"Garrus." John leans partway in through the door of the main battery so he can see me. I'm sitting in the corner, reading. "Grab your gear. Helmet too. We're going planetside. " His disappears, then appears again. "That is, unless you're busy calibrating something."
"What?" I say.
He's already at the other end of the corridor. "Meet at the Kodiak," he calls over his shoulder. "I'm going to tell the others." It's clear he's not going to answer any questions at the moment. I sigh and put down the latest issue of Soldier of Fortune. I tell people I only read it for the new equipment reviews--the impoverished mercenary's porn--but honestly the articles are pretty good too.
When I get to the shuttle bay, Krios and Legion are already there, waiting. I nod at them. "What's going on?" I ask.
The drell shakes his head. Legion says, informatively, "We are awaiting Shepard-Commander. We have ascertained that Thane Krios is doing the same."
"Yeah. Thanks," I say.
Massani shows up next, stomping through the bay doors like a petulant child. "What the hell are we doing?" he demands. "I thought our business on Ilium was finished. I was all set for a marathon of bare-knuckle deathmatch vids."
"You know as much as we do," I tell him, before Legion can be helpful. "Better save your questions for Shepard."
Massani scowls. We wait in silence. I pass the time looking over my rifle again, making sure it's ready for action. It isn't very long before the door hisses open and I hear John's familiar tread approaching.
His gaze sweeps over us. "Good, we're all here," he says.
"What's all this about then?" Massani asks impatiently.
"The composition of this squad seems a little unusual," Krios remarks quietly--ostensibly to me, but loud enough to be heard by the rest. I nod. Yes, I've noticed that too.
"Relax. Nobody needs any killing today," John says. "At least, not in our immediate vicinity," he corrects himself. "As far as I know." He has everyone's undivided attention. "I got a message from my old instructor. He's retired now, runs a training facility for snipers here. Mercs, mostly. He told me he's set up a course similar to the ones we used to run in the Alliance. Says it's pretty challenging, suggested that I bring my team through it. So I thought I'd invite you all for a friendly competition." He spreads his hands and smiles blandly at us.
Massani's the first to react. Eyes narrowed, he says, "What's the prize?"
John raises an eyebrow. "The satisfaction of knowing that you're the best sniper on the Normandy? The undying admiration of your friends?"
"Screw that. Satisfaction's not going to buy me a palatial home on a backwater planet, is it?"
A shrug. "You don't have to play if you don't want to. This is strictly voluntary." John leans one shoulder against the shuttle, folds his arms. "Well?"
Massani snorts. "Unless the targets have screaming mercs nailed to them, forget it." He turns and stalks out of the shuttle bay.
Legion makes a puzzled noise. "Zaeed Massani declines to participate. Why? Character analysis indicates he enjoys demonstrating superior skill. Absence from competition reduces his probability of doing so to zero."
Krios has the fingertips of both hands pressed together, touching his chin. "Perhaps it is the idea of a friendly competition that he finds distasteful. I'm not sure he can admit the existence of friends."
John seems neither surprised--nor particularly concerned--at Massani's reaction. "The rest of you in?" he asks.
"We will participate, Shepard-Commander."
Krios nods. "As will I."
John looks at me questioningly. I stare back at him. The other two are standing slightly behind me and so John is the only one who can see me run one talon slowly, deliberately, along the receiver of my rifle. He shakes his head slightly, but a grin is threatening to break out on his face. He turns away quickly and climbs into the shuttle. The rest of us follow him. Krios gives me a curious look. I pretend not to notice and take my seat.
When the shuttle takes off, John removes his rifle from the holster on his back and starts looking it over, checking the mechanisms, like he always does just before going into battle. But then, as if trying to remove a nonexistent layer of dust, he clenches his fist around the barrel and slides his hand slowly down its length. His eyes flick to mine, a dark glance, and I fight to keep my face expressionless. There is a serious possibility that Krios has noticed all this byplay and will say something embarrassing at any moment, so with my eyes I wordlessly signal for a truce. John re-holsters the weapon with a meaningful snap. We both fix our gazes at the window then, as if we're interested in the view.
The shuttle skims down into the atmosphere and over Ilium's soaring megapolis. In a few minutes the city is behind us and then we glide down onto a remote rocky peninsula, touching down in front of a cluster of prefabs. The shuttle doors lift open. I watch the temperature reading in my visor increase steadily as the hot, dry air of Ilium floods into the cabin. The sun is almost directly overhead, and its glare is unpleasant; the faint outlines of Ilium's skyscrapers are barely visible in the distance, rising out of the haze. Behind the prefabs, a chain-link fence encrusted with windblown dirt stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions.
John signals us to wait by the shuttle and walks towards the prefabs. He's about halfway there when the door of one building opens and a figure appears, dressed in battered gray armor with no insignia or other identifying marks. The figure meets John a few steps from the door. The two clasp hands and speak briefly. John passes a small package to the other, who nods. The package disappears into a compartment in the gray armor.
A wave of John's arm beckons us over. The stranger turns to study us as we approach. His face shield is darkened against the harsh light so I can only dimly make out his features, but there's something in the way he stands that makes me think of my days in basic training. John introduces the man as Master Sergeant Earl Harris. Harris clasps hands with each of us in turn, seeming unfazed by Legion's presence.
"I see Zaeed Massani decided not to join you today," he says.
"He had a previous engagement," John says.
"He didn't want to see me again," comes the surprising rejoinder. "Or you didn't want him to see me. You know, I still owe him an ass-kicking."
Harris lets the subject drop. He says, "It's a nice day for shooting. You ready to start?"
John moves to stand beside me, in line with the three of us. There's a subtle change in his stance. He's identifying himself as one of us now, not as the man in command. Harris seems to take this as his answer.
I glance at Garrus, next to me, then at Thane and Legion. Consciously or not, the four of us are standing at ease--or something approximating it--facing Master Sergeant Harris. He stands at parade rest, with his hands crossed behind him, eyes glaring straight ahead, feet apart by exactly the regulation distance. That pose is him. It's how I always see him, in my memories.
I remember twenty-four young Marines, shivering for hours in the freezing rain, while behind them he spits icy disapproval into their ears. Hands numb, fingers useless, barely able to grip the rifle, let alone hold it steady. Shots missing the target completely, lost in the growing darkness. Shaking, blinded by exhaustion, whimpering with the effort of every movement. And his voice like a knife in the back. It will be a hundred times worse. A thousand times worse. Heat. Cold. Hunger. Fear. Unbearable pain. None of it matters. What matters is life or death, in your hands. The life of your target, or the deaths of your comrades. The life of your target, or yours.
He was right, of course.
"Gentlemen--and geth, " he begins. "The course before you is divided into three sections." His voice is gruffer than I remember it, coarsened by age, but each word is still clearly enunciated, and pitched to be heard by far larger groups than ours. He turns and begins to pace slowly to the left. "The first section consists of targets at known distances between 200 and 800 meters, in a standard firing range configuration. You will fire from prone, seated and standing positions, both supported and unsupported. I expect that this will all be very familiar to you."
He about-faces and paces to the right. "The second section consists of dynamic targets at unknown distances. There will be both friendly and hostile targets. Some of the targets may be mobile or in partial cover. You will gain points for each hostile hit, and lose points for each friendly hit. There will be a time limit. Obviously, it will be to your advantage to shoot quickly, but accurately."
He turns to face us again. During this last speech, his measured pacing has brought him exactly back to the spot where he started. I wonder if anyone else has noticed. I remember those lessons as well: the constant drilling to develop our instincts for time and motion. How fast is that guard walking? How much time do you have to set up your shot, before he passes behind the building? If you shoot, where will his body fall? How strong is the wind now? Is that vehicle on the ridge approaching or moving away? Is it downwind? How far will it have moved in the time it takes for your shot to reach it? How long do you have until it gets too dark to see? When to shoot, Marines, is just as important as how.
Yeah, he was right about that too.
"The third section of the course is designed to test your skills under conditions of extreme physical and emotional stress. It will be difficult, and dangerous. Few have passed through it unscathed. Fewer still have emerged victorious. You will be tested to the utmost limits of your ability. You will learn much about your comrades." He pauses. "And you will learn much about yourself."
Next to me, I sense rather than see Garrus flaring his mandibles in amusement. I suppress a smile. To anyone who has had the privilege to know him, the Master Sergeant has earned the right to his little flourishes of speech. But it's refreshing to see him through another's eyes.
I steal a glance at John, to see if he finds Harris' monologue as melodramatic as I do. But he's looking straight ahead, a model soldier, and I can't see his expression. Harris is speaking a few words quietly into his radio. Other persons, also human, emerge from the prefabs. Harris points at and names each of them in turn: Krycek, Yang, Langley--all dressed in the same nondescript gray armor. Then he unlocks a gate in the chain fence and slides it open far enough for us to enter.
A short walk from the gate is a slab anchored in the dirt, instantly recognizable as a shooting platform. It's divided into twelve shooting lanes. There's also a stack of crates of various sizes, and a pile of small sandbags to be used as supports for a shooting position. Krycek rattles off the usual list of range rules and safety procedures. I listen with one ear while watching the other two of Harris' men working at the console at one end of the platform. A collection of targets is rising from the ground in the four leftmost lanes. Each is marked with the classic series of concentric circles used by shooters of all races, in one form or another. A row of small red flags also appears, parallel to the shooting lanes. These puzzle me for a moment until I realize they are indicators of wind strength and direction.
As Harris has said, this first section of the course is strictly routine. Ilium's heat haze and the glare of reflected sunlight in the scope are annoyances, but only minor ones. The Master Sergeant calls the target ranges and shooting positions, we shoot. After each volley, they read out the scores. All I care about is that my score is no lower than anyone else's. All I really care about is that my score is no lower than John's. I’m pleased that I have the highest total, in the end. Only edging John out by two points, a meaningless margin, but as the Master Sergeant announces the final tally I take a self-congratulatory bow. John snorts and cuffs me across the back of my head.
Krios falls into step with me as we move on to the next part of the course. I tense, certain he's about to ask an awkward question, but he merely says, "Good shooting."
"Thanks," I reply. "Two points isn't much of a lead, though."
"How do you think you will fare in the second section?" he asks politely.
"Don't know," I say. "He tends to be slightly better at setting up shots in dynamic situations." I look around to make sure John hasn't overheard. "But if I'm lucky and he isn't, I might maintain my lead."
The drell is silent for a moment. "You know, you are competing against all three of us," he says. There's an undercurrent of amusement in his voice.
I cough to cover my embarrassment. "I meant no offense--"
Krios waves my apology away. "None is taken. In any case, I suspect you will be proven correct in your assessment."
We arrive at a second shooting platform, this one partially backed by a high wall. This time, when the console is activated, a scene out of a dream rises from the ground. Two-dimensional parodies of buildings, skeletal representations of trees, boxy cutouts of vehicles. A small settlement, drawn entirely in broad strokes of welded sheet metal and wire frame. The effect is alien yet strangely familiar. I find myself smiling in admiration.
"One shooter at a time," Harris announces. "Black targets are hostiles--three points each. Red targets are friendlies--minus five points. When time is called, cease fire immediately. Shooters have been chosen in random order; those who have not yet shot will remain behind that wall, to avoid an unfair advantage. When you are called, proceed to the firing position and make ready. The target sequence will commence on your signal." He calls Krios forward. The rest of us walk behind the wall to wait.
We stand in silence, listening to the sounds from the platform. After a while, John begins to pace slowly along the wall. He brushes a hand slowly against my leg as he passes me, his eyes dark as they meet mine. I know damn well what he's doing, but I can't prevent myself from reacting, even though we're both in full armor and there's little physical sensation when we touch. He's standing a little way off now, his back against the wall, smirking at me. I move closer, lean back next to him, and, in between the booms of the sniper rifle coming from the platform behind us, whisper, "I could fuck you right here." I monitor his heart rate in my visor and grin to myself.
Legion is staring at us. I have no idea how good its audio sensors are, but its head is tilted and the flaps are raised. Damn. That's probably a bad sign.
The sound of firing stops. Harris appears at the edge of the wall and calls John to the platform, putting an end to our psychological warfare for now. I'm left alone with Legion, but beyond studying me like a specimen, the geth makes no effort to communicate. I turn up the music in my visor's audio link and try to ignore its scrutiny. This works so well that I hardly notice Legion's absence after it's summoned forward.
Finally, Harris calls for me. As I step onto the platform, I see the others standing off to the side. John casually moves a hand over his groin, lets it linger there. I grit my teeth at him, seat myself at the firing position and brace my rifle on the edge of the crate conveniently provided for this purpose. Three deep breaths. They're all watching you, Vakarian. Don't fuck up. "Ready," I say.
In the distant metallic settlement, silhouettes begin to appear. Human, asari, turian, krogan, batarian, even the occasional vorcha. Low, wide targets with four legs. Varren? They come from behind trees, pop up in the windows of buildings. On the roofs of vehicles. Pushing out of doorways. Some move towards me, others away. I let my body relax, trusting to my other self, the part of me that knows how to do this. As each tiny movement registers, the word Friendly or Hostile flashes in my mind. Hostile means Kill. The scope aligns, tracks the target. The figures scrolling in my visor plug directly into my hands, correcting for range and windage without conscious thought. The trigger pull. The sound. The punch of recoil. While the thermal clip ejects, the scope finds another silhouette. I watch the targets falling. There's nothing else in the world.
"Time! Cease fire!"
I let go. Stand up, slowly, letting reality seep back in. I feel good. I know I've made no errors, so it's only a question of whether John worked faster than I did, whether he hit more targets.
"Damn, you guys are something," one of Harris' men says, shaking his head. Langley, the tallest one. "All of you beat the existing record on this range." Behind him, the Master Sergeant grunts approval. They read out the accumulated scores. John's leading now by one point. Disappointing. But one point is nothing. I'll catch him in the third section. Where I'll learn hidden truths about myself, or whatever.
Garrus is annoyed that I beat him. One point. But less than fifteen points separate the four of us, and they're all excellent scores. The guys in gray seem impressed, but it doesn't really surprise me. I know the quality of my team: the best in the galaxy. If Thane and Legion happen to be lagging a little further behind, it's only because Thane favors more personal methods of killing, and Legion is just... young. If that term can be used for geth. Plus, Garrus is on fire today. He must really want to win. Well, I want him to win too. But I don't plan on making it easy.
We've been walking for some time now. Master Sergeant Harris has led us to the top of a cliff. I look over the edge. From here, the ground drops about two hundred meters, almost straight down. There's a prepared position, set up for shooting prone, not far from the foot. It faces into a ravine several hundred meters away. The Master Sergeant's men are nowhere to be seen.
"This is the third section," the Master Sergeant announces. He starts to speaks rapidly, without pause. "You will all run this section simultaneously. Each of you will have a number assigned to you. You may fire only upon those targets marked with this number. Address your first target from the shooting position you see at the bottom of this cliff. Proceed along the ravine. You will encounter considerable resistance, but no energy or projectile weapons may be fired until you reach the next shooting position. Anyone who fires such a weapon will be disqualified. If you survive, your second shooting position is a tower. Climb the tower and address the two targets. Then descend from the tower. From this point onward, you must avoid being seen by any of my men until you have addressed your fourth target from the third shooting position. Anyone who is seen will be shot, and additionally, disqualified. At the fourth shooting position, fire one round only at your fifth target. The nature of this final target is different from the others and is worth twenty points. Whereas the first four targets are worth three, five, seven and nine points. You will be timed. Every five seconds exceeding a total of forty-three minutes will incur a one point penalty. Disarming or otherwise interfering with another competitor will incur a ten point penalty. Firing upon another competitor or another's target will incur a fifteen point penalty. Your assigned numbers are: Krios, one; Legion, two; Vakarian, three; Shepard, four. Time starts when I say Go and ends when you fire upon your final target. Any quest--Go!"
I can't help laughing even as I launch myself over the cliff edge. I hear the Garrus and Thane chuckling too; at the absurdity of the Master Sergeant's attempts to confuse, combined with the glorious sense of the approaching unknown, the anticipation of it producing a sweet, welcome burst of adrenaline. The cliff is steep, but there are occasional handholds. Where there are none, simply letting go and falling until the next one presents itself is a viable alternative. At the bottom, I sprint for the shooting position and slide into it. Scope the ravine, scanning for the target. The silhouettes are arrayed at about 500 meters' range, on the left face. There's some sort of scrubby vegetation growing there too. At the moment it's leaning sharply towards us. Strong winds. Makes sense--the place is a natural wind tunnel. I hear someone else on my right; I take the shot. It's good. I holster and run forward.
The temperature inside the ravine is at least twenty degrees lower than outside. The wind blows just as hard as I expected, making hearing unreliable. It's darker here, too. Good place for an ambush. Out of the corner of my eye I see Garrus moving ahead of me. He's in a predatory crouch, head turning constantly from side to side, as if sniffing the air. Suddenly he dives to his right and rolls. An instant later a gout of flame incinerates the spot where he was standing. It's so hot I can feel it through my armor. Shit. I see them now, a pack of them emerging from a hidden cave at the base of the left wall, their insectoid bodies skittering slowly closer. A biotic attack hurtles over my right shoulder and the leading creature is thrown into the air. Thane, of course. I watch the creature pick itself up. It appears shaken, but not much harmed; these things are tougher than wild klixen. And their internal flamethrowers seem to be an improved model.
I look for anything that might help--favorable ground, or some sort of cover. There's a spur of rock to the right, about twenty meters up, forming a natural ledge that extends some distance ahead. I make the decision. I point and shout, "Up there!" Then I duck under another crackling biotic attack and sprint for it. It takes only a few moments to climb the wall and swing onto the ledge. I crouch and look back for the others.
Legion is right behind me. "Shepard-Commander, we have not deployed a combat drone. We believe this would violate the spirit of the rule against the use of energy weapons."
I nod. "Good call." I wave the geth onward.
Below, Garrus is shouting at Thane, who's still dodging incoming spears of flame. "Come on!" He gestures up.
Thane signals his understanding and backs towards the cliff, launching a final biotic attack as he goes. I wait till they're both climbing before I turn and jog forward.
The ledge peters out a good distance behind the klixen lair. I glance back at the pack; they're not attempting to follow. Tank-bred klixen. Well-trained, too. Just when you think you've seen everything. The tower is just ahead. It's only about forty meters high, but it looks poorly constructed. Hardly sturdy enough to stand up to the winds. The top is swaying back and forth, a heart-stopping twenty degrees from vertical. As I approach, I can see a number of ropes dangling down from the platform. A geth-shaped figure is already climbing one of them.
The swaying is even more alarming at the top, experienced firsthand, accompanied by ominous creaking noises. I brace my feet as well as I can and scope for the targets. From one side of the tower, a building facade can be seen in the far distance. Four numbered silhouettes peer out of the windows. On the other side, there's a similar building, but here the targets are moving, shifting from window to window with an irregular motion. I swear at the Master Sergeant's ingenuity.
"Spirits, who built this thing?" I hear Garrus complaining as he hauls himself up onto the platform. "It’s a fucking deathtrap."
"I believe that is the point," Thane remarks conversationally from just below. "I thank Arashu I have no fear of heights."
Legion fires at his moving target. It clips the edge, but the silhouette remains standing. The geth makes an electronic noise, descending in pitch, that quite effectively conveys annoyance. I grin and take my own shot at the static target. I turn towards the other building and watch, timing the movement of the targets and feeling the movement of the tower, mentally blocking out the sound of other rifles firing. When it feels about right, I take it. Good enough; the silhouette falls. I holster and dive off the platform, grabbing at one of the ropes as I go.
The tower shudders violently as the rope takes my weight. Above, Garrus swears at me and holsters his weapon with one hand, reaching for his own rope with the other. "Why the hell do you make me do this suicidal shit?" he demands as he rappels down after me. I laugh.
Below, the ravine takes a turn to the right and then abruptly flattens out into open ground. I take cover behind a straggly bush and survey the area, looking for the Master Sergeant's men. Almost simultaneously I hear Garrus hissing behind me, and the whine of an aerial vehicle circling above us. We both duck under an overhang. Alright. That accounts for one of the men in gray. Where are the other two?
I signal Garrus to wait, and activate my tactical cloak. I creep a little way forward into the open. There's some sort of tall, wiry grass growing here, in clumps. There are even a few stunted trees scattered over the plain. Ah. There's another of the men, perched in a tree. Directly ahead, a pile of crates marks the fourth shooting position, our destination. I scope it and catch a glimpse of movement behind the crates. And there's the third man. I duck back into the cover of the overhang as my cloak wears off. Garrus is tracking the aircar through his scope. Legion and Thane are behind him.
"One in the air," I say, pointing up. "One in the tree on the left. The last behind the crates at the shooting position. The obvious approach is to use the grass, but I don't like it. There's no other cover to speak of, and the chances of at least one of us being seen are pretty high."
"Your cloak will hide you," Thane observes.
I roll my eyes. "Fine, the chances of one of you being seen are pretty high."
Nobody suggests that we each take our fate into our hands. This new threat--admittedly not a particularly life-threatening one- -has us closing ranks again. With the klixen, it was the danger of a comrade being roasted in his armor like a chestnut. Here, it's the potential humiliation of one of us being bested by one of them. No. Not going to happen.
"What's the rule again? We're not supposed to be seen by any of Harris' men?" Garrus says.
"Until we have addressed the fourth target," Legion confirms.
"Well then, I have an idea. Screw stealth. Let's just blow them all to hell before they see any of us."
"You sick, bloodthirsty bastard, " I grin. "Master Sergeant Harris might be annoyed if we kill his men. But the principle is sound. We'll... create a distraction. Garrus, you take the one in the air, since you're already so well acquainted. Thane and Legion, the one in the tree. I'll take the one behind the crates. Remember--don't get too enthusiastic. "
They nod tensely. I activate my cloak again and sprint forward. Behind me I hear a crackle as Garrus hits the aircar with an overload. I glance up. It's losing altitude rapidly. Odds are it won't actually crash, but the occupant will need to work to ensure a soft landing. I turn my attention to the tree, just in time to see the man in it hurled to the ground. Then a combat drone materializes and takes up station over him, firing weakly, pinning him down. I reach the pile of crates and duck behind them. The third man is moving around to investigate the noise. I wait till he's almost past me and then hit him hard on the back of the head with the butt of my pistol. He slumps to the ground and I slide into the firing position just as my cloak expires. Garrus joins me, laughing uncontrollably, yet still somehow managing to unholster and make ready. A half second later Thane and Legion take their positions.
The fourth target is in another of those fake buildings. This time, it's partially obscured by a red target, a friendly. "Hostage situation," Garrus says approvingly. "Brings back old memories."
We fire almost in unison. All four black targets disappear. We grin at each other.
"Fuck!" A voice comes from behind us. The combat drone has winked out of existence and the man it had pinned--Yang-- has finally been able to get back up. He stares at us in disgust. Legion gives him a wave.
The final shooting position is close by. There is a sort of shack about 1000 meters ahead, painted an unpleasant bile-green color, but no obvious target. I adjust my scope to maximum magnification. There it is, three-quarters of the way up the wall. Our numbers, each above a little silver circle, a little more than two centimeters in diameter.
"What the fuck?" Garrus says in disbelief. "That's the target? That spot? What's that supposed to represent--is there some new race of tiny-headed aliens I've never heard of? "
"Yeah, that's the target," I say. "One shot apiece. " I consider the vegetation near the shack, gauging the wind. Out here in the open, it's short-lived, mild breezes, not the driving gusts of the ravine. "I want to watch this. Who wants to go first?"
Thane mutters something inaudible. I catch the word watching but nothing else.
"You volunteering, Thane?" I say.
He clears his throat. "I fear I do not have the skill for this. But I will try." His shot is too high by a hand's width. He shakes his head. "As I feared."
Legion's shot also goes wide. The flaps around its head flex unhappily.
"Your turn, Garrus," I say softly. "You've got to make it, or I'll win."
He looks doubtful for a moment. Then a predatory expression crosses his face and he grins. "That's all the motivation I need."
He readies his rifle. Focuses on the target. Waits for the breeze to die down. The others are silent, but I can see their total concentration, both of them willing his shot to hit the mark. I watch Garrus breathe. Watch his eye, intent in the scope. Watch him reach for the calm within. A moment of utter stillness. His trigger finger moves, the rifle booms, and the shot punches a hole neatly through the center of the silver circle.
His voice, exultant: "Yes!" I slap him on the back as Thane and Legion add their congratulations.
Garrus looks at me. "Your turn, John," he says. "You've got to make it, or I'll win."
I smile and put my eye to the scope. I calm myself, gather the threads of my consciousness. The breeze has started up again. It doesn't bother me. I wait. The seconds tick by in my mind. The breeze dies down. Not yet. Wait... wait... wait... Now. I pull the trigger. I know it's good even before the round reaches the target.
"Shepard!" Master Sergeant Harris's voice is a sudden shock in our earpieces. "That last shot was ten seconds over the time limit. Getting tardy in your old age, are you?"
Thane inhales sharply. And then quietly begins to laugh.
Legion tilts its head. "Due to Shepard-Commander's time penalty, Garrus Vakarian wins the competition by one point."
Garrus stares at me, stunned.
The sun is setting behind Ilium's skyline, coloring the landscape purple and red. John and the others are inside the prefab, talking to the Master Sergeant and his men. Three of them are a little bruised and battered, but still remarkably good-natured for all that. We seem to have made something of an impression on them. Alcoholic beverages have appeared out of nowhere, some even I could drink, and toasts are being offered. But I'm just not in the mood for boozing and being admired. I lean back against the Kodiak and stare at the sunset.
The door opens and I hear John come up behind me. "Garrus. You forgot this."
I look. He tosses something to me. I catch it: a silver ring, a little more than two centimeters across, still warm from the last of the sun's rays. Up close, I can tell that the metal is platinum.
"What's this for?" I ask.
"If you make the shot, you get to keep it." John leans back beside me. "That's the tradition, in the Alliance." His fingers idly trace the weathered outline of the shuttle's door seal. "It was something to aspire to in training. Something to be proud of. If you did make it--" He smiles. "It meant you weren't completely useless."
I nod. The turian military doesn't have that particular tradition, but we do understand the spirit of competition, of reaching towards an ideal.
"So I'm a real sniper now? " I say.
"Maybe. We'll see if you amount to anything," he says.
I chuckle, then sigh. "I know you let me win, you bastard." I brandish the ring. "Did you keep yours, or does it not count because of the fucking time limit?"
John rolls his eyes. "I already have one. I've done this sort of thing before, you know."
I turn the ring around in my hands. I wonder how long it's been hung up there on the wall of that ugly green shack, waiting. How many have tried for it? How many of these rings has the Master Sergeant given away, here on Ilium? Perhaps none--it is, after all, an Alliance tradition, and this isn't the Alliance. The metal shows some age, but it doesn't have the nicks and scars you would expect from being shot at, day after day. The outer surface is smooth and polished, both edges are straight and true. But there are some scratches on the inside of the band--I look closer. No, it's fine engraving.
John Shepard, 2074.12.07. I stare at John. He's smiling to himself. "Who-- a relative of yours?"
He nods. "My great-grandfather. I never knew him." His eyes look into the distant past. "I’m told this dates from a competition in Colorado Springs. The best military snipers from among all the nations of Earth. This was before we discovered mass effect physics, before the Alliance." He glances at me. "Before first contact," he adds softly.
"Hell," I say. "I can't take this, John. It means something to you and your family." I hold it back out to him.
He raises an eyebrow at me. "My mother spent half a day of shore leave looking through old storage crates for that, and an unreasonable number of credits to have it couriered to me here. Show some appreciation."
"Oh. Um. In that case, of course I'll keep it," I say contritely. "With gratitude. But that seems like a lot of effort to go to, just for a friendly shooting competition." I shake my head slowly. "You humans are so sentimental about the strangest things."
He laughs, for much longer than my remark merits. I hear an emotion in his laughter that I can't quite identify. His hand is covering his eyes, so I can't see them.
"We do hang on to our traditions," he says, finally. He looks at me then, with that look I've come to recognize as the one reserved for me. "I'll get the others. It's time to go home."
On the shuttle, as we head back to the Normandy, Thane thanks me for inviting him to the competition. "A very entertaining experience, Shepard. A rich source of memories."
"Yes," Legion agrees. "Much useful knowledge has been gained."
Garrus interjects, in a passable imitation of the Master Sergeant, "I have learned much about my comrades." He eyes me. "About myself, not really."
I smile. "I'm glad you all enjoyed it. I did too."
"Despite the darkness of life, there remain many pleasures," Thane remarks, to no-one in particular. "The joy of skilled competition is one, of course. The certainty of a friend who will fight with you, another." He is silent for a while. "And there are other pleasures that steel our hearts to bear the burdens that we must. But you know this."
Garrus stares at Thane narrowly. He seems about to say something, or perhaps punch him in the face, but just then the shuttle docks.
"Time to hit the shower," I say. "See you, Thane. Legion."
I head out of the shuttle bay to the elevator. I step in and hit the button for the top deck. But before the elevator can begin to move, the doors open again. Garrus walks in and pushes me up against the back wall.
"Horny, are we?" I say.
"Maybe winning excites me," he says.
"No, that can't be the reason," I shake my head. "You're horny all the time, and you really never win anything."
"Then maybe losing excites me."
"I like the sound of that." I try the elevator button again, and this time it does begin to move.
When the door opens, Garrus is trying to walk backwards and remove my armor at the same time, and succeeding at neither. I steer him through the door to my quarters and hit the lock.
"As much as I appreciate your enthusiasm," I say, "I do actually need to shower. I probably smell terrible."
"You generally do," he says. "But I've gotten used to it."
I flip him the finger. He laughs and lets go of me, electing to lean against my desk and watch while I finish the job he started--first by taking off my armor, then continuing to strip until I’m naked. He rumbles, low in his throat, and exhales slowly, looking at me. "Five minutes," I tell him, and step into the bathroom.
I’m rinsing the last of the soap off when the door opens and Garrus walks in. He's naked. I stop what I'm doing and look at him.
"Well, you did say five minutes," he says.
"It's only been four," I correct him.
He shakes his head. "How exactly do you know that? Do you play with your omnitool in the shower?" He grits his teeth and points one talon at me. "Please, don't try to make some terrible joke out of that."
"I really wasn't planning to," I say. "But now that you've brought it up, I'm not going to be able to think of anything else."
He chuckles. "Bet?" He steps closer.
I pull him under the falling water and press my body against his, savoring his warmth. I slide one hand down his spine, feeling the rough plates, the bones underneath. My other hand cups the back of his neck. He sighs, closes his eyes. I watch the water running down off his face.
"How does anyone keep their hands off you?" I say, quietly.
His eyes open. "It's hard," he says, with a serious expression. "I have to beat them off."
I wince. "I thought I was in charge of the bad jokes in this relationship."
"It's not a turian idiom," he admits. "I had to look it up on the extranet."
"So that's what you do with your time. Exactly how long have you been waiting to use that line?"
He grins. "Weeks."
I grab soap from the dispenser and begin gently working it into his fringe, using both hands. He looks surprised, but doesn't object. I work my way slowly down his face, his neck, down his torso and back. And as the running water washes the soap away, I follow its trail with my lips. His breathing is heavy, he's reaching one hand out to steady himself against the wall.
"John," he whispers. He's unplated, his cock hard and glistening. I continue onto his lower body, deliberately avoiding his erection. I have to drop to my knees to press my lips to his hips, his thighs, the spurs behind his knees. I move my hands slowly back up the inside of his legs, watching the water run down his cock.
"Please," he groans. "Please..." He strains desperately to be touched.
I oblige, soaping his length, then letting the water rinse it clean. Then I look up at him and wait, keeping still, until his eyes meet mine. When I'm sure I have his attention I lean forward and slide my lips down the side of his cock. He exhales raggedly, his breath catching in his throat. "Shit." He tenses. "John, you can't--"
"Not going to swallow," I mumble. Never thought I'd hear myself say that. Another long slide up to the tip. A low groan. I pause on the head of his cock, for one agonizing moment, hear him whimper, then let my lips part and sink deep down onto him, opening my throat. His groan is shock and pleasure and raw desire. I begin to move, a slow rhythm, in time with his breathing. I feel talons digging into the back of my neck, drawing blood. I moan around him, and he moans with me. My hand is on the inside of his thigh, and his pulse throbs under the tips of my fingers. I move faster now, feeling his need.
"John--" he says. His voice is harsh, fighting for control. I pull away and stand, reaching for his hip with one hand. I look into his eyes as the fingers of my other hand move over the ridges of his cock, as my fist tightens around him and resumes the rhythm. He throws his head back, eyes closed, breathing in gasps. I press my lips to his throat. His hips buck, his warm fluids spilling between us.
He leans against me, just breathing, for a moment. Then he says, "Maybe we should leave some water for the rest of the crew. Let's move this discussion to the bedroom."
"Very considerate of you," I say. I rinse my mouth, clean up and step out of the shower. I dry myself with my towel before heading to the closet to get him another, clean one. But when I turn around, he's already walking out of the bathroom, dripping water everywhere.
"Garrus, what the fuck," I say.
"You took the towel," he says.
"I was getting you another, genius." I throw the new towel at his face. "And you might want to think about keeping some clean clothes in here too. I can clear out a shelf."
He pauses in mid-towel. "That's a bit... weird, isn't it?"
I shrug. "Suit yourself. It's your problem."
He finishes drying off. I can see he's thinking about something. That's the last thing I want, so I lunge and grab his legs from under him. He lands on the floor hard, with none of his usual grace, and then I'm on him, finding all the soft spots on the backs of his joints and digging a knuckle into them. He yells in pain and laughter, squirms, but doesn't retaliate. Instead he catches my head in his hands, talons resting gently on my face, and waits till I look up into his face.
"I had something different in mind," he says softly. His eyes are liquid pools, and the heat of his body, the roughness of his skin on mine, are suddenly incredibly arousing. I feel my cock hardening. He feels it too, and chuckles. His talons graze my back in long strokes, making me shudder. His teeth on the side of my neck. He shifts under me, and his cock, hard again, slides against mine, hot and slick. I groan. I move, to feel that slide again. And again.
"If you were a biotic," he says, hoarsely, "Maybe you would be able to open the drawer of your bedside table from here, and we wouldn't have to get up."
"Yet another of my many deficiencies," I say.
I roll off him, stand, and extend a hand to pull him up. We stumble to the bed, and as I collapse on to it, and he onto me, his hand reaches for the bedside table. It returns with the lube and a condom--the human kind. I sit up against the pillows and put it on while he walks his knees on the mattress until he's straddling me. I hold out my hand and he squeezes lube onto it, flicks the tube away onto the table. I slide a finger up into him. He sighs. Two fingers. He sinks all the way down onto my hand, up again.
"I want your cock in me, John." The desire in his voice makes me throb. I force myself to hold still while he positions himself. With unbearable slowness he slides down onto me. "God, Garrus," I groan. I wrap my arms around him, pull our bodies close. His cock leaves a searing wet trail against my skin as we move, as I thrust into him and he thrusts against me. Time slows down for us as I moan into his neck and he moans into my hair, our bodies moving together until each of us cries out and the world comes rushing back.
John's asleep. I get up quietly, careful not to disturb him, and walk over to where I've left my armor. I retrieve the ring and examine the inscription again. John Shepard, 2074.12.07. I notice a faint vertical line next to the engraving, running from the top edge to the bottom. It's almost imperceptible, only visible because it's not as reflective as the surrounding metal. I stare at it. Then I activate my omnitool and go searching on the extranet.
When I'm done with my research, I pick up a pillow and swing it at John's face. He wakes instantly and launches himself off the bed at me. We wrestle, both trying to put the other in a hold. I manage to gain the upper hand for a moment and use the opportunity to hold the ring out in front of his face.
"There's a line in this." I point it out with a talon.
"So what?" He could roll me over now, but he doesn't.
"That's not the question," I say. "The question is why?"
He sighs. "That thing's a hundred years old, Garrus. I don't know all its history."
"I looked up some information about your Alliance tradition. This isn't regulation size for a sniper's challenge ring. It's just a little under, a few millimeters."
"Maybe they weren't a standard size back then," he says.
I glare at him. "You're being deliberately obtuse. My point is, someone resized this. Changed it from the original size."
He shrugs, as best he can while lying on the floor with my weight on him. "I guess someone wanted to wear it, and it had to fit. Humans sometimes do that, by the way."
"Yes, I know all about that human tradition," I say meaningfully. "I just wanted to know if perhaps someone in your family happens to have a finger the same size as mine." I slide the ring on to the last finger of my left hand. It fits perfectly below the base of the talon.
His eyebrows lift. "That's convenient. A hell of a coincidence."
"That's your story, is it?" I dig my talons into his sides.
He gasps in pain, and his eyes squeeze shut. I apply more pressure, and watch his face.
When his eyes open again, they're dark, hungry. He smiles slowly, a smile of heated promise. "That's my story," he says, his breathing deep. "And I'm sticking to it." One arm pulls me down and his lips trail over my face. Swiftly he rolls us over and pins me. I put up a token struggle, but not for long. It's only encouraging him. I can feel his erection swelling against me, my plates shifting in response.
"Again?" I say. "Already?"
"Maybe winning excites me."
"You haven't won," I say. "This conversation isn't over. And you know I'll get the truth out of you."
"Then maybe losing excites me."
I growl at him. He laughs and looks into my eyes. I don't quite understand what I see there, in his. But whatever it is, it can wait.