Neither Aron nor Nesi wanted to speak up. No matter how annoying Kal's foot tapping on the metal grating became, they kept quiet, well-aware of his discomfort and not wanting to add to it. Every now and then, his toes would stop, coming to rest on the floor, and he let go of a sigh or a groan or a few murmured words that neither of them understood. But soon after, he was tapping again, fingers laced between his spread knees.
The three were seated in the antechamber leading into Admiral Daro'Xen's office. It was, as the rest of the ship, sparsely decorated and all but left the way they'd found it. Every few meters, there was a scar on the wall or a poorly reconstructed table. Each flaw in their surroundings was another added reminder of what Rael'Zorah nearly brought upon the Fleet. That was only part of the reason why Kal was having a problem remaining still.
Daro'Xen's office was not always hers. Before that, it belonged to Tali's father. If she wasn't set on reconstructing the rest of the ship, he doubted she'd changed much inside the room.
Aron fiddled with his omni-tool, the orange glow flashing against his face plate as he brought up the time. "An hour; she's been in there for an hour." There was an edge of dread in his voice as his eyes left the omni-tool and looked to Kal. The other man tensed visibly, and Aron felt a sharp elbow in his side. He turned his eyes upon Nesi, who sat beside him. "What?"
"You're going to make it worse," she replied in a hushed, pointed whisper.
Once again, they fell into silence. Aron turned to his omni-tool in order to keep his fingers busy enough that his mouth wouldn't be tempted to open again. While technically on break, today it was his job to keep an eye on the numbers steadily cranked out of the computers back at the lab. Tali wasn't anywhere as strict about keeping an eye open at all times as he'd expected, but he also had a string of exacting teachers, the sort who would punish you for looking at the numbers wrong, much less not looking at them at all.
Nesi sat there, hands folded in her lap. The only movement she made was a slight tilt of her helmet every once in a while as she glanced towards the door leading into the Admiral's office. Why they'd been forced to come along was beyond her. She could have been back in the lab instead of sitting around, staring at nothing in particular, while they waited for Tali to finish speaking to Daro'Xen.
And Kal. Kal kept quiet for the most part, his tapping foot making any of the noise that filled the small room. Behind his faceplate was a different story. His expression shifted as each thought passed over him; they ranged from worry to annoyance, even straying upon anger for more than a moment.
After the Trial, when Tali stepped away from Shepard to speak to Shala'Raan, Kal approached the commander. They conversed for a short time, mostly about the trial, but eventually their attention turned to Tali. Shepard thanked him for standing up for her, and he accepted it with an unconscious shift on his feet. That led to the conversation switching to her completely. "There's just something about her," he remembered Shepard saying, "that makes you want to protect her with your life. I don't get it. Never did."
Now he could see her sitting in her father's old office, fingers wringing in her lap, too small in the large, forbidding surroundings. Her helmet would be ducked down while she listened, lifting only to give talk back or to show that she heard what the Admiral said. He could almost hear her shaky, yet somehow confident voice echoing in his head.
Daro'Xen was not a warm woman. In all of his years knowing her, she'd never once extended a hand to him in greeting, not even when he'd been accepted aboard the Alarei. It was as if the woman lived in a constant state of displeasure.
"I don't like this."
Both Aron and Nesi looked towards Kal at his sudden speech, surprised considering the silence that had begun to stretch out before them. This time, it was Nesi who spoke. "I don't like waiting around, either. We should be doing something useful."
Kal's helmet moved from side to side as he adjusted himself in the chair, shoulders tilting forward as his elbows rested on his knees. "No," he said, "It's not that." He glanced up at Tali's assistants before turning his eyes towards the door that led into the office. "I don't like waiting around out here while she talks to the Admiral alone. Don't you two always go in with her when she talks to them?"
"Well, yeah," Aron was quick to respond. "But those meetings are about the general progress we're making. Admiral Xen said this meeting was about Tali."
That's exactly why I worry, Kal's thoughts chimed, though he did little more than sigh.
He was aware of how well a perfectly timed blow to one's ego could cripple their sense of drive, and Tali's perceptiveness to such a hit was multiplied by the gravity of her mission. Her failure to provide enough proof to the Admirals could very well be the tipping point in the war against the Reapers.
While he'd seen a lot and experienced even more, he could hardly begin to imagine the stress she must be under. He knew that he was only here to make sure Tali remained safe, but he'd made it a point to keep an eye on her, to watch for any signs that might lead to a slip in her resolve. His eagerness to take this task on was not only due out of respect for Commander Shepard and Tali herself, but for that quiet turning in his gut every time she spoke.
A shadow was cast over his face as his helmet came to rest in his hands. The hour was slowly drifting onward, and he felt each minute tick by, the seconds tightening the muscles in his back, in his throat.
On the other side of the door, Tali was feeling a similar tightness in her chest.
For what felt like a small eternity, Admiral Xen sat in silence, helmet tipped downward as she stared into her terminal, searching for some sign, some tiny mistake. Murmurs ran around the ship of Tali keeping odd hours, not getting enough rest, and even joking of how little sleep she actually got during the night. If there was one simple way to toss a wrench into Tali'Zorah's experiments, it was in front of her.
The knowledge that Admiral Xen was actually searching for a reason to report in to the other Admirals worked Tali's nerves into a fever pitch. Instead of finding a calming element in her own mind, she found nothing but condemnations - should've kept her mouth shut, should've gotten more sleep, should've worked harder. When you're sitting face to face with quite possibly the ending point of your journey, each alternate decision lights a glaringly easier path.
Finally, Admiral Xen looked up at her. After spending so much time away from the Flotilla, Tali found herself despising the envirosuit helmets even more than she had before. So used to deciphering feelings from even the smallest of facial expressions, the inability to do so was nearly infuriating. She hated that she couldn't read the expression on the admiral's face, and the woman was so learned in the art of body language that her thin frame did little to help her understand her reaction either. Instead, she was forced to wait and listen.
"Your reports appear to be accurate," the admiral began, lacing her fingers on the desk in front of her. Her voice could be described as stony at best, though it bothered Tali none. She was used to Xen's considerable lack of emotion; it was when she showed feeling that she was unsettling.
The woman leaned forward, white eyes flashing behind the opaque violet faceplate. Tali felt her breath hitch soundlessly in her throat. "But Tali, I am worried." The stress Xen put on the word sent a chill down her spine. "You've spent much of the past few weeks not getting enough rest. Surely the stress is taking a toll on your higher brain functions, though your work does not mirror this theory."
"If my work doesn't have any mistakes…" Tali bit down on the inside of her lip. She didn't know what to say. After sitting so long in this office, watching Daro'Xen and trying as hard as she could to keep from looking around, she'd nearly forgotten how to speak altogether. Her question faltered in her mouth, but she forced it out, her words rushing forth without a single pause. "Can I get back to work?"
Her fingers tensed around each other when she saw Xen's helmet drift from side to side. "Not yet, Tali'Zorah," she replied. The delicate tone the admiral adopted was smothering, like her words were jamming her filters and she couldn't breathe properly. Tali suddenly felt smothered, her skin reacting to the piercing white eyes of Daro'Xen in conflicting ways. There was a chill; there was a burning. "I'm only trying to speak with you about your physical condition. I could send for a physician. How long has it been since you've been looked after?"
"A few weeks." Tali's words were separated by unsure pauses. What exactly was Xen after? What should she say? What did the woman want to hear? "After we got back from the Omega 4 Relay."
The singular white light on the front of Xen's helmet glowed as she gave a quiet, "Tsk."
How could such a sound drive fear and worry right to the core of a person?
"Why - why do you ask?"
Xen turned to her terminal once more, fingers moving fluidly along the orange screen. "I am only concerned about your health, Tali." She could tell that was a lie. No matter her age or however immature Xen believed her to be, anyone with sense could have picked that up. "I will contact the physician upon the Rayya. No doubt he will drop everything in order to tend to Rael'Zorah's daughter."
Tali's eyes widened. "He wouldn't." Orin'Ikar was a professional. He'd tended to any and all sicknesses, no matter how minor, on the Rayya. Even if Xen contacted him about running diagnostics, it would take him hours before he arrived on board. Diagnostics would require a few solid hours in itself. By then, the geth would have arrived.
Suddenly, everything clicked into place. "You just want the geth."
"I would give it back," Xen retorted, though her voice rang with a mechanized truth that did not feel genuine. "As the current captain of this ship, it is my duty to inspect anything passing through."
"Inspect?" Tali almost cringed when her voice rose sharply. "You don't want to inspect it; you want to run tests on it!"
Xen bristled noticeably, though she recovered with ease. If her status as part of the Admiralty Board taught her anything, it was how to deal with these sorts of circumstances. With an almost rehearsed calm, she continued, "What I do with the package is my business and my business alone. You would do well not to undermine my authority as captain of this vessel and admiral of the Fleet. Your acceptance of what I have to do is paltry at best." Running her fingers along the desk, she lifted herself from her chair. "As soon as the package arrives, I can have it confiscated."
The much younger quarian followed by example and stood, shoulders hefted in an unconscious attempt to make herself seem larger. "And I could hail the shuttle right now and tell it not to come at all."
"You wouldn't dare." Xen's voice lowered to a murmur, but even still her words dripped with bile.
Tali took a daring step forward, leaning closer to the admiral.
Admiral Daro'Xen hadn't seen half the things she'd seen. That fact alone comforted her in some small way. She'd fought. She'd struggled and overcome things Xen couldn't even dream of facing. The geth, the Collectors, countless waves of mercenaries and husks - they all fell before her and her shotgun with Shepard's help. The woman before her was a politician and nothing more. She couldn't let fear overwhelm her. Not now, not with so much riding on what she had to do.
"With all due respect, Admiral," Tali began, "this mission was given to me by the Admiralty Board. You're just one part of that Board. You don't have the power to stop me from doing my job."
The infuriating thing about what she said was the fact that she was right. Xen dropped her helmet to her terminal for a moment before sitting down. She could feel Tali's eyes on her, anticipating some kind of adverse response. Instead, all she got was a dismissive wave. "Get out."
Without looking away from the orange glow of the screen, Daro'Xen heard the door to her office open and close.
She would find a way.
The moment Tali stepped into the office's antechamber, her lungs quaked in her chest, finally filling with air for the first time in nearly an hour and a half. Aron was the first to stand up, his omni-tool blinking out of existence with a few, anxious prods of a finger. Kal's head jerked upwards when he heard Aron nearly jump to his feet. Seeing him standing and looking towards the door, he stood, as well, helmet wrenching to the side to see Tali standing there.
She hadn't expected such a reaction. "Uh, hi," she chuckled; the sound was tremulous, due in no small part to the fact that her nerves felt like they'd been set on fire. "I'm sorry about leaving you three in here for so long. I figured the meeting would only last for a few minutes." Pausing, she shifted on her feet, one hand curling reflexively around her other wrist. "You didn't have to wait for me."
"We were on break," Nesi replied, finally standing up from her chair like the other two. "What else would we have done?"
"Point taken," Tali said with another short laugh. A question hung in the air before them all. How did it go? they all begged her silently. Lacing her hands behind her back, she took a step forward, towards the hallway leading into the exit. "We should head back to the lab." Both Aron and Nesi nodded their agreement, falling into stride with her, and Kal followed suit. "Aron, have you been checking the numbers?"
Aron scrambled to catch up with Tali as she rounded a corner, flicking his omni-tool to life on his arm. "I have," he said, his tone light; excited. Any small accomplishment was met with glowing pride from each and every one of them, no doubt due to Tali's claim that any achievement, no matter how small or tedious, was worth gratification. "I haven't seen anything out of the ordinary."
"Good." Tali grinned to herself. Her little team wasn't too shabby. True, she could've used more than two helpers on something so important as this, but they were steadily proving to her that they were all she needed. "We can put this afternoon's work on hold for a little while. I have to talk to you two."
Aron swerved his head back to look at Nesi. The girl shrugged; she didn't know why Tali wanted to talk to them either.
The return walk to the lab was a quiet one. Tali was too busy running over all that she'd been told during the meeting, scrutinizing each word and phrase that passed Daro'Xen's lips. She couldn't be wary enough of her. Admiral or not, she was a dangerous woman when she had something she wanted, and, Tali admitted to herself after a slight cringe, she wanted that geth more than anything.
Aron found his seat the moment they reached the lab, slipping the tiny OSD out of his omni-tool and slipping it into his terminal. He was still in charge of watching over the numbers steadily running out of the computers, even if they were all mostly back to work.
"You can turn away from that thing for a few minutes, Aron," Tali reminded him as she snatched up the small stack of datapads from her desk. "I have to talk to you two about the meeting."
Still standing near the door, Kal took a step into the lab towards Tali. "I'll be outside, then."
He was surprised when he saw her lift a hand and beckon him farther inside. "No, no, no," she shook her head, "You should hear this, too." Nodding, Kal took a seat next to Nesi, his eyes and attention still fully turned upon Tali. He could've sworn he saw a glint in her eyes when she next spoke. Or maybe it was the teasing lilt in her voice. "You should get used to being included since you'll be spending even more time with us in the near future."
Everyone settled down quickly when they knew she had something important to say. She normally kept to herself when in the lab, tinkering away at this or that to pass the time. She wasn't avoidant, but she didn't talk nearly as much as Aron. When spoken to or if anyone asked about her adventures with Shepard, she would happily share a story or two, but they always ended in her going right back to work.
"I know what you two are up to," Tali began, pointing an accusing finger at Nesi that then shifted to Aron. The gesture would've been threatening if her tone hadn't been so light. "Admiral Xen didn't find a single error in my reports - a single one. I don't make it a point to make a lot of mistakes, but I do make some." She dropped her hand to her waist, "So, come on, whose idea was it to revise my work?"
For a moment, no one moved. The room was filled to the brim with tension. Were they supposed to admit to it? Would Tali be angry?
Aron was the first to move. He glanced towards Nesi, who saw the movement out of the corner of her eye and turned to look back at him. He could see her eyes clamp shut in frustration. Clearing her throat, she then glanced back at Tali, who was waiting for some kind of response. "It was... my idea," she said finally. And then everything came rushing out with a vengeance. "We noticed you weren't getting much sleep, and everyone knows how that effects the way your body functions. We didn't want you to get picked on by Admiral Xen for it, since we know how she is... You deserve more than that. So we went behind your back and fixed any mistakes. We didn't mean anything by it, ma'am. We just wanted to make sure that she wouldn't stop your work because of it."
Tali couldn't decide whether she should be embarrassed by her own clumsiness or moved by their help. In the end, the latter won out and she lifted a hand to her chest, settling it right above her heart. She didn't know what to say; she was sure there was nothing she could think up could measure to the feeling welling up inside of her.
"Th-thank you," she stammered, following it with a self-depreciating chuckle. The hand resting on her chest lifted to her faceplate. "I... I hope there weren't too much for you two to clean up."
"Oh, no!" Aron chimed in. "Even when you're dozing off at your terminal, you still make less mistakes than some of the guys I went to school with." He yelped as Nesi's sharp elbow impacted him in the ribs. Again. "Why do you keep doing that!?"
Tali burst into a fit of laughter. So Kal was right. She did inspire something in people she hadn't ever realized. Calling her blind would've been a compliment at this point, considering she'd looked over Aron and Nesi backing her up unlike anything she'd expected. After following Shepard for so long, she never thought that she'd rouse loyalty in others like he did. While she'd be quick to deny it was the same thing, there was a small voice in the back of her head that swore it was not.
Her two assistants soon joined in on her laughter. She even heard a quiet chuckle come through the filters of Kal's helmet. There was a slight tightening in her chest at the sound that only worsened when she looked towards him to see him give her a nod.
The four of them quieted soon after, returning to their work as if the conversation had never taken place. For the next hour, they sat in relative silence aside from the constant bleeping of the terminals or the rare sigh from the project director. Any of her anxious waiting finally came to a halt when the room was filled with an announcement from the ship's pilot.
"Tali'Zorah." Her eyes shot up from her terminal. "Your presence is requested at the Starboard airlock."
Her breath caught in her throat, fingers curling into her palms.
"Your package has arrived."