Tali watched as the shuttle departed, rising up into the sky like a bird before the thrusters kicked in and it flew from view. Next to her, Shepard began to gather up the few pieces of luggage sat perched around their feet (mostly suitcases filled with clothes and hygiene products) as Tali turned down the dirt lane they stood on, lined by think trees on either side, that led down towards the cabin they'd be staying in for the next few days.
She had rented this small, three roomed, planet-side cottage that sat nestled deep within the woods as a kind of getaway for the two of them. Shepard had been working himself to death lately and while she more than anyone could appreciate the importance of what he did, the fact of the matter seemed to be that if the commander didn't take a break, he was likely to put himself into an early grave. So, Tali began to do some research in her time off, looking for exotic locations the two of them could visit. She wanted something relaxing; a place when Shepard could let his guard down for a few days and recuperate at least some of the energy he had poured into dealing with the Reapers, but at the same time she wanted it to be something he would enjoy as well.
After pouring through what felt like thousands of brochures and extranet pages, she finally came upon something interesting; a company was offering woodland bungalows for rent. Guests were invited to come down and 'rough it' inside of the simple home far away from the noise of big metropolises and space ports. The scenery looked beautiful and the idea that of spending the whole weekend alone with Shepard was enough to send of shiver of excitement up her spine.
Ever since their relationship began, their time to spend together as a 'couple' was tragically short. There always seemed to be something that required the attention of one or both of them at all hours of the day. Being on the same ship meant that they did get to see a lot of one another, but not in the capacity that Tali wanted. While on duty they needed to remain professional, their mission was too important to do otherwise. The only time they were ever able to really be together was after their shifts had ended and they retired to Shepard's quarters, but by this point they were normally so tired from the day's events that they barely had enough time to crawl into bed before passing out, not that Tali was entirely complaining. Getting to fall asleep and wake up next to Shepard was a gift she cherished with all of her heart, but it wasn't always enough. She had opened up to the commander in a way she never thought possible. She trusted the man with her very life and would have done anything for him. Lately, though, she didn't feel like she was doing a very good job of showing it. Frankly, she didn't think she was being the girlfriend he deserved.
Tali knew that she had to go the extra mile for Shepard. Since her suit kept her being able to do so many of the simple and wonderful things that couples should be able to do, the young woman forced herself to find different ways to display her affection, so perhaps this short vacation was partly for her benefit as well; a way to not only let Shepard relax for a few days, but to also show him just how much she loved him. If he was willing to make all of the sacrifices necessary to be with someone of her species, than the least she could do was show her appreciation for it.
The commander had been wary of taking any time off from his mission, even a few short days. Tali had been expecting this, heck; she would have been surprised if he agreed without persuasion. He held his ground well, but after some pleading, bargaining, and a little bit of feminine manipulation, Tali had broken him down just like she knew she would. He agreed to take the time off, and about a week later they were walking down the lane towards their vacation spot.
The scene couldn't have been more picturesque; a small wooden cabin sitting perched in a clearing surrounded on all sides by massive trees that towered over them as a gentle breeze blew through, shaking the leaves. They had arrived much later in the day then they had planned, and already the sun was starting to set, but the redish tint that it painted across the sky had to have been one of the most beautiful things Tali ever saw. One day, once her people had their home back, they would get to see these wonders whenever they wished.
"It's incredible," Tali said as she wrapped her arms around one of Shepard's.
"I have to admit, it is sort of nice."
"Come on," Tali said, pulling on his arm. "I want to see the inside."
Together they made their way down the dirt path that led to the porch. A wooden bench sat under the awning, its back against the wall, looking out upon the scenery. The young woman smiled as she pictured the two of them cuddling on that bench, gazing at the night's sky.
After unlocking the door with the entry code they had been given, the duo stepped into the lodge. Using the fading light that filtered in through the windows, Shepard felt along the wall until he came to the light switch. A moment later a warm glow filled the room, showing them their temporary home.
In the far corner sat a simple kitchen and a table big enough for four. What appeared to be a study had been set up opposite of this with a desk, some shelves, and a waste bin. Directly in front of them was an open door that led to the bedroom and bathroom. Through the opening Tali could make out a large bed and what appeared to be the edge of a dresser.
To their left was a comfortable looking couch sitting just in front of a grand stone fireplace. Someone, perhaps the cabin's caretaker, had even left a modest stack of wood sitting nearby to build a fire with.
It was perfect; so simple and elegant. There was no noise here, no crowds, no dangers. For the next few days there was going to be nothing but the two of them.
I want a home just like this, Tali thought as she explored her surroundings. It's so. . . peaceful here. I could grow used to peaceful.
"Tali, you might want to look at this," Shepard called from the bedroom, where he had gone to unpack the few suitcases they had brought. Most of it was his stuff, anyway. If there was one good thing about being a quarian it was that you were ready to get up and go someplace new at anytime, didn't even have to worry about spaceport luggage fees.
Stepping into the small, but cozy bedroom, Tali found Shepard standing at the room's lone window, tilting his head up towards the sky. Moving in next to him, Tali craned her head up and tried to see what he was seeing.
"Looks like there are some dark clouds moving in," he commented. "It might mean rain."
"Rain? Really?" Tali replied, unable to keep the excitement from her voice.
The commander looked over, offering her a confused smile. "You know, most people wouldn't be that happy for rain on the first day of their vacation."
"Well you're not dating 'most people', Shepard," she cooed. "I hardly ever get to see rain. The last time I did it. . . wasn't under the most pleasant circumstances."
Shepard nodded, understanding what she meant. Thankfully, he let the subject drop there, turning back to the luggage instead. Fairing another glance out the window, Tali turned to help him.
Throughout the evening Tali would peek out the windows of the cabin hoping to see the first drops of rain, but so far it appeared the skies were going to do little more than darken.
After unpacking, Shepard and Tali sat down to their first meal in the building. It was strange to think that they were really doing this; that there was going to be three whole days for them to spend together. Even now it still didn't seem to sink in all the way, at any moment she half expected to hear Joker's voice come over the intercom. She had to remind herself that there was no intercom here. Of course, they were still in touch with the Normandy. It was unlikely that anything should happen in their short absence, but just in case they were ready to move out at a moment's notice. Still, Shepard had made it clear that he wasn't to be disturbed for anything short of an absolute emergency. Tali was grateful for the gesture. It meant that he wanted this weekend to work just as much as she did. Still, after spending so much time aboard the Normandy as well as several other starships, it was hard get certain habits out of her head.
In a way, it was a lot like when her relationship with the commander had begun. It had taken her so long to finally understand that this was real, not some idle fantasy she had cooked up for herself. For so long Tali had felt a strong attraction to the commander even before he had. . . before he came back. There were so many times she wanted to comfort him, talk to him, be around him, but she had always forced herself back. When Shepard had finally admitted that he felt these things for her as well, it had taken her a very long time to convince herself she could openly act upon these feelings whenever she wished.
Tali was, first and foremost, a fighter. She was used to combat and violence. She had seen things- horrible things-that would follow her for the rest of her life. The training that she received in weapons and hand-to-hand combat was more advanced than most, almost at military level. She knew several ways to kill each species with minimal effort. Despite what others might believe from looking at her, Tali was not some helpless, frail thing that needed to be protected. She understood these things about herself and she embraced them, but being around Shepard it had dawned on her that it was perfectly okay to. . . just be a girl. Even if she didn't need to be taken care of or protected, it was nice to know that Shepard was there to do these things for her anyway and there were times when it felt so nice to let him be the stronger.
That was one of the things this vacation was about, she discovered. Right now they weren't soldiers, or shipmates, or anything close to it, but rather; they were a man and a woman. It was as simple as that.
After dinner they cleaned up their dishes (or rather; they cleaned up Shepard's dishes. All Tali had to do was toss her depleted paste tube into the trash). As they worked, Tali dared another glance over her shoulder at one of the windows that looked out on the front lawn and just as she was getting ready to turn away, she saw something: a single droplet of water running down the glass.
The girl froze in place, her breath held deep in her lungs as she waited. For what felt like minutes she stood there, looking for something, anything. Just as she felt her heart start to sink, just as she had come to believe that the single drop she had seen had been little more than a fluke, there was another splash against the window, then a second, then a third. The young woman watched as the heavens opened up and spilled their rain upon the earth.
"Shepard!" she cried out in pure joy. Not expecting her to shout, the commander spun around on his heels, instinctively reaching for a gun that wasn't there and nearly dropping the cup he was washing in the process.
"What? What is it?" he asked, looking around the room. Apparently he hadn't picked up on the tone of her voice and thought something had frightened her rather than elated her.
"Look!" she said, point out the window. "It's rain! It's really rain!"
The young woman crossed the room, practically sprinted, until she got to the window. Placing her hands against the glass, she pushed herself in as closely as she could to look at sky.
"I'm going outside," she announced as she bolted for the door. She didn't even bother to close it again as she raced onto the yard. In the midst of the rain, Tali stretched out her arms, tilted her head back, and watched with wide, delighted eyes and the water splashed against her mask and ran down the glass.
She turned to see Shepard standing on the porch, leaning against one of the banisters by the steps. There was a loving smile stretched across his face as he watched her. Anyone else might have made fun of her for the almost child-like excitement she felt over something a silly as rain, but for the girl who had spend nearly her entire life in space, being able to stand in the rain was akin to witnessing magic. Shepard seemed to understand this, at least on some level, and rather than make fun of her, he instead watched her with a kind smile.
Crossing over to her captain, thinking for the hundredth or perhaps thousandth time how lucky she was to have a man this wonderful, she stood before him and outstretched her hand.
"Join me," she proposed.
Shepard said nothing. Instead he simply accepted the gloved hand offered to him and allowed himself to be pulled out into the downpour. Tali watched as the rain splashed off of the man, wetting his hair and rolling down his face. The water seemed to darken his clothes and made them stick to his skin. She couldn't help but think how handsome he looked.
Gently taking both of his hands into her own, Tali forced the man's arms open and stepped into the ring she had created. No sooner had she done this, than did she feel those arms wrap around her, pulling her close. Tali rested her head on her captain's shoulder and closed her eyes. For a long time she just stood there, feeling Shepard's body pressed against her down while the rain drummed out a rapid beat as it struck the trees, and leaves, and ground.
How desperately she wished she could step out of the suit, to properly feel the rain and the man that embraced her. She wanted Shepard so badly in the moment. She wanted to feel his warm skin against her own, to run her fingers across his cheeks, to feel his lips caress hers. She wanted to be laid down right here and be made love to as the sky wept above. Was that asking for so much? All she wanted was to just experience the simple things that everyone else could at a moments notice. She just wanted to be. . . normal. For one day she wanted to be like everyone else.
"What it's like?" she whispered into his ear.
"The rain?" Shepard asked.
"Yes," she answered after a moment's hesitation. It would have to do.
"Well it's. . . wet. . . and cold, but it's refreshing, too. And. . . there's a smell of mud and bark and leaves, almost like the entire forest is springing to life. It's nice."
The girl nodded, but said nothing more. What could she say, really? The best she could do was all she could do: imagine and pretend.
She felt Shepard's hands clasp around her shoulders. Gently, they pushed her back so that he could look at her face.
"Tali, is something wrong?" he asked.
That was Shepard for you; always trying to take care of her, always looking out of the silly little quarian.
"I'm with you, Shepard," Tali replied. "How could anything be wrong?"
The commander smiled again; a compassionate, gentle grin that broke her heart each time she saw it. He then reached out and brushed his hand across her mask, wiping away the streaks of water.
"Let's go inside," he said and Tali was all too willing to comply.
They stepped into the bathroom. Shepard pulled a white towel off the rack that hung just beside the shower and tossed it to her. Catching it in one hand, Tali wiped her suit dry as Shepard stripped out of his clothes and slipped past her into the bedroom.
After making sure that she was completely dry, Tali carefully hung the towel they had brought back up before returning to the bedroom herself. There she found Shepard, dressed only in a fresh pair of underpants, sitting on the edge of the bed, looking out the window.
"Where did you try off," Tali asked, noticing that his hair was no longer dripping and sticking to his scalp in knots.
"I used the dish towel in the kitchen," he replied, turning to face her.
Tali chuckled and shook her head as she imagined the commander trying to dry himself using only that small square of cloth.
"So," she said as she plopped down next to him. "What now?"
"Well, I was thinking that we'd turn in early tonight." Shepard placed a hand on her thigh and slowly began to rub up and down its length. "No calls, no distractions, just you and me and the bed."
"And the nerve stimulators," she added, only half-joking.
"Well," he said. "If you're going to twist my arm about it. . ."
Tali chuckled again, unable to help herself. "You're such a pervert, Shepard."
Closing what little distance there was between them, the commander leaned inwards and pressed his forehead against the top of her helmet so his face was only inches apart from hers. "Only with you," he said as Tali coiled her arms around his neck and pulled him down with her. "Only with you."
Tali awoke the next morning, still loosely wrapped in Shepard's embrace. The commander was sleeping soundly next to her, the only sounds being his slow, gentle breathing and the continuous patter of rain against the window.
Moving as carefully as possible, so to not wake her captain, Tali leaned up on one elbow to look out at the window that sat beside them.
If the rain at stopped or even let up at all during the night, than it had started again just as strong as ever now. The small patch of sky she could see was a solid sheet of gray and the once pert and lush trees were sagging under the weight of the precipitation falling upon them, and as beautiful and majestic as the shower had been the day before, now she was beginning to find it all to be a little depressing. She found herself missing the blue, cloud spotted sky and bright sun that had greeted them on their arrival. Tali had also been hoping to spend some time with Shepard exploring the woodlands that stretched out around their cabin and uncover whatever treasures might be waiting within, but such a trek seemed out of the question until the weather improved. The rain wouldn't have bothered her, of course, but she doubted the commander would have enjoyed being out in it for hours.
Broken plans aside, the other reason—probably the biggest reason—why there had been a part of her hoping to see sun this morning, was the silly way she had acted the evening before. It wasn't running out into the rainfall that embarrassed her, in fact; if she could have relived the joy she felt in that moment over and over again than she would, but rather what made her worry about herself was the down that came after the high.
How quickly she had gone from rapture to despair. She never used to be this way, not before her Pilgrimage. That wasn't to say that she was completely naïve before. Tali always knew that, as a quarian, there were many things that she would have to miss out on, but it was not until she found herself within the company of so many other races, saw the way they so casually abused the amazing gifts of smell, and touch, and taste that the young woman went from knowing that she was missing out, to understanding what she was missing out on.
No one, not even Shepard, would ever be able to comprehend what it was like to live an entire life behind glass; seeing the world and everything in it, but never being able to properly interact. The commander tried, though. He tried to understand what it was she and the rest of her people endured, but his ignorance would sometimes shine through. It wasn't as if Tali blamed him such things. After all, she could do no better trying to understand life in this galaxy as a human; a species that has done so much in only a handful of years, and yet were forced to live off scraps.
Still, despite whether or not Shepard understood her people or not, what he was able to do was understand her. He had learned to read her emotions in the same what that the rest of her species did with one another; though tones of voice and subtle body language. Maybe that meant Tali wasn't giving the man the credit he really deserved.
Whatever the case may be, he had known that there was something wrong and had tried to comfort her, and that wouldn't do. She was being selfish thinking about herself and her desires. This trip was supposed to be for Shepard, to take his mind away from his problems, if only for a little bit. This was his chance to meditate and collect himself, how was he supposed to do that if she was moping around the house like a whiny child?
Tali was going to make things better, starting today.
Slowly and almost reluctantly, Tali pulled herself from Shepard's sleepy grasp. The commander, almost seeming to sense that she as gone, reached out and grabbed hold of the cockeyed pillow she had been resting on, and pulled it in close to his chest. Managing to stifle a tiny laugh, the young woman tip-toed out of the bedroom and towards the kitchen where a coffeemaker that sat on the counter. It was different from the one of the Normandy, much more basic, but it only took a moment for Tali to figure out how it worked, and she thought Shepard would enjoy waking up to a cup of his favorite drink. Besides; she had learned to like the smell of brewing coffee.
Removing a tube nutrient paste especially formulated as a 'breakfast meal' from her suit's many pockets, Tali hooked it up to her feeding tube before heading out onto the front porch. Leaning against one of the support beams, almost in an exact mirror of Shepard's posture the night before, Tali drank her breakfast and watched the rainfall.
She didn't know how long she stood there, absently sucking down on her morning meal while staring off at the horizon. Her mind drifted, seemingly without course from one subject to the next. She thought about the Flotilla, about what her friends were doing. She thought of the Normandy and if everything was running smoothly, hoping that Jack and Miranda hadn't killed each other in Shepard's absence. She thought of her father and mother, of the trouble she used to sometimes get into as a child. Of course, not every reflection went though her head as a particularly deep or philosophical one. She also thought of songs she liked, places she'd like to visit, chores that were waiting for her back on the ship, etc. Tali thought of many things and at the same time, nothing at all.
So lost was she in her own private world, that Tali had no idea Shepard had stepped out onto the porch with her until she felt his arm around her back.
"Morning, beautiful," he said as he took a sip from his coffee, the steam rising out of the cup like clouds of thin smoke. Shepard was wearing a green robe with the belt only loosely tied. "Thanks for the coffee, by the way."
"Is it okay?" she asked, remembering the first time she ever tried to make it for him. What she ended up brewing wasn't so much 'coffee' as it was some kind of thick and lumpy brown goo.
Shepard took another sip and tipped her a wink. "Perfect."
"Are you hungry? Did you want me to make you something?"
The commander smiled and tightened his grip around her for a minute, giving her a playful little shake. "If you're not careful, you're going to end up spoiling me. No, but thank you. I'm not even fully awake yet. I'm going to need another dozen cups and a long shower before I'm ready to even look at food."
Tali knew that Shepard sometimes became uncomfortable with all of the things she went out of her way to do for him. He didn't seem to understand that this was just the way she was. She didn't do it because she felt like she had to, but because she wanted to. She liked the look of surprise and joy in his face and his kind words of gratitude when he saw what she did for him. They brought her an indescribable amount of joy.
"So, looking at anything in particular?" he asked.
Tali shook her head. "No, just watching the rain. I don't think it's let up any."
"I don't know," Shepard said. "It looks a little better since yesterday." Tali wasn't so sure. Looking up, all she saw was the same grey, overcast clouds spreading out as far as the eye could see. "Well, I'm going to hop in the shower and get dressed. Don't worry; I'm sure it'll let up by this afternoon."
Only, it didn't. As the day dragged on, so did the rainfall; filling the house with the sounds of soft taps as the droplets splashed against the roof and walls, keeping the two of them trapped indoors.
There had been a radio inside of the bedroom. After playing around with it for awhile, she finally came across a station that wasn't pure static. The music that poured forth into the room was instrumental; soft and slow. At first Tali thought it was asari, but was surprised to discover that it was actully human in origin. The girl didn't believe it at first. The only human music she had heard was a genre they called 'rock' and it seemed to consist solely of banging drums and wailing guitars. It wasn't terrible, she supposed, but Tali had always been under the impression that music should sooth the nerves, not rile them up; at least, not outside of a dance club anyway.
She found that she liked this song, the one that the host introduced as 'Moonlight Sonata'; a piano was playing a simple, yet haunting melody that seemed to match with the solemn drizzle outside the windows. Tali sat back on the bed, listening to the music, allowing herself to be swept away by its dossal tones.
When it came to music, her people put priority on the natural voice. Instruments were used sparingly and at times, not at all. While there was nothing wrong with having such musical devices, many felt like the true heart of any song needed to come from the signer, the emotions in her voice, and pitch, and tone. It was poetry, almost, but set to a tune. Such artists of the soul were once held in the highest regard in quatrain society just like dancers and painters, but such was during a time when they had a planet to call their own, before the needs of practicality took priority over creativity.
Tali understood the reasoning behind such a shift in their culture. Living aboard the Fleet meant that the arts were luxuries that needed to take a backseat to survival. The ability to concoct beautiful images through song or dance meant little if the hull was compromised and no one knew how to fix it. It was a sad thing that their people needed to change the way that they did, but it was also a necessary one.
Reaching over, the young woman turned off the music. As much as she was enjoying the peaceful melody, it wasn't doing much to help her mood. Besides, she promised herself that she wasn't going to get depressed again on this trip.
Pushing herself up from the bed and stretching out her arms and spine, Tali left the bedroom and made her way though the door. In the living room she spied Shepard sitting at the desk in the far corner and as she closed in she saw his omni-tool was open and he was silently reviewing several charts. His mouth was moving ever so slightly as he read, an unconscious sign that he was lost deep within concentration.
Tali cleared her throat in an exaggerated manner, ensuring that she would capture the commander's attention. His head spun towards her so quickly that it could have popped off from his neck.
"Oh! Tali! I, uh, I thought you were napping."
"No, I wasn't," she replied, crossing her arms. "And just what were you doing?"
"I was. . .uh. . ."
"You were checking in with the Normandy weren't you?"
"Yeah. Sorry." Shepard cast his eyes down towards the floor. "I know I said I wouldn't but, I worry. I can't help it."
Tali let out a sigh. "It's fine, Shepard. I'm. . . I'm not mad. This whole vacation was supposed to be about us, but. . . Shepard if you want to go back early, then we can. I know you're not having fun here. This was a terrible idea."
"Are you kidding me?" he said, shutting off his omni-tool and standing from the desk. "It's been great so far."
"R-really?" she asked, not understand what could be so great about it. The rain had kept them indoors since they got here and there was little to do inside of the house. Tali would have thought the commander would be bored to tears by now.
"Really," Shepard insisted as he walked over to her. "Do you realize that for two days nobody's shot at me? I haven't had to drag my friends into some warzone or another, wondering if this will be the day I don't bring one of them back. It's quiet here; peaceful. No one is asking me to make impossible choices, or help them with their problems, or anything. I mean, I know all of that stuff is going to be waiting for me when I get back, but for right now, being here with you. . . I love it."
Her captain placed a hand under her chin and lifted up her head so she was looking at once another. Tali always thought he had the most beautiful looking eyes.
"Thank you, Shepard," she said. "That means a lot."
"What do you say we grab some drinks, go sit outside on the porch, and talk about nothing important at all?"
"That sounds wonderful," she said. And it did.
They sat outside for what must have been hours; drinking, laughing, talking, watching as what little light that forced its way though the cloud covering fade away as night fell. At some point during it all, Tali realized that this was the longest she had ever spoken to the commander at once. Back on the Normandy there always seemed to be something that required their attention, something to drag them away from each other before they really had a chance to converse.
Tali wondered if this wasn't at least part of the reason why it had taken so long for the two of them to have gotten together. She knew that she was attracted to the commander, even back on the SSV, but if they would have had to time to sit and chat like they were doing now, Tali wondered if things might not have happened a little differently between the two of them, or at least a little sooner.
Still, maybe it was for the best that things happened in the order that they did. Even after Saren's defeat, Tali found herself still hanging around the ship. As eager as she was to finish her Pilgrimage, to show her people the great thing she had recovered, there was a part of her that was deeply saddened by the idea of leaving Shepard and the others. She had grown close to the crew of the Normandy and saying goodbye to them felt like saying goodbye to a group of close friends, so she stayed and she stalled. Heck, she might have hung around forever if the Collectors-
Tali pushed that idea right out of her head. She didn't want to think about those days anymore. She had already gone through her grieving, but that was all in the past. Today things were better; she had a noble mission, good friends, and she had Shepard, of course. That was all she needed feel good. In fact she was feeling good right now. Really good.
"Y-you know what I like bout you the most, Shepard?" she said, a slur in her voice becoming more propionate the longer they drank . "It's that- that you're so funny!"
Shepard had been in mid-sip when Tali had spoken. Her words caused him to burst out laughing, spraying the beer from his mouth like a fountain. "I've been called alatta things but that's a first."
"No, you are! You- you are!" Tali clasped an unsteady hand on the commander's shoulder and leaned in towards him. "Shepard. Shepard. Sh-Shepard. Look at me. Look. You are so great. I wanna just. . .I-I wanna. . . I wanna nother beer."
"Tali, yer drunk," he said, still laughing.
"No. . . not. You are." Tali reached down, meaning to grab another one of her drinks when she over-estimated the distance and lost balance. She tumbled over onto her side with a muted thud. Rolling onto her back, Tali began to laugh with Shepard joining in a moment later. "O-okay. I might be a little drunk."
"You okay?" Shepard managed to ask after his current laughing fit had calmed. Tali liked it when the commander was like this; when he was open and fun and carefree. She understood why he had built so many emotional walls around himself, why he always remained so professional and serious around those who weren't his closest of friends. The man had lived a tragic life. He had been through things that no one should have to suffer through. He endured, yes, but the closer Tali came to him, the more she saw the scars that were left behind. She could never make them go away, she knew that, but she could at least ease the pain.
"Fine," she replied and raised one hand upwards as if she meant to shake hands with the sky. "Help me to the bed?"
Shepard took her hand in his and managed to get her to her feet without tumbling over himself, though Tali noted that he had to grab hold of the railing in his other hand to steady himself enough to do it.
Leaning upon one another for support, the young lovers made their way inside and towards the bedroom.
"We forgot the empty cans," Tali said. Her tone of voice was somber, as if this were some great revelation.
"We'll getem tomorrow," he assured her.
Together they stumbled into the other room and Tali allowed herself to plop down onto the large bed with Shepard falling in next to her a second later. They were laying on it the wrong way, but neither one seemed to care.
"Did you know," Tali said as she wormed her way as close to the commander as she could get. "Tha-that if it wasn't for the suit I would. . . I would kiss you right now. I would kiss you all the time, like. . . . like every hour."
Shepard chuckled and Tali responded by punching him in the arm.
"Don't laugh! I'm serious!"
"I know. Sorry. It would be nice."
For a long time the two of them laid askew on the bed, listening to the noise from outside. She could feel sleep ready to overtake her and in a moment she would allow it to, but right now she had one more question to ask.
"Shepard," she said, her voice softly floating through the darkness. "A-am I. . . am I a good kisser?"
She felt her captain's arms tighten around her in a kind of momentary hug. "The best," he whispered back.
With those sweet words still echoing in her ears, Tali floated into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The next morning was spent nursing their hangovers from last night's binge. Tali woke with a sick feeling in her stomach, a foul taste in her mouth, and a headache that wasn't being help at all by the rain.
Tali groaned as she sat up on the bed. Just stop already! Her brain screamed at the downpour that had still yet to clear. Each droplet that hit the cabin's roof went off like a small explosion inside of her head. With another groan, the young woman dialed down the audio input levels on her helmet before releasing a douse of aspirin and anti-nausea medication into her system and lying back down on the bed.
Looking around her, Tali saw that at some point during the night they had pulled themselves to the correct position under the covers, but she didn't remember doing it. Shepard was still next to her, his head buried as deep under his pillow as he could possibly get it. Tali didn't envy how he'd feel when he woke up.
Shutting her eyes, the young woman hoped that she didn't make too big of a fool of herself last night. Still, even if she did it was nice to watch the commander unwind. This trip might not have been exactly the way she planned it inside of her head, but at least it was still serving its purpose. She felt more relaxed, Shepard was acting more relaxed, and tomorrow they could go back to their mission with fresh eyes.
Most of their last day at the cabin was extremely uneventful. The two of them remained in bed all morning and afternoon, nursing their hangovers, only leaving the darkness and comfort of the thick sheets when necessary.
By that evening, after Tali had taken two more hits of medication and Shepard had burned through an entire pot of coffee and a thirty minute shower, did they start feeling better. They weren't back to one hundred percent, but at least their appetites had returned and Tali was able to turn her audio levels back to their normal setting without feeling like her skull would burst.
"I'm sorry about today," Tali apologized as she helped Shepard clean the dinner dishes. "This wasn't the best way to spend our last night here."
"I dunno," he replied. "I can think of a lot worse things then spending all day in bed next to a pretty girl."
Tali gave the commander a playful shove with her shoulder. "Always the flatterer, aren't you?" she joked as she handed him the last of the dishes to dry.
After their mess was cleaned up and most of their things had been packed into the suitcases in preparation for tomorrow morning's early pickup, Tali found herself drifting towards the living room window once again and looking out on the grim weather. Instead of improving like she had hoped it would since their first day, it only seemed to have gotten darker. The wind had picked up and rain was now falling in sheets rather than drops.
"Looks like a storm's coming in," Shepard commented as he joined her at the window.
Tali frowned. "I think I picked the worst possible time to vacation here."
"Don't worry yourself over it," he said. "I still had fun. We'll just have to check the weather reports next time we come."
Tali turned around to look at her captain, not sure that she heard him properly.
"You would. . . you would really want to do this again?"
"Of course," he said, placing his hands on her waist. "This was a great idea, Tali. Thank you."
The woman smiled and gently rested her hands upon the commander's cheeks, her eyes looking into his.
"Thank you, Shepard," she said, her voice little more than a seductive whisper. "I love yo-"
Her words were cut short by a sudden bang that blasted through the air like an explosion, causing Tali to cry out and jump at the sound.
"Relax," Shepard spoke to her. "It's just thunder."
"I-I know that. I just wasn't prepared for it, was all."
There came another clap that followed just on the heels of her words, causing her to jump again.
"Tali," Shepard said, his voice a mixture of honest curiosity and good-hearted amusement. "Don't tell me you're afraid of thunder?"
She pushed away from him slightly. "What? Of course not! I am a proud daughter of the Migrant Fleet. I've been through thousands of combat situations. I am not some child who's frightened by something as silly as a loud noise caused by the rapid expansion of air-" She was cut off by another boom, this time loud enough to shake the house and cut the power, shrouding them in darkness. In response, the young woman jumped back into the commander's arms, burying herself into his chest. "Okay! Yes! I'm afraid of storms, alright? I- I don't like them. Living on the Flotilla, I've never had to deal with weather like this. I'm not used to it, and. . . and. . . oh keelah, Shepard, you must think I'm a complete baby."
"Of course I don't."
Tali barked a short laugh at her own foolishness. "Can you believe it? After all of the things we've been through and seen and done, the thing that finally brings me to my knees is a little bad weather."
"Hey, don't be so hard on yourself. We all have something we're afraid of."
"Oh?" Tali asked, looked up the man. "And what might your fear be, Shepard?"
"I. . . really don't wanna say."
"Come on, I said what my phobia is; now you have to do the same."
"You promise you won't laugh?"
There was a long pause before Shepard finally answered. "Clowns."
"Clowns?" she replied with a soft giggle.
"See, I knew you'd laugh."
"I'm not laughing, that's just. . . I never would have guessed."
"I know, I know. It's stupid. I mean, I'm not even really afraid of them. They just. . . creep me out. I used to have nightmares when I was a kid. I think it was from too many bad horror vids."
"I think that's the cutest thing I've ever heard."
"I swear if you tell anyone about this, I'll never forgive you," he said, pointing a finger at her.
"Don't worry Shepard, your secret is safe with me."
From outside the house there came another thunderclap, this time accompanied with a flash of lightning that momentarily illuminated their darkened home. Tali didn't 'jump' this time at the sound, but it still rattled her nerves.
"Okay," she said. "So what do we do now?"
In what little light there was still left to see by, Tali could just make out Shepard's silhouette as his head turned towards the far wall where the fireplace stood.
"I have an idea," the man said.
Ten minutes later a warm and inviting fire was roaring, casting a red, flickering glow across the room. Shepard sat on the far end of the couch, giving Tali space to lie down on her side, her head resting in the man's lap. His hand was comfortably resting on her arm, caressing her in long, slow motions. Tali closed her eyes, enjoying the comforting light the fire gave off, the smell of burning wood, and the faint hint of warmth she thought she could feel even through her suit.
She tried to remember the last time she felt so at peace with herself and found that she couldn't. She was young and in love. If there was anything single greater thing in the universe, then she had yet to discover it. She wanted this moment to last forever. She wanted the world outside of this cabin to disappear and leave the two of them alone.
Soon, she told herself, very soon this battle they fought had to end and if they came out alive, Tali thought she would spend the rest of her life with her captain. If that meant settling down in a home not unlike this one, than so be it. If it meant continuing to roam the starts on their ship, then that would be good, too.
"Are you asleep?" Shepard asked.
Tali shook her head. "No."
"Do you want to hear a story?"
"A bedtime story?" she joked, looking up at the commander.
"If you wish."
"Is it a true story?"
"Maybe," he responded casually enough, but Tali believed that she heard something very serious behind the light tones, as if this were something gravely important.
"Sure," she said, settling herself back into a comfortable position. "I like listening to you talk."
"Once upon a time," he started. "There was a young boy. He was a confused child and often a lonely child. He never thought of himself as anything special. He didn't seek out fame or fortune and he didn't care if anyone would remember him after he was gone, but what he did want. . . was a reason.
The boy had always been a fighter. He was naturally strong and good with his fists, but he was also a clever child, sometimes too much for his own good as his mouth would get him into trouble more often then not. As the boy grew into a young man, he began to wonder what he was supposed to do with his talents. He would have made a great thug. Over the years he had grown tall and broad in the shoulders. He could be intimidating when he had to or charming when he wanted to. There would have been dozens of gangs who would have loved having someone with both his brain and brawn, but the young man knew that such a life wasn't for him. It wasn't his reason.
One day, by pure chance, he happened to run into a military recruiter. They talked for a long time and by the end of it the young man started to believe he was heading down the right path. For months he was broken down by the drill instructors. He was made to feel useless, worthless, weak. They chipped at him until his smugness and attitude were gone and when they had shattered the young man into a boy again, they built him back up, better than he was before. Afterwards, as he graduated and earned the right to call himself a solider, the young man found that something was still missing.
For years he roamed the galaxy. He won great victories and lost greater friends, yet through it all he kept pushing forward. He needed to see how it was going to end, if he was every going to find what piece of him that he missed."
"So what happened?" Tali asked.
"One day, many years later, the not-quite-so 'young' man met a girl. She was strong, valiant, and brave in the face of impossible odds and refused to let anyone push her around, yet there was a second side to her all well: she could also be so sweet, kind, gentle. She always knew what to say to make the man feel right again and even in his darkest of times the man knew that the girl would always be there right by his side. He realized that he had found the reason, his reason to keep fighting, to keep pushing forward. She made every terrible thing that had happened in his life seem so unimportant. She was everything in the world to him and yet. . . he was afraid."
Tali rolled over on her back so she could look up at Shepard's grim and distant face. "Why?"
"She had become the most important thing in the world to him, yet the danger that they faced. . . he was so afraid to lose her. The man allowed his fear to blind his senses and rather than approach this girl, he instead kept her at arms length. He so desperately wanted to say something, anything, to her, yet he couldn't. Besides, what if the girl didn't feel the same? What if he expressed these things he felt only to find out that they weren't returned? It would have crushed him. The man kept hoping that the girl would give him some sign; a way he could finally know one way or another."
"Maybe the girl wanted to," Tali said. "Maybe she wanted so desperately to express herself to this man she had spent so much time with, but she was afraid of the exact same thing."
"Maybe," Shepard continued. "But whatever the case, the two of them simply sat on these emotions until such a time when. . . when it was too late. Something happened to the young man, forcing him to go away for a very long time. When he finally got back, he was surprised to see how far his friends had drifted, how they were all now living their own lives.
He never thought that he would see the girl again, yet something must have intervened because despite all odds he did run into her. She had grown so much. The years had been good to her; she was stronger than he had ever seen her before. She was more mature now, more sure of herself and her place in the universe, yet this was still the same girl he once knew. He could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice and despite how long he had been gone, all of those old feelings came welling back up inside of him and this time he knew he couldn't let her slip away again. He took him awhile, longer than he wanted to admit, but he finally told this girl about all of the feelings he had for her and you know what? The most amazing thing happened; she said she felt the same for him. And as he held this girl, the man understood that he finally had his reason to fight, to make this a better place for everyone who lived in it. She was his reason and as long as he lived, he was going to make sure that she was always happy, always safe, always knew that she was loved."
"So how does the story end?" Tali asked.
"I don't know, I'm still finding that part out for myself. . . but I bet they get to have a 'happily ever after' someday."
Smiling, Tali nestled her head into his lap. "I bet they do, too."
Outside the storm raged with all of its fury; the wind howled, the rain poured down in blinding sheets, lighting struck and thunder boomed. It was as if the end of the world had begun.
Tali didn't so much as notice.
The shuttle landed in the clearing just down the road from the house. Shepard and Tali, who had been waiting patiently, gathered up their few pieces of luggage as the doors opened.
The day was warm and sunny; the only clouds in the sky were faint, puffy wisps that floated along with the breeze. Last night's storm seemed to signal the end of the unpleasant weather. It was as if the rain needed to go out with a bang before it could finally disperse.
Several branches had been torn from the trees and lay over the path which had gone from dirt to solid mud, making the trek leaving the cabin much less pleasant than the one they had experienced several days ago going towards it.
When Tali saw the bright sunlight that morning as she awoke on the couch on Shepard's lap and laying before a dead fire, Tali thought she was going to be frustrated to see the rain had lasted just long enough to keep them trapped within the lodge for their entire vacation, but in truth, she found she really didn't care. The past few days had been nothing short of bliss. For one thing, she was with Shepard and held him without distraction. For another, he had opened up to her a part of himself that she had only seen before in bits and pieces.
Shepard was, to so many, a symbol of what humanity was capable of. He was a beacon of strength and fortitude during a time that seemed to only grow darker and more un-restful, yet so many (at times even herself) seemed to forget that there was still a person behind it all; someone with a past, and fears, and problems, and dreams. Tali had been allowed a rare glimpse of this and had come to realize that she was not the only one of them that wore a mask. While Shepard's was, of course, more figurative than hers; in truth it still hid just as much away from the world as her own and at the same time was just as difficult to remove, but removed it he did; an act that required an incredible amount of trust in her, trust that she was eager to repay.
As they stepped onto the shuttle, Tali spared one more look at the wood cabin sitting so perfectly nestled in a land that time seemed to have forgotten. It was a simple place, but beautiful, and Tali knew that she would revisit it in her sweetest of dreams.
This trip might not have been what she had expected, but it had turned out better than she ever could have dared hope.
The shuttle rose, and carried them away.
August 7, 2010