Author's Notes: For those of you who have been wondering why my other two stories haven't updated, here's part of what has been occupying my headspace recently. With this out of the way, I should be able to focus on Custodis and Terra more fully.
Also, you should check out my collaborative work with MitisVenatrix. The Partners story arc, which documents the evolving friendship of Garrus Vakarian and Commander Teandra Shepard, (consisting of Partners/Comrades/Friends, Omega, and E Tenebrea Et Lux), can all be found under her profile. That would be where the OTHER half of my creative energy has been directed lately.
Disclaimer: I do not own Mass Effect, nor do I own Sonnet #130. Those were created by BioWare and William Shakespeare, respectively.
"That old paradox has always bothered me."
"Which old paradox would you be referring to?"
"I'm not sure if it exists in turian culture, but there's some old human song that puts it rather bluntly: 'Am I beautiful because you love me, or do you love me because I'm beautiful?'"
"And this plagues you. . .why?"
"Because there is no answer to that question that won't earn someone a punch in the face."
Garrus laughed, though there was a nervous edge to the sound that he hoped she didn't catch. "I can see how that would be a problem."
"I'm not terribly worried about taking it on the chin, physically speaking. I'm a big girl. I've taken punches before. What concerns me is hurting the feelings of someone close to me."
"I never took you for the touchy-feely sort, Shepard."
She chuckled at that, and replied, "There are many layers to this Spectre, Vakarian. Just don't let it get around, okay? I have a reputation to maintain."
"Your secrets are safe with me."
She was standing in the back-left corner of her room, just past her armor locker, and watching her Thessian Sunfish take a leisurely swim from one end of her fish tank to the other. Her right arm was crossed over her chest, just below the sternum, with her hand balled into a loose fist. Her left was bent at the elbow, that hand occupied with the wineglass now pressed against her lower lip.
From his position on the sofa, he could only see half her face, and in the dim light, her reflection in the glass was hard to see. This bothered him just a little bit, as he found it difficult to gauge her (or any other human's, really) emotions through voice cues alone. Their lack of a second voice box always made it so hard to work out the underlying meaning in their words.
He watched as her lips (what he could see of them, anyway) curved into a slight smile at his last remark. "I know that, Garrus. I trust no one in this universe more than you."
Even though he could tell the words were heartfelt, and he didn't doubt her sincerity, he did get a little anxious as he watched her smile take on a note of sadness. That anxiety ratcheted up another notch when she sighed and turned to face him.
"Which reminds me," she said just a little too casually as she crossed the room to sit beside him on the couch, "there was something I wanted to ask you about."
He swallowed and said, also a little too casually, "Oh?"
"Remember when we were discussing our next move in. . .whatever it is, exactly, we've got going on, and you said I could find something 'closer to home'?"
Garrus went to answer in the affirmative, but found he couldn't get the words out. He settled for nodding.
"I remember giving you an answer, and you accepting it, but what I don't recall is you sharing the reason you made that little speech in the first place."
Unconsciously, his hand went up to the right side of his head to fiddle with the bandage that covered the majority of the scars on his face. He wore it under the guise of keeping the earpiece to his translator more firmly set in his ear, but, while mostly true, it was also mostly false.
Garrus knew that by the standards of most other species, save perhaps the asari, he wasn't considered attractive. In his own culture, though, he had looks that bordered on handsome.
Right up until he'd stopped a rocket with his face.
He'd never considered himself a very vain man, but when he'd finally gotten ahold of a mirror after rejoining Shepard, well. . .looking at the scarred, wired, mangled face staring back at him had been a rude awakening, to say the least.
It had brought back long-forgotten memories from his youth, specifically his first few years in the military. During hand-to-hand training after Basic, he'd gotten a particularly nasty knife wound during a Mexta sparring exercise, and one of his bunk mates had caught him staring at it in the mirror in the showerhouse while he was changing the dressing.
"Damn, Vakarian! That's gonna be a beauty!"
Sixteen-year-old Garrus Vakarian narrowed his eyes in a combination of annoyance and confusion at the turian with white clan tattooes standing next to him at the row of sinks. "What are you talking about?"
Dritan Acanthus pulled a small, stiff-wired brush from his toiletry kit as he drawled, "That thing's gonna leave a pretty nasty scar, and you know what they say about women and scars." His expression bordered on a leer as he took a tube of toothpaste out of his little black bag and proceeded to load his brush up with some of the contents.
Not wanting to look like an undereducated child, but also insanely curious, Garrus picked at the scab to the left of his chest spur and said, "I guess that depends whether you believe everything you hear."
Dritan pulled the brush from his mouth, spraying bits of foam as he said matter-of-factly, "Oh, believe me, my older brothers have told me plenty of stories about their time in the military, and they all point to the same thing: The ladies love a man with scars. Something about making a guy look 'fierce'. Drives 'em wild." Dritan's eyeridges waggled suggestively at that last word, and he smiled lasciviously as he shoved the brush back in his mouth.
Even though he had made a similar statement while talking with Shepard when he'd first come to after Omega, he had doubted Dritan's words then, and he doubted them now. How could anyone find him. . .
"Garrus?" His thoughts were jerked back to the present with the sound of her wineglass settling on the coffee table. Shepard turned to face him more fully, and her knee brushed up against the outside of his thigh. He found that he rather liked the feeling, but didn't have time to examine it further, as she'd pulled his hand away from his face and replaced it with one of her five-fingered ones.
"Garrus," she started again, turning his face further in her direction. "Is this," she stroked his mandible lightly, fingertips ghosting over the cybernetic plating toward the back of it, "what prompted that conversation? Are you worried that I think you're ugly?"
Not for the first time in his life, his mouth overrode his brain, and he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Is that so hard to believe?" She visibly recoiled at his outburst, and he felt another layer of shame settle over his own self-consciousness at what he saw in her eyes: Hurt.
Before he could explain himself, her expression grew angry and, her voice that deadly calm tone that preceded her ripping somebody a new one, she asked, "Do you really think I'm that shallow?"
"That's not what I meant." Garrus slammed his tumbler onto the table with enough force to cause the more fragile wineglass to tremble, and nearly snorted with derision at how fitting their choices in beverage holders turned out to be. She, the more delicately built creature, slender and visually appealing, and he, the stocky, sturdy, aesthetically worthless thing meant to take untold damage and keep right on going.
He stood up as he rushed on, not wanting to give her a chance to verbally kick him in the quad for acting like an asshole, "I've done the research, Shepard. I know what humans typically consider appealing, and I know I'm not it." He turned toward the short stairway (and further away from her) as he added quietly, "I've seen what I'm up against."
The silence that followed was crushing, and before long, it was just too much for him to take. Knowing he'd managed to ruin what had promised to be a perfectly enjoyable evening, he growled, "What the hell am I doing here?" and made a beeline for the room's only exit.
Just as his hand moved to the keypad next to the door, he heard Shepard's voice from somewhere behind him. "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun."
He froze with his hand in midair, as she continued, "Coral is far more red than her lips' red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun."
Her voice was. . .different. There was a duality, a richness, there that he'd never heard before, and he was at a complete loss for how to describe it.
"If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask'd, red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks."
It was. . .both soothing and maddening all at once, and it compelled him to listen, even though he was sure he'd rather have been walking out the door. Wasn't that why he was standing in front of it in the first place? He really couldn't remember. . .
"And in some perfumes is there more delight, than in the breath that from my mistress reeks."
His visor was transcribing her words, and giving him historical and academic information as it did so. He didn't need it to tell him what he had discerned just from aural cues alone: It was poetry, in more ways than one, and he found the concept of this sort of speech coming from his friend and commanding officer to be both mortifying and attractive simultaneously.
"I love to hear her speak, yet well I know that music hath a far more pleasing sound."
Well, this was music to his ears, to be sure, though the words themselves made little sense. (Garrus had never been one for poetry.) And it was driving him insane, trying to deduce the reason he felt this way. Then, with the force of a tsunami crashing into shore, the answer hit him:
She sounded just like a turian.
How. . .
"I grant I never saw a goddess go; my mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground." He felt a hand on his arm then, pulling him to make a one-hundred-eighty degree turn, and like a sailor listening to a siren's song, he obeyed.
Facing her now, he held his breath as he watched her face as she spoke what his visor informed him were the last lines of one of Shakepeare's more famous works, "And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare, as any she belied with false compare."
Her eyes were filled with calm affection, but her mouth was set into something of a worried half-smile. The expressions didn't match, which confused him. . .until he realized he was gaping at her in a slack-mandibled fashion, and pulled them shut against his teeth with an audible snap.
The half-smile turned into a full-blown grin, and for several long moments, neither of them spoke.
Once again, the quiet was just too much for Garrus. He had no idea, really, what to do or say, so he did what he always did in these situations: He cracked a joke.
"Poetry, Shepard? Really?" He nearly winced, as that was about the lamest attempt at humor he'd made since. . .well, ever.
Without missing a beat, she shot back, "Blame Ashley. She started it."
He snorted, and the words came much more easily as he said, "Shepard, that was. . .that was beautiful. Truly amazing. But, how. . ."
Her small, pale hand came into view, and revealed her omnitool to his gaze. She squeezed it, the action shutting it down, and her voice returned to normal. "You're not the only one who's been doing research, Garrus. I know that voice cues in alien speech patterns are tough for turians to catch, so I downloaded a program that would modulate my voice. I. . ." She was blushing now, which, while a completely alien occurrence to his people, he knew it to be a rather normal one to hers, and her gaze dropped to her feet as she went on, "I also found out that voice cues are pretty important when it comes to. . .attraction, and had planned on using this thing if everything else I tried tonight didn't work."
Completely at a loss for words (which seemed to be a running theme that night), he stared at her, awestruck, before he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to him. She stiffened, but only for a moment, before relaxing into the embrace and returning it in kind.
They stayed that way for what felt like a long time, but was probably only a few minutes when he said, "So. As nice as that was to hear, what exactly did you mean by all that?"
Shepard laughed into his shirt before she raised her chin so that she was looking up at him. "Tell you what. I'll explain what I said if you'll come back to the couch. I've been on my feet all day, and I'd really rather not be on them another second longer."
Garrus wasn't sure why he responded as he did, but on impulse, he picked her up off the floor and carried her bodily down the stairs. After her initial squeal of surprise, Shepard wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist to keep from falling. Rather than put her down again when they reached the couch, Garrus carefully sat down on the edge, mostly to keep from crushing the lower half of her legs with his bulk.
She leaned back in his lap to look at him, the smile on her face an amused one, and said, "Well, you kept up your end of the bargain, so to speak. Guess it's my turn."
He waited as she broke eye contact again to look over at her fish tank, and then the glass case holding her model ship collection above his head. "You said that you knew what humans typically find attractive," she began while looking back at her battered N7 helmet on the desk nearby. "First of all," she continued, still not looking at him, "you're very sweet to worry about my sensibilities." She brought her gaze back to his face, and with all traces of mirth gone, said, "However, I am far from typical."
He moved to respond, but was stopped by a single finger laid against what was left of his chin. "Please, let me finish before you say anything." The turian nodded his acquiescence, which seemed to satisfy the human in his lap, and waited for her to finish. "The point of that poem is that, while the poet's beloved is not at all what was considered traditionally pretty at the time it was written, to him, she's the most beautiful thing in the world, because he loves her."
She leaned forward slightly, her gaze softening as she went on, "Affection colors his perception, and while some may find that somewhat insulting, I've always found it to be nothing more than indicative of a simple fact: Emotion may cause us to see things differently than others do, but that doesn't make what we see any less true."
Garrus blinked at her, trying to figure out what to say, but was cut off again, this time by slender fingers sliding inside his tunic and caressing his chest plates. The realization that her nimble little hands had been unbuttoning his tunic during the entirety of her speech was almost as jarring as her touch, but not in even a remotely bad way.
Nice sense of awareness there, Vakarian. If she'd been your enemy, you'd have a knife in your heart right about now. Apex predator my ass.
Feminine laughter pulled him out of his reverie, which was when he realized he'd shared his thoughts with the rest of the room.
And with her.
His mandibles pulled upward in embarrassment, and he looked away as Shepard removed her hand from inside his shirt. Great. Finally get over one hurdle only to crash into a brick wall. Then her hand was on his face again, turning it back to hers.
"Those are two things I love about you, Garrus," she said, breathless with laughter.
"What, my ability to make an idiot out of myself and kill the atmosphere?"
"NO," she said emphatically, bringing her face closer to his. "Your ability to make me laugh, and the fact that you're not afraid to speak your mind." At that last word, her hand left his face and ran lightly up the skin of his neck to his fringe. He released a low rumble in his chest before he knew what was happening, and she laughed again. "What's making you so happy, what I'm doing, or what I'm saying?"
His answer was slightly strangled, as he found it tough to concentrate when she was stroking her blunt little fingernails along the underside of his fringe. "Do I have to choose?"
"Not if you don't want to. I can keep up both. For a while, at least."
"Then don't stop on my account."