A Game of Cards
The little observation room was already crowded when he came in. Kasumi and Tali were sitting on the floor with their backs against the far wall, and Jack was crouching in front of them, looking at a data pad that occupied the trio's attention in full. Zaeed and Thane were mixing drinks at the bar. Some music was on but he couldn't quite place it; and there was a familiar scent of alien food in the air… popcorn. The word came to him with almost no effort at all. He was getting used to living on a human ship.
"Garrus! Have a seat between us," Tali said, moving to her left and making a narrow place between her and Kasumi, who was already pinned against the couch.
"I need more space than that," he said, and sat down facing the girls across the little table.
"You have no sense of community, Garrus. When we return from this mission, you should spend some time with me in the Flotilla – then you'll learn to appreciate all the space you have here on the Normandy."
"Cut the crap and let the man sit where he wants," said Jack, earning an appreciative wink from Garrus, and even smiling back, a little. Or so he thought.
"Alright people, if everybody's here, let's get going," said Zaeed, returning from the bar with a glass of liquor in each hand. He gave one to Jack and the other one to Kasumi, then went back for his own.
"What about me?" Garrus said.
"Here you go," replied Thane and placed a cup on the table in front of him.
"What is it?"
Garrus sniffed the drink, took a carful sip. It was warm, bitter-sweet and had a complex herbal aroma. "Hey, this stuff is good."
"You're welcome," Tali said, a tone of mock resignation barely recognizable through the filters in her mask.
Garrus thought back to the time she'd first joined the crew of the original Normandy. In a fit of boredom during a long FTL flight, he'd dug out the specs for the air filters on a typical quarian breather mask and devised a quick algorithm to reconstruct the original sound spectrum from the filtered speech. Of course he hadn't been able to verify his results, but comparisons with the available recordings of unmasked quarian voices had looked promising. He'd made plans to develop the algorithm further, make it run real-time, then offer it to Tali as something she could take back to the Fleet from her pilgrimage. He'd configure it into a tiny, stylish mod for the mask, and she'd hug him in the way of thanks. It was funny to think that at the time, he'd actually had somewhat of a crush on her, thought he probably hadn't been aware of it. He couldn't make himself think of Tali in any terms but friendly now, even if he tried. Unlike with Shepard. With Shepard, it was precisely the other way around. In any case, he'd never found the time to finish the project. Perhaps, after this mission was complete, he'd look up those mask specs again.
"Normandy to Archangel," Zaeed was saying. "You in there, mate?"
While he was in dreamland, Zaeed had dealt the first round and everybody was silent, sipping their drinks and studying their cards. Garrus had only a superficial interest in the game, but enjoyed the company. Nobody even mentioned or considered inviting Jacob and Miranda, or any of the Cerberus crew. Joker had joined them once a few weeks back, but didn't come back again. Said the seats were too hard and the drinks too many. Samara didn't care for cards, and probably even less for socializing: she liked Shepard well enough, and spoke of Miranda with respect, but didn't seem to notice the other crewmembers at all. Mordin and Grunt couldn't sit in the same room together. They'd tried to invite them separately, but Mordin quickly grew bored, as he found the game "plain and unchallenging" and the gossip "excessively hormone driven". Grunt liked to hang around with the others, but couldn't quite grasp the rules; or more precisely, couldn't grasp when he was supposed to break them. Se he kept losing, which eventually resulted in a krogan-shaped dent in one of the bulkheads.
Of course they invited Shepard each and every time, but she'd always say she had things to do. Like on the original Normandy, she made regular rounds to make sure everybody was ok, especially before and after tough assignments, but she kept a measure of professional distance, and never allowed herself to display favor for any one crewmember above the others. She was the link between the Cerberus people and the specialists (all eccentrics, down to the last one), and had to play the peacemaker in the various conflicts that sprang about, typically at least twice a week. She honed her diplomatic skills to perfection, yet even so she usually needed to resort to reminding everybody how they were on the same side and how their mission was supposed to transcend petty personal and racial issues.
Still, Garrus knew that every single person in the room thought of Shepard as a friend. No, just "friend" was insufficient. A close friend. To most, the only friend. Although he didn't have all the details, he knew that they had all laid down their personal issues in front of her and asked for her help in resolving them before resigning their lives to the mission ahead. And she always came through, no matter how strange the demands. He had a flash from Omega, where Shepard and he were to help Samara find the Ardat-Yakshi. Shepard had dressed up for the nightclub and Garrus was to sit at the bar and watch her back. It had been a fascinating experience, observing her as she navigated the crowd in that ridiculously sexualized black outfit, relaxed and confident like a professional escort. He remembered how his heart had almost stopped when he lost sight of her, how it had raced when he found her again, found her pressing against the asari. Kissing the asari with those plump, wet lips.
He forced the memory away, hoping nobody caught him daydreaming this time. Face it, Vakarian, you can't get her out of your mind. Not after the episode with the fruit. Spirits! That was more than a week ago and he could still clearly recall the smells and the tastes and the improbable mixture of surprise, bliss, disbelief and arousal that had hit him all at once when she'd asked him to warm her bed, in so many words. He hadn't been entirely himself ever since. He shook his head to clear his thoughts.
"Bad hand, friend?" Thane said.
Garrus made himself focus. It was a bad hand indeed. "I fold."
"It's not the cards," said Kasumi in a playful tone. "Just look at him. He's somewhere else today."
"Maybe that little tart, Kelly, finally found the courage to hit on him, and now he's suffering from post-traumatic stress," said Jack, putting on a devious smile.
Kelly… Kelly… Garrus tried to enumerate all the female crewmembers on board in his mind, but just couldn't pick out anyone named Kelly.
"Counting the sheep, eh, mate?" Zaeed said. "Don't worry; I don't know half of them by name either."
"Shepard's assistant, silly," Kasumi laughed. "She's got such a crush on you. I listened in the other day when she was asking Shepard about you, and Shepard said, keep your hands away from him, Kelly; Garrus is mine!"
Garrus choked on his drink and everybody burst into laughter.
"You're so mean, all of you," Tali said, raising her voice over the clamor. "First, Shepard said no such thing. And second, Kelly was perfectly polite with her questions. She only wanted to know if the new dermal regenerator could help heal your scars."
"What's wrong with his scars?" said Zaeed. "In my experience, a man with scars is twice as likely to score with the ladies than a clean, hairless schmuck like Krios here."
"My thinking exactly," Garrus said, raising his cup to the veteran. They drank their drinks bottoms up and let out a manly aaaaargh at the same time, causing the girls to giggle.
"I might be a schmuck, but I'm a schmuck with a full house," said Thane, laying down his cards and making a little bow as the others booed in feigned desperation.
It wasn't before the third round of drinks and the sixth or seventh hand that Kasumi tackled the topic again. She had a keen intuition, almost as accurate as Shepard's, though overly focused on digging out other people's secrets. She could smell a sensitive spot on a raging krogan.
"Seriously, Garrus, has Kelly never tried to seduce you?"
"If she has, I totally missed it."
"Kelly has a crush on everybody," Tali said. "Men, women, humans, non-humans, mechs… Grunt is probably the only thing on this ship she doesn't like."
"You're so naïve it makes me sick," Jack snorted. "Kelly is a fucking xenophobe. All Cerberus people are. She only talks pretty about Garrus and other aliens to get into Shepard's pants. And let me assure you, she doesn't like me either. She tried to pull her psycho crap on me once, and if Shepard wasn't there, I'd have sent her flying around like a popped balloon."
"So you think she's actually after Shepard? Hmm… That's not inconsistent with the things I heard."
"I know I shouldn't ask," Garrus started, hoping to change the subject, "but how exactly do you two know all these things?"
The question was meant for Kasumi and Tali in equal measure. They exchanged a sideways glance, then Kasumi said: "We've got the entire CIC wired. A prime example of interspecies collaboration – I provided the ideas, and Tali, the implementation. I think we'd make Shepard proud."
"I don't think the Commander would appreciate you spying on her," Garrus said, a wave of panic rising inside him: if the CIC was wired, chances were the mess hall was as well. He only became aware that he'd used his C-Sec voice on them after seeing the quizzical looks on everybody's faces. You're losing it, Vakarian. Kasumi is already onto your dirty little secret.
"Laugh it up, Garrus," Thane said in a surprisingly lifelike imitation of Sheprad's tone and inflection, which broke the buildup of tension and sent everybody laughing.
"Actually, she should be damned grateful," Zaeed said. "Just think. For every bug one of us plants, Cerberus probably has three. For every room we wire, they have one less."
Garrus swallowed hard. How was it possible he'd never thought of that? The answer was simple; he'd never had secrets before. He made a mental note: scan the main battery, the mess hall, his cabin, and if possible Shepard's cabin, and overload the bugs. Hopefully there weren't as many as he feared.
"So tell us, what's the weirdest shit you two have spied on?" Jack said.
"Oooh, I've got a good one," Kasumi said.
"Let me guess: it's about that bitch Kelly again."
"Impressive! It is indeed about Kelly. But Garrus, before I start, you may want to put your drink down."
"This should be good," Thane said, as Garrus complied and put his cup on the table, bracing himself for new embarrassments. He was their favorite target for teasing, and although he'd learned to recognize and deflect the most obvious attempts, he was still way behind Thane's confident calm and Zaeed's superior disinterest. Just don't act guilty, he told himself, and nodded to Kasumi that she could continue.
"When she's alone in her cabin, Kelly watches this vid with human women and turian men over and over again. Either she has no idea that there are security cameras in all crew quarters or maybe she doesn't care. In any case, the strange sounds drew my attention so I kind of watched the vid too. Nothing against that kind of entertainment, really, but this vid was very… rough. Violent. I thought I'd ask you about it."
Good thing she'd warned him. This was way worse than their usual teasing. In fact, it was treading into the I-should-return-to-my-calibrations territory. For once, Garrus was grateful for his thick skin and his inexpressive turian face: if he were human, he'd be blushing in both shame and resentment. How many times had he considered finding vids with human-turian couplings to satisfy his curiosity, but didn't dare, in fear he'd see something off-putting instead of enticing? It wasn't their place to make the decision for him, it wasn't their place to pry his opinions and emotions out of him – opinions and emotions he himself didn't yet understand.
Laugh it up, Vakarian. Don't act guilty. Of all the people here, only Tali has a better poker face than you.
It all ran through his head in a split second, in time to refrain from any significant reaction. In time to let someone else speak before he could.
"Oh yeah," Jack said with a knowledgeable nod. "Human-turian vids are really very bad, all of them. There are some decent softies out there, but ninety nine percent are just rubbish."
"What's a 'softie'?" Tali said. To Garrus's astonishment, nobody seemed even a little fazed by the utter impropriety of the topic, not even gentle Tali, whom he always took for a very civil young woman.
"It's a vid where you don't get to see the actual anatomy," Zaeed replied. "Most vids come in both soft and hard variants, the difference is only in the angle of shooting the action."
"I see. Is Kelly's vid 'soft' or 'hard'?"
"The latter," Kasumi replied. "But the thing is, it's so violent, it's borderline sadistic. It's hard to imagine those poor women agreed to it voluntarily."
"It's all bullshit, you know that, right?" Jack said. "First, 'those poor women' are pros and they earn more credits for screwing aliens for one day that any of us will earn for spending months saving the fucking galaxy. Second, they only scream and squirm because they are told to. Nobody really gets hurt – it's a vid, for god's sake. It's what people want to see when they think of having sex with a turian – how violent and savage they are. If there's anything sick about it, it's the audience."
"A-fucking-men," Zaeed nodded, downing his drink.
"You make it sound like only humans make these vids – surely turians make some as well?" Thane said, directing the question at Garrus.
"Can't say I've seen any," he said, and it was the truth. "But I'm guessing they are pretty much the same. Humans like to think of us as the aggressors, and, I suppose we like to think about ourselves the same way. And when you take that to extremes…"
"Yeah," Jack said. "There's a whole mythology out there about turian talons and teeth and whatnot. It actually turns some people on, I guess – being bitten and bled, like it's some masculine thing or whatever."
"I was just about to ask about that," Kasumi said. "There was a lot of blood in Kelly's vid, mostly from the talons. And in the final scene, the turian bit the woman on the side of her neck and licked the blood off, and they made it look like it was some sort of a ritual."
All eyes turned to Garrus as he laughed, letting his forehead drop into his palm. Although he'd rather they talked about something else, he was surprised to find that the conversation didn't really make him feel uncomfortable. Mostly just silly.
"That was probably some turian's brilliant idea," he explained. "Primitive turians used to mark their mates by biting into the neck. Our teeth patterns are unique and the neck is exposed enough so that from the scars, everyone can see that your mate is taken. It's, uh… it's something you can also find in many turian-turian vids."
"I don't think human teeth could leave a mark in turian skin," Zaeed mused, seemingly thinking aloud and directing it at no one in particular.
Suddenly Garrus wondered how it would feel to be marked by Shepard's flat little teeth, and the thought stirred something deep inside. He swallowed the rest of his drink. It was a primitive custom, yes, but it stood for the pinnacle of both passion and commitment, which was the reason turians liked to see it in their vids even if few cared to submit to it for real. But that, he kept for himself.
"How come you know so much about human-turian relations, Jack?" said Thane.
"Well, if you must know, I had some hands-on experience."
"You mean, you had sex with a turian?" said Tali. "Was it good?"
"Please tell me it was nothing like that vid," said Kasumi.
"It was nothing like that vid."
They all sat in silence for a few beats, waiting for more.
"It was fine," Jack shrugged. "Well, ok; it was actually pretty good. And there was no blood and no clawing and biting and none of that shit. The first time he was so goddamn gentle I was bored. Later he relaxed, but let me tell you: most humans I've been with didn't give a fuck about how I felt. He did. So yeah." She cemented the speech with a firm nod. "It only got a bit weird near the end, but once I got the hang of it, it was weird in a good way."
"What was weird?" Garrus said. "Did he…?"
Garrus nodded and let his mandibles relax to the sides in a smile. As far as he knew, humans had no behavioral equivalent to what sometimes happened to turians during climax. None of the other bipedal races had, for that matter, and he very much doubted it was something one could catch in a vid. The only word for it was the turian mneroskilis-ex-furium-klystis, tender but utterly untranslatable.
"It means he really liked you," he said, his voice going down a register. The fact that it could happen with a human at all had given him a lot to think about. A lot to hope for.
"Yeah," Jack echoed. They stared at each other for a long spell. She'd really liked him too, Garrus thought, but wasn't about as to ask any questions. Jack being all serious wasn't such a good thing.
"Come on, people, let's play cards," Zaeed demanded and they focused on the game and the drinks for a few hands.
Then Tali cleared her throat. "So, Jack. Have you ever had sex with a volus?"