When her rounds brought her to the main battery, Shepard half-expected to be waved away in favor of calibrations. As usual. Though Garrus had forgiven her for putting herself between his rifle and Sidonis' head, forgiveness wasn't exactly the same as effortless friendship.
She knew she still had the friendship, but there was no denying how much she missed the effortlessness. Not enough to regret her decision, but Garrus' uncharacteristic shortness with her was beyond unsettling. Much more than it would have been with anyone else. Hell, Miranda still hadn't forgiven her for siding with Jack when the two of them went toe-to-toe. It bugged her, but not like it bugged her to imagine Garrus stewing in the battery, resenting her interference. Garrus was different. Garrus was Garrus. He was loyalty and support and perfectly timed smart-ass retorts. He was her de facto second-in-command. Rare was the mission when he wasn't at her back.
He was also her past; an unshakable, unwavering connection to who she'd been. Before. On the dark days, the ones where she ran fingers over the smooth skin where Cerberus' scars had once glowed eerily red beneath her half-healed flesh, the days when she looked in the mirror in her too-large private bathroom and wondered what exactly had woken on the slab in Miranda's lab, she looked to Garrus to remind her. If anyone in the galaxy knew who she was, who she really was, it was him.
She trusted him to tell her the truth. If he'd taken a look at her back on Omega and said, "You may be wearing her face, but you're not Shepard," she'd have believed him. She's not sure what she'd have done with that information, but she'd have believed him.
He was her best friend, and things were awkward between them. She hated it. It was wrong. And she didn't know how to make it right. She hated that, too.
But she wasn't going to stop trying. No matter how many times he brushed her off for his calibrations.
He was bent over his console when she entered, and she almost left again without speaking. He surprised her, however, by immediately turning away from what he was doing and greeting her, almost his old self.
Shepard blinked and held her ground, but was entirely taken aback by the about-face. To be honest, by the time he thanked her for her help with Sidonis, she had to admit that in their conversational game he'd taken an unprecedented lead. Her questioning took on a slightly desperate edge as she struggled to regain lost ground, and did nothing whatsoever to detract from Garrus' storytelling flair.
The irrational jealousy—mild, but present; totally uncalled for and annoying as hell—when he spoke of the recon scout and their… tiebreaker did not help. At all.
What Garrus got up to with recon scouts was none of her damned business.
It was going to be a joke. At least, that's what she told herself as she opened her mouth and the words, "We could test your reach… and my flexibility," fell out. Friendly oneupmanship was how their relationship worked, after all. Garrus told stories (grossly exaggerated, most of the time, especially if the tales she'd overheard him telling the Cerberus crew was any indication) to make her laugh or groan or roll her eyes; she poked back with jibes and jokes intended to make him eat his words…. or laugh or groan or glare at her with the turian equivalent of eye-rolling.
But jokes didn't have undercurrents of genuine desire. A joke certainly shouldn't have made her voice husky and intense when she'd been aiming for amused and amusing.
A joke shouldn't have made Garrus' voice do what it was doing.
Hell. He was stammering.
If it had been a joke—a proper joke—she'd have teased him mercilessly about the abrupt and complete disintegration of his bravado. She didn't. Because something about Garrus' stammer made her breath catch and her stomach twist in a very unsettling (but oddly not unwelcome) way. When, instead of telling her to shove it (respectfully, Commander), he blinked and ducked his head and lost all trace of his usual cocksure swagger, she hoped the strange light of the main battery hid the sudden and burning blush that rose to her cheeks.
A joke shouldn't have left her feeling triumph—triumph and terror and excitement and what have I done?—when he said, "Well, why the hell not?"
As he continued his adorably awkward (and damn when had she started thinking of Garrus as adorable? She'd never hear the end of it if he ever found out) acceptance of her offer, she wondered just how much his visor was tipping him off about her own agitated state. (Increased pulse, she thought. Breath pattern abnormal. Body temperature rising?) Thankfully, he appeared too distracted to notice. Or to comment. Hopefully to notice. (Body temperature definitely rising.)
When she left a few moments later, pulse still racing, breath still irregular, she waited until the doors swished shut behind her before scrubbing her sweating palms against her thighs. Then she straightened her shoulders, put on her Commander Shepard face, and strode with unfaltering determination toward the elevators. Gardner called out to her as she passed, and she waved but didn't reply, not yet trusting the steadiness of her voice.
We could test your reach… and my flexibility.
What the hell was she thinking?
One of the Cerberus crew members—Hollings? Holly?—rode beside her from the Crew Deck to the CIC, but he kept his eyes firmly trained on his feet the entire time.
Well, why the hell not?
What the hell was he thinking?
She stared at the doors, willing them to open, unwilling to make strained small talk. She almost breathed an audible sigh of relief when they finally slid wide.
Hollings? Holly? departed so quickly she didn't have to embarrass herself by admitting she'd forgotten his name. It started with an H.
She was pretty sure it started with an H, anyway.
She'd ask Chambers about it later.
Her heart had calmed itself by the time she reached her quarters (the elevator really was damnably slow), but one glance at her huge bed set it hammering against her ribs again. She'd never been particularly curious about turians, before. Hell, she'd never even considered the possibility with—
Okay, maybe not never. Her cheeks betrayed her again, even though only the fish and the hamster were there to see it. Considered, maybe. Once or twice. Or so. But idle (and inappropriate) daydreams did not practical applications make.
Maybe all Garrus' stammering about figuring out how to make it work wasn't completely off-base.
"What the hell?" she asked the fish (batch number three, and more than one was looking a little sluggish as they moved through the water), turning away from the bed. Easing tension? Blowing off steam? Ugh. Smooth. Commander Shepard, master of romance. Tremble before her might. "What the hell did I just do?"
It certainly hadn't been a part of her, "Hey, how're you doing today, Garrus?" plan to proposition her best friend.
It just… happened.
And then she couldn't take it back.
More than that, she didn't want to.
Though not a stranger to… blowing off steam, Shepard had been uncompromising about the Not Onboard The Ship Rule since an ill-advised experiment in her early days of service went completely pear-shaped, and she was forced to live with the consequences until the tour ended. The Rule had served her well since then. Passing fancies passed, shore leave existed for a reason, and the Rule remained staunchly unbroken.
Now she couldn't wait to break the Rule.
It went against all common sense.
Also, it was thrilling.
Thrilling was winning.
Thrilling had common sense in some kind of headlock and was refusing to let go. Common sense was basically crying uncle. And thrilling didn't give a damn.
Much as she wanted… whatever it was she wanted (Rule-breaking, she wanted Rule-breaking), she was determined not to let it affect the mission. Nothing could affect the mission. Making puppy eyes at Garrus Vakarian was not going to stop the Collectors, or undo the loss of human life on distant colonies, or stall the Reapers. She knew that. And on the field it was business as usual, with Garrus at her six as they traded shots and kept count of kills.
But once or twice, when the battle was over, she let herself remain a moment longer than necessary in the safe, invisible cocoon of her tactical cloak, watching. If he was as affected as she by their determination to break her Rule, he didn't show it. He cracked one-liners and boasted and never missed a headshot, same as always. Just like old times, Shepard. It was almost enough to erase the memory of him stammering and ducking his head and saying definitely.
He was unfalteringly professional. He didn't bring it up. He didn't stand too close or look at her too long. He sure as hell didn't stammer.
And she began to wonder if he'd felt… obliged. Cerberus vessel and Cerberus rules notwithstanding, perhaps he'd only agreed because of the respect he had for her. He'd almost said as much, hadn't he? There's nobody in this galaxy I respect more than you.
Maybe it was some messed up turian hierarchy thing.
The worst part was that she couldn't really ask anyone about it except him. EDI, maybe. Or Mordin. But neither of those conversations were going to happen. No. Way.
She'd basically throw herself out the airlock first.
Dreading the conversation to come, but determined to handle it with as much grace as she could muster, Shepard dragged herself down to the battery. Thrilling sulked, and common sense congratulated her for returning to her right mind.
And as soon as Garrus started stammering again—dangerously close to babbling, really—thrilling launched itself at common sense, put it in a chokehold, and refused to let go.
When he didn't take the out she offered ("I'm not trying to pressure you.") her relief—and it was relief, pure and unadulterated, startling in its ferocity—made her grin.
It also made her realize that, no matter what she'd said, no matter how she spun it, no matter how it had begun, her feelings went a hell of a lot deeper than blowing off steam.
Shepard, you're about the only friend I've got in this screwed-up galaxy.
She really wished she'd just stopped talking before uttering the phrase, "So, when should I book the room?"
Inspiring hold the line pep talks? Yes, absolutely.
Anything romantic? Bordering on creepy, frankly.
She should have just left it at I want you. I want someone I can trust.
That was nice. It was also true. And not creepy at all.
But no. Evidently her mouth felt empty without a foot firmly wedged into it.
She sighed as she passed the galley, and Gardner smiled bracingly. "Hard day, Commander?"
"Mmm," she agreed, as her imagination jumped to something entirely inappropriate.
From its chokehold, common sense tried to remind her this was why the Rule existed in the first place.
She ignored it.
Whatever emotion she'd called embarrassment before paled in comparison to the feeling that stole over her when Mordin waylaid her in the lab to offer his, uh, suggestions.
Never before had she wished so hard for the ground to open up beneath her feet. Hell, she'd have welcomed an attack on the Normandy just to make it necessary for her to leave. Reapers? Bring 'em. Sea of husks, and her with only one clip left? Challenge accepted, if it meant Mordin would stop talking.
If he said chafing one more time, she wasn't going to be held responsible for her actions.
Ugh. Or ingest. Ingest was worse than chafing. Ingest was so much worse than chafing.
It wouldn't have been nearly so bad if she wasn't absolutely certain that he was laughing at her.
It was… strange to see Garrus out of his armor. Beyond strange, really. Unnervingly strange. And stammering had definitely escalated into full-blown babbling. With a side of completely bizarre mood music.
(She didn't want to tell him that her current mood was bordering on dissolving into hysterical laughter. She was pretty sure that was not what he was aiming for.)
Then again, she supposed it was equally strange for him to see her in the dress Kasumi had made her wear on their heist mission. It was one of the few things she owned that didn't scream uniform, though, and she… wanted to leave uniforms out of this particular equation.
If she was honest, she felt as uncomfortable as Garrus looked.
Or nervous. Maybe it was nervous.
She didn't want to change her mind or anything. She just wanted it to be less… strange. More natural. Because for an occasion meant to ease tension? It was remarkable how tense she felt.
But somehow, even with the awkwardness on all sides and the unfamiliarity and the air of are we making a terrible mistake hanging over them, everything shifted toward right as soon as the music was off and the wine was on the desk and Garrus admitted, "I want something to go right. Just once. Just…"
Because that was when she knew it was about more than just blowing off steam or easing tension for him, too.
It was the most vulnerable she'd ever seen him.
Swallowing past the sudden tightness in her throat, and without once taking her eyes from his, Shepard reached up and ran the pads of her fingers lightly along his scarred face. She felt him twitch beneath her touch, but his gaze remained unwavering and he didn't pull away. Slowly, very slowly, they tilted their heads toward each other, until their foreheads met. Garrus' breath caught; she heard it. Hell, she was close enough to feel the shift in the air between them.
"Turian," she whispered. Then she tilted her face, not quite breaking contact and not quite pulling away, in order to press her lips softly first to his cheek and then to his mouth. "Human."
She smiled, holding her forehead to his once again. "Not that different."
He brought his hand up to her shoulder, and she shivered under his touch. "I like this."
"Your shoulder." He dragged the tip of his finger (talon? Did they call them talons instead of fingers?) along her clavicle. "And this."
"Collarbone?" she tilted her neck away, and Garrus ducked his head, nuzzling the side of his face into the crook of her shoulder, his breath warm against her skin.
She groaned, and was startled when he immediately drew back, his eyes seeking hers. "Did I hurt you?"
"Mmm, the opposite," she admitted. "Sensitive. It felt good."
"Oh," he replied, his face quirking into the expression she'd long since learned was the turian—the Garrus—equivalent of a smirk. "I like good."
"Like you'd have it any other way."
She rolled her eyes at him and then gestured toward her neck. "Well? It's not going to nuzzle itself, Vakarian."
"Nuzzle? I don't nuzzle."
"Snuggle? Nestle? Cuddle?"
She grinned up at him even as she slipped her arms around his neck and her fingers up under his fringe, massaging. His eyes fluttered shut and the sound he made was some delicious combination of groan and moan and purr. "What was that about leaving?" she whispered, leaning her cheek close to his for a little nuzzling of her own.
His voice was deeper than she'd ever heard it when he spoke, the multi-tonal rumble more evident. "Why would I—oh, damn it, Shepard. Your fingers. How did you even know about—"
"Research," she replied, drawing the word out and punctuating it with a light nip at the spot just beneath his mandible. This time a bit of growl mixed itself with the purr and the groan. She ran the flat of her tongue over the spot she'd bitten, and Garrus' arms swept around her, pulling her flush against him.
Oh. She liked that.
"Wait," she said, suddenly concerned. Garrus turned surprised, half-glazed eyes her way, but didn't entirely slacken his grip. "Does that—that doesn't count as… as ingesting, does it?"
She blinked at him. "Mordin said—"
Garrus laughed. "Mordin said? What the hell did Mordin say?"
Blushing, she glanced past his shoulder, staring hard at the tank's blue glow. One of her fish was dead. Oops. "Something about the possibility of anaphylactic shock."
"And you believed him?" Garrus bowed his head, but she could feel the tremors of his laughter. "Hell, Shepard. We're about to take on the Collectors, and you think he'd just let you risk death for little interspecies romp? You must've already had an allergy test; I know I have. It's probably in your file. The fast-talking little bastard was having a bit of fun at your expense."
"I'm going to kill him."
"He might still be useful. You know, to the cause."
"Fine. Maim, then. I'll maim him."
Garrus caught her lips, in a surprisingly passable approximation of a human kiss for a mouth without lips of its own. "Didn't know he had it in him. Makes me like him more, truth be told."
"Of course," she griped. "He wasn't making fun of you."
"I don't know about that. He did send vids."
Shepard snorted. And then laughed. And then Garrus' tongue started doing things to the sensitive flesh of her neck and throat and, oh—the clever bastard found her zipper—
"Want me to show you what I learned?"
"Mmm," she agreed, and then wine and mood music and unfamiliar clothing were entirely forgotten. Because it was just this. And them.
And it was funny—surprising—wonderful, really—how little awkwardness entered into the equation.
Well, there was the one thing—oh, and that other moment—but mostly it was just good.
And right. It definitely went right.
"Garrus," she whispered afterward, curled on her side with an arm flung over his chest, tired and definitely not tense and as relieved as a person could be when they were headed through the Omega 4 relay toward almost certain death, "I know I didn't handle things… very well. I'm sorry if I made it seem like I was only interested in… I don't know. The physical? Release? I'm not… I'm not … you should probably know—you've probably figured out—I'm not very good at this."
"I don't know if I'd say that," he rumbled, his amusement palpable.
Pushing herself up on one elbow, she punched him lightly on the shoulder, and he gave an entirely feigned wince even as his mandibles fluttered into the smile she loved best of all. It was sweet. Who knew turians could smile sweetly? She was pretty damned sure no one else on the Normandy'd ever seen this particular expression of Garrus', and the intimacy of it made her breath catch.
"Stop it," she insisted, even as she thought no, don't, "I'm trying to be serious, here. It's hard for me."
"Sure is," he replied without missing a beat. "Or was, anyway. Will be again." Her cheeks flushed, and she covered her face with her hand. He chuckled. "You left yourself wide open for that one, Shepard."
She lowered her hand just enough to reveal the suggestive waggle of her eyebrows. "Sure did."
Garrus' chuckle deepened into a full-blown laugh. She could feel the way it made him shake. I did that, she thought, inordinately proud, even as he shook his head and said, "Shit. I think maybe we're equally bad at this."
"I just mean—"
"I know what you mean, Shepard." He pulled her close, cupping the back of her head gently. "Now who's talking too much?"
"You love it."
I do, she thought, tightening her arm around him. I really do.
Hell, it was enough to give a woman something to live for.