damalur: (ode to spot)
no, use my SPACE name! ([personal profile] damalur) wrote2017-02-20 01:07 pm

limit of the flesh (11)

11.

The next day was different. The next day she was wrapping her hands in medi-gel compression tape when he woke up — not a fighter's wrap, but supportive bandaging. She'd finished her left hand without trouble, but the right was giving her problems, both because of the ache that made her fingers clumsy and because she was working with her non-dominant hand. She was still struggling with it when the hatch to Garrus' quarters hissed open.

His footsteps halted, and then he shifted his weight and exhaled heavily through his nose. "Having trouble, Shepard?"

"I've got it. Just a little — " She dropped the tail of the bandage. "Dammit."

"Oh, you've got everything under control."

His tone was… diffident, she decided, and after yesterday, who could blame him? She offered up a wry smile and finally let her eyes rise to meet his. Garrus wasn't precisely what she'd call a caretaker, but he was attentive to the people around him — it was partly that sniper's instinct for absorbing the landscape and partly a trait born of his diligence, and she respected him more because he cultivated consideration than she would've if he'd come by it naturally. "Laugh it up, Vakarian," she shot back. "Are you going to stand there decorating the wall, or are you going to help?"

And he was — there was no denying this — abnormally attentive to her. She could've read a hundred, a thousand things into the way Garrus treated her; imagination was Shepard's gift and her albatross. That creativity was at the root of her skill at warfare, her spatial reasoning, even her uncanny knack for reading people… but it was balanced by a kind of brutal pragmatism that had been purchased with the only real currency the universe recognized.

Garrus was loyal to her, because he was a loyal man; and he was indebted to her, because he honored his debts. He was wrong on all counts, of course. Whatever debt he thought he owed her had been paid in full when he followed her into hell, and his loyalty — well, that was a better trick. Subordinate to CO, two soldiers together in a foxhole… but they were friends, too, outside of their shared history; he hadn't been the only one to follow her into hell, but he was the one she sought out for a game of gin, for a couple of hours swapping shit at the shooting range, for dinner and debriefings, for a night sorting through crew evals, and he was the one who'd stayed. Friend, comrade, second — there was maybe a little of his old hero-worship in there, too, and a more-than-generous measure of pity. 'Partners' was probably the right word: like they were two detectives at C-Sec working the homicide beat.

"Bitch, bitch, bitch," he drawled. "All right, Shepard — here, hold still." He took her arm by the wrist and pulled it gently away from her body. The bandages slipped until they were hanging in loose loops; Garrus freed her arm and then rolled the tape back up into a tidy ball. "Easier to start from scratch," he said, and Shepard glanced up at him and then away, baring the corner of her jaw in the process. "Unless you'd rather have all your circulation cut off…?"

"Hell, if I lose the arm, I'll be half-robot," Shepard said, and as she'd hoped, he chuckled.

"I seem to recall you telling me you were already a machine. Something about the mechanical perfection of your aim, was it?"

"Sounds more like your line, Garrus. Remember when we…" She bit off her sentence when he reached her bare wrist. The skin was thin there, so thin she could follow the path of her median vein beneath the pale flesh, and the abrasive drag of Garrus's fingertips carved a line of feedback up her arm straight to the base of her skull.

"When we what?" he prompted.

"You dragged me up to the top of the Citadel to shoot bottles."

"We all have our impulsive moments."

"You're nothin' but impulsive moments, Vakarian," Shepard said. He'd reached her knuckles and was tying the bandage off; she was swaddled in the supportive wrap from her elbow to the base of her fingers, and already she could feel the medi-gel sinking into muscle. Her sense of touch was dulled, maybe even a little numb, but she didn't lose track of where Garrus was holding her.

"Hypocrisy, from a Spectre?"

"Can you imagine?"

Garrus smoothed the tape flat over her palm; the side of his mouth twitched in amusement, but there was tension there, too, and something that wasn't quite concern in the way he stepped closer to look at her. "Not in a million years," he said.

She hated him a little, for the low, private intent of his voice, and for the way he stumbled over the word million. Not like two homicide detectives, she realized; that was an intimacy of the mind, born of familiarity and unity of purpose, but this went beyond purpose — not unity but union. This was the tenth hour spent nestled in a cradle of grass with your spotter, one rifle passed between you as you rolled over each other to trade places at the scope. This was breathing against his neck, sleeping against his side, sensing rather than seeing when his finger slid against the trigger.

Shepard let herself wonder how he would feel between her thighs. She swallowed the thought before it could steal across her face, but some muscle-memory of yearning must have remained, because Garrus blinked once, twice, and his head listed in question. He was taller than her; Shepard usually stayed a measured distance from larger beings, not out of wariness but because not having to look up could be a useful psychological tool. Garrus was taller than she was, though, and he was too close —

She lifted her chin and met his gaze dead-on. "About yesterday," she said.

"Shepard..."

"What, not going to let me apologize?" He stiffened, his body straightening away from her; before he had curved towards her so gently she hadn't realized he'd been falling towards her at all. "I can say it, Vakarian," she added, although she wasn't sure what she meant: Even I make mistakes, or I especially make mistakes, or maybe I can't really say it. Let him read whatever meaning he wanted. She'd give even odds anyway on whether he blew her off (No, Shepard, you don't) or dragged the words out of her (Pride goeth).

"You haven't been sleeping well," he said instead, and Shepard blinked — the only symptom of surprise she allowed herself.

Did he want her strong or weak? Did he subscribe to her view of weakness, that asking for help should be reserved for times of dire functional need, or to some other, more forgiving school of thought that didn't equate isolation with valor? It bothered her that she didn't know what he wanted in even this one small instance. The reading she'd done on turian psychology was very often useless when her subject was textbook half the time but abnormal in most of the ways that counted.

"Running low on fuel. I'm not sure how you aren't — we pulled more than a few all-nighters on that last assignment. It was worth it, don't get me wrong, but I could go for a couple of days on that tropical island now."

"You haven't been sleeping well since London."

"Come on, Garrus — " She might as well have been looking down the barrel of a gun at him for how obvious he was, for how he responded to the smallest portion of openness. He'd changed; or maybe the difference now was that she finally had the full, oppressive weight of his attention. "Shit. Fine."

"You don't have to — "

"No. You're right, I haven't." She pulled away and started packing up the first aid kit; the supplies were spread all over the weight bench, because the medi-gel tape had been buried near the bottom, but Garrus didn't try to help her. That was the other edge of the sword, that was what terrified her — that he could read her as well as she could read him.

"Have you talked to a doctor?"

She put the medical scissors next to the laser knife and then hid both beneath a bottle of eye wash. "No."

And then he asked, the bastard. "Will you?"

"Worried about our operational efficiency? Don't worry, we're still the prettiest Spectres on the roster — "

"Worried about you," he said, careful, so careful of her that her skin crawled.

The single-use packets of medi-gel ointment went next, and then the latex gloves. Their first aid kit was really a repurposed medic's bag that held not only the usual store of supplies but also a number of specialty items, like anaphylaxis autoinjectors to deal with Garrus's allergy to a particular family of salarian plants and spare microparts for Shepard's synthetic leg. A more romantic person might have found something poignant about that — all their weaknesses bound up together — but Shepard's concerns were more practical. She added the splints, the sanitizer, and finally the extra heat sinks before flipping the lid closed and activating the magnetic locks. The kit hissed as the hermetic seal activated.

"If you think I should go," she said, "then I'll go."

"New Eden, when we're done on Suru?" Garrus said. "I'll make an appointment. Maybe we can swing by Tuchanka after that, before we ship out again. See how the galaxy's most prolific krogan is doing."

"You know he'd take that as a compliment."

"Which is why I'd never say it to his face."

"Sure you wouldn't," Shepard said.

"New Eden?" Garrus prompted.

"Yeah, all right. I'll see if I can get a recommendation from Chakwas." Her tone suggested she was making a concession, but Garrus had won this round, and they both knew it. When she passed him carrying the first aid kit, she bumped her shoulder against his side: Thanks for watching my six. He cupped her elbow in return: You don't always make it easy.

He cleared his throat. "Breakfast?"

"Yes sir, mess sergeant," she said, and Garrus chuckled and she smirked back at him and the air was clear, light, fine, always fine. She took the first aid kit back to the hold by herself. This was the largest empty space on the ship — not cavernous, the way the Normandy's hold had been, but still hollow, holding only a few crates of equipment and their small armory off to the side. When the hatch had sealed behind her, she braced her hands against the workbench, doubled over, and breathed.

She couldn't have run the mission better if she'd wanted. Her plan was precise and her execution flawless, from the calculated way she'd slanted her head to expose the corner of her jaw (Comparative Body Language in Bipedal Sentients, T'Kira & Arkesh, p. 321: "While steady eye contact between humans indicates trust, turians interpret an averted gaze as a sign of trustworthiness… When a turian simultaneously exposes part of the throat or jaw, their averted gaze may also mark vulnerability") to her subtle evocation of their history ("Remember when we...?"). Banter, need, concession, accepting his help, reminding him that she trusted his judgment, her implicit apology, even her protest — that had been tricky, acting avoidant enough that she wouldn't seem uncharacteristic but not enough to shut down his line of questioning — the entire interaction was scripted, choreographed and directed and orchestrated by Shepard and Shepard's greed and the black pit that spun behind Shepard's ribs.

She wasn't sorry. One of her gifts as a leader was a talent for marrying honesty and manipulation; she could see what people wanted and how to use it against them, she could see what they feared and amplify or soothe their fear as the situation required. The soldiers she served with were never anything other than weights and measures, assets she could use in her brutal calculus as she carved a straight line from conflict to victory. Sometimes they were real to her, and even dear; and sometimes she couldn't allow them to be real.

Shepard was rotting from the inside out, but she couldn't let Garrus leave. It was mercenary of her, not the worst thing she'd ever done but certainly the most selfish. Too many days like yesterday, though, and even his vast river of patience would run dry. Sometimes she thought she made a better Vakarian than he did. We repay in kind was not enough for Shepard, who returned her debts a thousandfold, who would burn whole worlds to the ground and salt the earth behind her if it meant getting what she wanted.

She hated herself, but she wasn't sorry. Shepard may not have wanted his comfort, but the thought of facing tomorrow without his presence was suffocating; so she would keep running her campaign, keep binding him to her, keep reminding him that he owed her, keep pretending that he was better with the woman who'd saved the galaxy at his side. She purchased his company with the currency of her pain. It never occurred to her that she could have simply asked him to stay.

And that was the third day.