Garrus had known it would happen, of course. Shepard wasn't going to let such a tempting opportunity pass her by, not for anything. Hell, not even in the midst of a galaxy-wide war. It was only a matter of time.
He was pretty sure biding her time before the ultimate strike was part of her plan, actually.
They were both fond of the perfect headshot. Came with the territory.
So when Shepard strolled into the lounge, wearing civvies and a smile, Garrus knew the time had finally come, whether they were ready or not. She'd lined them up in her scope and was preparing to take her shot.
"Room for one more, boys?"
Garrus maintained the poker face that served him so well. Alenko's brow creased faintly. Joker actually paled.
Vega grinned as he leaned forward, the motion making his already exaggerated musculature even more obvious. Trying too hard, Garrus thought. Maybe a little unkindly. Still. The man's arms were ridiculous. "Hey, Lola," he drawled. "Always a seat for you."
Shepard smiled at the bulky marine. Sweetly. Too sweetly. Ahh. Vega would be the first to fall. Too trusting for his own good, that one.
Also, as far as Garrus knew, Vega'd never seen Shepard play. The poor bastard probably thought he had a chance.
Alenko, on the other hand, shot Garrus a brief, concerned look. Shepard intercepted it, of course—foolish of the biotic to think she'd miss something so obvious—and raised her eyebrows in an expression that might have looked guileless to the uninitiated, but Garrus knew she was amused. And not at all innocent. Alenko was as doomed as Vega, but the biotic was well aware of it. He had seen Shepard at a card table. "Not scared are you, Major? If it makes you feel better, I haven't played in ages. I'm probably rusty as all hell. You lot'll have to go easy on me for the first couple of hands."
Alenko looked like a pyjak backed into a corner, and Garrus had to choke down a laugh. Then again, Alenko knew better than Vega what he was in for. "I was just—"
Leaning against the glass wall, Shepard hooked a thumb over her shoulder, gesturing toward the bar. "Going to find us a bottle of something nice? Maybe some cups, if we want to be classy about it?"
Garrus thought her application of batted eyelashes was gratuitous, but Vega only laughed, and Alenko sighed his resignation as he pushed himself to his feet. "Right. Cups."
"Yeah," Joker said, squirming uneasily. The pilot had been silent too long, as if silence might render him invisible. Rookie mistake. "I should, uh, you know, get back to the cockpit. She doesn't fly herself, and I've already been down here for a—"
"EDI?" Shepard queried. Joker blinked at the interruption, and his mouth hung open a moment before he remembered to shut it. "Do you have the helm?"
"Of course, Shepard. Jeff wished to spend some time on the crew deck. I believe his intent was to 'kick some bony turian ass.' I do not think he meant the threat literally. It would be unwise, considering his condition."
Joker groaned, staring at the wall above Vega's head as though it could save him. Garrus rumbled a laugh, earning a wink from Shepard.
Maybe Joker'd go first. Smart-ass had it coming. Shepard wouldn't even have to help.
"Enjoy your game, Jeff," EDI intoned. "Anything else, Shepard?"
"That'll do." Choosing the chair next to Garrus', Shepard sat and immediately leaned back, balancing on the back legs of her chair. "You were saying, Joker?"
"Pretty sure Kaidan needs help. Finding cups. Or something."
"He'll manage." Then, in a stage whisper, Shepard added, "And, actually, it's not as bony as you might think."
"Oh, God," Joker groaned, pushing himself as far away from her as the table and his chair would allow. "This isn't happening."
Ignoring him, she continued blithely, "I mean, I can see how you might think so, but—"
"Please don't," the pilot begged.
"All things considered, it's really quite—"
"I thought the Alliance frowned on torture," Garrus interrupted lightly, gathering the cards still spread across the table from the last hand. He pushed the deck toward Shepard, and she let her fingers linger on his a moment longer than strictly necessary for mere playing card handover.
Oh, it was sly, but he wasn't falling for that maneuver.
Instead of taking the rescue at face value, Joker dug himself a deeper hole, saying, "You guys aren't going to flirt now, are you? It's… weird when you flirt."
Garrus chuckled, gesturing broadly. "Says the man who flirts outrageously with his ship's AI, no matter who happens to be in the vicinity."
Joker's head shot up, eyes wild. "Shit, Garrus. She's probably listening."
"We're all listening, Joker," Shepard said dryly. "Whether we like it or not. Now. Questions of turian physiology aside, one of you want to tell me what you were playing? Skyllian Five? Hold' Em?"
She turned her gaze on Vega. The weak link.
Say Skyllian Five, Garrus thought at Vega. Hard.
"Hold 'Em," Vega supplied cheerfully. "Hard to go wrong with the classics."
"Couldn't have put it better myself," Shepard agreed. Without turning to look over her shoulder, she called, "You get lost, Alenko? You're not thinking about poisoning me, are you?"
"Wouldn't dream of it, Commander," he replied, returning and divvying up cups. Garrus got a bottle of his own, something dextro and way too potent. Still, he took it with a nod of thanks and settled it next to his elbow. He'd pretend to drink if pressed, but no way he was going to let Alenko have that advantage.
Shepard set the cards aside to pour generous measures of golden liquid into the rest of the glasses. Vega shot his in one gulp, holding it out for another, and Garrus shook his head. Kids.
"Right," Shepard said, when everyone had a drink. "Hold 'Em it is. But I was thinking—"
Here it comes.
"—Credits are boring, yeah? I mean, hell, when do we even have a chance to spend them?"
"Says the woman who spent twenty-five thousand of them on a VI for her fish tank," Garrus murmured, just loud enough for everyone to hear. Vega laughed again (oh, she was going to slaughter him; Garrus could already imagine the blood pooling), and this time Alenko sent his concerned look in Joker's direction. Joker missed it. He was too busy staring into the depths of his cup.
Shepard scowled at Garrus as she reached for the cards again. "Dead fish were messing with my morale."
"You could just remember to feed them."
"You'd think, right? But those little bastards eat all the time. I couldn't keep up with them. That VI was the best purchase I've ever made."
"Right. Who needs upgrades anyway?"
He wouldn't have admitted it, even under pain of death, but he loved watching her hands. They had an automatic shuffler, of course, but she always did the honors herself, whenever they played. Even after all this time—and even knowing intimately what they were capable of—Garrus never ceased marveling at human hands. Hers were particularly captivating, and not just because she knew how those blunt, nimble fingertips felt as they massaged the sensitive skin beneath his fringe, or trailed teasingly along the curve of his waist—
He blinked, and found her watching him. Closely. Too closely. Her lips were turned up in a smile he found both exciting and terrifying. It was a smile that whispered promises. Of course, it was also the expression she wore when she'd found a weakness and planned to exploit it. Sometimes the two overlapped. Like now.
Crap. And he'd been so damned careful.
Shepard paused shuffling long enough to lift her hand and tap the side of her head, raising her eyebrows in silent question. Garrus made an indignant noise deep in his throat. "Yeah, they forced me to take it off."
She waggled her eyebrows suggestively. "Strip poker? Gentlemen, I had no idea."
Alenko looked aghast. It was actually funny. Garrus had never seen the man's eyes quite so wide. Not even when ambushed by geth or rushed by husks. "God, no," Alenko insisted. "More like the best poker face in the world won't hide an elevated heart rate. He was cheating."
"Come on. You won every hand, Vakarian."
Garrus smirked. "Pretty sure I'm just that good, Alenko."
"Ahh," Shepard mused, with just a hint of actual annoyance. "Pissing contests. How I love pissing contests. Can we play now, or do you two need some time alone to compare?"
Alenko glowered, looking as though he wanted to say more. He was clever enough not to, but the expression remained. Garrus sat back in his chair, folding his hands over his midsection, smiling. "We're good."
"Good. So," she continued, "stakes. What do you say we make things interesting?"
Joker raised his head at this, eyes widening, and all Vega's bluster and posturing vanished. Garrus was pretty sure the marine was hiding a blush under his natural swarthiness. Shepard rolled her eyes, and Garrus wondered—just a little—if her own cockiness might be somehow used against her. She was enjoying this all a little too much.
Then she said, "I was joking about the strip poker. How about… the winner gets to ask a question. Losers have to spill."
"What if the losers lie?"
She fixed the big marine with a steady stare as she deftly dealt the cards. "You can try, Vega. You can try."
"Don't try," Joker insisted.
Vega cracked his knuckles, ignoring the pilot. "Aw, hell, Lola. I'm not gonna lose."
She said nothing, merely retrieving her cards and gazing down at them, her expression giving nothing away. Not even to Garrus.
Vega was definitely going down. Hard.
"The bigger they are," Garrus mused, pitching his voice so only Shepard could pick up the words. He was rewarded with a soft laugh.
"Yeah," Shepard replied, just as softly. "That's how the saying goes. Though… you're no lightweight, yourself, Vakarian. Better watch out."
She won the first hand, of course. On a beautiful bluff. Even Garrus hadn't caught it, and he was watching for it. Holding her hands wide, Shepard shrugged. "Beginner's luck, boys. Next time. Now. Favorite color. Go."
Even Garrus couldn't keep the bafflement from his expression. He felt his mandibles flare before he could wrestle them to stillness.
Alenko found his voice first, though it stammered a little. "W-what was that, Shepard?"
One arm flung over the back of her chair, the picture of ease, she said, "Hell, what do you take me for? Did you think it'd be all humiliation and torture and embarrassment? Awkward first kisses or weirdest places you've been caught… in flagrante?"
Joker removed his cap and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Caught… uh, in flagrante? Commander?"
She shook her head, expression fond. "What's your favorite color? I'll go easy on you this time, and won't even ask why."
Vega's was black. Joker, orange. Alenko thought a moment before answering, "The color of the horizon just as the sun sets."
"Which sun?" Joker asked, smirking. "Which horizon?"
Shepard said, "Vancouver has nice sunsets. I accept that answer," and everyone pretended not to see the shadow flicker across Alenko's face.
Garrus wondered what sunsets in Vancouver looked like now, and decided it wasn't a path he wanted to let his thoughts take.
(Probably all too much like sunsets on Palaven.
Not very much like sunsets at all.)
He opened his mouth to say blue but realized it wasn't quite the truth anymore. "Grey," he replied, sounding a little startled, even to himself.
Shepard's smile turned wry. Gentle, but wry. "Thought you didn't know what to do with grey."
"I don't," he replied, "but it seems like something worth taking the time to understand."
He sure as hell wasn't about to admit he loved grey because of her eyes. Alenko could talk about sunsets all he wanted; Garrus wasn't about to give Vega and Joker the fodder. He'd never live it down. Ever.
Still, those grey eyes lingered on him as she gathered the cards and passed them to Vega, on her left.
He'd never realized a cool shade could be so warm.
Maybe it wasn't black and white, but grey was… more than worthwhile.
She won the next three rounds, too, but her questions remained innocent. Favorite food. Favorite song. On the fourth win, she asked, "What's your favorite place on the Citadel?" and Garrus laughed.
She folded early on the fifth hand, much to everyone's surprise. When Alenko won and asked, "What's the funniest time a mission went wrong?" she spun a brilliant story about an undercover infiltration mission that went pear-shaped. The tale was filled with so many misunderstandings and miscommunications it would have been a tragedy had she not managed to get out unscathed. As it was, they were all laughing at the end, picturing her dressed only in a stolen sheet, waiting for extraction in a deathly vile outhouse because it was the only place wretched enough for no one to look for her.
She'd gotten the intel, too, of course.
After that, Garrus noticed every few hands she folded early, letting someone else win, letting someone else have a question.
It didn't seem like she was throwing her hands, but he was pretty sure she was doing it on purpose.
He played along, because of the laughter.
It had been a long time since he'd heard so much easy merriment. It had been even longer since he'd laughed quite so hard himself. Occasionally the answers dipped into melancholy territory, but these were generally followed by Shepard regaling them all with some tale too fanciful to be anything but true, and the laughter began again.
The level of golden liquid in the bottle dropped steadily. Garrus began sipping at his own drink, less worried about losing. He lost track of the time, until someone's omni-tool beeped—Alenko's—and the biotic rose, just a little unsteadily. "The doc's going to have my head," he muttered, still smiling. Joker followed Alenko's lead, and Garrus heard the creak of the man's bones as he rose.
"Any more of this, and the doc will have my head, too," Joker said. "And EDI'll take way too much pleasure in waking me up at godawful o'clock."
Shepard inclined her head, accepting their reasons for departing. "I hope you're not disappointed by the lack of ass-kicking, Joker. Bony or otherwise."
The pilot grinned, and at least some of the heavy, careworn lines on his face disappeared. "You kidding, Commander? This was the most fun I've had in—shit. In a long time. Having my own ass handed to me was worth it."
Vega left with them, already crowing about the things he'd have to tell Cortez. Even Alenko, with his quiet seriousness and his eyes that so often looked troubled, was smiling as the doors swished shut behind him.
"That was… cleverly done," Garrus said softly, reaching out to run his talons through her loose hair. She leaned into his hand.
"Fish tank VIs aren't the only thing good for morale," she said, eyes shining as the last of the Commander persona fell away. It still—even now, even after all this time—surprised him, the way she was when they were alone. That she trusted him enough to drop the mask, to be herself. It made his breath catch, and she tilted her head, smiling up at him.
Turning her head, she pressed a kiss into the palm of his hand, and suddenly the game seemed the farthest thing in the world from his mind. "So, tell me, Vakarian… inquiring minds and all that. What is the weirdest place you've been caught in flagrante?"
"I'm going to go with the poker table in the Normandy's port observation lounge," he replied, voice deep. "Hopefully."
Her laugh was bright and sudden and full, and somehow completely different from her earlier mirth. Like her demeanor when they were alone, it was unrestrained. Her. She kept it together for the crew—she always kept it together for the crew—but Garrus knew how their mission weighed on her. To hear such unchecked delight—because of him, no less—was a better feeling than just about anything.
It was a hell of thing, being the one to make her laugh.
"EDI," Shepard said, still laughing, "lock the doors down here, would you? Life or death interruptions only. Turn off the cams. While you're at it, maybe go hang out somewhere else for a bit? As much as you can, anyway."
"Of course, Shepard," the AI replied, and not for the first time, Garrus was taken aback by EDI's amusement. It shouldn't have been possible, and yet there it was. Amusement. From a machine.
Garrus never tired of marveling at how the impossible followed Shepard around.
Shepard grinned at him, flipping the cards between her nimble fingers with unnecessary flourish. "I trust the 'getting caught' part wasn't actually what you were aiming for?"
Holding the cards up, she raised her eyebrows. "What do you think? One more hand? Winner takes all?"
Garrus didn't care what cards he drew. He already knew this was a hand he had every intention of losing.
"Definitely," he replied. "Winner takes all."