Chapter 36 of Ghost in the Machine
It was dark inside the cabin. Dark and stuffy. When had he last been in here? Garrus couldn’t remember. The emergency lights from the corridor were just about strong enough to paint the vague outlines of the spartan furnishing, a fuzzy stain on the metal floor the only reflection. Nothing to see anyway. A crew cabin like any other. Well. It was still new. You could tell from the sharp edges of the bed frames and the lingering smell of paint. It wasn’t enough to drown out the reek of alcohol, though. It alerted him to the other’s presence even before he sensed movement on the cot to the right.
“Coming in, or getting out?” Nihlus slurred. “Make up your mind quickly, because there’s not much left.” The sound of liquid, sloshing about in a metal container, testified to that.
“Coming in,” Garrus said and moved away from the door, allowing it to close. Darkness flooded the cabin.
“My man.” More sloshing, then a gulp, and a long, heady ahhhh. “Come here.”
Something pulled on his arm with ferocious urgency and he lost balance, landing blindly on top of Nihlus. The cot let out an alarming crack. They froze. A heartbeat passed. Another. Garrus had just started to relax when another crack sounded, and everything sank down.
“Shit,” he said. When Nihlus laughed, it sounded like it was coming from far away, and Garrus realized, in the pitch black dark, that he had effectively buried Nihlus in the mattress. A strangely arousing thought. “We broke the bed,” he muttered.
“Yeah.” The fruity scent of whatever Nihlus had been drinking was so heavy on his breath that a man could get drunk just by being close to him. Not that alcohol was required for that. “About fucking time,” he added.
The next thing Garrus knew, his mandible was being licked. His mouth, his tongue. He heard himself groaning, his body faster to reach decisions than his head, just like in combat. It was impossible to tell if his eyes were closed or open. Ha. That was applicable to a number of recent situations, not just this… whatever it was… Spirits! Talons digging into his back made him clutch the sheets but the sound of splitting fabric came from his fatigues. That would leave marks. The thought went through him like a flaming arrow, setting everything on fire.
“You always open up so quickly, Vakarian?” Nihlus whispered, grinding against him.
“Fuck you,” Garrus managed to utter. He ground back. Resistance was futile. There was just something about this man that made him completely crazy. It was more than lust. Deeper. From inside his chest, working up his throat, words he wanted to say for ten years. “Fuck me.”
The reward was immediate and overwhelming. Nihlus whimpered, left a wet trail on the side of Garrus’ neck, hooked his leg just under the spur, then bucked up from under him in a violent burst of motion. They toppled over and down on the floor, making a racket that would surely raise many a hairy human eyebrow in the adjoining cabins. Perhaps someone would even try to check in on them, or report them to the Commander, because this sounded like a fight. It felt like a fight too. Clothes being torn, talons slashing over plates, knees and elbows everywhere. Tongues everywhere. Teeth. Nihlus caught his wrists and pinned them to the floor above his head, bearing down. A momentary whiplash of panic transmuted directly to even more arousal, and Garrus braced for a savage thrust, trying to relax—
But instead, something changed.
There was a moment of silence, full of breathing. Then Nihlus shifted to remove his weight from Garrus’ chest, leaned down, and kissed his cheek-plate. The next kiss landed on his ear, and the sudden gentleness of the touch was impossible to connect with the feral passion that had led to it. Garrus swallowed. It wasn’t bad, but—
Nihlus kissed his neck, his shoulder, licked his armpit. He removed one hand from Garrus’ wrists, leaving the other to keep up the mock restraint, and ran his talons down Garrus’ arm. His body, warm and heavy, damped the shivers. It was moving, snug against Garrus’ naked chest, between his legs. Nihlus was unplated, but unbelievably, he was retracting. Something was off about this. Something—
He could clearly hear Nihlus smile at his hesitation, the slightest chafe of spreading mandibles. It felt like he was supposed to speak, maybe apologize or explain himself, but there was no time to even consider it. Because Nihlus rubbed his face into Garrus’ cheek, setting off some hidden alarm. He would have proceeded to finish it off with the foreheads, there was no question about it.
Garrus shrunk back. “Stop.”
An unintelligible mutter. Nihlus’ face was in his neck again.
He squirmed his hands, but that didn’t appear to go over either. He raised his voice. “Nihlus. Let go. Right now.”
Nihlus released him. “What?”
He pulled back, hit the door with his head, sat up.
He didn’t want to say it. Hell, he didn’t even want to think it, but it was out before he could stop it. “You were thinking of him, weren’t you?”
At first there was nothing. Then Nihlus sat back too.
Shit? Shit? Garrus stared into the darkness in front, waiting for more, but his own heavy breathing was all he could hear. Perhaps the air was so stale because the filter had died. Perhaps that was why he felt like he was suffocating. He opened his mouth, pulling it straight in through a tight, parched throat. Shit indeed. Shit, shit, shit.
Something cold and metallic touched his hand.
“Here,” Nihlus said.
It was the flask. Half-empty. He fiddled with the cap with a trembling hand for what felt like half a fucking minute, but it was worth it. Sweet and spicy, but with a mean burn that stripped his throat raw. Good. At least he could breathe again.
“Thanks,” he muttered. Ridiculous. A fist in the fucking face, that was what he was supposed to give him, not his fucking thanks. Forearm on the throat, pressure, wheezing and cracking and then nothing. He took another gulp to purge the violent thoughts. Didn’t quite work. His mind was replaying their sparring match for him, conveniently slowing down to remind him of all the subtle deficiencies he’d seen, but had chosen to ignore. Slight imbalance during left side kick. Elbows flaring out before a spin. Predictable timing. Like a fucking invitation. The muscles in his right shoulder trembled eagerly at the thought of hitting Nihlus in the face, over and over again, until his anger was spent.
“No shit,” he blurted.
“I got carried away. It won’t happen again.”
Garrus choked on the booze, but it didn’t stop him from laughing. “You can say that again.”
The finality of his own words only hit him after another swig. He was no longer sure if it was the alcohol, the anger, or the pain, incinerating his chest from within. Like on his worst days in C-Sec — not even months in the past, yet the memories were as distant as a tale of someone else’s life — he found himself longing for his rifle and an elevated position. He’d shoot Nihlus first, of course. Incendiary round to the chest. Oh yes. Liara would be next, and then Wrex, with his fucking lessons for the kids. Dr Chakwas. Pressly. Alenko. Yeah.
He’d let Shepard live.
“Anything left in there?” Nihlus asked.
Garrus tipped the flask and drained it, then hurled it forward, hoping to hit Nihlus in the forehead. “No.”
“I bet you’re thinking about various ways to hurt me.”
He didn’t reply. Instead of numbing him down, the drink was feeding the fire.
“I can hear it in your breathing,” Nihlus said. He sounded distant and melancholy. Not that Garrus gave a damn. “Heard those harmonics many times. It used to be so easy to anger him. Yawn in the middle of some lecture, or laugh at some inane typo in the mission report. I thought it was me, getting to know him better, or perhaps, growing to be more like him, when he became more tolerant. But now… now I think he was just… absent. You know? During these past few years. Making his plans.” He swallowed, audibly. “Thinking of Sovereign while he touched me.”
Alright, his teeth were numb. And when he opened his mouth to say just how much he didn’t give a flying fuck about Nihlus and his feelings for Saren right now, he noticed his tongue was numb too. He smacked it a few times.
“You don’t give a shit, do you?” Nihlus said. “I don’t blame you. No one ever did.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“You have a whole ship here full of people who do give a shit, that’s what. And don’t pretend you don’t know it. Liara would die for you. Shepard would kill for you. And I… well. I didn’t smash your face yet, did I?”
A short outburst of laughter. “Yeah. Gotta give you that.”
In the meantime, his ass had gotten numb as well. But when he started to lift himself up, someone tilted the floor at a hazardous angle, and he plopped back down with a thud that sent pins and needles up his spine. It was the booze, he realized. He was drunk.
Nihlus laughed some more. “Should have told you. Kicks right in the head. I bet you didn’t see me smuggle that from Noveria. Comes as powder or granules – I found powder. You could fill the Normandy’s fuel tank with a couple of kilos. But it takes ages to settle.” Sounds of groping around, presumably for the empty flask, came scratching from the other end of the cabin. “Smells great, tastes like shit. Which you could say for a great many things, I guess.”
“Cut the crap, Nihlus. Self-pity suits you like a pair of breasts.”
“Hey. Breasts are great.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Yeah. You ‘don’t do xeno’. You know, that was a fucking awful thing to say, but I let it slide.”
“So I should let this slide, that what you’re selling?” His tongue was acting up. “Saying.”
The silence that followed was long enough to imagine Nihlus staring at him, sinful promises in glittering eyes eating away at his resolve one second at a time. Good thing the lights were off.
“Which ‘this’ are we talking about, exactly?” was the reply, laced with caution. “I’m pretty sure you blame me for more than one transgression.” He paused. “Though I admit this last one was in poor taste. I’m sorry, Garrus. Probably not what you want to hear, but it would’ve happened sooner or later.”
“You got that right,” Garrus muttered, lifting a hand to his forehead. Was it possible to get drunk, sober up, and become hungover on such a short notice? “Not what I want to hear.”
Maybe you should.
Garrus swallowed. His head was far from clear, and he could still sense the anger, lurking just beneath the thin sheet of control he’d managed to spread over it, waiting for the slightest provocation to surface again and make him do something he’d regret. Or not. But there was something new on his mind now, something brought about by Shepard’s words. He had no doubt that she would be perfectly able to contain her feelings in this situation, and do the right thing, instead of the first thing that came to mind. Do her duty, no matter the personal cost.
“How can you—” he started, choked on it, cleared his throat. His heart was drumming. Sure you can. “How can you still… well, trust him, I suppose, after all that’s happened?”
He heard Nihlus change position, settle down, then fidget again. Faint vocalizations from the lowest register broke through his breathing.
“That would’ve been a lot easier to answer if I got some response from him,” he said at last. The sadness in his undertones was impossible to hide, impossible to ignore. “Let me try an example instead. You’ve got a tight-knit family, isn’t that right, Vakarian?”
“Try to imagine your sister… Solana, was it? Imagine if there was a civil war and you two ended up on opposing sides. Imagine she had the chance to kill you, but didn’t. How would you answer your own question?”
Garrus was too drunk for thought experiments. And even if he weren’t, he was pretty sure he couldn’t imagine that situation. Perhaps with Dad… but no. That wasn’t comparable.
Suddenly he remembered the badge. His hand rummaged through his front pocket, numb and clumsy. What if they had broken it during their romp? Cold sweat washed over his entire skin in one fell swoop.
But then he found it, and it was whole.
“I uh…” He found himself wishing for more of Nihlus’ powder-brew. His throat was dry again, and his words reluctant. “I think this belongs to you.”
They crawled out of their corners and met in the middle of the cabin. Nihlus’ fingers, feeling first his wrist, than his hand, were as cold as his own. They froze when they touched the badge. Then they closed around it.
But Nihlus didn’t move away. His breathing was getting louder and louder. He didn’t sound angry. He sounded—
“Shepard?” he whispered.
“You can’t lie worth a shit.”
Garrus realized his hand had closed itself around Nihlus’. He shook his head. The anger had gone missing. It had burned its way out of him, leaving a huge hole behind that he’d probably need another fucking ten years to fill.
“You have friends here,” he heard himself repeating, pointlessly.
“Is that so?”
“As long as they can depend on you too.”
The contact was severed and they retreated to their corners again. A minute passed in silence. It was strangely silent inside Garrus’ hazy mind as well. Silent and lonely.
“Fine,” Nihlus said at last. But another minute of fidgeting and quickened breathing passed before he actually made the concession.
It consisted of a single word.
Shepard left Engineering, intending to go find Alenko. But before she could go anywhere, Adams ambushed her. He had a problem with a requisition for crucial spares and a fucked-up trail of paperwork that absolutely couldn’t wait. It took her the better part of two hours, talking with surly clerks from five different departments of Alliance Logistics Command, to get it straightened out. By the time she finally went to hand him the necessary authorizations, she was ready to kill someone. The astonished gratitude in his eyes when she gave him back his precious combat engineer uniform patch was almost enough to make her forget about the ache in her neck. Almost. Her end of the bargain with Garrus made her feel like Santa Claus. Putting smiles on people’s faces. And being unable to get one of her own.
It was late. Too late to talk to Alenko, wherever he was. Probably asleep, like she wished she was. But she wanted to get something to eat before she turned in. She headed over to the mess to grab some rations. The place was deserted, but there was a datapad lying on the nearest table. Shepard picked it up. The display flickered on, briefly showing an extranet search result for — what else — porn vids, then went dark, asking for a password to unlock.
She rolled her eyes. Everybody did it, but most had the sense not to leave the evidence lying around… Who did the pad belong to? If only she’d been there ten seconds earlier. She glanced around, by there was nobody in sight. A moment of stillness, uncertainty, than a decision, and the familiar, sweet stab of excitement. She bit her lower lip and typed in the first thing that crossed her mind.
The datapad flashed orange at her. That wasn’t it.
Nope. Too obvious. Alenko was better than that. The datapad notified her she’d get locked out permanently if she failed again.
To hell with it. One more chance. Let’s try… the mass effect equation? That went like—
She heard the door opening elsewhere on the deck. The restroom. Of course. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to talk to Alenko after all. Or perhaps it wasn’t him. She considered simply putting the datapad back down where she found it and pretending she’d never picked it up. But she didn’t. Instead, she focused on losing the devilish smile.
She heard the footsteps before she saw the owner. She took a deep breath. Alenko rounded the cornet and froze at the sight of her holding the datapad.
“Alenko,” she said.
He swallowed. “Commander.”
She held up the datapad. “Personally, I would have taken this with me. Or at least locked it.”
“It locks itself after twenty seconds of inactivity,” he said, tonelessly.
She nodded. “So, just bad luck I happened to show up when I did. And bad luck that your CO’s a nosy bastard. Or maybe good luck, depending on your point of view.”
He said nothing. Whatever was going through his mind, whatever he was feeling, it wasn’t showing on his face. His expression was completely neutral.
“Relax, Alenko,” she said, dropping the pad on the table. “Didn’t get to to see anything I haven’t seen a thousand times before.”
“If you say so, sir.”
She looked at him, but he wasn’t giving her anything. He might as well been a block of granite. No sign of relief, of dropping his guard. Hell, if she could have had her wish, she’d wanted to have seen a measure of disappointment. Surely he knew that she was interested. There had been looks. Smiles. Compliments. Difficult to say if any of if had qualified as flirting. He’d been keeping a respectful distance, but hadn’t seemed adverse to the idea.
“Kaidan,” she said. It came out a lot easier than it would have a month ago.
Was that a flicker of something in his eyes? If so, it was gone in an instant.
“Did I pronounce it the wrong way?”
“I looked it up, you know.”
She scratched her head. Fuck. He was going to make her work for every word. With this yessir-nosir bullshit. The back of her neck was seriously aching now but she didn’t touch it, because she could feel him looking at her. God, Alenko, I really don’t want to be doing this.
“It’s Shepard. I’m not here on business.”
He was perfectly still for several heartbeats. Then he sighed, letting his shoulders drop down a notch. “Alright.”
Finally. She too let out a breath she’d been holding. Why was this so goddamn difficult?
“I uh…” She pushed a hand in her front pocket, already feeling the blush burn the way up her cheeks. “Is this yours?”
The glass beads got heavier and heavier with each second he spent looking at them, and she could have sworn there was a hundred fucking seconds.
“Garrus told me you were looking for something like this,” she added, feeling like a drowning woman. “I picked them up from the floor near your cabin.” That much was true, at least. Within a meter or two. Come on, Alenko. Kaidan. Give me a hand, here. We don’t have to be best friends, but let’s not be… strangers.
Unexpectedly, he said softly, “Said my goodbyes to that.”
She blinked. “What is it?”
His gaze was still fixed on her hand. “Years ago, in Brain Camp—” He glanced up, a quick question in his eyes.
She nodded. Almost ended up there herself.
“There was a girl I spent a lot of time with… Rahna. She was from Turkey. Her family was very rich. But she was smart. And charming as hell. Beautiful, but not stuck-up about it. Like you, I guess. Sir.”
Shepard swallowed. “Sounds like she was special to you.”
“She was.” He looked at her, looked down at her hand again. “Maybe she felt the same. But things never fell together.” He shrugged. “Training, you know.”
“Yeah,” she said, although she didn’t. This was already more than she had bargained for and she just wanted him to take the damn thing from her hand, hanging in the air between them, neither here nor there.
“Anyway, the tasbih was a gift from her.”
“Tasbih,” she muttered, then shook her head. “Didn’t know what it’s called.”
Alenko gave her a quick smile. Just stretching his lips, really, but at least he was making an effort. He offered a hand and she was relieved to let the tasbih roll down from her sweaty palm. She had a feeling this trinket would have been better off left next to her mattress, but funnily enough, she no longer wanted it.
“Thank you, Shepard,” he said, looking about as grateful to receive it as she had been eager to offer it. “I’ll have to take better care of it.”
A heavy silence set upon them. The same old story. Now that Alenko has dropped his guard, or at least demonstrated the will to do it, hers was coming up again and there was nothing she could do about it. It took no effort to imagine them both stark naked, slick with sweat, fucking like animals on the very table that stood between them. But imagining them having a relaxed, personal, slow conversation was next to impossible.
Fortunately, her omni intervened. A message from Vakarian.
“Shit,” she snorted. “The skull-face delivered.”
She looked up at him. “Get your ass in gear, Alenko. We’ve got ourselves a mission.”
Note: Parts of this chapter have been reproduced with permission from the most excellent story Breathe by Logsig. Highly recommended, but please heed the warnings.
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