Chapter 26 of Ghost in the Machine
Note: This chapter was coauthored by Logsig and yours truly. The credit for all the good parts goes to the first author, as does my ever-growing gratitude. I also wish to thank Misfire Anon for the final touches, and for critique as well as encouragement. Couldn’t have done it without you, guys.
Nine hours before the attack on Feros.
Garrus followed Nihlus up the service stairs without another word, twitching with nervous energy. When they emerged in the starboard hallway on the crew deck, his heart started pounding. But they walked past the locked door to their shared cabin and moved on towards the mess hall. Dinner, then? His heart rate returned to normal. Almost. The mess was empty, save for a single crewman who followed their march with a suspicious stare. Nihlus took the exit at the aft end. Ah. The gym.
Once there, Garrus relaxed a little. What the hell had he expected? He shook his head, not quite able to suppress a grin.
Nihlus chuckled. “Surprised?”
And then he started taking his clothes off.
Garrus held his breath. So. Here we are. For an agonizing moment, he lost touch with immediate reality, floating in an endless sea of possibilities, with myriad scenarios flashing in front of his wide open eyes like a broken holo. There were so many ways this could go, and even though he had spent more time thinking about it than he cared to admit, he found himself paralyzed by indecision. Time slowed, dragging forward at a single-digit frame-rate. Past and future, memories and fantasies, they were all coming together here, now; he was as sure of it as he was sure of the sweat breaking through the skin on his lower back. It was hot, getting hotter with each item of clothing Nihlus dropped. Spirits, he was even more gorgeous than Garrus remembered: all corded muscle flexing under dark, glossy skin, every curve and angle of his body intimating effortless strength, radiating a field of force so alluring it was impossible to even imagine escaping it. Still, Garrus lingered on the edge of that potential well, going through his options one last time before falling in.
“Oh, come on,” Nihlus said. He gave Garrus a diabolic smile. “You can keep your visor on.”
Garrus coughed out a strangled laugh. No – there was no resisting him. The weight of the decision rolled smoothly off his shoulders and he flexed his neck, surveying the situation. The gym was nothing but a glorified storage compartment with a padded floor, a weight-rack and a couple of benches. It smelled like the inside of a boot despite the constant air-filtering that added an annoying buzz at the threshold of hearing to the drone of the Normandy’s engines. The lights were dimmed. It was the middle of the day shift, and no one else was there. He waved his omni over the door and the seal turned red.
“That’s more like it,” Nihlus said. But when Garrus turned around, he was warming up. For training.
His face must have looked strange, because Nihlus paused to peer at him. “What?”
Garrus snorted. “Nothing. Too much time spent around humans, that’s what.” There was no mistaking the direction of Nihlus’ stare when he unbuckled his belt and he could almost feel its weight, like a physical touch. Damn. “It’s been years since I’ve done this the traditional way.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll go easy on you.”
“Mhm.” He shrugged off his shirt. After a second, he took off the visor too. “I’m sure you went over my service record, but maybe you skipped the part about…”
“The Legions Cup ’76. Qualified for the Imperial Championship in ’74. Two wins on Palaven Global, in ’71 and ’72. And before that…”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. You’ve done your homework.”
“Been keeping an eye on you, Vakarian,” Nihlus said softly. “I was sad to see you stopped training.”
“I never stopped training.”
“You stopped competing.”
“Disappointed?” He kicked off his pants with more force than necessary. “Join the fucking club.”
“Hey,” Nihlus said, lifting his hands up in the air. “I’m not judging. I understand better than you think.”
“Is that right.”
For a second, they stood still, one across another, naked, just breathing. Then Garrus assumed position. Nothing fancy, for starters: the standard hallori opening. Nihlus mirrored his movement. Perfectly.
Nihlus grinned. They went through the first form in unblemished unison. Garrus’ body was recalling the moves. He hadn’t been entirely honest: he had stopped training in the past several months. Never completely; but his interest in the arts had been waning together with his interest in everything else. And still, it came to him easier than breathing. Nihlus didn’t look like he was having trouble following him, either. There was no reason to be surprised by this, but he was. Surprised, curious and all the more excited.
“Do you compete?” he said. They made a textbook transition into the second form. Heart rate was rising.
Garrus opted for Unaian’s Fourth Variation, just to see what Nihlus would do with the spinning backfist combination. His own shoulder made a tiny pop, which they both heard, and Nihlus smirked. “Just some local tournaments, before enlisting.”
“I’m better than good.” An alternating sequence of strikes avoided by carefully-timed footwork, taking them in an arc from one end of the gym to the other, and finally, contact. Nothing but the forearms, and only for the briefest moment, but Garrus could swear the air crackled with tension.
“I qualified for the Colonial Open in ’65,” Nihlus resumed. “I was this… scrawny kid. Small but fast. Gave me an edge, you know. Everyone always underestimated me. I could just see them thinking: look at the poor little bastard; one hit and it’ll be over. Ha. Before the qualifications, the longest anyone had lasted against me was three minutes, sixty-nine seconds. I always hit them when they weren’t expecting it.”
As if to illustrate the point, he broke from the pattern with a vicious jab, but Garrus moved back just in time. “Sneaky bugger.”
They fell back to the routine without exchanging so much as a wink. Like reading each other’s minds. It was amazing. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, sweat beginning to trickle down his neck, a warm knot of anticipation coiling in his gut. It had been a long time since he’d had such a skilled sparring partner. As far back as his short blaze of glory aboard the Aeterna. Seven years. Spirits.
“The downside, of course,” Nihlus continued with a chuckle, a bit out of breath, “was that I had to gain ten kilos to enter the lowest weight class. You know they don’t allow supplements. That last month… Sixteen-hour days, eating and training and eating and training… It was a fucking nightmare.”
“But you made it,” Garrus exhaled.
“Almost,” Nihlus said. “They… uh… In the end, they didn’t allow me to compete.”
“Because of the weight?”
“No.” Nihlus launched himself into the first kick of the sequence. Garrus rolled and countered, then danced away as Nihlus unconventionally reversed direction before the second and closed for the left hook. “Because I was born… outside the Hierarchy.” And another contact. Garrus hadn’t failed to notice how Nihlus’ elbow flared away from his ribs, leaving himself vulnerable as they spun in the clinch, but there wasn’t time to stop the movement, the instinctive uppercut at the level change. When he struck, Nihlus lost his balance and staggered back. They were near the middle of the third form.
“Fuck,” Nihlus said, wiping his forehead.
“Yeah. Sorry. Thought my head was clear, but just talking about this shit…”
Garrus hesitated. “Want to stop?” He was only getting started, but if Nihlus…
“No. I’m fine. Move on to the fourth?”
“Let’s repeat the third.”
They continued the exercise in silence, a little slower, focusing on technique, until Garrus felt it was safe to speak again.
“You didn’t pursue it… after you enlisted?”
Nihlus snorted. They were close enough for Garrus to catch the warm scent of his breath. “I hated the army,” he breathed. “Hated everything about it: the tournaments, the judges, the medals. Lost interest. Trained by myself, for myself. What was it you said before? It was… killing me slowly, like a disease.”
“And there I thought you were the model soldier.”
“Ha. No. A year before we met…”
They were breathing loudly now. More contact. Gripping sweaty forearms, twisting out of each other’s reach. Had the hallori always been this erotic? Garrus remembered it as a stringent game of maneuvering and evasion, working the balance, breathing, muscle-sense. He preferred the real thing. The faster, more aggressive, more chaotic, the better. Yet here he was, taking more pleasure from this dance of speed and wit than he had from anything in years.
“A year before we met?” he encouraged.
“I was a mess of… missed opportunities. Bitterness. Regrets.”
“Yeah,” Garrus said. “I know what that’s like.”
“Told you. I understand… better than you think.”
“How did you…?”
“Become a Spectre?”
He yearned for the answer and shied away from it at the same time. It was one of those questions that had been sitting on his mind for a decade, always present as a background process. When he slept, he dreamed of being in that camp again, performing to perfection in every fucking task, and then being denied the final reward. Sometimes, he’d see Dad’s face; sometimes, more frequently, in the last few years, Saren’s. But mostly, he’d see the white-striped face he was looking at right now. It wasn’t nice, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t rational, but it was there, and it hurt like salt rubbed into a freshly reopened wound.
Nihlus had stepped in, giving him the initiative. Garrus took it, and there was a bit too much momentum behind his punch, a bit too much gritting of teeth behind his reluctant “Yes.”
“You won’t like the answer,” Nihlus said. He’d shrugged off that punch, but now he returned it with the same amount of force and with the same lack of concern for proper control. Not the prescribed code of conduct for the hallori, of course. Not like either of them gave a damn. “Saren scouted me from the ranks. Took me in. Saved me in every way a man can be saved.”
Something clicked, falling in place, and Garrus stopped. “You think I tagged along… so you’d get me back into Spectre training?”
Nihlus wiped the sweat from behind his crest and rolled his head backwards, never breaking eye contact. No answer.
“I didn’t,” said Garrus. But even as he was saying it, he realized it was a lie. He certainly hadn’t come along to fix the damn Mako and search the ship for lost possessions. Nor was he half as invested in finding out the truth, or bringing Saren to justice, as he was in the chance to break away from flawed rules and corrupt leaders and for once in his fucked-up life, to be free to do what needed to be done, the way he wanted to do it. Shit. Of course he wanted to get back into the Program. There was nothing he wanted more.
“Why did you come along, then?” Nihlus said. “For more mindblowing sex?”
It was a joke. It was intoned as a joke and Nihlus had his joking face on. But Garrus felt it like a slap in the face. The room darkened, the air became unbearably heavy. The heat inside him made a sickening phase shift, changing from desire to a searing, dangerous anger. He took one threatening step forward, taking position again.
“I was joking,” Nihlus said, but didn’t give ground. “You know that, right?”
Probably the wrong word to use in the context. Close as they were standing now, he could pick up the scent of soap from Nihlus’ bare skin, the warmth of exertion radiating from his collar and shoulders. All the mixed feelings coalesced into a feral urge to beat him into submission, bend him over and fuck him sensless.
Instead, they started another sequence. Faster pace, more power. This was violence, barely restrained. Each of them intruding into the other’s space, the separation between them almost hostile. If there was ‘tension’ before, there was high voltage now. Elevated heart rate, breathing obscenely synchronized. Not a setting for civilized discourse. A charged cloud just waiting for a spark to start the chain reaction. But Garrus just couldn’t let it drop.
“And you, Spectre? Why did you come along?”
“I’m sorry, Garrus. I don’t know why I said that.”
“Yeah. Your usual charm has gone the way of your mettle. Tell me, Nihlus. What’s going to happen when we find him? Are you going to stand with us, or with him?”
“What do you mean?”
“Please. Save that shit for Shepard. No… actually… let me guess. Shepard doesn’t know. She doesn’t need to know because you’ve got everything… under control. Right? Nothing out of the ordinary… in the fact that our leader is… sleeping with the enemy. Literally.”
Though he hadn’t exactly meant to deliver the challenge in his most bitter voice, he did expect the exercise to escalate to a whole new level, and made ready for an attack. But Nihlus burst into laughter instead.
“That wasn’t a joke,” Garrus said.
“I know.” The exchange of moves took on an air of discipline again. Neither of them tried to get the separation back into the polite range, though. “It’s just that talking about Saren… is a major turn-off. And we don’t want that, right?”
“Fuck you,” Garrus repeated, but his anger was already dissipating like a bad dream. Damn.
Nihlus chuckled. “As for Shepard… I didn’t talk about it with her, but… she must know. She’s not stupid. Not by a long shot.”
“Never said she was.” He mulled it over during the next three moves. “How is she in combat?”
“Like the thunder. Like the tide. She’s a force of nature.” Again, the devilish grin. “And she has a thing for you.”
He had never been good at feigning nonchalance, but he had to try. “Oh?”
“Oh, come on. Haven’t you seen the way she looks at you? And I’ve seen the way you look at her. Don’t blame you, either.”
“Um… No. I don’t do xeno.”
“If you say so.” Two quick kicks, one to the midsection, one to the head. “You’re missing out.”
“I hear you’re not.”
This time they laughed together. It was a good moment to take a break anyway, and Nihlus went for the water dispenser. “Go on,” he said between drinking and splashing his face and neck. “Ask me about Liara. I know you want to.”
Garrus stretched. His right shoulder was making sounds and he frowned. You’re getting old, Vakarian. Old and grumpy. Just like Dad.
“Alright,” he said aloud. “Alright. Are you going through with it? The, uh… melding thing.”
“I already have.”
“Oh?” No need to feign surprise this time.
Nihlus straightened up, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Yeah.” They blinked at each other for several times in the sudden silence. “I didn’t sleep with her, if that’s what you mean.”
“For most asari, touch is enough, you know. To share ideas, memories. She didn’t believe me when I told her how horrible it was, all that shit from the beacons. Anything for another piece of the Prothean puzzle! She won’t try that in a hurry again. Probably sounds silly to you, but that was a pretty brave thing she did. Couldn’t quite keep her discomfort from me. Usually they can choose what to show, and what to hide, but this was different. She ended up passing out.”
“Fuck,” Garrus muttered, seriously reconsidering his childish desires and jealousies. Being here, doing this, it was too damn easy to forget that they were on the verge of a fucking war, and that there was some scary shit going on. “I had no idea it was that bad. Is she okay?”
“She will be.”
“Fuck,” he repeated. The air was no longer hot; in fact, he was starting to feel a chill creeping up his sweaty back. “Did it do anything for you?”
“Cleared my head. Or so I thought.”
Garrus swallowed. “So… What will it be?”
“The fifth form?”
The fifth wasn’t a part of the standard curriculum. In theory, Garrus knew the moves, but wouldn’t play against a hallori master. Forms had never really been his thing, but… Suddenly, the image of Nihlus teaching him, adjusting his posture and movements and demonstrating with his own body, ignited his excitement anew. He wasn’t tired; he could do this all day, every day.
But that wasn’t what he had asked. He had almost started to rephrase the question – to ask it in a more direct way, to be brazen, even – when he caught the mischievous slant of Nihlus’ mandible, the gleam in his eyes, sparkling like warm shallows in the sun.
“How about we take this to sparring instead?” he asked, with a grin that left no room for misinterpretation.
Nihlus snorted, and covered the distance between them in three slow steps. “Or a bit of wrestling.”
“Is that what you like?” Garrus said, matching the low, rolling undertones, then taking them even deeper. “Wrestling.”
His face had become serious but his eyes were still smiling. Garrus glanced down. There was a hand on his shoulder. His own talon had somehow found a way under Nihlus’ left mandible, invitingly loose. Stray thoughts about the filthy hangar floor and engine grime ghosted across his mind like a shadow of a cloud, but then Nihlus licked the tip of his finger and it was more than enough to make Garrus loose as well. He rumbled.
The next thing he knew, Nihlus was mounting him, pinning him to the floor. Only, Garrus wasn’t having it. Not this time. He shouldered out of Nihlus’ grip, struggling to reverse their positions. Nihlus was thwarting him with dogged determination. And Spirits, he was every bit as hot, hard and intoxicating as Garrus remembered. Every touch, like flames licking up his skin. He bucked, his foot frantically scrabbling for the outside, and tried the roll again. This time, he could feel Nihlus’ body against his, suspiciously compliant. Pressing up against him, under him. Nihlus’ legs wrapped around his hips, pulling him close. When he leaned in for a kiss, he realized that the feverish heartbeat, shaking his ribcage like a convict rattling a tin cup over the bars of his cell – wasn’t his own. And when his teeth closed on the side of the dark, obediently outstretched neck, that heartbeat became erratic.
He stilled, listening with his body. Nihlus was tense. His grip on Garrus’ forearm was desperate, his breathing quick and jerky. Garrus let go, picking up the salt from the shallow imprints of teeth with his tongue.
It only hit him when he pushed himself up and looked again.
The imprints were old, faint, discernible only on close scrutiny. And they were most certainly not his.
Nihlus was trembling, his eyes closed. There was no question about how much he wanted this. As much as Garrus, if not more, judging from the sporadic thrusts, looking for friction. But something was wrong.
“You okay?” Garrus whispered.
Five heartbeats. Seven, ten.
“Want to stop?”
The emerald eyes shot open. “No,” Nihlus breathed, propping his head up and stealing a quick lick of Garrus’ ear. Oh, Spirits. “Don’t stop. Please, don’t stop.”
Garrus tightened his grip on him. Are you sure?
Degree by degree, Nihlus’ body relaxed, and the hand holding Garrus’ forearm slipped off. I’m sure.
“Good,” Garrus rumbled, and dived for the neck again. The world receded, leaving him lost to his desire and the maddening rhythm of Nihlus’ breaths, aware of nothing but the taste, the touch, the warmth rising through his body in wave after exhilarating wave. He maneuvered into position-
And then they both froze, heads snapping in the direction of the most unwelcome sound.
His visor, long forgotten on one of the weight benches, was buzzing.
Garrus looked at Nihlus.
“Let it ri-”
But then the comm crackled. Had to be one of the priority frequencies, or the stupid thing wouldn’t have picked up on its own.
“Vakarian?” said a diminutive human voice, cutting through the haze of lust and the drumming of their hearts. “You’re up. Come see me in my quarters. Shepard out.”
“Shit,” Garrus said. Shit, shit, shit. “Damn interviews. How the hell did I forget?”
Beneath him, Nihlus was laughing. “This is strangely familiar.”
“Yeah. Just like old times.”
The tone of his voice made Nihlus grow serious. Well, more serious. “Go,” he said softly. “I’ll find you later and we’ll continue where we left off.”
Garrus sighed and started to get up, then changed his mind and bore down for one last, deep kiss.
“Crew deck, cabin six,” he muttered. “Try not to get lost.”
Nihlus laughed. “I’ll try.”
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