This time the hot shower only accentuated how much everything hurt. Nihlus had gotten in a few good blows, it seemed. Shepard watched herself in the mirror, examining an already darkening bruise on her cheek dispassionately.
No lasting harm done, and they had won.
Of course, now Saren was back in a bad mood, which soured things considerably. Damn him.

She changed into a fresh set of fatigues and walked out into the living room.

Saren was on the couch, changed into his black civilian clothes and reading from a data pad, and from the way he was ignoring her it wasn't advisable to disturb him. The scratches on his face, strangely enough, looked more gruesome now that he'd somewhat cleaned them up. She wondered whether they'd scar.

And she'd never had had enough sense to keep her mouth shut. It somehow seemed a bit late to start watching her mouth with him now.
"Nysana really scratched you up."

He growled, a serious warning now, but she walked over to him anyway to have a closer look.

"By the way, I noticed I didn't get any critique from you." She tried to fake a hurt tone, but it probably wasn't very effective.

Saren growled again. "You don't need any. You took down Nihlus. What else do you want to hear?"

"It worked. We won."

He set the data pad aside and glared at her.

"You can admit now that we can work together." Shepard didn't flinch from his glare.

"Apparently." he ground out. The admission seemed to worsen his mood.

Shepard frowned. "Are you still angry about that match? You could just have declined." He didn't reply, and she shrugged. "And you proved once again that you're still the best of us. I don't see the problem there."

He had gone completely expressionless, and that was worrying, because she knew he was at the moment anything but calm. "Of course you don't."

Fine, she thought. If he wanted to be like that.
"By the way, they invited me to come along on their next mission. Hunting pirates in the Traverse. Sounds like fun."

"Not unexpected, that." he said, and there was no hint of what he was thinking in his voice. "Why are you still here, then? If you decide to join up with them, you should go and work out the details."
There was again a hint of resentment in the last part, and she didn't know what to make of that. He certainly didn't resent the two other Spectres.

Shepard studied him. He wasn't as calm as he tried to appear, not by any reckoning. There was something she was missing here.

His voice was still calm. "You impressed them well enough with that fight, and your styles are compatible. The three of you might work together well enough, if you can get around your tendency to act before you think and and if you can tone your inherent aggressiveness down enough not to regard them as rivals."

Whatever reply she had expected from him on that, that wasn't quite it, and it annoyed her.
"Aggressiveness, huh? Just because I don't back down from you like everyone else seems to?"

Something in the way he tossed his head back warned her, but she had little time to react as he suddenly was back on his feet and right before her. He was far too close, but she stood her ground.
He actually ground his teeth, and that wasn't a comforting sight at all at close range.

"Stop this." His tone became even more flat. "I tolerated a lot from you when you were my trainee. You're a Spectre in your own right now. We are of equal rank. You are no longer required remain in my company, and I am no longer required to tolerate your constant challenge and not respond in kind. I'm done playing."

That choice of words should have warned her, maybe, but she was too annoyed for any sort of fear to take hold.

"So am I, actually. And I've had it with your moodiness and the way you can't seem to decide on how to act towards me, lately. Make up your damned mind. If you want to take a swing at me, then do, but be aware that I'll hit right back. So if you want to fight it out, that's fine with me too."

There was a undertone in his voice now that was downright dangerous, and his eyes were bright, although she couldn't quite read the emotion. It wasn't just fury. "Don't provoke me, Shepard. Not now. I'm really not in the mood."

He wasn't, she could see that. He was too keyed up from the duel with the other two Spectres, and injured. She knew what the combination of that did to an average turian's mind, but Saren had always been much more stable.
There had to be more to it than that.

He suddenly lifted his head, and she could almost see him clamp down on whatever impulse for violence was crossing his mind right now, as he made as if to turn away.

This was wrong. Saren never retreated, or walked away when challenged like that. She hadn't necessary expected an immediate all-out attack, although the possibility had crossed her mind, but she had expected him to lash out at least verbally.
That sort of restraint was not normal. Neither was the rest of his behaviour here.
It confused her.
It was bad enough to try and figure out a human's motivations, but with an alien like him, it was almost useless to even try. Empathy wasn't really one of her talents even at the best of times.

Despite spending more than a year constantly in his presence she had the feeling she didn't know him or understood the way he thought, not really. He was at least as good at hiding his thoughts and motives as she was, probably better, and he had had several more years worth of practice at that. She should have had enough time to learn enough about him to predict his reactions and know what he would and wouldn't do, but that hadn't worked. He knew her better than she knew him, which left her at a severe disadvantage.

The smart move would have been to walk away, file all of this away as something incomprehensible alien and leave it at that. And yet, she was reluctant to do that without at least trying to figure out what this really was about.

She had a real chance at that now.
Usually, he was too controlled to give away anything more than he wanted to. At the moment, he already was very close to reaching the limits of that control. If she wanted to see any true reaction of him, she had to push him beyond his ability to reason, get him into a situation where the consequences no longer mattered, or where he no longer cared about them. Rationally, that was a bad idea, of course.
They weren't any sort of friends. By any odds that would become a serious fight, and she'd very likely end up hurt. Maybe worse. It was a very real risk.
It would also clear this up once and for all. She'd probably not be able to get a verbal explanation out of him, but by his reactions she'd see how far he was willing to go if she gave him a chance to get back at her. It would tell her enough, and it would sort out her own ambivalent impulses regarding him as well.
She knew he was dangerous to her. The question was only, how much and how far.
Worth the risk, then.

Her tone was deliberately careless. "That's it? You actually are running away? How are you going to rationalise that to yourself? That you care about whether you injure me? Stop lying to yourself and stop being a damned coward."

For a moment he was completely still, and she knew she had scored a hit there. Then something in his expression and his stance changed, and the ripping snarl he gave was a mix of fury and frustration.

Now, she backed off, until her back was to the wall, but he followed, and his hands slammed against the wall left and right of her head roughly at eye level.
She blinked, but managed not to flinch away as he hissed at her.

"I will not tolerate mockery from you."

"I wasn't. Not really, anyway." She wasn't sure he had heard.

Maybe she had miscalculated there, she allowed. She had thought she had seem him mad before, but compared to his current mood she probably had only ever seen mild annoyance. This was different.

There were two ways this could go. He was out for blood, and if she responded in kind, that would be it, and it would end with both of them seriously hurt, at best.

There was another way, given that familiarity they had with each other, and the strange restraint he had shown so far, and that was to turn this into some more controlled violence. There were some cues, some hardwired reflexes, and those she knew.

Of course, there also was the option of backing down. Not that it was an option for her, and she didn't even know the gestures for that.

And she knew which way she preferred, and, in fact, even wanted.

She held his gaze and deliberately touched her fingertips to his face, not quite tracing the scratches. It was an ambiguous gesture, challenge as well as invitation, and she couldn't have said which of the two she intended more.

Saren hissed, confused by her apparent lack of fear for a moment. Then his tone turned into something else, something dark and alien that she couldn't place. "This has already gone too far, but you're taking this somewhere that it really shouldn't go. Back down. Stop fighting, or I will make you. And you are not going to like that."

She gave a sharp laugh, devoid of any humour. "Right. Like that threat ever worked with me."

His voice was still this strange tone. "It's not an empty threat. I rarely give first chances. Never a second."

"I know." She did, too. She had no doubt at all that he was serious, and she had seen him kill for a lot less than that.

"Last chance."

Instead of any verbal answer, she lunged forward, grabbed one of his cheek spines and jerked his head to the side. Before he could properly react, she darted in and bit the side of his neck, hard.
He screamed, a sound that didn't seem like his voice anymore. It wasn't a sound a human would make, which wasn't a surprise given that he wasn't one, but it wasn't even something that sounded like it would come from a sentient being. Despite that, that sound didn't scare her. Quite the opposite, really. Something inside her, a less civilised part, recognised something familiar in that sound and responded with a primal sort of arousal, a raw, pure animal need, mixed with aggression. She hadn't expected that response of herself, but somehow it seemed right, appropriate.

He tore free and pushed her back hard enough to knock the breath out of her. Then he snarled, still with that undertone to his voice, and clawed at her clothes, fabric ripping under his talons. No time for any niceties like taking her clothes off properly, but that wasn't what was required now.

She instinctively clawed at the fabric of his suit, but he didn't allow any of that and pushed her back, holding her off with one hand while peeling off his suit with the other. She struggled briefly, and he snarled again, lowered his head and clamped his jaws on her shoulder. His teeth sunk through the fabric of her shirt into skin. She made some strange sound, more surprise than pain, and kept still. His grip loosened almost inperceptibly. His hand slid down between her legs, encountered bare skin, and she shuddered. He pressed himself closer to her, grinding himself against her, then his claws traced down her leg. A sudden jerk of his head tipped her off-balance, and his claws gripped her leg, lifted it. He pulled her against him, his tip slowly spreading her open. It was too slow for her taste, and she jerked her leg out of his grip, hooked it over his hip and ground her hips against his.
He snarled, letting go of her shoulder as he thrust himself into her, hard.
She couldn't bite back a scream and didn't try. It was sudden, and rough, and just perfect. She wasn't in the mood for gentleness, and neither was he, apparently. Fair enough.
She crawled up his body, seeking even closer contact, then threw herself against him with her full weight behind it.
It took him by surprise, but rather than letting her ruin his balance he turned it into a controlled fall and took the both of them down.

They went in a roll, each of them fighting for dominance. It wasn't that she was actively trying to fight him off, but submission wasn't in her nature, and neither was giving up. The couch broke their roll, and she braced her leg against it, using it as leverage. She was on top of him for a heartbeat, giving him a fierce grin that was answered by a low growl, then he flipped them around, holding her down, continuing to thrust against her. She tried to wrap her other leg around his hips, and he countered that by leaning on her thigh with his knee, trapping her.
She moaned and clawed at his neck, and he hissed again and shook her hands off, then pinned her right wrist with a clawed hand.

He ground himself against her, the ridge of his plating sliding against her clit, and she instinctively threw her head back as raw pleasure ran through her nerves.
He hissed again, and closed his jaws over her exposed throat.

Her reaction was mindless, pure reflex as she tried to get free. She hadn't been afraid before, but that was too much. She couldn't see, she was trapped. Helpless. It was pure animal instinct that decided her reaction. She clawed at his face in momentary panic with her free hand, felt flesh give under her fingernails and heard him make a deep sound that wasn't quite pain. Then he caught her hand, almost effortlessly, and pinned that, too.

A roll of his hips, and her nerves couldn't seem to decide anymore between fear and lust. For a few seconds she just lay still, panting.
Strangely enough, some reason returned.
He probably wasn't intending to kill her, or even hurt her. He'd scared the hell out of her with that, but he wasn't really biting her, the tips of his teeth just gently pressing into her skin. This was intended as a reminder, so far.

It probably was some sort of dominance display, something that would have a hardwired response in another turian. Too bad that she had no idea what that response was. She really hoped that he remembered that she was human and didn't have tough skin and plates all over her, but then again, while a turian's skin even at the throat was tougher than a human's, it probably made not much of a difference with the sort of teeth they had. He had to know that, at least.

He moved against her again, and that was something she understood, and wanted. She tried to pull him closer, needing more, the muscles in her leg straining, but he resisted. If the point of this was getting her frustrated, it was working. She was just tiring herself out, neither getting free from him nor getting any closer to the release she needed now.
Stop fighting, or I'll make you. That was what he'd said. She wasn't sure he'd meant it that way, at that point, but this still had to be what he was doing.
She ground her teeth. They could continue this until one of them broke, and broke badly. Or she could let him have this one. It wasn't really in her nature, but sometimes, very rarely, there were exceptions. Maybe this had to be one.

It was an effort, but she went still. She hated that she couldn't see his reaction, and the way he held her she didn't have enough contact to guess, but maybe that was also the point. He shifted, then gathered both her wrists to pin them with one hand, and she tensed at that, fighting down the natural response to tear free.
His free hand trailed down her side, claws brushing skin where her clothes were shredded, and she wasn't sure whether this was intended a threat or a caress, wasn't sure she cared anymore.

She deliberately relaxed, hard as that was, and his weight went off her leg. That was clear enough, and she got the message.

She didn't try to cling to him again, and he slipped his free hand to the small of her back and gathered her close. That gave her the friction she was longing for, and she whimpered. That felt far too good, but of course he knew that. Not enough, though. Her fingers clenched around empty air on their own, and he let her go of her hands, resting his weight on his lower arm. That changed the angle a bit, and she gave a surprised whimper.
Apparently he misinterpreted that, because the hold on her throat lessened, until she could barely feel the tips of his teeth.

Loose enough that she could have torn free with maybe a scratch or two showing on her skin.
Somehow that told her everything she needed to know. She had gotten some things wrong here. This wasn't about violence, not even about dominance as she had understood it. He didn't want her submission, not in the sense she had been fighting so hard against. In a warped way, this was about trust.

Paradoxically, this was much more frightening than the possibility of physical injury, because this was changing something in her in a fundamental way, if she let it. Sex, when it came down to it, was easy and ultimately meaningless. Trust was neither.
She had the option to free herself now, and she was certain he'd let her go. She was also certain that this here would never again be mentioned or repeated. There was one attempt at this only, but he left that choice to her.
In the end, it still was a question of courage, of who would quit first. And that was no question at all, really.
Damned turian.

She arched against him, leaning into his grip, completely relaxed. Letting him take control, for now. It was a new experience, that at least was certain. She had never tolerated anyone restraining her, never thought she'd ever let anyone do that, let alone some very dangerous alien with unpredictable moods.

She wasn't sure how she'd expected this to go from that point, but she'd at least have assumed that he'd take his time and draw this victory out. He didn't. Almost effortlessly, he shifted his hold on her, changing angle and pressure for maximum effect. He thrust against her in just the right way and speed, that scaly ridge sliding over her clit with every move, and under any other circumstances she would have felt uneasiness that he knew that well just how to touch her. Right now, if anything, it was an advantage. She let herself be held, let herself be taken.
Another thrust, and that was enough to drive her over the edge. Her breath was coming in too short gasps to sustain a scream, and all she could manage was a mewling sound as she climaxed, convulsing against him. His breath was hot and just as fast as hers against her throat, but he just kept going, much slower, sending shock after shock through her, and she couldn't keep still anymore. She wrapped her free leg around his hip, rested one hand lightly in the back of his neck, no longer even thinking about it.

He seemed fine with this at this point, and gave a deep, rumbling sound as she stroked the underside of his fringe, and there was no threat at all in that sound, and no aggression either.
With a strange sliding roll of his hips, he had her full attention again, and if she had trusted her voice she probably would have begged, but he didn't require that. He didn't need to be told anyway.
Her senses narrowed down to the feel of him against her and in her, and raw need that kept building again, impossibly intense. Kept building, eased off for short moments when her body shuddered in reaction, was back in full force with another slide of body against body. She was helpless against the onslaught of sensation, and didn't even care.
She lost track of time, lost count of how many times he pushed her over the edge, only to have her back up and ready and wanting more just moments later. She didn't quite lose sense of self, not completely, but somehow it was all pushed back, all the anger and fear and confusion and pride distant and somewhere else, not mattering at the moment. Nothing left with to think, only feel.
Too much. Not enough.

She might have said something, maybe a plea, maybe just his name or some wordless, meaningless sound. His reply was again that strange rumble, then he slid against her again, almost gentle, and she arched into him as pleasure crashed over her again. She came hard, the intensity of it so great that she momentarily saw black spots, tremors running through her body as she writhed underneath him. It seemed to go on forever, as she drew breath after shuddering, almost sobbing breath, still unable to get enough air into her lungs.

He was tense against her, the whole line of his body taut, almost waiting, and it convinced her even more that this was some instinctual behaviour and he was waiting for a certain response from her.
It wasn't clear-cut and instinctive for her, and she could only try and guess and hope that something in what she did was enough of a response.
She tightened her thighs around him, pressing herself up against him, as much contact as she could manage, again stroked the underside of his fringe, and then let her head fall back further, deliberately leaning her throat against his teeth again.

The feel of his teeth against her didn't scare her anymore. It was weird, in a way, and certainly risky, but she had seen stranger kinks even in humans, and if that was what he needed right now, it was fine with her. It was just a gesture, some symbolic leftover of behaviour from some distant animal part that evolution hadn't erased yet. Rationally, it wasn't a good idea to have one's throat in the jaws of someone who had a carnivore's teeth, held a grudge and had some reason to be currently very, very angry with her. Instinct said another thing altogether, that he wasn't going to harm her here and now. Instinct was what she trusted in.

He tightened his grip fractionally, and she leaned into him, encouraging, and caressed the back of his head. His breath caught as he went rigid, and then he let go of her throat and tossed his head back, teeth bared in a silent snarl as he shuddered against her. She held on to him, surprised at the strange soft sound he made, until he quieted and relaxed. He slipped out of her, then let himself sink down on his side.
Her legs were still hooked into the hollows of his hips, and she just let herself be pulled with him, feeling too sluggish to let go yet. His hands were on her back, absently stroking her skin, which was just as unexpected as most of this, and felt strangely nice.
She rested her forehead against his plated chest, absently noting that his breathing still hadn't gone back to normal. Then again, neither had hers.

She felt drained, physically as well as emotionally, but right now she wasn't even feeling defensive about it. It was strangely peaceful, leaning against a turian whose uncomfortably rough plates were compensated by his high body temperature and who, at the moment at least, decidedly was not her enemy. Her hand still was at the back of his head, stroking the skin there in small, slow circles without any conscious thought from her about it. He wasn't precisely relaxed, as far as she could tell, but his hands were still on her back, and he seemed all right with the contact.

Well. She had pushed him too far to see him at his worst. Granted, she had been the one to turn this from violence into sex, but even so, in all likelihood this should have ended much, much worse. His worst was, apparently, a few scratches and shallow bites, scaring the hell out of her, and then shagging the hell out of her. It was debatable whether the scaring part had been intentional or just matter-of-course, and he hadn't even been mean about the latter. So. He'd had a perfect chance to get back at her, and hadn't taken it, and she was rather certain he'd been beyond thinking at the point. That reaction had been genuine, and come to think of it, so had her own.
Her knife was still strapped to her lower arm, where he hadn't even bothered to take it away. She had been frightened by what he'd done, badly, and still she hadn't drawn that blade, hadn't even considered it. She was still there, instead of getting the hell away from him. Her current clothes were ripped, but apart from some shallow scratches and the bite on her shoulder she was fine.
Collateral damage aside, he hadn't left any damage worth mentioning on her. Neither of them was given to show that much restraint when feeling threatened or insulted.

She was slow in some things, but not that dense.

She lifted her head to look at him. She couldn't read his expression at all, but his face...she winced. The scratches left by Nysana's claws were open again, two of the deep furrows widened where her own fingernails had cut in. It had been reflex, but she still wished she hadn't done that, and promptly was a bit surprised at herself.

He never had much facial expression even with the parts of his face that weren't cybernetic, but she had learned to read some things in the angle he cocked his head, the tension of the skin around his eyes, or minute changes in the angle and height of his mandibles. She could reliably identify anger, surprise, contempt, mild satisfaction, and the exact moment when his patience was used up and he struck to kill. There was some expression now on his face, but it was a new one and she couldn't place it. She couldn't even properly define it, because as she met his eyes, he closed up again, and she only knew it by its sudden absence.

Saren stared at her, then said with a strangely quiet tone. "I had no intention to let it get that far. I admit I lost my temper. But I will not apologise for that. I gave you fair warning, more than I ever do."

She nodded. "Of course not. I provoked you. Still, you startled me, and I won't apologise for your face. By my count we're about even."

"Fair enough."
His tone was still calm, but gradually approaching something more normal. "Shepard, even you don't go provoking someone like me like that without what seems at least to your warped mind a good reason. I can think of several explanations, and all of them are disturbing in various ways."
He regarded her again, and she was certain that she had no wish to explain her reasoning, especially as she had the suspicion that he already had a good idea about said reasoning. A rather common taunt from him was that she incapable of being subtle. It wasn't precisely true, but the truth of the matter was that she didn't bother to try, usually. No, chances were that now that his reasoning was back online, he already knew.
"I won't even ask what you thought you were trying to do." She blinked in surprise, but he ignored that. "What I do want to know is whether you are going to do that again."

"No." she replied immediately. There was no reason to. Once had been quite enough.

He didn't seem surprised at all. "Then I'll assume whatever question you had is answered, one way or another, and there is no further need to discuss any of this." He didn't add the word 'ever', but his tone more than implied it. He let go of her, rolled over and got to his feet again.

There had been collateral damage to the room, she noted.
The wall he'd pushed her against had deep gouges from his claws, and there were scratch marks on the floor as well and a rip in the back of the couch, presumably the work of one of his spurs.
She really had to give him that, even half-naked, his face scratched to hell and the evidence of his show of temper around them, he looked no less collected and dignified than ever. And back to distant. Even with her not being too good at interpreting people's reactions, she could recognise a defence mechanism for what it was. She had seen something of him he hadn't been willing to share, and he was trying to do some damage control. Last time it had been the other way around, and it should have given her some satisfaction that it was him this time around who was shaken. Sadly, it didn't. It had become more complicated than that.

"You just came very close to having your face ripped off." he suddenly said, in conversation tone.

Shepard shook her head, and pushed herself up as well, maybe a little less elegant. She was still sore from the duel with Nihlus, and their recent activities hadn't helped in that regard.
"Just about as close as you came to getting a knife in your eye." she said, in the same tone. All things considered, that probably wasn't very close at all, for either of them, but she understood the need to save face.

He seemed to consider this, then gave a curt nod, not pushing the subject any further.

Shepard regarded her clothes - or rather, what remained of them - with some displeasure, then dispassionately shrugged them off. Back to the shower it was, for the faint hope that hot water and a good stretch would straighten out the kinks in her spine.
In the door to the bathroom, she paused and turned around.

Saren was still standing at the couch, but his hands were on the back rest of the couch, his head slightly lowered. He was clearly unaware that she was still watching, and while it was far from obvious, she could tell he wasn't back to normal, not by a long stretch. The best explanation that she had was that she'd triggered some instinctual behaviour in him, something he hadn't expected, and this was eating at him. There was no way to know whether it was just the fact that he had lost control that bothered him or the way he had done so, or something else entirely, but the fact remained that he was badly shaken. It wasn't precisely shame, but there was shock, something raw and unguarded again in his expression that she still couldn't name, but something she was very certain she was not supposed to see.

She deliberately turned her back again, walked into the shower and turned on the water.
She didn't try to think yet; she finished cataloguing her own minor scrapes, then got out, wrapped herself in a towel and broke out the med pack.
The bite over her shoulder was clean enough and not very deep, so she put on some medigel and forgot about it. Then she left the shower to Saren, went back to her own room, got herself dressed in something loose and informally civilian for a change and sat on the bed, thinking.

After a few moments, she started swearing under her breath, low but heart-felt. It was a credit to her military background and her extensive vocabulary that it took quite some time until she ran out of applicable phrases and came into danger of repeating herself.

Pure violence or just rough sex she could have dealt with and put it behind her, and by now she would have regained her mental equilibrium. This, whatever it really had been, had left something in her raw and strange and confused, and it had apparently cut both ways. She didn't know what to to with that. She was exhausted, ached all over, there was a kink in her back that wouldn't let go, and in some ways she was more confused than ever, and some other things had become quite clear.

And she was hiding, and she never did that. This was quite unbearable.
Damn him.
Shepard gathered up a medkit as some sort of peace offering, then marched over to Saren's room.
He hadn't bothered to lock the door, which saved her the trouble of hacking it.

Saren was back in that black uniform, stretched out on his bed, half-curled up on his side, which probably indicated that he was just as sore.
She couldn't have told any of that from the perfectly normal, irritated way he lifted his head. "What is it that do you want now?"

She held up the medkit. "I just thought you'd like someone halfway competent fixing up your face again, instead of the awful job you did before."

He snarled, the insulted variant that could safely be ignored, at least when he didn't have weapon in hand and already was aiming, but he sat up again and offered no further violence as she sat down beside him. His face really looked a mess, and that was saying something given the way he usually looked. Cleaned out and up-close, the scratches looked even worse. Shepard set out to work with medigel to seal the scratches and the small white pieces of sticky stuff that looked like adhesive tape but actually fused into a turian's plates to hold edges of wounds together where normal bandages were impractical. Most of the scratches were easy to close up, at least, but one that ran down his nose was too ripped to align properly. She tried her best, knowing that she'd at least added to that one with her own nails.
It was still a hack job, she felt, but better than anything he'd have done himself. "The one on your nose will probably scar." she told him, then stretched her back again. No luck, that kink was still there.
She leaned to one side, trying to find a more comfortable position.

Saren just shrugged, disinterested. "Are you done?" As she didn't reply, he snorted, drawing breath to say something that probably was extremely unfriendly, if she judged the way be held his head correctly, but then his attention sharpened. His tone was irritated, though. "What's wrong with your back?"

That put her off-balance for a moment. "Must have wrenched something at some point."

He shook his head. "Lie down." He shifted aside, making room for her on the bed.

She frowned, but was too tired to argue as she stretched herself out. She still flinched when he touched her back, but his annoyed growl at that had an almost calming effect on her. "Stop fidgeting, it gives me a headache." His hands trailed down her spine, certain and almost clinical. He lingered over the spot that was giving her trouble, then suddenly pushed down with the heel of his hands, and something in her back realigned with an audible crack. She cursed automatically, even though it had been painless, and he growled again, warningly, and continued his way down. Another push, a more faint crack, and the tension in her spine was gone.
He gave a snort that was half exasperation and half satisfaction, and withdrew his hands.

Shepard rolled on her side to be able to look at him. He was staring down at her, and this time his expression gave nothing away at all. She was too tired to play games. The tension and pain in her back was gone, but so was the rest of her energy.
"Where are you going after this?"

The question seemed to surprise him, but he answered readily enough. "Back to the 'Veil, probably, if the Council doesn't have other orders. I've been meaning to check some more exposed sites for geth activity."

"That sounds like fun, too." she said slowly, wondering whether she gotten this completely wrong. He hadn't explicitly denied that he was jealous. He had just denied that he cared who or what she took to bed with her, and that she had believed. Until now she had assumed he wanted her gone. Maybe the exact opposite was true. There was only one way to find out.

"Mind if I come along?"

He stared at her, and she couldn't read his expression at all. Not pleased, not angry, nothing at all. "Not on principle, no." he said, flatly. "I can't estimate how long I'll be out there, though. It might be a longer mission that you are used to."

She shrugged. "That's fine. Short time assignments aren't really worth my while anyway."

"What about your pirate-hunting trip?"

She considered. "If you're in the mood for a detour back to the 'Veil, we could do some pirate-hunting together. Between the four of us, I think we could do some real damage. If not, then it's shooting geth."

She still couldn't read anything in his expression, and her patience with this ran out.
"This is ridiculous." she said. "Let's try to keep this simple, too. Do you want me to stay around?"

His mandibles twitched, as much as they could. "Yes," he ground out, voice gravelly as if the act of speaking hurt him physically.

"Is that why you were in a constant bad mood for weeks now? And why you were even worse after the match?"

His voice was as expressionless as his face. "I think we could make a decent team." It wasn't a direct answer, to her questions, but it was more than enough. It didn't matter whether they even could be friends or casual lovers or not, although she suspected however this ended, their interaction would never be casual. Whatever confusing cultural or emotional influences there were, those were of no consequence here, either. This was an offer to travel the galaxy together, kick arse and keep each other's backs clear of enemy fire. The odds for survival were higher that way, and survival was something she understood. About everything else, there was no need to figure it out here and now.

She stared at him, sorely tempted to grab his fringe and shake some sense into his head, although she knew she didn't quite dare to put this into action. "Why not just say so, then? Maybe give me a hint, instead of making be believe you want me gone as quickly as possible?"

"Self-preservation." he quoted back her own words at her.

Shepard shook her head again, torn between amusement and annoyance. It made some warped sense now.
He wouldn't ask, not directly, either because of some personal hangup or something cultural, but whatever the precise reason for his very uncharacteristic hesitation, it was something he apparently couldn't get around here and now.

He had been trying to keep his distance just as she had, and failed just the same. He'd probably even convinced himself that she'd never trust him enough to work as a team with him, so it wouldn't matter if she left. Having that proven wrong by their match against the other two Spectres must have made things a lot worse for him. And so she'd pushed him, and he'd snapped, and although they probably both had done their best to make it seem otherwise, they apparently were incapable of deliberately hurting each other. "Maybe you got it right. We affect each other equally."

He didn't reply, and she suppressed a sigh. This really was ridiculous.

Trying to force him to say anything more would be petty and not hold much satisfaction to her either. He hadn't tried to make her beg or to humiliate her. She would just return the courtesy.
After all, they were more alike than she had allowed for. It was only that their hangups were different. This wasn't one of hers, though, so she could take this one, then.

She shrugged, easily, keeping her tone light. "I'd get bored alone soon enough anyway. And I wouldn't settle for less than the best for company, and as much as it pains me to admit it that means you. Guess I'll stay, then." Something relaxed in the set of his shoulders, but it was subtle, easy to miss. "You're welcome to stay, if that's your choice. I seem to have built up a certain tolerance to your presence. And I'm not opposed to giving our fellow Spectres a hand before going back to the 'Veil."

"Good. So that's settled, too. Pirates first, then geth." She rolled on her back again, fatigue setting in. As hard to admit as it was, she needed rest. She closed her eyes, only for a moment.
A claw poked at her side, and she indignantly opened her eyes. Saren was still looking at her, looking mildly irritated. Or else, trying to do his best to appear irritated. It was hard to tell.

"Am I to understand that you're, once again, too exhausted to move?" he asked, his tone giving the implication that that was what he expected from a fragile, annoying human anyway.

She could have left it at that or responded in kind, but she was, maybe, just too exhausted for that.
"No. But rather comfortable where I am and not going to move anyway, thank you for asking."

He was still for a split second, his normal reaction to surprise outside of combat, but his tone was as ever, mildly annoyed.
"You probably aren't aware of it, but you are still in my bed" he pointed out.

She closed her eyes again. "That might happen from time to time if I stay around. Learn to live with it."

There was a rasping sound from him that her tired mind took a moment to translate. He was laughing. She had heard him laugh before, once or twice, but there had been bitterness or cruelty to the sound before. This was neither, only genuine amusement.
His display of mirth was brief, but unmistakable. From the way the mattress moved, she could tell he had stretched himself out again. Shepard rolled to her side again, unthinkingly leaning into him, and only wondered about it after the fact. It certainly wasn't desire that made her reach for him now, but there was some other need she was too tired to try to identify.

He growled, some low sound that seemed more reflex at the sudden touch than anything else, but his hand came up on her back, drawing her close, and that felt right somehow. He was warm even through his suit and the fabric kept his plates from scratching her skin, which was an improvement, but his keel-bone was still too pronounced to be comfortable, and she prodded it, drawing a rather weak approximation of his usual irritated rumble from him. "You're still too spiky to make a good pillow."

Saren didn't even bother to growl. "If you're staying around, you might want to get used to it."

"Fair enough." she murmured, not sure herself to what she was referring to, but the details didn't matter. Something had been defined on more than one level, some boundaries set and mutually acknowledged.

She shifted slightly until she found a position where his keel-bone didn't disturb her anymore. It wasn't a perfect fit, and probably couldn't be, given their differences in shape and species and everything else, but it worked. Somehow, his hand ended up on her hip again, but she didn't dispute it.
As with everything else, it was an acceptable compromise.