Dead Hearts II

Chapter 35 of Ghost in the Machine

Everyone seemed reluctant to leave the Comm Room. Everyone except Wrex, who was already out the door. The humans dragged their feet, looked from Shepard to Nihlus and back, and exchanged uncertain glances as if they weren’t sure if the meeting was over. They weren’t the only ones suffering from the impression that it wasn’t. Tali stood next to the door, just outside the range of the proximity sensors, bending her fingers in uncomfortable ways and unmistakably staring at Garrus. But Garrus wasn’t looking back; he was saying something to Shepard, something quiet and secret-like, whispering right into her soft, meaty ear in a way that made wisps of her hair dance in his breath. Shepard wasn’t listening. She was focused on Liara with a strange expression of red-alert wariness coupled with motherly concern. But Liara wasn’t aware of it; she was looking at Nihlus expectantly, pleadingly, just about ready to fall in his arms and open the deep, dark well of her soul to him again. For real, this time, her eyes were saying. Swim, and perhaps drown together in the warm, weightless void.

Nihlus wasn’t interested. All he wanted was for everyone to get the fuck out already so he could check his messages. The hope that Saren would answer his challenge was eating him alive. Sure, he could have elbowed his way out and gone back to his cabin, but rudeness would have attracted attention. Attention was the last thing he needed. Too many eyes followed his every damn move already. Garrus, Shepard, Liara. He cared little. They were no longer his team.

Ha. They had never been his. They had never been a team either.

He realized his fingers had been playing with something, and looked down. The control panel for the viewports stared back at him with the typical indifference of a machine. The commands were in a human script, but the arrangement was the same as on any turian vessel. He couldn’t remember what he wanted with them. He tapped an icon at random.

The viewports started to close. Before Nihlus got to say I’m sorry, everyone was suddenly in motion. Tali turned on her heels and marched down the corridor. Garrus cleared his throat to get Shepard’s attention-but leaning down as he was, she bumped her forehead against his chin, which resulted in a mess of awkward smiles and apologies. Williams snorted at that and muttered something that Nihlus didn’t quite catch, but it sounded nasty enough for Alenko to grab her arm and direct her towards the exit, shaking his head. The commotion seemed to sober Liara up, too; out of the corner of his eye, Nihlus saw her rub her forehead and stalk out after the humans.

“See me later in my quarters,” Shepard told Garrus, and hurried out as well.

Nihlus won a bet with himself when Garrus didn’t follow. After the door closed behind Shepard’s back, they stood in motionless silence for a long time, tension gathering between them even though they didn’t so much look at one another. There was no need. A thick aura of wordless accusations had been spreading around Garrus ever since they had landed on Noveria. Nihlus, too, had probably been wearing his own dark little cloud of emotional exhaustion. Paranoia, even. He knew it was his stress talking, but he could swear he was being watched all the fucking time. Watched, and judged.

Anger bubbled up from his stomach. Why the fuck couldn’t they just give him a fucking second to check his fucking messages? Was it so much to ask for? A moment of peace and privacy, a moment for himself, without anyone asking him for anything? For Spirits’ sake!

“Want me to leave you alone?” said Garrus, quietly. When Nihlus looked up, barely biting back a bitter, bitter, yes, yes, please leave me the fuck alone — he was struck by that elusive feeling humans called deja vu. Instead of Garrus, there he was, ten years ago, a whole life ago, trying to be kind, trying his fucking best to not anger the other; and instead of present-day-him, there was Saren, steaming with anger from having his innermost soul, guarded so carefully against all others, suddenly laid open for some wide-eyed recruit who just kept asking all the wrong questions.

All the right questions.

His heart skipped a beat. And another. He took a deep breath. The anger had wilted away, leaving a huge, black hole behind and damn, it wasn’t easy, filling it with air, but he had to try. Because he was better than that. Spirits forgive him, he had to be better than that.

“No,” he mouthed, following it up with a weak shake of his head.

Garrus nodded, then gestured at Nihlus’ left hand. “Go ahead. Don’t mind me.”

Nihlus laughed. “You knew.”

“Well.” Garrus shifted, looking almost embarrassed. “You know what they say. Once a cop, always a cop.”

“Did you tell Shepard?”

“Of course not. She’d throw you out the airlock, and she’d have every right to do it.” He shook his head. “There’s more truth in that always-a-cop bullshit than I want to admit. I still can’t believe I’m doing this. You better tell me it was worth it.”

Nihlus swallowed a hard knot that had been building in his throat. There was so much he wanted to say, but just couldn’t. The gratitude, the humility, the nagging feeling that he had done nothing, nothing to deserve the faith of this honorable man, faith and admiration and… fuck… love. And all the while, his faith, admiration and love were invested into Saren. No matter what. Not even a fucking bullet could get them out of his head.

He couldn’t say any of it, but some must have gotten out anyway, through whatever his face looked like, through the childish trembling of his mandibles, because Garrus turned away to avoid it. Nihlus also wanted to say that he was sorry, that he was so sorry for putting Garrus in this disgusting situation, for being anything but the hero he was expected to be, but he knew his voice would break and that would be too much.

So instead, he turned on the damn omni. He’d stolen it from Benezia’s body in the midst of the chaos, certain that nobody had been looking at him because they’d been so focused on Liara. He had hidden it. He had rigged it to transmit their coordinates. He had bullied his way through the Normandy’s security, overriding Alliance safety protocols with his Spectre authorizations. He hadn’t told Liara about it, even though there were a lot of private things backed up in local storage. Poems, letters, manuscripts. The legacy of a Matriarch, kept secret from her own daughter. And for what? For that last little shred of hope, the little flame keeping his blood warm.

I was able to hide my feelings… seal that part of me away from indoctrination… Remember that, when you meet him.

For a brief moment, his whole being was invested into wishing a reply from Saren directly from the realm of fantasy into hard, factual existence. There will be a new-message notification waiting for him. He could almost see it, the elegant little icon of a bird’s wing, blinking attractively, irresistibly. It will be a reply from Saren and it will be pregnant with all the words of affection Nihlus had been coveting for years. He could almost hear them, he could almost feel Saren’s hot breath on his ear, whispering.

Yes, Nihlus, you are right. Ha, that would be a first. Or, better yet: Yes. I will do as you say. Spirits, that could give him an instant orgasm. But the best of all would surely be: I will do it, Nihlus. I will do it — for you.

He clenched his teeth, and opened his eyes.

Nothing.

“Damn it,” he muttered to himself. Memories of countless situations just like this one flooded him with bitterness and anger anew. “If you won’t say yes, be a man and say no, for fuck’s sake.”

But the empty inbox didn’t say a thing.

“I guess that’s a no,” said Garrus, making Nihlus jump. He had forgotten he wasn’t alone.

“I thought…” he started, stopped, shook his head. “I hoped.” He had known better than to expect a reply. Let alone a positive reply. But he had hoped for something. Anything. Any sign of life, of a willingness to communicate, if not to cooperate. He had spent hours putting together that short message. Rewritten it a dozen times, weighing every word, every phrase, adding and deleting whole paragraphs, writing them again, deleting them again, aiming for maximum effect — all under the assumption that he knew whom he was addressing, deep down under all the walls and fences. What Saren valued, what he feared. Whom he loved.

No reply meant no effect. And that meant his assumption had been flawed.

“It hasn’t been that long,” Garrus said. “Give it some more time?”

“Maybe.” He tried to smile. “Time is all we have.”

But he didn’t believe it. With each passing day, hour, and now, minute, the little flame was dying out.

It was simple, really. If his assumption was flawed, if all the years of intimacy and trust had been no more than figments of his imagination, if the man he had bared his soul to had been just a figment of his imagination, a construct of his blind optimism and his refusal to face a darker reality — if his assumption was flawed, then everything was up in the air, everything was in question. His entire adult life, his career, his faith in his own sanity.

Had any of it ever been real?

Suddenly, he had to know. He no longer cared that he was not alone. His fingers were cold as ice, his hand trembling, and when he took the little plastic case out of his left pocket, it and a whole mess of other nonsense clattered to the floor. He knelt down, but Garrus was faster. Handed him the case. Nihlus snatched it jealously, perhaps even growled, and immediately hated himself for it.

This was it: everything was falling apart. He could feel it. The very fabric of his existence was unravelling. And the aimlessly dangling threads were kept together solely by the thing inside the case.

There was nothing inside the case.

#

“I’m sorry, Shepard, but my hands are tied. There’s nothing I can do short of going to the Council again and accusing yet another Spectre of going rogue. And you saw how that went last time.”

Shepard bit down hard on the inside of her cheek. Anderson looked like he hadn’t heard anything she’d told him. He was seated at a fancy desk, with a fancy view of the Presidium shining through a fancy panoramic window behind his back. Still at the Embassy. Pushing papers. His attention had been divided between her and the three different datapads that he frequently checked for updates.

“Yes, sir,” she said, trying to keep her voice level, “but this is still an Alliance ship and I have a duty to our people. You can’t expect me to just sit on my hands while Nihlus sabotages the mission. He tried to transmit our position and heading to the enemy. You might as well just tell me to resign command and let him do whatever the hell he wants. Sir.”

Anderson pushed his datapads aside and leaned closer to the scanner. “Listen, Shepard. You know I don’t like this any more than you do. Taking Nihlus along was your idea, remember? And I agreed to it because you persuaded me it was the only way to stay in the loop. From where I’m standing, nothing has changed. You know what we’re dealing with. No one is in a better position to keep an eye on things than you are. And if the worst comes to worst…” He paused to give her a pointed look. “I trust you’ll handle the situation in the way that’s best for humanity.”

The words made her hair stand on end. She’d heard such words before. Seen such stares. A lifetime of meaning contained in a single glance.

God, not this shit again.

But the stare lingered, gaining intensity, demanding a response. She swallowed so hard it hurt. Frowned. Saluted. So he’d know this wasn’t her idea.

“Yes, sir. Understood.”

“Good. Anderson out.”

She barely had time to put her hand down when the door beeped. So soon? A quick glance at her omni: not even ten minutes had passed since the end of that disaster of a meeting.

Vakarian was standing in the doorway, looking all sorts of uncomfortable. “Commander.”

Shepard gestured for him to come in. But he remained silent for several long seconds after the door had closed behind him, looking like he was breaking his hands behind his back.

“What’s the matter, Garrus? Something bothering you?”

“Hmm,” he muttered. “Mmm.”

She stood motionless, waiting, searching his alien eyes for clues. He gave none. Alright. She crossed her arms and cleared her throat. “Is this about Nihlus?”

A sharp, ice-cold glance. But nothing else.

“Because I already know about Benezia’s omni and his ploy with the frequencies,” she added.

And finally, a reaction. Not the one she expected, though.

“Figures,” Garrus said. “You’re way better than he is.”

“At what?”

“Well. You know.” A chilling glare. “Stealing.”

There was a moment of familiar panic. Like being struck blind and deaf, with white light shutting off everything except the overwhelming wish to disappear, no matter how. Instant evaporation would be the best, but falling through a convenient hole in the floor would do just as well. Wasn’t going to happen, though. A wave of hot blood rushed into her head, inflaming her face. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Fuck,” she said aloud. “I knew it was a bad idea to bring a cop on board.” Another moment of uncertainty, and then she clasped her hands behind her back, stood at ease, and dug her eyes into a spot to the right of Garrus’ threatening form.

It wasn’t the first time. But damn, she thought she had it all under control. It was that fucking wallet. Otherwise, he’d never have figured her out. Now that he had, there was no escaping it.

“So. What’s it gonna be? If possible, I’d like to avoid public humiliation. Name your terms, Vakarian, and let’s get it over with.”

“Terms?”

Shepard couldn’t see his face, stubbornly looking at a fixed point on the wall as she was, but he sounded genuinely surprised.

“Yeah,” she said. “What do you want in exchange for keeping your mouth shut? Or maybe the word bribe is another archaic term in turian languages?”

“Ha. No.” He actually laughed, and when she stole a quick glance at him, he — absurdly — looked more relaxed than when he’d came in. “Not archaic at all. But it is a sort of obscenity.”

“Well.”

After a few moments of silence that could have been a lot more tense given the circumstances, Garrus stepped into her field of view. “Shepard.”

The way he said her name gave her shivers, and she had to look up in his eyes. No longer ice-cold.

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said slowly, “this can remain between the two of us. I have no interest in making your um… extracurricular activities… known to anyone else.”

She tried to hide a sigh of relief, then stopped halfway through when he said: “But.”

Yep. There’s always a but.

“I am going to ask you to return the crew’s personal items.”

She snorted. “No fucking way.”

He lifted his eyebrows — or whatever they were — in a universal gesture of skepticism. “It’s not really a request.”

“It’s blackmail,” she finished for him.

Garrus shrugged. “Call it my ‘terms’ if you will.”

“Shit.” She gave up the defiant posture and put a hand on her forehead, hiding from his eyes. “You don’t get it. I don’t know if I can do that.”

“Sure you can. Just say you found them somewhere.” He shifted weight from one foot to the other. “You’ll feel good after. You know, the way you feel after doing a good deed. Or undoing a bad one.”

“Are you trying to fix me, Vakarian? Not even the pros managed to do that.”

“Pros?”

“Yeah. Almost a decade of therapy.” What the fuck. Why are you telling him this? “Should probably do some more with all the shit going on recently.” Stop it. Just stop it.

“A decade of therapy for kleptomania? That’s a first.”

“Not just that.”

He looked at her, expectant. This time, when the inner voice said shut the fuck up, she took heed. “But from what I’ve seen, I won’t be the first Spectre with guests up here.” She knocked her knuckles against her skull, offering an uncertain smile.

He didn’t quite buy it. His face darkened, curiosity replaced with some kind of grim duty, eyes suddenly focused on the floor. “Yeah.”

She bit her lower lip. “It is about Nihlus.”

“Well. More about Saren, really. I’m starting to fear we’ll never find him. He’s always one step ahead, and with Nihlus helping him…”

“We’re getting close, Garrus,” she said, unable to stop the instinctive pat on his arm, like he was some goddamn recruit in need of encouragement. One of his mandibles flared out in something like a sideways smile. She realized she had never addressed him by name before and her cheeks flushed again. “We’ll find him,” she concluded clumsily, taking a step back.

“I wish I had your confidence. Seeing him get away with everything he’s done would be one tough pill to swallow.”

“What do you mean — get away with it?”

He gave her a cautious look. “Aren’t you worried that the Council might try to protect him? I mean, they were really dragging their heels before. What if we find him, and bring him back to the Citadel, and — nothing happens?”

Shepard frowned, trying to get back into a mission-related mindset. She turned around and sat on her cot, gesturing at Garrus to take the chair. He shook his head.

“You seem to have some thoughts on this,” she said. “Speak your mind.”

He straightened up. “Well. Maybe we shouldn’t give them the chance. Too much could happen. Nihlus could help him escape, or the Council might let him go. If we find him – when we find him – I say we make sure we stop him. Permanently.”

Handle the situation in the way that’s best for humanity.

“Take a seat, Vakarian.”

There. Mission mindset. She could hear it in the tone of her own voice, see it in his instant obedience. Good, because this shit was serious. It was also personal, and if it had been hinted at before, now it was glaringly obvious. Garrus was sweating. A bead of clear liquid trailed down the side of his neck, where the hide looked darker than usual. For the first time during the conversation, it occurred to her that it hadn’t been pleasant for him, either.

Indeed, now it was he with a hand on his forehead, hiding his eyes from her. “I don’t know, Shepard. What is it you humans say? I’m between a rock and a hard place. This feels like betrayal… but anything else is even more so.” He looked up at her, stayed there for a moment, then shook his head. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you.”

“Some.” She licked her lips. They had gotten incredibly dry. “Saren and Nihlus.”

Garrus nodded carefully.

“You said they’re close. How close?”

His mandibles clicked, closing around his chin, then worked up and down, as if he was trying to relax. When he finally spoke, it was in a different tone. “Pledged.”

Whoa. She knew it was something like that, but— “As in, married?”

“Not in legal terms, if that’s what you mean. But… kinda, yeah.”

Shepard scratched her head, then tried to smooth her hair back with little to no success. The mindset melted away like a crust of ice. All the things Nihlus had said, the strange reactions, the mysterious smile – his weakness, his absence, fuck, even his unsuccessful attempt at sabotage — it all made sense, and it made her stomach flip. Jesus Fucking Christ.

“So…” she cleared her throat. “You doubt that Nihlus is capable of dealing with this in a professional manner.”

“Would you be?”

She cocked her head at him. What an odd thing to ask. Like he could sense it, smell it. Fucking cop on board. Looking inside hidden places, forbidden places.

Yet she couldn’t find it in her to be angry with him.

“Yes,” she said. Her voice held.

Garrus ran a hand over his crest. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe that’s what it takes to be a Spectre.”

“Oh, I’m very much with you in doubting Nihlus,” she hurried to say. “Perhaps not his ability to deal with it as much as his intentions.” She bit her lip again. “But you probably know more about that than I do.”

“What do you mean?”

“You two are friends, aren’t you?”

“We don’t talk about Saren.”

“Maybe you should.”

He shook his head. “You don’t get it, Shepard. I don’t think I can do that.”

“Sure you can,” she said, keeping eye contact while she felt between the bulkhead and the side of the mattress. “Just say you found it somewhere.”

In the second it took him to notice her outstretched hand and the painfully blue ornament in it — God, it would be blood-blue for them, wouldn’t it? — Shepard experienced an emotion she’d never felt before. Trust, hope and humility, all mixed into a silent plea that had better been obvious from the way she was looking at him, because there was no way in the world she would ever say—

“Please,” she whispered.

He blinked at the thing, then lifted it carefully from her sweaty palm.

“You took this from Nihlus?”

A nod. She was pretty sure she’d be unable to speak even if she had worthwhile things to say.

“Do you know what it is?”

A shake of the head.

“It must have been… well. I guess it belonged to one of his parents.”

She swallowed. “Nihlus’?”

“No. Saren’s. See here?” He traced a group of angular sigils on the back side with his talon. “Arterius.”

They sat in silence, just breathing and looking at the ornament, for a whole minute.

“If you expect me to say I’m sorry,” she said at last, “that I’m regretful and repentant and that I’ll never do it again — you’ll be disappointed.”

He looked up, but said nothing. Perhaps it was the expressionless turian physiognomy, or her inability to read it, but the lack of judgment in his demeanor was very welcome.

“I’m not,” she concluded. “And I’m pretty sure I’ll keep doing it till the day I die. Which is, let’s face it, likely to be soon, so not that many people will suffer from piquing my curiosity.”

“You only steal from people you like?”

She shrugged. “You could say that. People I find interesting.”

“Ha. Good thing I’m not among them.”

A strangely self-deprecating tone. So entirely undeserved. She couldn’t withhold a devilish smile.

“What?” he said. “Even if you wanted to, I brought nothing of value here. Personal or otherwise.”

“You sure?”

He didn’t waste time replying and focused instead on her hand-rummaging between the mattress and the bulkhead again. The face he made when she showed him the vial was something to remember.

Shepard braced for anger, but his surprise evolved directly into something that almost resembled… admiration. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. “I totally forgot about that.”

“Valuable enough?”

He nodded, looking from her to the vial and back into her eyes. “And personal. Shit, Shepard. Do you know what that is?”

“Yes.”

The skeptical eyebrow went up again.

“Jeez. Palaven Middle Cobalt 33/C11, also known as Cipritine Blue. Memorized the number because it’s 11 and 33. I like nice numbers.” She felt the blush crawl up her neck again, and he was helpfully being completely motionless and silent, a fascinated smile plastered to his face.

“I really like the color, too,” she added at last.

Garrus coughed, or laughed, or both. “You should know that complimenting colors is considered flirting in my culture.”

“Good.”

He became serious by degrees, and she held his inquisitive stare as long as she dared. Which wasn’t all that long, given her disregard for personal safety in combat. She put the vial inside his hand and a spark fired between her finger and his talon. Neither flinched.

He turned the vial a few times, and then replaced it in her palm. “Keep it.”

Shepard wondered if her heartbeat was audible to him. It certainly sounded the case.

“As for the rest… you haven’t flirted me into forgetting my ‘terms’. I’ll take care of Nihlus, but…”

“Yeah. Got it. Under threat of public humiliation and all.”

“Exactly.”

He got up to leave.

“Garrus?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”


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