Like on the battlefield, time seemed to slow, and Garrus instinctively registered each nuance. He didn't miss the sharp punch of air Shepard expelled; the way her smile faltered, her eyes overcome with an emotion he didn't understand. It was if she were a sheet of glass and the concussive force of the moment was blooming before his eyes; hundreds of tiny cracks fracturing across the surface of her normally unflappable composure.
Tali took a step back, away from him, and his arms dropped awkwardly to his sides as he released her. She was stammering—he was, too—anything to cover up the stunned silence and the way Shepard was staring at him, at them, with a shocked look of betrayal. But before he could get his bearings and reorient himself in this strange place they'd suddenly found themselves in, Shepard had already picked up the pieces of her shattered mask and a somewhat tighter smile had returned in place of the one before it.
"I'm happy for you. Both of you."
Her eyes gave away the emotions she was trying desperately to hide, like the hand of a drowning man clawing at the surface of the water. He could tell that much before she blinked and turned away, retreating without a backward glance. Garrus finally allowed himself to look at Tali, more than a little relieved that she was standing there beside him, clearly at a total loss, too.
"What just happened?" She continued to stare at the door as if it might open again to reveal this strange Shepard that neither of them recognized.
Garrus flexed his talons, an old nervous habit. "I don't know."
Before the doors had hissed open, he'd been the happiest he'd been in, well, he didn't know how long. He'd always enjoyed spending time with Tali, but this time around had seemed different. More relaxed. A sense of ease and familiarity in desperate times.
They'd both been the core members of Shepard's squad since the original Normandy, and it had been easy to fall back into a friendly camaraderie. He'd found himself growing fond of the way Tali's suit modulated her voice when she was pretending to be annoyed, and equally fond of being the cause of that annoyance. They'd mourned the lack of proper food, he'd teased her about her shotgun and Kal'Reegar; she'd teased him about his sniper rifle and Shepard—the thought now made his mandibles clamp close in discomfort.
He'd begun to find reasons to visit her in Engineering, acutely aware each time his hand lingered too long on hers when he passed components and tools down to her as she worked in one of the ducts.
She'd begun to find reasons to visit him in the Main Battery, his heart racing a little each time she'd leaned back against one of the consoles as she watched him work, offering suggestions that were, more often than not, better than what he'd come up with.
Yesterday, she'd leaned against him instead, pulled him close. Whispered that she'd begun to feel something more than just friendship… did he? In response, he'd let his forehead drop to touch hers, just as they'd been, just now… The buoyant elation of the moment before made the sour guilt that was growing heavier and heavier in his gut even worse; the moment after more bitter for the sweetness that had preceded it.
Tali squeezed his hand lightly, stepping towards him and into the warmth of his embrace. He rested his cheek against the top of her head, unsure of what to say.
"Garrus, did you and Shepard ever—" He felt her take a deep breath and slowly exhale. "Was there ever anything between you? There were some… rumors, before, when we were with Cerberus."
Her question pierced directly into the heart of his own unease and he tightened his arms around her slender form. "No. There was never anything… like that." The not quite truth was evident in the harmonics of his subvocals, subtle enough that only another turian would have picked up on it. Truthfully, he'd thought about it. In fact, if he was completely honest, he'd more than thought about it before coming to the conclusion that having an unrequited crush on your CO wasn't something he should continue to dwell on. "That can't be it. Why would she—?"
Tali pulled away enough to look at him. "Keelah, Garrus! You saw the way she looked at us. I've never seen her like that. Never."
"Maybe something else happened just before she got here. She's practically living in the War Room these days." He fought the urge to pace back and forth, rubbing the back of his neck instead. There had to be some other explanation that would make the ache in his stomach subside. "Maybe she had something on her mind and was surprised to find you here."
Tali folded her arms across her chest. "That doesn't make sense. When was the last time Shepard took someone besides the two of us on a ground mission?" She looked down at the floor for a moment before meeting his eyes again. "She's one of my closest friends, too, you know."
Garrus sighed. "I know. I just don't want to think that… that we've hurt her somehow. "
"We need to go talk to her. Figure this out."
"I don't know if that's such a good idea. After what happened just now… Maybe we should just let it lie for a bit."
Tali drummed her fingers against the console as she thought. "All right. But promise me that we'll talk to her about it tomorrow. Conflict on a small ship like this…" She shook her head. "It gets worse the longer you leave it."
"I know. I just—"
"Yeah." He pressed his forehead to hers, enjoying the calmness the gesture provided, although it was all new enough to send a coursing rush of desire and affection through him as well.
She reached up and stroked the side of his face, one gloved finger lingering over his markings. "I should go. Do you want to meet up in the mess for dinner?"
"I'd like that very much."
With Tali gone, the Battery seemed far too quiet, despite the ever-present hum of the circuitry. He couldn't help glancing at the crates in the corner, almost expecting to see Shepard there in her usual spot.
He missed her.
If Tali hadn't been here when she'd walked in, would she have perched herself there like always? She might've grumbled about some new errand of Hackett's or the latest Council idiocy, might've given him that lilted half-smile that he'd spent endless nights dreaming about after she'd died.
He was being stupid; she hadn't gone anywhere. Nothing had changed… except for things between him and Tali. His thoughts spiraled hopelessly around the rightness of her in his arms contrasted with the inexplicable look in Shepard's eyes that made him feel like she'd been spaced again—right at that moment, in front of him—and he was watching her drift impossibly away into the glittering emptiness. He caught the low growl starting in his throat and shook his head. Not again. He couldn't face that again. Wouldn't.
Garrus gave in to his urge to pace as he tried to make sense of it all. Maybe he should just go talk to Shepard. Maybe he was eating himself up over nothing, something that had nothing to do with him, or Tali. They'd always been able to talk about everything before, so this time shouldn't be any different.
He spoke before he could change his mind. "EDI, where's Commander Shepard?"
"Commander Shepard is in her quarters. She left a request that she not be disturbed until 0600 hours. Is this an emergency, Officer Vakarian?"
"No. Thanks, EDI. I'll… talk to her tomorrow."
"You are welcome. I am always happy to assist."
Despite a vague sense of relief that she clearly didn't want to talk to anyone right now and he could easily find something to read for an hour or two before meeting up with Tali, the nagging feeling in his gut made it perfectly clear that he wasn't going to be able to let this rest. While it was certainly possible that she was just catching up on some sleep—the bluish bruising beneath her eyes gave away the fact that she hadn't been getting enough for some time now—he knew that wasn't the case.
She'd retreated after Mordin, too; after Thane. Each loss was driving her further and further into herself. As much as he didn't want to make things worse, he couldn't just sit there. He was her oldest and closest friend, hadn't she once said that to him? He owed it to her.
Straightening his shoulders, he strode out of the Battery and towards the elevator, looking far more confident than he felt.
His resolve got him as far as her doorway, where he stopped, unsure. Before this, whatever had just happened, he'd always just walked in. Her door was always open—at least it had been—for him, anyway. He flexed his talons as he hesitated. Should he knock? Maybe he should just go back down and send her a message; let her seek him out when she was ready.
A small sound made him freeze; the second time today that he'd found himself paralyzed by the shock of witnessing Shepard exposed, raw… vulnerable. It unsettled him more than he was willing to admit.
Edging closer to the door, he listened with growing trepidation. A human or asari wouldn't have heard a thing—the noise was muffled by the heavy doors, by the low thrum of the ship's engines—but he did.
She was crying.
Commander Shepard, the Savior of the Citadel, defeater of Saren and Sovereign, the unopposable force that had taken down the Shadow Broker and then the Collectors…
He'd never seen her cry, not even after Virmire.
But she was crying now.
His heart constricted tightly, mimicking his clenched mandibles, as he leaned forward to press his forehead against the cold metal doors. The irony of the gesture wasn't lost on him.
She was crying and he'd hurt her.
He wasn't sure how long he stood there—the passage of time marked only in the quiet sobs that echoed accusingly in the stillness of the hallway—but he didn't move, couldn't, until the sounds ceased. He could picture her, curled in a ball on her bed with her knees tucked up against her chest. No blankets though; she hated any sensation of being confined. He could imagine her breathing slowing like it did when she catnapped in the shuttle, her hair tangled into the strange curls that it reverted to when it was damp with sweat.
The silence grew longer as he battled the urge to go in and check on her. If she was asleep, she wouldn't know, but… it wouldn't be right. With a twinge of longing, he tried to imagine what it would feel like to tuck those loose strands of hair carefully behind her ear, to let his talons ghost down the soft, flat plane of her jawline.
His thoughts flickered to Tali, wondering if her skin would be smooth and soft, too, and the sudden conflagration of guilt that erupted made him tremble. How could he think of her when Shepard needed him, needed someone? Could she really have feelings for him that went beyond the closeness of their friendship? Why had she never said anything? He'd thought he knew her, that he'd been one of the rare few allowed to see what lay behind the Commander Shepard persona that she projected for everyone else. But, she'd hidden this, and the pain of that stung almost as much as the wound he'd inflicted on himself; that he hadn't seen it either.
And now it was too late.
He'd left her an opening, months ago, buried in an embarrassing story about a recon scout in his past, but she'd just given him the smile that he liked to think was only for him and slipped away.
Maybe he'd been too subtle; he hadn't wanted to make her uncomfortable or risk what they already had. The opportunity had flared and passed, but at least he'd taken the shot, such as it was. Better to have shot and missed than to have never even made the attempt.
Then, she'd turned herself in to the Alliance, he'd returned to Palaven… Lying in the darkness of Solona's spare room, surrounded by the delicately spiced scent of the flowers his mother had loved, he'd banished the possibility of something more. He would be there for her, in whatever capacity she wanted. That was enough. More than enough.
He placed his palm against the door, letting it slide down the polished surface until it stopped just short of the interface that would open it. On his visor, he watched the rhythm of his own heart beating for a few more endless minutes before he walked away, unable to face her… or himself.
A/N: I've altered the timeline a little here so that the event of Shepard walking in on Tali and Garrus happens earlier, rather than immediately before the trip through the Sol Relay and the final push towards Earth. Also, the rating of this may jump up to M for language and adult situations; we'll see how it goes. :) Finally, I make no promises for a happy ending. I can honestly say that I don't know how this is all going to end yet, but my inner angst princess has been whispering ideas, so we'll just have to see how it all unfolds. Thank you so much for reading!
Super special thanks to Josie Lange for waving around her magic beta stick and for all her support! You're the best!