I don't own Mass Effect or the character's within it, I'm just borrowing them for a bit. Ok, so it's been over a month, but...

Last Chance

Commander Shepard stood behind Joker's seat, staring intently at the control panel. It had been quite a while since he and Captain Anderson had left Flux, and he was starting to get worried that Anderson had somehow been captured. The crew had been rounded up fairly quickly. Everyone was aboard the Normandy now, and all they were waiting for was the green light signaling that the systems were unlocked and good to go.

Maybe something had gone wrong... No. Anderson had been a Spectre candidate before Shepard had even reached his teens, and would have made it too hadn't Saren sabotaged everything. He'd get the controls unlocked.

With an audible beep, the indicator turned green.

"There it is! Come on, we're getting out of here!"

"Already on it, Commander."

Joker put the Normandy in full reverse, hauled out of the docks and was speeding towards the relay almost before all the systems were fully operating.

"Damn, doesn't look like they're following us. Shame, I was hoping we'd get to show them just how hopeless it would be."

Joker seemed disappointed at the lack of reaction coming from the Citadel. He was anything but modest about the Normandy and his own abilities, and loved any chance he got to show off both. While Shepard didn't understand Joker's mindset, he found it surprisingly easy to deal with. Probably because Joker wasn't arrogant about it, and was just as likely to make fun of himself as he was of anybody else.

"I'm not surprised. They were so sure they had us grounded that they didn't bother keeping an eye on us. They didn't even notice all the crew heading back to the ship after getting my message."

"I hope the Captain's ok. He's going to be in a lot of trouble for this."

"He'll be fine. They're so busy preparing for Saren's attack that they won't do anything until after it's over. Hopefully ending with our victory..."

Shepard turned around and started walking towards his quarters.

"Let me know when we're 10 minutes from the Mu relay."

"Aye aye, Commander."

With every passing moment, Tali got more and more restless. They were heading straight into enemy territory. Saren would undoubtedly be expecting them, having already seen what Shepard was capable of. It wasn't unreasonable to expect that someone might die before the mission was over, considering what they were up against. As much faith as Tali had in Shepard, he was not a god. Even if he managed to stop Saren and stay alive through the mission, there was no guarantee everyone would survive.. that Tali would survive...

She would be lying if she said she wasn't afraid of death. While she didn't give it all that much thought before, falling in love with Shepard and seeing missions getting more and more perilous had made her acutely aware of the risks. More than losing her life, she was afraid of losing Shepard, of never again experiencing the joy of being with him. She had lived her life mostly for the quarian people and their survival before, but now she had a reason to live for herself, for her own happiness. Now that she could be happy with Shepard, even if it was only for a little longer, she really wanted to live. Every single day was so precious now...

They would be at the Mu relay in a few hours. This could be the last time she and Shepard would have together. She desperately wanted to be with him one last time...

Tali looked down at the last vial of liquid antibiotics in her hand. It was almost empty now. She had been using it far too much lately, every time she and Shepard kissed, and every time she thought that opportunity might present itself. She had been planning on getting more once they were back on the Citadel, but there simply hadn't been any time after everything that had happened. What little remained now was barely enough to guarantee she didn't get bedridden after taking her helmet off. If she were to be... intimate with him, with only this much to protect her... there was a good chance that she wouldn't live past the next three days..

Up until now, kissing was the most they had done. She hadn't dared try and take it further for fear of risking the mission. She had planned on waiting until the R&R Shepard had promised her, when it wouldn't matter if she ended up hospitalized for weeks afterwards. Not to mention how incredibly embarrassed she felt every time she thought about how to suggest it to him. But the mission had turned even more deadly than it was before, and now there might never be another chance...

Tali agonized for what seemed like an eternity, trying to decide whether to take her chances now, or wait and hope that they both survived the mission on Ilos. If they were together now and she died, either on the mission or due to an infection after it was over, then least she would have been able to experience the joy of sleeping with her love before she died. If she waited and they both survived, she'd be able to take measures to reduce the risk of a fatal infection.

If she waited, and one of them died...

Time was passing mercilessly by as she struggled to make a decision. If she took too long, any chance at being with Shepard could be gone. If she was going to do it, it had to be now.

She clenched the vial so hard it threatened to break.

Shepard looked up from his desk as Tali entered his quarters. He got up slowly and turned around to face her.

"Tali... I was just thinking about you..."

She kept her eyes on the floor as she moved closer to him.

"I was thinking about you too, Shepard... About us."

She fidgeted a bit as she stood in front of him. She was getting nervous now. How could she ask him if he wanted to... be with her? How would he react? What if he thought she was putting her own desires ahead of the mission and stopped caring about her? No, he wouldn't do that...

"I just wanted to... tell you that I care a lot about you. And that I trust you. Even if I don't survive this mission..."

Shepard held up a hand to interrupt her.

"Stop. You're not going to die, Tali, I promise you that much. We'll get through this mission alive, then take that R&R we planned."

"Shepard, I appreciate you saying that, but you don't know that for sure. There will always be a chance that one of us doesn't make it, and I have no problem risking my life on this mission. I'm not stupid, Shepard, I know the risks just as well as you do."


"Shepard, please. This could be the last time we get to spend together. Even if you won't admit it in front of me, we both know it is true. I'm not here looking for reassurance, Shepard. I..."

She was starting to shake a bit now. Both embarrassment and fear was making it harder to speak.

"What's wrong, Tali?"

"Nothing. It's... I just want to... Like I said, this might be the last time we'll get a chance to be together. And... I was hoping that... well, I mean I was thinking that maybe we... or at least wondering if you... if we..."

She couldn't get the words out. She was trembling even more now, getting increasingly frustrated that time was running out while she fumbled over her words, while at the same time trying to keep her fear under control. She had to do this now.

"Shepard, I... I would like... to be with you. In case we don't get another chance... I want to..."

She just couldn't say it. Every time she tried to make it clear what she was meaning, she choked up.

Shepard finally seemed to realize what she was trying to tell him. His expression was gentle, but there was also a hint of worry there.

"Are you sure, Tali? I mean... will you be ok... doing something like that?"

"I... think so. It will be over one way or the other by the time an infection..."

Her voice trailed off. She was still trembling, making Shepard increasingly worried about her. He reached out and held her shoulders while looking at her with a worried frown.

"You're shaking... What's wrong?"

"Nothing! I'm just nervous..."

Shepard suddenly looked at one of his hands. It was resting over one of the pouches on her upper arm. Feeling something beneath it, he reached inside and took out a vial, suspicion written all over his face.

"Tali, this is..."

He knew what it was. Tali had shown it to him on a ground mission a long time ago, explaining to him how quarians dealt with suit punctures and how dangerous battlefield infections were to them. He was staring at the empty vial with great concern.

"There's nothing left in here. If you get a suit puncture while we're down there..."

"Shepard, we're going into battle against Saren and an army of geth. A suit puncture is the least of my worries..."

"... How much was left in here before you came to see me?"

She didn't answer, but simply kept staring at the floor.

"Tali. How much was left in here?"

Still looking at the floor, her voice was barely more than a whisper.

".... almost nothing...."

With a low sigh, Shepard put the vial down on the nearby table before embracing her.

"Come here..."

He was stroking her back as he held her close. She was still trembling, but being in his arms was gradually calming her down. It felt safe there. It was a little ironic, since she wouldn't have needed comfort if she hadn't fallen in love with him to begin with, or if he hadn't told her that he felt the same way about her. She hated how it made her resolve and courage falter. It used to be so much easier...

It had been a stupid idea to start with. What was she thinking? Despite Shepard's reassurances, she was too afraid to believe that they would both make it through alive. What if Shepard hadn't stopped her and they both lived through the mission? He would have to watch her die from an infection she got from being with him tonight. How could she possibly do that to him? She was being selfish, putting her own feelings ahead of his.

"We didn't come this far just to lose now, Tali. We're going to stop Saren, and once that is over we'll have some time for ourselves."

His voice was soothing, but confident. It also made her feel even more guilty about what she had almost done.

"I'm sorry, Shepard... "

It wasn't much of an apology, but it was all she could say. Even so, he didn't seem to be angry or upset with her, and instead of answering her he changed the topic.

"You know, once we're finished with all this, I need to think of a way to keep you on the Normandy with me."

He looked down at her with a clever smile on his face.

"There's this old human tradition of meeting the woman's father and asking for her hand, I was wondering if that might work..."

Tali frowned a bit at his comment.

"That seems like an odd custom for requesting a crew transfer. What if her father isn't part of the military?"

"Well, it's not exactly a tradition of crew transfer requests as such, not normally..."

"And what is it with you humans and hands anyway?"

"No, it's not about that, I mean, the hand isn't...."

His face was red for some reason, and he became silent. He shrugged slightly before hugging her tighter.

"Never mind, I'll explain it once we're done with the mission. It can wait."

They stood in silence for a while, listening to the low hum of the Normandy's engines as they drew closer to the place where their fates would be decided. There couldn't be much time left now until they were there. Tali's heart sank at the thought.

"Shepard... how long do you figure we have until we reach the Mu relay?"

"About two and a half to three hours, I'd say."

Three hours. An eternity when you were waiting for something, the blink of an eye when you didn't want something to end.

She took a step backwards, slowing parting from him. Although it was just her imagination, she felt cold as soon as she left his arms. She wanted to stay with him, but he probably had a lot of things to prepare before they arrived, and since they had decided not to take any chances...

"In that case, we should probably get some rest before we arrive..."

As she was about to let go of his hand, he took a step forward and put his arms around her again.

"Yes, we probably should."

He was smiling at her, that special smile of his. The cold she had felt as she let him go disappeared as he held her close again, staring into her eyes through her visor.

"Shepard... I thought..."

"I know. I haven't changed my mind about that. But if you don't mind... I would like for you to stay here with me, until we're ready to head out..."

As they gazed at each other, Tali was reminded again of just how much she loved him. The loving smile, the gentle eyes, the warm embrace... and the soft kisses... Until she met him, these things were completely foreign to her. She had already experienced love unlike any she had dreamed of before. She couldn't easily do what women of other races did, but he didn't mind that. He loved her the way she was, and put her well-being ahead of everything else.

"I wouldn't mind that..."

Her voice came out a whisper. Still holding his arms around her, Shepard slowly walked backwards, leading her towards the bed at the back of the room, holding her gaze the whole way there.

"Shepard... you're saying one thing, but you're doing another..."

She knew what he was thinking, but she couldn't resist the chance to tease him a little bit.

"Well, it wouldn't be much rest if we were to stand the whole three hours to the Mu relay, would it?"

"I'm not sure I'm safe here with you..."

He gave a silent laugh at her comment.

"Probably not. I had the cabin and myself doused in so much antiseptic I can barely breathe in here. If you take your visor off, you might choke on the fumes..."

Shepard's words took her by surprise. He had been expecting her... made preparations for her so she could take her visor off. It wasn't the most romantic thing to say, but it was somehow sweet all the same. Going over the entire cabin had to have been a lot of work for him alone, just for the chance that she might come by before the mission started.

"How can I say no to an invitation like that..."

Still looking into his eyes, Tali disengaged the visor lock. It came off with a quiet hiss, and once again she could look upon him without the tinted visor clouding the view. When he sat down on the edge of the bed, she followed, sitting on his lap. There was a very faint smell of antiseptic in the room, but if he hadn't mentioned it she most likely wouldn't have noticed.

She kissed him, and to her relief she couldn't taste it on his lips either. Not that it would have made much of a difference, considering how rarely they had the chance to be together like this. It would take a lot more than a little antiseptic to pry her away from him now...

I might as well say this right away: I hate this chapter. It had me stumped for two weeks, staying half finished for most of it before I scrapped a lot and ended up with something completely different than I had planned. Of course, I'm never really happy with what I write, but this chapter is something else. At this point I simply had to get it over with and move on with the story, because I could have gone for months and not get it the way I wanted it. It's a shame, but I'm at my wits' end here.

Also, I've noticed that I've used their names far, far too much in this chapter, at least from what the preview looks like. I can't really tell for sure though, it's 5am here and I'll be going away for a week so I'm rushing to get this done. I might edit it later. For now though, it looks almost painful to read, but that could also just be my headache.

Originally I had planned the pre-Ilos scene to be the point where all the feelings really come out, like in the game. As you probably noticed, that didn't happen when our two main characters kinda jumped the gun and got it all over with in chapter 7. Not only did that affect the rest of the ME1 storyline, but it's also completely changed what will happen in the ME2 arch, for better or worse. Of course, while I have a lot planned for ME2 regardless, they'll probably go and do something completely different again, leaving me stumped.

Ah well.

Note: I've enabled anonymous reviews in case anyone tried to do so earlier but weren't allowed to. I thought they were on by default and didn't even notice the button to toggle them until I was going to upload this chapter... Not sure whether most fanfic writers just keep them disabled, or how badly this site is bothered with spam. I'll keep them on for now and see how it goes.