Tessa Shepard had never exactly been sure which qualities made a building feel particularly relaxing or serene, but turian architecture, she decided, was definitely lacking in most of them. Maybe it had something to do with the way the modern skyscrapers of Palaven's cities swept to the skies, their steep slopes and jagged edges cut with the utmost geometric precision; or maybe it was the way everything here – the floors, the walls, the ceilings, and even the streets outside – was some similarly reflective shade of black or silvery grey. Hell, maybe it just had something to do with the austere and sparsely colored interior design scheme of the Cipritine National Judiciary Hall; it was hard for her to say with any degree of certainty. As someone who had spent the majority of her life surrounded by reinforced metal bulkheads, she realized with mild amusement that all of her speculations were probably wildly off-base anyway.
She chewed absentmindedly on her lower lip and wondered idly how many people it had taken to rebuild the city's governing districts so quickly. A blinking info terminal at the building's entrance reminded visitors just how much of the judicial building had been destroyed in the war, but from where Tessa was standing it was difficult to tell where the original architecture ended and the replacement began. Somewhere overhead, heavily filtered sunlight streamed in through utilitarian windows coated with radiation screening, and vast angular shadows spanned the hall from one side to the other. And in front of her …
In front of her were two towering crested doors that flooded her with a frustrating wave of anxiety every time she looked at them. She glared defiantly at the queue terminal, but it only blinked back at her silently, the last entry filling her with a strange fluttering feeling that made her inexplicably uncomfortable.
Pet. 47: LtGen. G. Vakarian, Capt. T. Shepard. It was really happening. There it was, in writing, right there on the screen.
Tessa blanched indignantly and brushed the hair from her face. "What? No! Why would I be-"
She trailed off as Garrus brushed his fingers along her jaw. "Liar," he teased. "You're doing that thing again with your lips. You never were any good at poker."
The flush that came over her face betrayed her before she could raise any further protest. "Fine," she mumbled, throwing her hands up in defeat. "You got me. The infamous Shepard, slayer of Reapers, filled with jitters because of a …" For some reason, she couldn't bring herself to say it out loud.
"It's just a civil union, Tess. The signature is the only part that's legally required; we don't have to go through with the full ceremony if you don't want to."
She scoffed. "Are you kidding? It took your sister three hours to do my face. She would kill me if I backed out now. I can hear her already. 'Shepard, you can't begin to understand the amount of calculation that went into getting those lines on straight.' I should have guessed infuriating perfectionism runs in your family." She stuffed her hands into her pockets to hide her trembling fingers and forced a cocky grin to her face.
"Besides, I don't know how to back down, remember? I have a reputation to maintain." The omni-tattoo on her face itched, and the residual tingling on her nose made her want to sneeze. The coat of her dress blues suddenly felt two sizes too tight.
"That sounds more like my girl." His thumb rubbed reassuring circles on her shoulder. "It's really not as big of a deal as it looked from the petition response. They handle this sort of thing with asari spouses all the time. Everyone knows the Judiciary just likes yanking people around."
"Yeah." Her response felt as unconvincing as it sounded. She reached up to wipe the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve and remembered too late that Alliance dress blues were stitched from some of the most non-absorbent material she had ever seen that wasn't actually waterproof. Droplets beaded on her cuff, and she shook them to the ground in mild annoyance.
She heard him exhale slowly, and suddenly his fingers were gently tracing the markings on her face. "Tess, you have no idea how it feels seeing those colors on you."
"Don't get too used to it," she joked. "I never looked up the Alliance regs on permanent face tattoos, but I'd imagine they're not that lenient."
"That's a shame. These even match your uniforms." His fingers lingered on her cheeks, and the faint pressure of his talons dragging lightly across her skin made her shiver.
She reached up and folded her hand on top of his. "I'm still surprised your family was as okay with this as they are. I guess after what you've told me about your dad, I expected a little more resistance."
"Well…" The pause in his voice wasn't comforting.
"Garrus?" She eyed him worriedly, the churning in her stomach growing stronger with the silence.
"I … might not have told him, exactly."
"You did what?"
"You humans have a saying. Easier to ask forgiveness than to beg permission? I think that applies here."
Tessa groaned, her free palm meeting her forehead in exasperation. "I'm beginning to regret ever getting you that book of human colloquialisms. Are you really telling me you completely neglected to let him know this was happening today?"
"Solana actually agreed with me for once, if that helps."
She chewed on her lower lip and stared intently at the geometric patterns carved across the floor of the courthouse. Maybe if she concentrated hard enough, she could will the nausea away. "I don't know if that's as comforting as it's supposed to sound."
His voice was gentle as he enveloped his arms around her shoulders, her coat crinkling lightly under the pressure. "Tess, what else aren't you telling me? You're the human who told the entire Council to go to hell once, remember? It's not like you to let someone else's opinion bother you this much."
He was right. As much as she hated sorting through her own emotions, he always managed to unravel them for her somehow eventually, regardless of whether she wanted him to or not. She refused to meet his gaze. "It's stupid, really," she mumbled, feeling the heat returning to her cheeks as her instincts urged her to clam up and run away.
Insistence. Exasperation. Concern. It still amazed her how many emotions she had learned to detect in turian subvocals, and his were even more magnified in the sweeping metal framework of the judiciary building. She glanced desperately at the queue terminal. There were still three petitioners before them; time wouldn't serve as an adequate excuse for keeping quiet. She sighed reluctantly and turned her head up to meet his eyes. "I used to get really pissed at my mom when I was a kid. After my dad died, I went through this phase where I absolutely couldn't stand the thought of getting hitched, to anyone. It seemed like such a pointless waste of time then. Why bother falling for someone when the assholes of the galaxy would just rip them away from you anyway, right?
"She'd give me this infuriating smile and say, 'Tess, honey, it's not about how it feels to lose someone; it's about how alive you feel when they're standing right there with you, no matter how short it lasts.' And that would make me so mad, but no matter how many awful things I said about it, she never got angry with me. Ever. If she were here right now, she'd be giving me the biggest 'I told you so' the galaxy's ever seen."
The lump in her throat grew larger, and somewhere inside her, the floodgates broke open despite her best efforts to hold them closed. Tessa blinked back the tears that were forcing their way to the surface and buried her face in his chest. "I just don't want to screw this up," she whispered. "I want her to look down at me from wherever she is, and I want her to be able to give me that goddamn 'I told you so' knowing it came with the happy ending she and my dad and my sister never got to have. And maybe … maybe this is stupid as hell, but I think of the one parent left between the two of us, and I think about the possibility that he just might hate me all the way to the grave, and maybe that scares me a little." The fabric of her pockets bunched in her fingers. "Maybe it scares me a lot. It's ridiculous, yeah; and I hate thinking about it, but there it is."
He dabbed lightly at her face with his sleeve. "Tess, I spent half my life trying to live up to his expectations and the other half trying to prove I was better off doing things my own way. Look where all of that got me. It took three different mercenary gangs and a ballistic missile to the face to make me realize how much time I was wasting living my life for someone else, and you've always had more sense than me. Besides, if your mother is anything like you, she's probably buying a round of drinks for everyone up there with all the money she made betting on you."
Tessa felt the corners of her lips tugging into a faint smile. "Oh yeah? On what wager?"
"That you're just stubborn enough to take every crazy, terrible thing that's ever happened to you and drag your own damn happy ending out of it all." He leaned in and touched his forehead to hers. "Screw my father's opinions, Tess. You're the woman who single-handedly united the entire galaxy and ended a systematic pattern of genocide dating back billions of years. If that's not good enough for him…"
"He can kiss my soft, white, alien ass?" she offered helpfully.
He laughed and squeezed her tightly against him, burying his face in her hair. "Never," he whispered into the top of her head. "That's my job."
She inhaled into his shirt, drinking in the familiar scent of omni gel and solder flux she had come to associate with him. "Damn right it is," she returned. Her stomach was finally starting to settle, her fears now feeling distant, absurd, and wholly irrelevant. The queue terminal chimed to indicate they were next, and she leaned back into him, affectionately lacing her fingers into his.
Almost as if on cue, one of the doors opened. "Petitioner forty-seven?" The usher glanced between the two of them briefly before touching his fingers to his fringe and bowing his head slightly toward Garrus in deference. "Sir." Tessa was surprised to see him nod to her in turn as they entered the courtroom. "Ma'am."
She nudged Garrus lightly in the side. "Do they always do that to foreigners?" she whispered.
He chuckled lightly and brushed her lapel. "Only to the one with a turian military medal pinned to her uniform."
The echo of their boots on the floor felt uncomfortably loud. Her breath hitched in her throat when she saw a small crowd in the audience, the majority of which was conspicuously not turian. "Garrus, what is this?"
"You wouldn't believe how many people on the Normandy asked me when something like this would happen."
Tessa raised an eyebrow. "Really? Nobody ever brought that up with me…"
"Self-preservation can be a powerful deterrent, Shepard." He chuckled but squeezed her hand reassuringly.
She rolled her eyes and elbowed him playfully. "I'll get you back for this," she whispered, but there was no hiding the smile breaking out on her face.
"Damn." A familiar, teasing voice to the right caught her ear. "No skimpy white dress? I got myself one hell of a sunburn coming to this place, and you end up wearing the exact same thing I did. What gives, Lola?"
She glanced over in time to see Cortez swat him lightly on the shoulder. "Hey now, Mr. Vega, didn't anyone tell you it was rude to catcall the bride at a wedding?"
A quick survey of the room revealed a sea of familiar faces, and she overheard snippets of hushed conversation that ranged from humorous to touching as they slowly made their way down the stairs to the Judiciary Board.
"Gabby, when we get married, will you paint your face too? It's an ancestral tradition, you know."
"I think you're confusing ancestral tradition with something you saw one time in a modern remake of a twentieth century historical fiction vid. Not the same thing."
"That's not a no."
"In your dreams, Kenneth."
Two rows in front of them, Tessa noticed Liara sitting next to someone she didn't recognize immediately until she saw the fitted purple fabric peeking out from under a shock of long, unruly black curls. "Tali?" she exclaimed in disbelief.
Tali grinned, a faint shimmer rippling through the silvery markings across her pale face. "Hey, Shepard. Surprise. I still can't go outside like this, but between my suit upgrades and the filtered air in here, I'm actually good to go for an hour or two. I left the antihistamine gel on my ship on accident, though, so when my face starts itching, I am out of here whether this thing is over or not. I guess what I'm saying is, you and Garrus better make it fast up there."
Tessa felt Garrus nudge her shoulder lightly. "I think the Judiciary Board is inclined to agree with that statement, Tess," he teased.
"Right. Yeah. Sorry." She took a deep breath and forced her legs to make it down the last three steps without shaking. Get it together, Shepard.
The ceremony proceeded in a blur. She felt Solana's eyes watching her intently as she recited the lines she had spent weeks muttering to herself anxiously in the bathroom mirror. The usher solemnly presented the unity sphere, and the intricately etched globe of thulium felt like ice beneath her fingers. Before she knew it, they were each pressing a hand into the contract terminal, the interface glowing in confirmation before them, and then she felt her feet lift from the ground. He was holding her, squeezing her, his mandibles fluttering lightly against her chin as he kissed her enthusiastically amidst the whistles and cheers that erupted from the floor.
"Something tells me that last part wasn't in the script," she whispered breathlessly as her boots found the floor again.
"What kind of rebellious turian bad boy would I be if I didn't deviate from tradition at least a little bit?"
Their fingers twined together as they made their way back to the lobby, their exit peppered by a multitude of excited congratulations and well wishes. She opened her mouth to say something jokingly about this being the most celebration the Judiciary Hall had seen in centuries, but the words evaporated from her lips before she could give them voice as she looked up and locked eyes with the one person she had dreaded confronting the entire trip here.
He was leaning casually against the wall, arms crossed tightly over his chest. The resemblance between him and Garrus was uncanny, except that his face bore fewer scars, and his eyes were an ominous shade of grey without a trace of the intense slate-blue tint she knew so well. If there was a height difference between the two, it was almost negligible. He might have been a centimeter or two taller, maybe, but it was hard for her to tell from the way he was standing. She felt Garrus stiffen uncomfortably next to her, but his hand never left hers, and she gave him a grateful squeeze. She took a deep breath and overpowered her nerves with adrenaline, frantically putting together an acceptable speech in her head.
She felt his eyes appraising her, his piercing gaze lingering on her lapel, and even her best attempts at finding the right words disappeared under his stare. With a low chuff, he finally spoke. "Glad my son came to his senses about something for once," he muttered gruffly, and without another word he spun and strode away.
They stood gaping, frozen in stunned speechlessness as they watched him leave. It was Garrus who finally broke the silence.
"Hm. Well. That … just happened."
"Mmhm." Tessa could only nod in response. She could feel her brain overclocking in a desperate attempt to process what just occurred.
"Garrus!" Solana's frantic voice echoed behind them. "Spirits, I am so sorry! I didn't know he would be here on official business today, I swear. I tried to stall him as long as I could-"
He chuckled. "Nah, don't worry about it." Tessa felt his arms wrap warmly around her from behind as they turned to face his sister. "Ask him about it later. He might surprise you."
Solana's mandibles flickered in surprise. "He might … what? What did you do?"
"Well ... Shepard can be … persuasive."
Tessa tilted her head back to look at him, a cheeky comment on her lips, but the kiss that met her dissolved anything that she could have said out loud.
He let the kiss linger before breaking away, his teeth lightly brushing her lower lip. "Still nervous?" he teased.
Feeling particularly impulsive after everything that had transpired, she planted a light follow-up on his chin and shamelessly squeezed his butt, watching Solana's exasperated expression from the corner of her eye. "With you?" she whispered. "Never."