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Happy Little Trees

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“Liara, you are -- and I mean this with every fiber of my being -- the best.” Shepard threw her arms around her friend. Liara froze for a second, surprised, but quickly returned the embrace. She had never seen the Commander so animated, neither before nor since… the event. It pained her to even think of it.

Since she’d recently assumed the Shadow Broker mantle, Liara had purposely avoided looking at any intel that came in about the Normandy attack or Shepard’s subsequent resurrection. It was too soon, and she cared enough for her own emotional health to allow herself this temporary boundary. Besides, the Normandy crew were just starting their shore leave, and they -- especially Shepard -- deserved some time to decompress before the misery inevitably started back up.

They stepped out of the hug, Shepard bearing a wide smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes. Liara couldn't help but mirror the expression. She’d always felt very connected to her dear friend, and even now, her exuberance was catching.

“I am more than happy to do this for you, Shepard, but I must admit,” Liara said, tilting her head, “I am rather curious about the impetus behind your request. I never took you for an artist.”

Shepard quickly looked around the mess area, then leaned in close to Liara. ”It’s actually a surprise for Garrus,” she said in a low voice. “It’s for his birthday.”

Liara’s eyes widened, her mouth forming a small, incredulous “O”. “Garrus is an artist?” Liara asked. “I had no idea.”

“Actually, he’s not. Or rather, not yet,” Shepard said. “It’s just something I know he’s always wanted to do, and I figured since we’ve got shore leave coming up, now might be a good opportunity.” Liara noticed how Shepard’s voice softened when she spoke of Garrus of late. As attuned to her as she was, Liara had suspected her friend’s affections for the turian extended beyond friendship for some time now. Strangely, she also sensed that Shepard herself was unaware of these feelings, which both amused and fascinated her. How was it possible that humans could be so imperceptive of their own hearts?

“Well, that is very thoughtful of you, Shepard,” Liara said, not without some coyness. “You have always been a good friend to him, and this is no exception.”

Shepard grinned sheepishly, twirling a curl as she always did when she felt put on the spot or otherwise emotionally vulnerable. “Oh come on, it’s not that big a deal. Yeah, he’s a good friend and I care about him, but it’s not like I’m just giving him a paint set out of nowhere. It’s a birthday present, so it’s kind of compulsory.”

“And when is his birthday? I could’ve sworn it was somewhat later in the year, but perhaps my memory fails me.” Liara rubbed one of her temples as if trying to relieve a headache.

“Oh, it is, but… um, I- I don’t know where any of us will be months from now,” Shepard stammered. “I- I guess I wanted to make sure he had a chance before… anything happened. It’d just be really sad if he never got a chance to learn.”

Liara gave a soft smile and placed her hand gently on Shepard’s shoulder. “I understand. I am glad to help you with this, and I will make sure the materials are shipped here quickly -- it should take no more than a day or two.”

“Thank you so much, Liara,” Shepard smiled tenderly. “I’m so glad that I got to see you while you’re here.”

“Me, too, Shepard.” The friends hugged once again and parted, Liara off to finish some business on the Citadel before heading back to the Base, while Shepard was on her way to the main battery.

When she saw where Shepard was headed, Liara laughed softly to herself and shook her head. Who knew when she would finally see that she had something for Garrus? Oh, well. If she kept being so obvious about it, someone would eventually clue her in.

----------

“Good morning, Commander Shepard.”

“EDI, I am still sleeping.” Shepard rolled over and pulled the comforter over her head, which did nothing to diminish the voice coming over the intercom. In fact, it sounded as though EDI turned up her volume when she next spoke.

“According to your current brain activity and verbal coherence, I can say with 98.275 percent confidence that you are no longer in an unconscious state.”

Shepard curled into herself, creating a cave of warmth. “Mm, thanks for the update on my ‘state’, EDI. Wait a second -- ” Her eyes flew open. The blankets were thrown back as Shepard flung herself up to a sitting position. “Wait, you can read our brain activity? What the hell?!”

“Only yours, Commander Shepard. Do not worry, my etiquette protocol requires that I inform you prior to assuming control of your functions.”

Shepard gripped the blankets as she let out a nervous laugh. “That -- that was a joke, right, EDI?”

Silence. Then, “Yes. It was a joke.”

“Both parts?”

“Yes, both the claim that I can read your brain activity and the claim that I might use that knowledge to control you were attempts at humor. The second claim is predicated on the first claim being true, and --”

“Yes, yes, I understand, EDI. You know, you’re getting better at this whole humor thing. Increasingly frightening, but better.” Shepard swung her legs off the bed and grabbed her leggings and hoodie from where they were draped over her chair.

“Thank you, Shepard. Jeff has been helping me understand effective humorous delivery. Regarding my initial outreach, Dr. T’Soni’s parcels have arrived and are currently on the cargo deck.”

“Excellent. Thanks, EDI.” Shepard dressed and left her cabin for the cargo deck, not bothering to suppress the bounce in her step. She’d been so eager for the materials to arrive, it had been hard to concentrate on writing her reports. She couldn’t wait to see Garrus’ reaction.

As she stepped out of the elevator and into the cargo hold, she slowed her pace and proceeded a bit more carefully. For those who’d be staying on the Normandy, very few of them would be up at this hour during shore leave. While she wasn’t planning on enjoying too much leisure time herself, it was good for her crew to take time for themselves -- sleep in, go fuck around on the Citadel, whatever they cared to do.

But there was one person she knew would be in the main battery for most of the next two weeks, and she’d be lying to herself if she wasn’t hoping to hang out with him in a low-stress environment. Maybe learn more about what happened to him on Omega. If he was open to talking about it, of course. She liked this different version of him but knew it hadn’t come without great cost. Right this second, though, she needed to figure out where he was so she could set up his present without him knowing. Shepard brought up her omni-tool.

“EDI,” she whispered, “Tell me where --”

“Sneaking around your own ship, Shepard?”

The familiar drawl resonated right next to her ear, making her startle and whip around to see the very person she was hoping to avoid. “Damn it, don’t creep up on me like that!” She lightly smacked his chest with the back of her hand. “Doesn’t usually end well for most people.”

Towering over her, Garrus smirked. “Well, it’s a good thing you weren’t armed, then.”

Shepard shot him a cocky grin. “But I’m always armed, Vakarian.” She brought up her fists in front of her face and playfully threw a soft punch at Garrus’ chest. He caught her fist effortlessly in his talons, sending an unexpected flutter to her stomach. The seconds seemed to stretch out forever as Garrus firmly held her right fist in his left hand, then slowly brought it down to hang slack at Shepard’s side. The whole sequence left Shepard’s mouth dry and her heart racing.

“Fair. Less armed than usual, then. I’ll consider myself lucky.” He crossed his arms and regarded Shepard inquisitively, seeming to notice her casual appearance. Lately, she’d caught him looking at her a bit more than usual -- nearly every time she looked his way, his sapphire eyes would meet hers. Having his intense gaze on her, so close, made her feel very warm.

“I don’t believe it. Leisure clothing… is the Commander going to relax on shore leave, for once?” His sub-vocals rumbled approvingly.

”Oh, this?” Shepard plucked at the front of her hoodie. “This is my official catching-up-on-shit-I-didn’t-have-time-to-do ensemble. So, no relaxation for me, I’m afraid. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying your time off. What are you doing down here, anyway?”

Garrus side-stepped around her, heading toward his locker. “It’s gun cleaning day. You’re welcome to join me -- unless you’re down here for some other reason?” He looked over at Shepard, one brow plate raised in inquiry.

“Actually, I need to bring some packages up to my cabin and could use an extra set of hands, if you’ve got a sec?” She’d initially planned to bring the parcels straight to the main battery and start setting up there. But now she needed his help carrying them up, and she couldn’t have him knowing where the packages were destined.

“For you? Of course,” Garrus answered. “Where are they?”

“It’s that pile,” Shepard pointed toward the northern corner of the cargo hold. “Right over there.”

They walked over to the packages together. There was one in a long, flat crate just a little taller than Shepard. She’d had to special order an easel that could adjust to a comfortable height for Garrus, which had involved several failed attempts at measuring his height without him noticing, until she’d given up and just asked Dr. Chakwas.

“So there are three in total, and I don’t want to make two trips. The issue with this one here isn’t that it’s heavy or anything, it just has an awkward shape,” she explained. “So I just need help with --”

Shepard stopped as she watched Garrus easily flip the long crate onto one shoulder in one smooth motion. Like a figure skater doing a carry lift, she thought. She didn’t realize she was just staring until she noticed Garrus regarding her curiously. “Something wrong? Is this the wrong package?”

“Oh, no, I just thought the way you picked that up was… cool… anyway, I’ll grab the other smaller ones.” Shepard fast-walked over and picked up the two smaller, more manageable boxes, her face burning.

What the hell is wrong with me? Why am I acting like some awkward teenager?

Garrus wore a cocky smirk as they headed to the elevator. “You thought that was cool? Cooler than the time I capped off my vigilante career with a rocket to the face?”

“Oh, without a doubt,” Shepard answered, looking over at him with a sardonic smile. She caught his eyes -- he’d been looking down at her, too. They quickly averted their glances and shifted their focus forward.

They stepped into the elevator, maneuvering the awkward package so that it didn’t hit Shepard in the head.

“Maybe I ought to wear a bell,” Garrus said after a few beats of silence.

“What are you talking about?” Shepard looked up at him and snickered, brows furrowed.

“Well, I don’t want to chance sneaking up on you again and risking my life.” A hint of a smile appeared on Garrus’ face, his eyes still looking forward.

Shepard chuckled. “Good call. That’s what we humans call ‘self-care’, Vakarian.”

A barely perceptible rumble in his sub-vocals made Shepard wonder if he was mulling over the phrase. “Hmm. Interesting. I hope that you partake in some... ‘self-preservation’ of your own, Shepard. Can’t have you dying on us again.” When he looked down at her, his eyes were soft and his mandibles slowly twitched.

Shepard might’ve giggled at the minor translation error if Garrus hadn’t looked so earnest. Beneath his banter, she could sense real worry… fear, even? “You bet. Can’t get rid of me that easily.”

“Well, thank the Spirits for that. It’d be an awfully different galaxy without you.”

“Look at you! I had no idea you were so sentimental,” Shepard teased. In her interior world, though, her brain was simultaneously on overdrive and having a meltdown.

Did he really just say that?

Is that a thing friends say to each other?

Does he see me as more than a friend? Would that be so bad?

No, it would actually be pretty great, if I felt the same way…

Do I?

Garrus cleared his throat. They’d arrived at the cabin level. “After you, Commander.”

“Yeah, sure thing,” Shepard exhaled, unlocking the cabin door and heading in. “Ok, you can set that big guy against the fish tank.”

Garrus gently leaned the large parcel against the glass, trying not to disturb the fish within. “Ok, need me for anything else?”

Shepard smiled and shook her head. “Nope, that’ll do it. I really appreciate your help, Garrus. Thanks for schlepping this up.”

“Hey, no problem. Happy to lend my hands anytime,” Garrus cleared his throat again and suddenly looked very uncomfortable, much to Shepard’s amusement. “I should… go.” He smoothly about-faced and walked back to the elevator.

Shepard’s amusement turned to confusion and concern. “Hey, are you alright?” she called after him.

“Yep! Just remembered I need to, ah, check on the Thanax cannons.” The elevator doors closed more quickly than usual -- Huh. Never knew there was a way to make those doors close faster -- and Shepard was left to wonder what the hell had just happened.

----------

The doors whispered shut as Garrus entered the main battery the following morning. He smiled to himself as he remembered he had two whole weeks of free time, and he could calibrate through the whole day and night cycles if he wanted to… no, best to exercise restraint and not utterly destroy his sleeping pattern.

He felt a little guilty -- he’d been avoiding Shepard since he left her cabin yesterday. Last night, when he'd heard her voice approaching the table for dinner, he quickly finished his food and headed back to the main battery. Later that night, Jack, Zaeed, and Jacob had invited him to join a round of poker, but Shepard had just taken a seat at the table. Garrus winced as he replayed the moment she’d seen him and excitedly waved him over, only for him to hastily decline and retreat to his space.

What’s the matter with me?

Garrus had never represented the typical turian (much to his father’s enduring disappointment), but he’d always been in control: of his demeanor, his thoughts, his words and actions. He’d had to be when he was in C-Sec, and especially on Omega.

But ever since he and Shepard had crossed paths on Omega, something in him had changed. He didn’t understand what it was, exactly, and it scared him to not know something about himself.

And he knew he’d been acting strangely around her, yesterday being the worst series of embarrassing behaviors. So many nonsensical missteps. How did Shepard put up with him?

As he fired up his terminal, something to his left caught his eye. Head tilted in curiosity, Garrus approached the object, which was shrouded in a gray sheet and leaning against the wall. After a quick scan with his visor revealed no heat signatures or currents, he carefully removed the sheet. Before him stood a wooden structure about 200 centimeters tall, with a thick pad of bright white paper perched upon a tray midway up the frame. A small metal case was balanced on the tray.

Was this really… could it be? Unbelieving, Garrus spoke into his omni-tool. “EDI, who left this object in my -- in the main battery?”

“I have been instructed not to reveal the sender until I have delivered the message.”

His brow plates furrowed in confusion. “Message?” A comms notification blinked on his omni-tool, and he opened a file that EDI had just transmitted. As he listened, he ran the back of his hand gently down the top sheet of paper, its smooth surface as potent as the imagination.

“EDI, are you recording? Good. Hey, Garrus. Thought you might like to explore some new ways to spend your time besides fiddling with your guns. Jesus, why do I sound like a Fornax hotline ad? Anyway, here’s to, uh, old dreams turning into new hobbies. Enjoy, my friend. Shepard out.” But the recording continued with a sigh, followed by quieter speech: “Shepard out... of her damn mind! God, is this too much? What? Oh, shit. Yes, EDI, you can stop recording now.”

Garrus smiled, his mandibles fluttering happily as the recording ended. “Shepard,” he sighed, shaking his head in amusement. As much as she’d surprised him with her tenacity and ability to survive the worst possible odds, he should’ve been used to the unexpected from Shepard. But this… this gesture touched him, made him feel like she truly saw him -- a part of him that’d never had a chance to flourish.

“Mr. Vakarian, Shepard asked me to tell you that she had ‘a ridiculous amount of scotch’ during this recording, and to ‘please disregard anything weird’ in the message.”

“Huh. Noted. Thanks, EDI.” Garrus grinned as he picked up the metal case and flipped open the latches. Inside were a set of brushes and tubes of acrylic paints. He gently picked up one of the brushes, thrilled to find that Shepard had gone to the trouble of getting a set compatible with turian hands.

Overwhelmed, Garrus brought up his comms. “Hey! Are you awake?”

A groan issued from the other end. “I am now, to my great dismay.”

Garrus couldn’t keep the joy from his voice. “I can’t believe you did this, Shepard. I -- well, I don’t know what to say, besides thank you.” When her soft laughter came over the comms, Garrus had the strange sensation of fluttering in his midsection. What humans would call “butterflies”, which, if he recalled correctly, were some kind of small, leathery creature with sharp teeth and claws. How such a thing became a symbol for, well, whatever he was feeling was beyond him.

Whatever he was feeling?

What was he feeling?

Oh, no.

“You’re very welcome, Garrus. But you know there’s a catch, don’t you?”

“Ah, I should’ve seen this coming.” Garrus chuckled and crossed his arms. “Alright, let’s hear it. What do I have to do, clean the floors? Make your bed for a week?”

’Make your bed for a week’?

As had become a frequent occurrence lately, Garrus deeply regretted opening his mouth. The silence on the other end only reinforced his self-reproach. Spirits. Why am I like this?

Shepard made a throat-clearing sound and finally responded, “I mean, hey, if you’re offering… but… no. It’s actually really simple. All I ask is that you actually use it.”

Frowning quizzically, Garrus wondered why she felt the need to even ask such a thing. “Wait, why wouldn’t I?”

“I know you! You never relax. There’s always calibrations to be run, guns to be cleaned. I just --,” she began to falter, her voice now a bit hushed. “I wanted you to have a chance to do this thing you’ve always wanted to do, you know, while there’s time. Because… who knows if you’ll get a chance like this in the future. I learned that the hard way, but I was lucky enough to be brought back. I don’t want anyone I care about to die with regrets.”

He couldn’t remember ever hearing her speak to him so vulnerably. Everything between them was always shrouded in a joke or light flirtation -- though Garrus himself had crossed that line yesterday with his “different galaxy without you” comment. It wasn’t even what he’d meant to say.

The galaxy would be awfully empty without you.

In retrospect, maybe he shouldn’t have been embarrassed saying such a thing. Searching his memories, it was one of the first times in his life that he’d let his guard down, and he hadn’t even let it down enough to say what he really meant.

To his surprise, the beginnings of a keening crept up Garrus’ throat, and he suppressed it. But he muted his comms, anyway, fearing he wouldn’t be able to hold it back if he didn’t get control of himself. As he strained to keep it together, he thought about how he hadn’t yet allowed himself to truly grieve the loss of his team on Omega. His ingrained sense of duty reminded him that they’d died senselessly because he let his guard down and trusted someone he shouldn’t have. As a person who cared about his people, however, he hadn’t let himself think too much about each of his teammates and what made each of them special. It hurt too much. The times they’d all spent together, fighting side by side and celebrating their wins, had made him feel a little closer to wholeness as he tried, and failed, to heal from Shepard’s death.

A slightly muted whine escaped, his sub-vocals trembling. Get it together, Vakarian.

“Garrus?” Shepard’s cautious inquiry grounded him. “You still there?”

Garrus cleared his throat and remembered his training. Stand up straight and proud. Clear your head. Emotions are tripwires.

He hated how effective that was, but at least he could unmute himself now. “I’m here. Just surprised and thankful, is all.”

“Surprised? I guess you don’t even realize how wistful you looked when you told me you’ve always wanted to learn to paint?”

“I was not wistful!” Garrus laughed.

“If you say so… but I know wistful when I see it. Even in a turian.”

Garrus sighed. “Yeah, I guess you do.”

“Promise me you’ll make something?”

How could he not? Loyalty to his commander alone would’ve been enough to honor her request, but he was finally admitting to himself that there was far more than allegiance at play. “I promise.”

----------

The blank piece of paper, previously so full of promise, taunted him, its emptiness mocking his utter lack of creativity. Garrus had considered the ramifications of turning out an absolute piece of garbage, and knew on a rational level that there were none. It’s not like he was planning on showing anyone what he created. This was his, and his alone. He’d even started keeping the door to the main battery locked lest someone stumble onto his disaster mid-production.

When he dug deeper into what he was anxious about, he wasn’t surprised that it led back to his father’s intractable expectations and the pressures of turian society. Art as a hobby, while not exactly shunned among turians, was generally not a prioritized pastime. But while Garrus had accepted long ago that he wasn’t a good turian, setting aside his duty, even briefly, to pursue something for the joy of it wasn’t something he’d ever really been permitted to do.

He’d also never been given the space to fail. Not that he hadn’t failed -- Garrus thought every day about how he’d failed his crew on Omega, the greatest of all his fuck-ups, right up there with not being able to save Shepard when the Collectors attacked the Normandy. But to be given the chance to flounder, with no stakes or consequences whatsoever, other than wasted paint?

So used to striving for excellence, he’d never known what it was like to fall short of perfection in a safe, controlled context. If the biggest risk was that he was terrible at painting and ended up hating it, then at least he could say he got to try it.

“Alright, let’s do this,” he mumbled, not for the first time that afternoon. He’d watched some vids on paint mixing and had achieved a basic understanding of color theory. A palette filled with multi-colored dabs waited for his brushes. But every time he went to dip a brush in, he got hung up on the discomfort of not creating something perfect. More importantly, Garrus didn’t even know what he wanted to paint.

Grumbling, he pulled up his omni-tool and searched for painting vids on the turian extranet. Hundreds of tutorials by Merys, revered throughout turian society for her face tattoo techniques. Garrus smiled sadly as he remembered watching her videos as a child with his mother, both of them practicing on each other’s faces. They’d look in the mirror after and giggle at the crooked lines they’d each intentionally painted on each other. Well, intentionally for him. He hadn’t realized at the time that the unsteadiness of his mother’s hands was one of the very early signs of Corpalis Syndrome. Thinking about how scared she must have been, yet how willing she was to play with her son despite that, made his heart ache.

The tightening in his chest drove him to look at other creators’ vids. Not surprisingly, most of the artistry vids for the turian audience (of which there were already very few) consisted of painting famous battles and portraits of brave generals who’d given their lives for the glory of the Hierarchy.

Sighing, Garrus expanded his search beyond the turian domain, accepting that his translator might miss a lot of nuance in the general extranet. He refined his search to the equivalent of “inspirational, painting”, then after some hesitation, added “therapeutic” to his search terms.

A long list of videos by a human male named Bob Ross appeared on his screen. Garrus could tell by the film quality that they were quite ancient, dating back to almost exactly 200 years ago. As he scrolled down, he was shocked by the sheer volume of vids -- this human’s output rivaled even Merys’ productions. Curious, he clicked on one titled, “Black & White Seascape”.

The vid opened with a charming musical interlude, individual components of a woodland painting coming together piece by piece. A man appeared, greeting the audience with a soft-spoken voice. Some of what the man was saying didn’t come cleanly through the translator, but given most of the video was him showing, not telling, it didn’t really matter. Besides, just the quality of his voice, coherence to non-humans notwithstanding, had such a calming effect that even Garrus could feel the tightness in his chest unbinding.

He watched in awe as simple, decontextualized strokes of color became an incredible image of a slightly overcast sky, the sun peeking through and casting soft light on a seaside cliff. He played back the vid several times to catch where exactly the blocks of color had transitioned to a recognizable picture. There had to be a single point at which it turned, a single instance that marked the before and after, but Garrus couldn’t seem to pinpoint it.

Clicking out of the seascape video (but saving it to go back to later), he opened another, “Golden Rays of Sunshine”. The man -- Bob -- was a little older in this one, greeting the viewer just as warmly as before. In this one, he introduced a technique where he used some sort of cloth to dapple the black canvas in grey.

Garrus made a small gasp as Bob drew a simple black line down from the top of the page and a tree instantly appeared. More straight lines, more trees. As with the previous video, a picture sprang into being without any warning. Spirits. How is this possible?

Garrus saved the vid and searched for more information about the painter. “Career military?” He learned that Bob had served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force on Earth, and had started painting early on in his career. It wasn’t surprising that a human military would be lenient enough to enable this kind of pursuit; he was a little envious that the turian military didn’t make such allowances.

On the other hand, just knowing that military service hadn’t smothered the creativity of this man inspired Garrus. He eagerly returned to the “Golden Rays of Sunshine” vid and assessed his inventory of materials and colors. For this painting, he’d need black, white, grey, yellow, and a dark blue not too dissimilar from the blue on his suit.

As Garrus started mixing his colors, a happy purr ran through him. “Let’s do this.” And this time, he meant it.

----------

“Have you seen Garrus lately?” Tali asked at breakfast. She unwrapped the plastic container of her dextro MRE and popped it into the microwave.

Shepard shook her head, eating her toast. She washed it down with slow, careful sips of the hot coffee she’d picked up from Apollo’s. “Nope, not for the last couple of days. I know he’s in there, though,” she nodded toward the main battery, “and I’m pretty sure he’s not calibrating.”

Tali sat down across from Shepard, signaling her to hand over her coffee, as she always did. She breathed in deeply through her respirator. “Mmm. I really wish they made dextro coffee. It always smells incredible.”

“It smells better than it tastes, more often than not, unless it’s really good coffee,” Shepard said ruefully, “so you’re not missing out on much, Tali.”

“If you say so, Shepard. So Garrus is in the main battery and not calibrating?” Tali asked in disbelief. “What else would he be doing in there?” She quickly raised her hands and shook her head vigorously. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

“No, I’m fairly certain it’s not that,” Shepard laughed. She showed remarkable restraint in not mentally engaging with the visual implicit in Tali’s comment. Even if said restraint was heavily aided by burning her tongue with coffee. “Pretty sure he’s in there painting his head off.” She took another sip and braced herself for Tali’s reaction.

The quarian brought her hands down to the table with a loud thump and leaned across the table toward Shepard. “Garrus? PAINTING? No way!” When Shepard only nodded, she brought herself back down into her seat and threw her hands up. “Keelah se’lai! How did a badass vigilante manage to take up the most relaxing hobby of all time? I mean, I am happy he’s learning to chill out, but how did it happen?”

Shepard shrugged, smiling behind her coffee cup. “Maybe someone bought him painting supplies and had no idea how quickly he’d take to it.”

“Ahhh, I see,” Tali said slyly. “So you got your boyfriend a paint set -- how nice.”

Shepard counted her lucky stars that she didn’t currently have a mouthful of hot coffee. “WHAT?”

Tali giggled roguishly. “I’m just saying what everyone else is thinking! I see the way you two look at each other -- it’s like you’re trying everything you can not to show it, but at the same time, not even trying a little bit.”

“What on earth are you --” Shepard stopped herself. “Wait, did you say ‘you two’?”

“Yes,” Tali nodded excitedly. Shepard could tell she was absolutely living for this. “It’s so obvious that he’s into you, Shepard! Do you want to know who else he’s been talking to since he’s locked himself in there the last two days?”

“Uh, who?” Shepard squeaked out. She knew where this was going, but didn’t want to give herself false hope.

No one else, Shepard. Just you.” Just behind the glass of her face mask, Tali’s glowing eyes narrowed into a smile. “All the rest of us have gotten from him is ‘Hey, can it wait a bit? I’m a little busy right now’.”

Shepard’s face grew hot. While it was true that Shepard hadn’t seen Garrus the last two days, he had kept in contact with her over comms messaging. She’d read and re-read the conversations, especially the first few when Garrus was in peak fanboy-mode, going on about this guy named Bob Ross who’d lived on Earth ages ago:

Shepervescent: Ok, so I get that he’s a painter, but what’s got you all worked up about him?
LivingVakariously: For one thing, he was in the military, which is cool
Shepervescent: I was in the military, Garrus -- where’s my fan club?
LivingVakariously: Being known as the “Hero of the Citadel” throughout Council Space isn’t enough?
Shepervescent: Too much, tbh
Shepervescent: Ok, so your guy was in the military and…?
LivingVakariously: Bob just… makes these wonderful paintings
Shepervescent: Yeah, I kinda gathered that
Shepervescent: Also I love that you’re on a first-name basis with this ancient human painter
LivingVakariously: No no, you don’t understand! He puts colors on the canvas, and it doesn’t look like anything, and then BAM, it does look like something
LivingVakariously: It’s incredible!
Shepervescent: Wow, that does sound amazing
Shepervescent: So have you painted anything yet?
LivingVakariously: Yeah! I’ve done three paintings with Bob… I had to order more materials, actually
Shepervescent: Oooh can I see???
LivingVakariously: Maybe… I’m still a little… protective of them
LivingVakariously: Eventually I plan to try some on my own
Shepervescent: Aw, I’m sure Bob would be proud of you ^_^
LivingVakariously: Ha, I doubt that, but that’s kind of you to say *I am smiling*
Shepervescent: Garrus Vakarian, do you not know how to use emoji?
LivingVakariously: Well, Bob hasn’t covered that yet

“I don’t know why you’re so surprised, Shepard,” Tali said, leaning back in her chair with her arms crossed.

Great. Now Shepard had to contend with the fact that she had feelings for Garrus, and that he might return those feelings? All she could do was shake her head and laugh. “I guess I didn’t even see that I was at that point, much less him. I don’t really know what to do with this.”

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Tali uncrossed her arms and put both hands as flat on the table as her talons would allow. “You and Garrus are usually so competent, but right now you’re both acting like a couple of hopeless bosh’tets. Unbelievable!” She extended an arm behind her and pointed back at the main battery. “You go to him, that’s what you do!”

“Tali, this isn’t Fleet and Flotilla! We’re not even sure what ‘types’ of feelings he might have for me. I don’t want to assume and have it all go wrong…”

“Keeeeelaaaaaaah.” With an exasperated groan, Tali got up and walked off toward Engineering, grumbling in Khelish. Seconds later, she stomped back into the kitchen to retrieve her now room-temperature microwave breakfast. Shaking her head pointedly at Shepard on her way out, Tali left the mess.

Shepard went to take another sip of her coffee, but it had gone cold.

----------

Garrus looked around the now cramped room, eyes falling on each of the pieces he’d painted over the last five days. Only leaving the battery for meals, showers, and bathroom breaks, he’d made it through a full season of The Joy of Painting.

“Find freedom on this canvas” he said quietly to himself, something he’d heard Bob say in one of his lessons. Just seeing how much he’d done gave him a feeling of satisfaction unlike with anything else he’d accomplished in his life. During these days with Bob, he'd had a lot of time to meditate on everything that had brought him to this moment of tranquility.

He'd finally been able to truly sit with the loss of his team on Omega, letting himself be crushed under his grief. He allowed himself to wail out his heartbreak, thanking the spirits that the battery was fairly soundproof. He said each of their names aloud for the first time since their deaths. Each one of his teammates was memorialized in a small way in every painting he made with Bob. Klay and Jenera waved at him from the shore of a lake. Sasheen sat up high on a tree branch, swinging her legs and holding her rifle on her lap. Lioneus tried to catch a bird lifting off from a field. No mistakes where they were; only happy accidents.

Their loss would weigh on him for the rest of his days. But for the first time, Garrus felt a little bit lighter.

Everything good he’d done in his life had been for other people -- his father, the denizens of the Citadel and Omega, the Normandy crew… and Shepard. He’d never really done anything for the sake of doing it before, because the stakes had always been too high. But here he was, surrounded by things he’d created for nothing more than his own enjoyment. And he was better for it.

This time had also helped him finally understand what it was that had changed in him when Shepard arrived on Omega. Losing Shepard had devastated him, as it had everyone who’d spent even a minute with her. He’d never even begun to heal from it. The life of a vigilante had kept his mind busy, but the nights were the worst. With them had come nightmares where his actions on the Normandy the day the Collectors attacked were repeatedly litigated. Nightmares that taunted him with how he could’ve saved her.

When he'd realized that it was really her on Omega, that she had come back from the dead, Garrus felt for the first time that it was possible that things could go right, sometimes. And that “sometimes” was enough to hope for.

He thought back to a conversation he and Shepard had had what felt like ages ago. How he’d said he wished there was a Grissom Academy for turians, and that he’d always wanted to learn how to paint. There'd been no reason for Garrus to think anything of it at the time, since he’d held onto that dream for so long it’d all but faded into the background.

But it had mattered enough to Shepard. What had started out as an offhand comment, she had made a reality. That’s just what she did -- make reality the way it should be, be it by cleverness, might, or will. And he loved her for it.