subtle as always, Shepard.”
“Yeah, I’m a real princess.”
They chuckled. Garrus took another pomdargent. Spirits, they tasted like pure bliss. He imagined that, if he closed his eyes and tried hard to ignore the humming and ticking and crackling of the Normandy, he could almost feel the sun warming his plates through the window, the smell of summer trees and grasses swaying on the breeze that danced around their cottage in the mountains, the sound of the tiny stream bubbling, surging down the cliff hidden just behind the treeline. Mother would call for lunch, and he’d yell, in a minute! I just have to finish these reductions!
“It smells interesting,” Shepard said, waking him from his musings. “Reminds me of pineapple.”
“I tried pineapple on a dare once. No smell and no taste, nothing like this. Didn’t make me sick, though, which counts as good.”
Shepard took one pomdargent and felt it with her chubby fingers, then smelled it, then braved a little taste of the skin with the tip of her tongue. She looked at Garrus, a question in her eye.
“Go ahead, if you want.” He shrugged. “I’ve seen you do crazier things.”
She smirked and bit into the fruit without further ado.
This small act of foolishness captured the essence of her impulsive personality so perfectly that Garrus stopped chewing to watch and admire. Her intuition was never wrong. It was remarkable. While serving on the original Normandy, he’d hoped to learn from her, hone his own instincts by following hers, but the results were disappointing. No matter how hard he’d tried to reconstruct some recurring logic, some internal consistence, some predictable pattern that had made her succeed on every single mission, he couldn’t find it. It was because her decisions had never been entirely rational, as he came to understand later, and trying to interpret them rationally was the wrong way to go about it. The thing was, he didn’t know of another way. Follow his heart? It’s what she’d have said. But he already knew where that would take him, and it wasn’t a place he wanted to revisit any time soon.
“What do you think?” he said aloud.
“I like it!”
And there it was again, the excited glow, like a child with a new toy. Had she found some new passion for the little things in life after getting so close to dying? Had he? The thick juice started flowing down her chin and fingers and she tried to scoop it up with her tongue, then gave up and started laughing. “It’s weird! It’s making my mouth water too much.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Damned if I know.”
“Hmmm. I’ll keep an eye on you for a time, just in case.”
“Be my guest. I’m having another one.”
For a while they ate in silence, and Garrus noticed his headache was gone, as was the annoying tremor in his right eyelid. All he needed was some company, something to occupy his thoughts, drive away the memories. Something nice for a change.
Shepard produced a pocketknife and used it to cut the fruit and examine it. Under the thin, silvery skin, there were two layers of different density, but no unpleasant little seeds or anything of the sort to impair the pleasure. The inner part was squishy and held almost all of the juice, so cutting it resulted in a sticky yellow puddle on the table.
“Come on, Shepard. Just eat it whole, like this. You’re making a mess.”
“You’ve got a big mouth and sharp teeth. I’d choke on it.”
“Pfft. You humans think that every part of turian anatomy is out to get you. Claws that can shred your skin, heads that can knock you out, and teeth that can… rip your throats out? I’d expect someone like you to be immune to that kind of crap. Stupid leftovers after something that wasn’t even a war. I’m not saying there isn’t any of it on our side, but these myths of sharp body parts are…” He cringed and shook his head in distaste.
“You’re saying your teeth only look sharp, but aren’t really. That it?”
There was a challenge in her gaze, but with all the pomdargent juice smeared around her mouth, it was difficult to take her seriously.
“See for yourself.”
She reached for his face without a moment of hesitation and he could barely withhold from flinching backward. The invitation was meant as a joke, mostly, but she took it and now there was no way back. He swallowed and exposed his mouth to her, spreading his mandibles wide and unclenching his jaw as far as he could.
Shepard assumed a studious countenance as she first put her hand on the left side of his face. The touch felt good. He liked the way her fleshy little hand warmed up his carapace. Suddenly he was very self-conscious. Did she choose the left side of him rather than the scarred one for her sake or for his? Did it matter?
But now he could feel one of her fingers examining his teeth, one by one. What a curious situation. Another quirk of working with Shepard, and one that hadn’t changed a bit — her capacity to surprise seemed to be inexhaustible. Her finger counted all his canines, trying their sharpness, then suddenly slid along his tongue and started feeling the little teeth just behind his lower lip. He stood the treatment heroically and allowed her to perform her research in silence, wondering whether she would be startled if he were to make a sudden movement. Would she trust him or expect him to bite her like some animal? He decided to test her, and twitched his mandibles to the back with a violent little hiss just for good measure.
Cold as stone, she didn’t move a muscle, much less retract her finger. The only indication that she noticed the movement at all was in a momentary shift of focus, from his mouth to his eyes, but of course, there was nothing to frighten her there. He was satisfied. Still, it was all so odd. She touched everything: the inside of his cheek, the soft membrane where the skin joined with the carapace, his upper and lower lips, which she even pinched a little to test their flexibility and thickness.
Finally, she pulled back, surprising him again as she took the finger she’d just used to feel inside his mouth, and stuck it in her own. She sucked on it and swallowed the excess saliva (his saliva!) all in one smooth motion like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“So, what’s the verdict?” he said to hide his confusion, this time grateful for her deafness to his rattled lower harmonics. There was an unsettling sensation of tingling inside him and he didn’t want her to notice.
“I concede,” she said. “Not so sharp at all. Don’t know what I expected, really. But your talons still look damn dangerous to me.”
Before he could think himself out of it, he reached for her face and mimicked her actions: put his hand on her cheek, letting two talons brush against her skin, and seeking admittance into her mouth with the third. For a moment he wasn’t sure she’d let him in, and he braced himself for terrible embarrassment, but his fears were unfounded.
She parted her lips, so very soft and wet. As he inserted his finger into her mouth, he could feel the muscles on his stomach flexing in an involuntary and unmistakable response to what was now an undeniably erotic situation. Only, it wasn’t supposed to be. He knew their species were sexually compatible, in theory, and that there were couples, albeit rare, on the Citadel and in other places with diverse populations. But he had never been drawn like this to females of other species, not even to the asari, who were supposed to be universally attractive. Feeling this way about Shepard was disturbing and exciting, and no longer a thing that could be ignored.
To be fair, it wasn’t entirely new. There had been little, subtle signs from the moment they’d met on Omega. The way her gaze would linger on him when she thought he wasn’t looking, the way they only touched by accident, while she never hesitated to pat, shake, and even hug other crewmembers. The way he started noticing all of this, and more, her scent, her warmth, the way he relished her proximity and sought it in secret. Until this strange evening, though, it had all been in the realm of unspecified potentialities, friendly flirting, teasing, occasional (and innocent) daydreaming. However, even as utterly unprepared for this sudden development as he was, he found he was more than willing to take the game to a new level.
He let the pad of his finger slide across her wide molars, and his talon traced along her tongue. Everything about her was soft and welcoming and the slick warmth was melting him from the inside. When he passed her little canines and reached the flat front teeth, she closed her lips around his finger and sucked on it. He could feel her tongue testing the tip of his talon, and then it started circling his finger. She pulled, and pushed, in miniscule motions, barely perceptible yet with a definite rhythm, and it caused him to imagine other things being so enveloped by those plump, lush lips. He tried to fight the imagery but it was irresistible. Turians had few customs, sexual or otherwise, that involved lips, though many relied on the tongue. Suddenly her lips occupied all his attention. The fleshy, juicy folds, glistening and inviting. To kiss them! That was what he wanted, even though he only had a very vague idea of how it would feel and what it would mean.
He only became aware that he’d produced a deep, seductive growl when it had already left his chest. But he was beyond embarrassment and didn’t even consider explaining himself. It was her game, after all.
She let go of his finger, though not before she licked it clean, talon and all, never breaking eye contact.
“So now you know,” he said.
Shepard said nothing. It was difficult to tell what she was thinking or feeling. She was no longer smiling; the playful curiosity had waned from her eyes. There was something else in there, burning in a way Garrus had never seen before.
He wanted to interpret it as desire, but damn, he was far from sure. Lame lines passed through his head like a parade of cartoon ghosts. He had no idea how to ask the question. A turian woman would have read it all from the intensity of his stare and the throbbing in his voice. But there was a human in front of him and for all he knew, she could have simply been lost in thought about something completely unrelated to… cross-species intercourse.
The very thought was so ridiculous that he chuckled, and some of the tension left his body, a silly idea forming in his mind. “You know, Shepard, it’s strange, going into a suicide mission on a human ship. Your people don’t prepare for high-risk operations the way turians do.”