Tali slumped against the closed hatch to the forward battery. How could she have been so wrong about everything? Garrus only wanted to unite the crew and she unknowingly sabotaged his every effort. Worse, he had been desperately avoiding any command position to the point of refusing Shepard's offer to make him XO, which probably made Garrus feel even worse than he already did... and she practically trapped him into being the liaison. Somehow she found a way to both undermine a close friend while at the same time re-opening his deepest wounds.
She picked herself up and walked past the sleeping pods and down the steps to the ship's galley. The human mess officer watched her pass from behind the serving table with a confused expression.
"He's not coming out of his hole, huh?" Gardner asked. He looked down at a serving tray loaded with stripped meat and freshly steamed vegetables. "You want me to put this away for you?"
Tali stopped as his words finally penetrated the tangle of thoughts in her head. She had forgotten about the meal she had prepared for Garrus. "What? Oh, no. He's... busy. Working on some upgrades." She stepped around the table. "Don't worry about it. I'll get it. He can eat it later. Thank you."
"Well it was nice of you to put it together for him," Gardner said. The two dextros aboard the ship made frequent use of the galley to prepare their own meals, and he was happy to oblige them. But he'd never seen the quarian prepare anything other than blended protein paste. Where she got the ingredients for a turian dish, he couldn't guess. "Is it his birthday or something?"
Tali opened a cabinet and removed several plastic storage trays. She hoped he wouldn't ask why, but the way the day was going she should have anticipated it. "He's just been working really hard lately. He doesn't always eat right."
"Well I wouldn't worry about Garrus. He's always putting in the hours. I don't think he's ever eaten on a schedule." Gardner watched Tali scoop the entrees into a plastic containers and seal them. He put on a pair of gloves and picked up a microfiber rag to wipe down the surfaces where the food had touched behind her. "I swear on this ship when the cat's away, the mice work harder."
Tali stopped in front of the refrigerator with one hand on the handle. "I'm sorry, I don't understand. Cat?"
"Oh, sorry. Human expression," the cook said as he sprayed amino-neutralizer across the counter top and polished its surface. "I meant when the boss is away, the workers work harder. Usually they play. But not you and Garrus."
Tali opened the fridge and pulled open a drawer outlined with a bright yellow-and-red hashed border. Inside, she shifted quarian and turian foodstuffs about to make room for Garrus's dinner. Was he hiding from her, she wondered, or just busy? She reached around the open door and grabbed a marking pen someone had attached to the handle with a piece of string and scribbled on the lid of the topmost container.
Gardner rubbed his hands clean with the rag. "Like you helping me with that recirculating pump yesterday. I mean, I know you got a crapload of work to do yourself. You got better things to do when you're off shift. Like right now. Didn't you already punch out?"
Tali closed the fridge door and smiled at the human. "I try to be a good mice like the rest of you."
Gardner grinned back at her attempt to use the human word. Out of all the aliens on the ship, Tali always tried the hardest. "Well in my book, you're one of the best mice on the ship, ma'am. Thanks for your help."
"Happy to do it." Tali looked about once more to make sure nothing had been left behind that could contaminate her crewmates before walking away. "Thanks for letting me use your kitchen."
"Any time. See you later."
As Tali left the galley, she felt a little better. Just like everyone else on the new Normandy, Gardner was polite and respectful toward her. In spite of their Cerberus affiliation, she even thought of some of them as friends; Gabby and Kenneth, Kelly in CIC... but the truth was even the ones she kept at arm's length treated her kindly. She wasn't always as generous, she knew.
Out of habit, she found herself walking towards the starboard side of the mess next to the infirmary. She always wanted to minimize the risk of running into Miranda outside of her office. In spite of the day's progress, she'd still wasn't able to fully trust the senior operative. There was no way Miranda hadn't been involved, or at least been aware of Cerberus' most despicable deeds. But the others? She scanned the faces of the half dozen or so off duty staff scattered around the room. Some were eating, others quietly chatting, one quietly reading an actual, physical book. None were the monsters and murderers she and Garrus had fought against along with Shepard. They were just people.
As she neared the exit, she spotted Jacob sitting by himself at the aft table, idly picking at a tray of pasta as he scanned a datapad. Just like the others, Jacob Taylor always treated with her respect. In spite of the fact she showed him nothing but disdain, he fought beside her with the same dedication he showed towards everyone else. He wore the Cerberus uniform, but what had he done to her personally to warrant such a negative reaction other than be supportive of Miranda?
Tali stopped in front of the main lift. Her mind flashed back to the beginning of her journey on the New Normandy. Jacob was with Shepard at Freedom's progress and was the first to greet her when she came aboard the ship after Haestrom. She still remembered bosh'tet's suggestion that she introduce herself to EDI, but even that turned out to be harmless. She still didn't trust the AI completely, but just like everyone else, EDI was tolerant, helpful, and even friendly to her.
She tapped the elevator's call button. Tali had always assumed Jacob was just being cruel, but that really didn't seem to be his nature. As she waited for the lift, she reflected on her interactions with him. Other than that first meeting, nothing really made an impression. Compared to Garrus and Mordin, or even Thane, Jacob's personality was very dry. But one thing did stand out.
Cerberus or otherwise, human or not, Jacob was the only person on the ship who always saluted the Commander.
The elevator door opened and crewman Hawthorne poked his head out to an empty corridor, wondering who would be so rude as to summon the ship's only lift and then walk away.
"Excuse me," Tali said. "I don't mean to interrupt you while you're eating."
"Tali! Hey." Jacob looked up from his datapad with surprise. He glanced around, expecting to see Garrus or one of the other squad members with her, but she stood alone at the end of the table. Was she there to talk to him? Based on their last interaction, he wasn't sure what to expect. Other than equipment requisition, this was the first time she had addressed him directly. "You're not interrupting. What's up?"
Tali looked around the mess hall as if she were afraid someone might overhear. "I just wanted to apologize. For how I acted earlier."
Jacob blinked. His first real conversation with the quarian was off to a surprising start. The fact that it was an apology made it all the more unusual. "Forget about it. We were all a little hot. Not really our finest moment."
"No," Tali shook her head. "I mean it. I accused you of being disloyal to the Commander. I know that's not true. I'm sorry."
Jacob stirred his fork into his meal. He wasn't sure what to say. Of all the original crew, Tali was the most cautious about Cerberus and its motives. It was, he knew, a reputation the organization had earned. As with Garrus before, he wasn't about to defend it. "Can't say I blame you for being suspicious. I know where that's coming from. You're looking out for your friends. Standing where you are, I'd probably feel the same way."
"Well," Tali shifted from leg to leg. "I- I'll let you get back to your meal. Talk to you later."
"See you," Jacob said as she turned to leave. But he couldn't let her go without saying to her what he said to Miranda. "Tali, hold up."
The quarian looked over her shoulder toward the human.
Jacob stood. "There's been something I've been wanting say to you since you came on board. You and Garrus, you two went through hell and back with Shepard. Then you dive back in to do it all over again. I want you to know how much I respect that. That kind of loyalty, you just don't see it anymore. And it goes both ways. Shepard always goes to bat for you, no matter what. And Garrus, too. You make one hell of a team. So I want to thank you. For what all of you did two years ago, and for now. We owe you everything... you probably don't hear that enough."
Tali was only half successful at keeping her voice steady. After years of dismissals and cover-ups, criticisms and accusations, being forgotten was the norm. She cleared her throat. "Thank you. I don't know that we've ever heard it at all. Not in a long time."
"Then shame on all of us," Jacob said. "Because we shouldn't have let that slide." He and the engineer regarded one another silently for a moment. He smiled. "I mean, at the very least, we should have gotten you a little plaque or something. 'I Saved the Citadel,' right?"
Jacob could never really read Tali's expressions but her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Suddenly he was back in the briefing room, welcoming her aboard with his comment about EDI. Just when he'd made a breakthrough he had to go and ruin it with a careless remark, though for the life of him he couldn't figure out why that would make her mad.
But then, Tali cocked her head, and instead of irritated, she sounded amused. "How'd you know about those?"
"Garrus said something about it this morning. I thought he was kidding."
"No," Tali shook her head, her eyes still squinting because of the smile Jacob couldn't see.
"He was serious? That's what they gave you for saving the whole damn galaxy?"
Tali shaped her forefingers and thumbs into a rectangle just as Garrus had done. "It was about this big. From the Council itself. Made of cheap-grade ceramic with fake chrome trim."
Jacob grinned. "Yeah, that sounds about right."
"Shepard told us all to look on the bright side," Tali could never resist an opportunity to rag on the Council. "It was small enough that we could take it with us wherever we went, so we'd never forget. I think he ended up using his as a coaster."
"Nice." Jacob tried to choke back a laugh, but Tali's matter-of-fact delivery about absurd gift made it hard to keep a straight face.
Tali put her hands on her hips and sighed at the ceiling. "And, of course, they got my name wrong."
Jacob could hold back no longer. He laughed loud enough that everyone in the mess turned their heads to look for the source. "Oh, that's perfect."
Tali leaned back against the wall, enjoying the sound of laughter from the usually stoic human. Like a chain reaction, though, thinking of the Council brought back memories of the disgraces that followed... the reassignment of the Normandy and its destruction, and two of the worst years of her life.
Jacob's smile faded. He didn't have to see her face to recognize her reaction. Thinking about good times had a tendency to lead down a darker path. It was unavoidable when alone with only the memories as company. Tali was already on her way. "Got a minute? Love to hear the story behind it."
"Hell yeah," Jacob waved her to the table. "Pull up a chair and drop some stories on me. Start with how you and Shepard linked up. I'm all ears."
Garrus deactivated his visor and closed his eyes. Afterimages from the technical display slowly faded away. His back ached, his arms were sore and bruised from groping around in the confines of the crawlspace, but the new fire control system was finally patched in and ready for testing... after a few hours of calibration, of course. If everything worked as he expected, he could be in bed in three or four hours.
Time would pass a lot quicker on a full stomach, he realized. It was at least an hour since Tali had departed, already past the third shift meal and his stomach was not happy about it. Skipping lunch probably didn't help either. He pulled himself out of the crawlspace, climbed up on the control platform and after locking the console, stepped out to the galley.
About third of the sleeping pods were occupied, as they usually were at any given time, so he tread quietly even though there was no chance they would be disturbed in the soundproof capsules. Beyond, Gardner had closed up shop and the kitchen area was clean and ready to prepare the next meal. The mess hall beyond was similarly deserted, or so he thought until he heard laughter from behind the partition blocking the large table near the aft end of the compartment. The six or seven people there were obviously having a good time, whatever they were talking about. Thankfully, the events in the briefing room had not triggered any bad blood beyond its walls.
He walked to the refrigerator and stopped when he heard Tali's voice.
"So," she was saying, "Joker brings the Normandy screaming in, lined up perfectly. Misses the temple spires by mere meters. He releases the Mako and we drop right into a tiny little clearing with barely twenty meters of runoff at two hundred kilometers per hour. We screech to a halt at the temple door right as it closes."
Garrus laughed to himself as he recognized the plot. Shepard's legendary skills in the Mako were about to take a beating. He continued to listen as he opened the dextro-only food compartment. He was surprised to see several resealable tubs on top instead of the usual pre-packaged, ready to eat meals.
Hand-scribbled on the topmost lid in almost-legible handwriting was a short note:
Still friends - Tali.
Garrus held in his hands, re-reading the simple message. Though he couldn't see her, he still looked toward the sound of her voice, his mandibles twitching and his fringe flushed with color. Of all the conflicts resolved, this one mattered the most.
"Pinpoint accuracy, right?" Tali continued. "Nobody's been able to reproduce it even in simulation. So what happens? Shepard takes the wheel to back us up, to give us more clearance to disembark and he flips the damn thing on its side. He hit a tiny little stone wall no higher than my knee. And I'm not very tall!"
Amidst the renewed laughter, Garrus cracked open the container and inhaled deeply. Scents of spiced meat and fresh vegetables flooded his nostrils and sent his hunger into overdrive. He placed the three trays into the microwave and leaned against the counter as they heated, listening to Tali spin her tale.
"So Liara is freaking out about the damage done to the ruins, Saren's on his way to the Conduit, the only resistance within twenty light years is ninety degrees off-axis, and I've suddenly got a krogan warlord in my lap! All because Shepard doesn't know how to drive in reverse!"
"Come on, now," Jacob said. "He can't be that bad! The dude's got like five hundred hours in the Mako!"
Tali's voice was full of mirth, sounding as relaxed and confident as Garrus had ever heard. "That's what you think. But I swear, one time, Shepard went down early to warm it up before a drop, and by the time the rest of us got there, he'd flipped it upside down inside the hangar!"
Everyone laughed again, mixed with boos and utterances of disbelief. Tali shouted to be heard above them. "He said it was a quad-jet malfunction. I ruled it a suicide. The poor Mako just couldn't take any more. True story! True story! You can ask Garrus!"
Garrus grinned and opened the oven just before the timer expired. He thought briefly of taking his meal over to the table to join in the revelry, but Tali was doing a fine job on her own. Besides, he still had work to do. He set the containers on a serving tray along with a set of utensils and carried them quietly back to the Battery. Behind him, the assassination of Shepard's driving ability continued.
"You know," Jacob told everyone, "we just got that new Hammerhead..."
Tali's tone turned desperate. "I'm serious. Here's what we need to do, right now. Go down to the hangar deck, open the main door, and push it out into space before he can get to it..."
Garrus sealed Battery's hatch behind him and set his food down on the bench to the right of his console. One of the windows on its holographic display blinked for attention. He walked over to it to see a message from Miranda:
Sounds like quite a party out there.
It is, Garrus responded. Why don't you join them?
The same reason you're in there typing to me, came the reply. Someone has to keep this ship running.
Garrus chuckled and turned back to the bench and his waiting dinner when the console chimed with another incoming message from Miranda. He turned back to read it, unsurprised she had still more to say on the subject.
He sat down for his meal and plunged a fork into a chunk of steak covered in a delicious smelling marinade, raising it to the console as a toast before enjoying the finest repast in recent memory.
A/N - OK, so it wasn't really "complete" and I had to add another chapter. I abandoned my original ending because I felt it was too upbeat. It involved Shepard's return to the ship, along with a drinking session/pep talk in the Commander's quarters where he essentially told Garrus to snap out of it. That would have done two things I was trying to avoid: 1) bring Shepard into an explicitly Shepard-less story, and 2) essentially allowed Shepard to absolve Garrus of his guilt when it's Garrus himself who has to let it go, and clearly at the end of ME2 he has not done so.
But I did want to allow for more closure than abruptly ending like I did with the last chapter as well as resolve some of the other character issues brought to bear in earlier segments, specifically Tali being able to be more accepting of the Cerberus personnel aboard the ship, and Jacob to take a step toward being part of "the gang." Tali and Miranda may still not be chummy in this particular timeline, but they've at least made progress. Who knows - put the bunch together in some kind of suicide mission, and they all just might be able to be friends.