Chapter 40

Air Traffic: No More Running Away

The Presidium is still in pieces after Sovereign's attack, buildings cleaved in half, rubble around the place, cracked walkways and general reminders of the aftermath all around…but even so, the memorial service is packed. And I mean, absolutely crammed full with people, of every species. Turians, humans, salarians, asari, a few drell, hanar, krogan, elcor…standing shoulder to shoulder, as Admiral Hackett comes to the end of his speech, commemorating everyone who gave their lives in the battle.

Garrus, Kaidan, Liara, Tali and I are sat all along the front row, since all military personnel have been given specific seats so there's an order for the medal presentation…though it isn't particularly surprising given that we're right up front since we've been with Shepard the whole time, the newly hailed Saviour of the Citadel. The first time someone called her that, she just blushed and tried to act all modest…but now it's the words on everyone's lips, I think she's kind of enjoying it.

And it's weird for the rest of us, as well. I mean, it's not like we've got people in the streets just coming up to us to shake our hands…but just about every person I've passed in the Alliance has given me a nod and a smile, the same to the rest of the crew. She might be Saviour of the Citadel, but we sure as hell aren't getting ignored either.

I get a little pang of sadness when I look to the empty seat on my right, though. Wrex left this morning, a few hours before the ceremony, saying he'd never really like all the pomp and ceremony of victory, and that 'if they gave a krogan a medal for saving the Citadel, half the turians in the place might drop dead. Not that I'm complaining, but it might make you look bad.' Despite Shepard pointing out no-one was forcing him to go up and receive some kind of medal, he respectfully declined.

It was a pretty emotional goodbye, actually. I've gotten so used to having him around, the big, grunting voice of blunt truths and occasional sarcasm, and the best fighter I think I'll ever meet. Proven by him winning the kill-competition, beating me by five…if he hadn't picked up that sodding rocket launcher, I'd have won, something I told him myself. 'Keep dreaming,' was the reply I got. So, now I owe him some ryncol…and for some reason I promised I'd a try a bit once I bought it. I think it was kind of heat of the moment, but I seriously hope he doesn't hold me to that. I don't want to turn radioactive.

Rest of the morning passed uneventfully, though. Everyone was in a better mood after getting some rest, and generally in high spirits, since we helped save the Citadel yesterday. Plus Saren hasn't launched some kind of vengeful counter-attack, which is something of a relief. Spent most of the morning with Tali, just hanging around my room, talking about…well, nothing, really. It was unbelievably good, just being able to talk without worries about the mission, anything like that. Guess I didn't realise how much of a pressure it was until it actually got lifted.

After that, we all left for the memorial event…and what an event it's been. Just the sheer amount of people, and species, coming together for this says volumes. It's really touching to see…and I guess it's true what they say about tragedy bringing people together. It's really happened here. It's been going on for about two hours, now, starting off with the reading of names of everyone who we lost in the fighting. I felt a little lurch in my stomach when Ash's name was read out, especially given Saren's escape…but I held it together. Wouldn't exactly look great to have one of Shepard's crew breaking down, especially in front of all the network cameras. Westerlund News turned up…though, thankfully, they haven't sent Al-Jilani. Obviously know we have a history.

After the reading, a series of speeches…first one by the Council, which was surprisingly good. I expected to be pissed off by it, seeing as I don't really like them…but it was pretty humble, praising the Alliance for their actions in saving the Destiny Ascension, and marking the tragic loss of life in protecting the Citadel and the galaxy. Anderson did his part admirably, and even the turian councillor was remarkably sombre in it, which was nice to see, after the amount of shit Velarn's been giving us for two months now.

But they had absolutely nothing on Hackett. That man…knows how to do a speech. It's got to be a combination of him having a voice that can only be described as epic, a speech making ability that can only be described as epic…and you can tell every word he says has his unshakable conviction behind it. The first part of the speech was all about what we've lost…but the second half was the real inspirational bit.

Hackett started talking about the Alliance's role, but then he moved onto all the other fleets that had taken part. The turian military, the salarians…and the contribution of everyone on the Citadel for banding together to help the military against Saren. Now, though, he's finally coming to the end of it.

"Seeing all of you out here today," he says, not having to raise his voice for emphasis, knowing that we're all hanging onto his words already. "It gives me hope to see it. To know that despite all the difference between species in this galaxy, all our squabbles in the past, we can come together at a time like this, to remember those who gave their lives for us, and to celebrate our victory. And I mean, our victory. All of us!"

He gazes around the crowd, seemingly trying to make eye contact, before returning to the speech. "We pushed back the geth, Saren, his ship, through the efforts of those on the frontline of battle, through to those who were in the Citadel at the time. Because we stood strong! And we show those who think they can invade, destroy, take whatever they want, that this galaxy will not stand for it!" There's a build-up of applause, someone I can't see starting it off…but within seconds, everyone is clapping, cheering, as I rise to my feet along with the thousands of others and Hackett brings his speech to a close. "Divided we fall, but united we stand! And today, the Citadel and all the species of the galaxy stand tall!"

There's a roar of approval from the crowd, as Hackett simply nods his head in acknowledgment, and heads off the podium to take his place near the Council. I can't help grinning wide as he does, looking over at Garrus and the rest of the squad, who all have the same expression on their faces as I do. Bloody inspirational. That's all I can say. Hackett remains one of the most unsung heroes of all time, in my opinion.

As the applause gradually dies out after a minute or so, and we all take our seats, I run through my memory for how much of this is left. We've got a presentation of a medal to every member of military personnel in the battle…with Commander Shepard doing the presentation. It's going to take a while…but everyone who's coming up for one deserves it, and in a more selfish way, it gives me more time until I have to face Shiara. I'm not looking forward to it. But right now, I just need to enjoy the ceremony for what it is. A victory celebration.

Shepard takes the stage, and next to her I can see a relay line of people who are presumably Council workers…getting ready to hand along the long pile of medals waiting at the end of the line. Bloody hell, that is seriously damn impressive, how they managed to make all of them for now. Then again, after all this, the Council will have pulled out all the stops. And the bill for them is gonna look like nothing next to the repair costs…

I can see Garrus looking a little tense as she takes the stage, presumably a little worried about how she's going to handle the speech, bless him. Shepard already embarrassed him a little this morning, first by planting a little kiss on his cheek when she saw him in the galley this morning (though frankly, I'm glad they're being overt about it,) then saying she'd 'try to save something' for Garrus when I pointed out her arms would be hurting by the time she was done. I swear she just does it for shits and giggles now…but it is really funny.

"Well," Shepard says into the microphone, drawing my attention back to the podium and hushing everyone else, "I'm...not quite sure how I'm supposed to follow that." There's a rumble of laughter around the place, as the Commander smiles coolly around the place. Good that she's showing the human side to her…

"I'd like to start by marking the heroic sacrifice of everyone we lost in the battle. They gave the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could live, and for that, we honour the heroes and heroines of the Battle of the Citadel, and the cruisers Cairo, Cape Town, Emden, Jakarta, Madrid, Seoul, Shenyang and Warsaw, along with their two thousand four hundred crew, for their role in saving the Destiny Ascension, let their names never be forgotten." There's solemn nods from around the Presidium, murmurs of agreement from some. "But there must also be recognition for the soldiers, pilots, military personnel that fought in the battle and are still with us now, and so it gives me great pleasure to be the one to present the Council Legion of Merit to all of those people."

She lifts up one of said medals…and from my position, I can see it looks exactly like the one from the Achievement picture on completing Virmire. Never though I'd see one in reality, yet here we are. "First, the crew of the SSV Normandy," Shepard announces. "For being with me from the start of the fight against Saren and the geth, fighting where all hope seemed to have been lost, and for being the best crew a Commander could ask for." Aww, that's bloody heartwarming…God, Shepard, you're going to make me cry!

"In no particular order, Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko," a new turian announcer says, as Shepard gets ready to take the medal. There's raucous applause as Kaidan stands up and starts to walk towards the stage, as the announcer gets ready to announce the second name. I guess we're just doing it in a queuing system…go in on one side to get the medal, shake Shepard's hand, then leave on the on the other. Good system…or else we'd be here for days. "Tali'Zorah nar Rayya." The quarian stands up, looking over at me as she does…and I give her a reassuring smile. Despite the fact I'm feeling so tense about this. Good lord, I'd better not trip over or something. Shepard shakes Kaidan's hand, passing over the medal in its case, then he heads off to the right in order to peel back around to his seat. Shepard's getting ready to present Tali hers…

"Garrus Vakarian." The turian gives me a broad smile, looking incredibly proud as he strides off towards the podium. I hope he and Shepard kiss. Just for the look on Velarn's face.

"Liara T'Soni." The asari gets up, looking incredibly worried, as usual, and follows in the footsteps of everyone else in the squad. Oh, Garrus is going up to get his medal…and no kiss, just a notably bigger smile to him then anyone else as she shakes his talon. Damn…

"Ian Shaw." Oh, I would be the last one, wouldn't I…I get up, stepping towards the podium, suddenly acutely aware of the enormous amount of people watching, and applauding. Applauding me. Applauding us.

Bloody hell, this is epic. I don't remember this from canon…but frankly, this is one change I'll never complain about. Liara accepts her medal…and it's my turn. It's an almost out of body experience, as I barely feel my legs moving as I walk up to Shepard, and she gives me a little smile.

"Congratulations, Ian," she says, handing over the commendation. "Stellar job."

"Thanks, Shepard," I manage to blurt out, afraid to say anything more lest the pressure make my voice crack, and start to head back to my seat, looking around at the thousands of humans and aliens in the place. Brought together in victory.

And I know something damn well.

I'm never going to forget this moment. No bloody way.

###########

About three hours after the my medal presentation, and half an hour after the whole ceremony came to a close, I'm walking down the ruined Presidium, through the narrow access route that's been cut out for people…towards where I know Shiara's waiting.

This ought to be fun. But I've got a pretty burning question for her, as well. Plus, the more I think about it…she's going to be pissed about Saren, me telling Tali and Garrus, but this whole shtick she's giving me about not changing anything. I mean, thinking about it…change can be good. I can save lives while not compromising the main plot. But she is intent on nothing changing.

The thing that bother me is, where's her evidence for that? I mean, when it comes to the future, she knows literally as much as I do…so, it comes down to her opinion, rather than actual fact. An opinion I can't exactly find myself agreeing with.

Yeah. I'll start out cordial, but if she pushes me…I might get a little too honest. Hopefully she doesn't pull any kind of viole-

A sudden collision into my front sends me staggering back, as my head snaps up…to see the guy I just walked into, looking slightly startled by what just happened. Bugger, should have been paying more attention to where I was walking! Though obviously he wasn't looking much either.

"Oh shit, man," the guy says, eyes widening slightly as he looks at me. "Sorry. I'm just…kinda a little out of it now."

"That makes two of us," I chuckle, "my bad as well. Wasn't looking where I was going."

The guy suddenly looks surprised, then a slow recognition dawns on his face. "Shit, I know you!" He does? "You're on Shepard's crew! I got to say, you're pretty fucking famous around the Alliance right now. All of you." Hey, this is a nice surprise!

"Glad we have some fans," I grin back. We've got recognition! My life suddenly feels worthwhile! "Pretty much everywhere we've been, people've been trying to kill us, not saying hello." I take a glance at the guy's chest…and the Alliance symbol is on his uniform. "Alliance, huh? You in the battle?"

The bloke looks down a little, shaking his head sadly. "Yeah. I wish all of us had come out as well as you guys had. Frankly, I think it really says something that you go out into the middle of a fight against Saren and all this, and somehow you all manage to make it to the other side."

"Not quite all of us," I mutter, thinking back to Ash on Virmire…and how that's still got unavenged. Something else for me to worry about. "Saren got a friend of mine back on Virmire. Not gonna lie, though, I'd rather have fought Saren on the ground than the geth fleet out there." I point up at the sky through the Citadel's arms. "Flight was never my thing. And, erm…sorry to hear about your guys. They died as heroes."

"That they did. It's just nice to see they're getting the respect they've all earned." He smiles, as if recalling a memory. "But yeah, when I first heard I was going to be serving on a ship, I was pretty ecstatic. Flying, heights always seemed my kind of thing. Apparently, it wasn't as entertaining as I thought."

"These things tend to be a lot harsher in reality. I thought going with Shepard, it'd all be safe…that turned out pretty wrong, though." I think back to Ash, all the stuff that's changed, never mind Saren's escape…ah, can't think about it. What's done is done. I'm sure Shiara will want to talk about it a lot more than this guy, anyway. He seems pretty torn up over his friends, still, and I can't blame him. "Still, can't dwell on the bad times. It's good to have done something like this. And you sound like you've got a passion for flying, too…the Alliance could do with a hundred like you."

He laughs slightly. "I've told them that several times, but they keep saying they don't have enough sedatives to contain ten replicas, much less a hundred." I laugh back too. Hey, he's got a sense of humour!

"You seem pretty calm from where I'm standing," I point out.

"I wish," he says, a little regretfully. "I'm actually about to go off the deep end right now. I'm just trying to stay out of the institutions by keeping a straight face. But I can deal," he shrugs. "I've seen plenty of people get shot since I've been here. I hate to say it, but I think I'm acclimatizing."

"It's never exactly good when you get that feeling," I grimace. "But it's just part of the job, I guess. Going off the deep end, though, that sure as hell ain't."

"Well, at least I don't have to turn to Prozac or some shit like that," he says, a little sarcastically. Then his tone turns curious. "Do they even make that anymore?" Anymore?

I shake my head. "Can't say I've seen any of it knocking about. Though if you think you're having problems, try serving on a ship with a krogan and a turian about ten metres away from each other for two months. Then get back to me." We both share a laugh, but there's something about what he said that's bugging me slightly. "What do you mean, anymore? That stuff is pretty ancient, I think."

"I don't know," he shrugs. "I guess I was just curious. I used to think my brother was on those. I've recently discovered he wasn't. But I know about Wrex and Garrus, but you guys keep them right next to each other? Jesus Christ, how does the Normandy still exist?"

"It remains something of a minor miracle," I grin. "Get this shit, though, they're actually friends. I mean, neither probably wants to admit it, but they're just like bickering siblings really. Not that the mighty Urdnot Wrex would like that getting out, so, erm…keep it to yourself. You do not want that guy chasing you around with a rocket launcher."

"Don't worry," he laughs. "I think my chances of being institutionalised would double if I started telling people a turian and krogan were friends. But if you tell me it got to full on bromance, then I will began questioning my own sanity."

"I wish," I chuckle. "A human and turian bromance is still pretty surprising, but a krogan and turian is just way, way too much."

The guy suddenly looks confused. "Wait, say what?"

"Me and Garrus." Still confused. And shit, why wouldn't he be? "Sorry, man, I don't exactly know why I expected you to know that. I was partners with him in C-Sec, we shared an apartment…yeah, we go way back."

"Shared an apartment?" he smiles evilly.

"Why does everyone automatically think that?" I ask. "I had Kaidan Alenko thinking we were gay together for a bit, come to think of it…that was pretty funny. But no, we're just friends. He's got a human other than me, anyway." Oh, crap, I probably shouldn't have let that last part slip to some guy I just met…

"Tsk," the guy says, fake scolding voice firmly in place. "You do know they always say you should accept things as they are." He pauses, considering the last part of what I said. "Still, it's nice to see turians and humans on the way to at least somewhat cordiality."

Oh, now I want to hint him in…God, I'm such a gossip. This is really unprofessional. Oh well. He seems pretty trustworthy. "Trust me," I wink. "It goes beyond cordiality with the other human." Yeah, he seemed pretty down about his crew, but knew a lot about us…least I can do is cheer him up with something like this.

He quickly raises his eyebrows. "Oh really?"

"Yep. I mean, I don't know what your opinion on inter-species relationships is…"

"Personally, fuck all the racist bastards out there, if two people are into each other into each other, who really gives a shit about what a couple of ends of a DNA strand say?" he says bluntly.

"He'd like you," I laugh. "Good attitude. My girlfriend's a quarian, so if you'd said anything different, I'd probably have punched you. But Garrus and Shepard, well…you know." I fix him with a stern look. "You try selling that to Westerlund News, though, Wrex will be chasing you with that rocket launcher. Though it'll give me a good excuse to punch Al-Jilani again."

He shakes his head angrily. "God, I heard that interview. Bitch had that shit coming." He suddenly looks a little curious, sounding…almost shy. "But your girlfriend is a quarian? I'm sorry, but…but you do know what she looks like?" The guy shakes his head almost as soon as he says it. "I'm sorry, I'm prying. Forget it."

I raise an eyebrow. It's a bit of an odd question, but he's apologetic about it, and I really damn like this guy. "I don't know what she looks like under the mask, if that's what you mean, but you must have heard of Tali'Zorah, right? Seeing as you know the rest of the crew."

"God yeah!" he says, a little too quickly. Huh.

"Then you already know what she looks like," I smile.

He nods his head understandingly. "Yeah, you're right. Gotta say, you're a lucky man."

"Believe me, I know," I say, leaving a little silence for a few seconds. "So, where were you in such a rush to that you couldn't look up?"

"I have to go to another debriefing," he explains, sounding annoyed. "I hate these things. I'm pretty sure you could find a way of making mud dry more entertaining than these. I could reciprocate the question, though, considering you ran into me as well."

I frown, thinking to Shiara waiting up ahead…I'm probably gonna have as much fun there as this guy at his debrief. "Got some personal stuff to deal with. I'd rather be at a debrief with Shepard, those things tend to take about a minute with her. She hates 'em."

"I think I've dug into personal territory enough here," he says, signalling an end to the conversation. "I'll let you go to that."

"Alright," I smile, as he turns his back and starts to walk away. "Hey, wait! I never caught your name."

"Tom Sheridan," he smiles. "You might want to remember that. It's gonna become a household name at some point!"

"You got a rank to go along with that, Tom?"

"Corporal, as of now. We'll have to see what comes up." He looks like he's about to walk away…then slowly turns back around again. "So, is the galaxy officially saved? You seem like you'd be an authority on that!"

I pause slightly. The Council probably won't approve, but I ain't gonna just lie to him. "Officially, yes. Off the record?" I give him a stare. "Don't count on it. See you around, Corporal."

He looks thoughtful, the slowly turns around. "You too." And with that, Corporal Tom Sheridan is gone, walking briskly away down the Presidium. Huh. Cool guy.

Well, that's put me in something of a good mood. Too bad the asari waiting for me just up ahead is gonna knock me straight out of it.

###########

And it doesn't look like she's here. Oh, ain't that bloody perfect! The one time I've got some real solid questions for her, and she doesn't even sho-

"Hello, Ian," a familiar voice says behind me, making me whirl around…and there she is. Shiara. Looking a bit older than I last remember, and more tired. "Long time no see."

"You're lucky I didn't punch you out, or something," I sigh, coming down from the slight adrenaline rush from the shock of her appearance. "Paranoid and jumpy. Oh, wait, you've seen inside my head," I say sarcastically. "You already knew that, right?"

She nods, smiling enigmatically. "Right. But I think we have some things we need to discuss, don't you?" Right, I'm sick of her smug attitude. Acting like she's all high and mighty, when really she knows as much about the future as I bloody do. I've thought about Saren, considered the consequences of telling Tali and Garrus the truth…and it's not something that worries me a large amount. Well, Saren a bit, but you know. Having a Prothean Cipher in my head, though, does massively.

"I assume you mean Saren's escape, then," I shrug. "What of it?"

Shiara looks at me in surprise, eyes widening slightly. "What of it? The antagonist of this whole tale escapes, and you ask me that? I told you, things cannot change! It could lead to catastrophic consequences!"

"Actually," I say, trying to maintain my calm, "I talked it over with Tali'Zorah and Garrus already. Saren could have killed us, but he didn't. He ran away, so I can only assume he's going into hiding. Last we'll see of him? I doubt it. But it's not necessarily a bad change. He could return as a good guy, for all I know."

"Or, he could return with a geth fleet, and wipe this place off the planet! What if Shepard looks for him instead of the geth? Would the Collectors ever attack?" Shiara points out, raising her voice slightly. She does get angry, then… "And you told Tali and Garrus? After everything I warned you about?"

"Shepard's already been told by the Council that Saren's a lost cause," I point out. "The focus is still on the geth, so the attack is still going to happen. And I don't exactly see the world ending around us because I told Tali and Garrus. I've thought this through, and change is sustainable."

The asari shakes her head firmly. "Sustainable? One small thing could send this spiralling out of control! One little change!"

"Then you know what is one little change?" I ask, raising my voice to go along with hers. "Me. Me being here. One extra squad member, one extra role in the story…for fuck's sake Shiara, how could you expect things not to change? Which brings me onto my question to you. Why the hell did you put a Prothean Cipher in my head, then not fucking tell me?"

Shiara's eyes widen slightly when I say that. "So, you found out about the Cipher."

"Yeah," I nod bitterly. "You want to explain that?"

"I can't, not yet," she says. Oh, come on! This is horseshit!

"Oh, cut the crap!" I shout. How can she lie to me like this? "This is my life you're just fucking with here! And why the hell can't you tell me?"

"Because you need to find these things out yourself, to understand them! If you knew the whole truth, it could change too much! But I'll tell you one thing, to satisfy your curiosity for now. I didn't give you the Cipher."

What? "Then who the hell did?"

"You'll find out in time," she says. Great, she's stonewalling, again! That's another mystery for me, then… "Or maybe not, given the rate you're changing everything at! I read the mission report about Virmire, about how you split the squad to try and rescue Ash."

"So what?" I snarl. "I was supposed to let my friend just die? Keep doing that this whole time, even when it could be avoided without stopping the overall plot?"

"Yes! It's too much of a risk! You ruined it, Ian! There was a plotline, where everything already fell into place for you, and then you go and change it with something like that!" Shiara shouts. Oh, I am not taking this shit! She's wrong!

"I'm not just gonna let people die anymore!" I shout back. "Not where they can be saved!"

Shiara scoffs at me. "Look how well that worked with Ash." No…she did not just bring her into this again. "You go to rescue her, end up talking to Saren…and now he's loose in the galaxy somewhere!"

"What's that supposed to mean?" I yell.

"It means YOU MESSED UP!" Shiara yells back. "I told you what you had to do. That any change, anything at all, could derail this whole thing!" I'm about to shout something back…but instead I can't help chuckling. Then the chuckling turns into laughter, as Shiara's face gets progressively more confused. "What? What's so funny?"

"You," I finally say. "All this bullshit you're feeding me about not derailing things. First of all, the very fact I'm here derails things somewhat, wouldn't you say? Second, I'm not gonna just stand here and listen to you tell me I shouldn't have tried to save Ash, especially when Saren surviving might not even be a bad thing, since he was remorseful for what he did! He had a chance to kill us back there, and he didn't take it! He ran like a man with a guilty conscience!"

"You don't know that…" Shiara starts to say, but I hold up a hand to cut her off.

"That leads me quite nicely to my last point, actually," I snarl. "You don't know either, Shiara. You know exactly as much about what's going to happen in the future as I do, since you got your information about that from my head. It's just your opinion, and guess what? I beg to fucking differ." I shake my head at her. "Years ago, I was actually scared of you, you know that? The person who turned my life upside-down, brought me here. But the more I think about it, the more I realise, you're not some supernatural being who can tell me what's going to happen. You're just trying to control this how you want. And I know you're hiding secrets from me, so actually, you're not helping me at all here. You've just got your idea of how you want this to pan out, and I'm not bloody conforming to it anymore. No more running away from change. I don't need you."

The asari just gawps at me for a few seconds, then slowly starts talking again. "This is a mistake," she says, a little threateningly. "You can't just change things…they all add into this as a whole! Don't be stupid!"

Nope. I'm past listening to her, now. "There's only a few key things in this universe that need to stay the same, I know that," I tell her, calming down a little. "I know I can't change everything. But if I'm really here to stop the Reapers, like you said, then just letting everything pan out as if I wasn't here isn't the way to do it. This isn't up for debate, Shiara. And I know you've got the secrets about me…the stuff you can't reveal until I find out about it myself. Then, we'll talk again. But you don't control my actions. Not anymore." I start to walk out of the alley, leaving the asari just standing there gobsmacked, then turn my head slightly, looking at her. "Good talking to you. Got a lot off my chest."

"Don't turn your back on me! This isn't how it goes!" she yells, but I just shake my head and walk out of the alleyway. Watch me, Shiara. She genuinely doesn't know anymore than I do…her idea of what I should do is exactly that. An idea. Until she can give me some concrete evidence about whatever she's hiding, I can finally control my own life. It took two and a bit years for the revelation to finally hit home, but now it has…

It feels phenomenal.

###########

"So," Tali says, as I flop backwards onto our bed back on the Normandy. "How did the meeting with Shiara go?"

"I was honest with her," I say, breathing in deep. Freedom…it feels good. Well, freedom to an extent, since there's some things I just can't touch or alter, but at least I don't have to worry about what she thinks now. "I realised that she knows as much about what's going to happen as I do, really, since she got all her knowledge from my head. And I'm not gonna let her control me. Change can be good. I'm sure of it."

Tali folds her arms, body language suggesting uncertainty for a few seconds…before she relaxes and leans back on the headboard, nodding slightly. "That's probably the right decision. It's your life, after all. She didn't tell you about the Cipher, though?"

"No," I sigh. "Just another piece of the puzzle to solve. She said it wasn't her, though…which is bloody confusing. There's nowhere else I could have got it apart from her."

"Maybe she was lying?" Tali suggests. "To spite you for turning your back on her?"

"Possibly," I muse. "We'll just have to wait and see, I guess."

"Wait and see?" Tali asks incredulously. "You have a Prothean artefact in your head, and you want to wait and see?"

"What else can I do?" I shrug. It's not exactly nice to think…but it's true. I've got no way of finding out the answer, just gotta hope it comes to me. Same with the whole deal with Saren. As much as I'd like to hunt him down, as I imagine the Council and Shepard would too, it's not possible. He's off the radar. For now. "We've still got years of this fight left, after all. And with everything Vigil said about the Prothean plan…there's got to be an explanation for all this out there somewhere. I just need to wait for it."

Tali slowly slides down the headboard to lie next to me, and we both stare up at the ceiling, side by side. "Of course. It's not over yet…it's hard to think, just over two years from now, we'll be facing the Reaper threat all over again."

"Then don't think about it," I say, turning over on the pillow and smiling at her. "We've got months until everything that starts that off happens. For now, it's over. And until you have to go back to the Flotilla, we all split up and wait for Shepard to come back…we need to savour this. Because when we come back together, it'll be in war. Peace is something we're going to need to cherish, because it's the last of it we're going to get for a long, long time."

"You always put such a positive spin on things," Tali mutters, making me chuckle as she puts one three-fingered hand on my face. "So. How are we going to spend it?"

"You know," I laugh. "I'm kinda happy with us like this for the moment. We get to know each other better, kill some geth…think of it as a holiday. God knows we've earned one."

"How much better?" Tali suddenly asks, sliding her other hand onto my shoulder. Oh.

"Never had you down as the flirtatious type," I chuckle, making Tali crack up a bit, and drop the hand down again. "That's one change I'm grateful for, though. You seem more confident when we're together."

"It's because I trust you," Tali says happily. "But I was being serious about what we're going to do on this 'holiday'."

I look out of the room's window into the vastness of space, contemplating Tali's question. There's geth out there for us to remove, Saren hiding somewhere, Reapers out in dark space…but you know what?

Fuck 'em. I'm on holiday. They can bloody wait.

"And I was being serious about my answer," I grin. "We spend it together. Us, the rest of the crew, cherish this last bits of time we have before the whole galaxy goes to hell again. Starting with getting to know you better. Can we skip back to the part where you had your hand on my shoulder, and it was all intimate and shit?"

"Since you put it so tactfully," Tali laughs. "There's something I was meaning to tell you, actually, now that we talk about trust."

Huh? I pull a confused face, raising an eyebrow. "What would that be?"

"While you were gone to see Shiara, I…you know those herbal supplements I was talking about?" she says, voice getting progressively more nervous. Oh. My. God. "I…well…erm…when I said I wanted you to see my face, I meant it. I mean, it doesn't have to go any further than that, for now, but since everything with Sovereign is over then I should…"

"Tali, are you sure you're ready for this?" I ask seriously, but the quarian shakes her head firmly.

"And I knew you'd ask that," she chuckles, "so I already took the herbal supplements. I know it's a big decision, and it's not going to go beyond just taking the visor off, since we're not ready for that...but I'm sure about this, and you can't talk me out of it." Since when was Tali the forceful one? I mean, this might not end so-

And before I can react, her hand goes up to the mask, the visor…and without warning, it's off.

For the first time ever, I stare into Tali'Zorah's eyes…and see her smile at me. Wow, so that's what a quarian looks like under the mask? It's…unbelievable. No wonder they don't like wearing them.

"Tali…you're…wow." Is all I can say, looking at her smiling at me and trying to drink in more of the beautiful face, but before I do anything else, say anything more, she leaps forward, pushing me back onto the bed and finally kissing me on the lips.

Bloody hell.

Don't freak out.


END OF PART TWO


A/N: I should point out that's a good 'don't freak out'. As in 'don't freak out with joy'. And yeah, I'm such a tease, not describing her face. I want to leave the air of mystery in for BioWare…and Mass Effect 3.

And so Masses to Masses 2 is finished! Once again, it's been an amazing journey to get to this point…even more this time than MtM1, since this has been twice as long, all the new characters, the sheer scale of support from all of you readers and everything…it's been absolutely incredible. Readers, reviewers, your continued support is what inspires me, so thank you so damn much for it for your part in getting us here. I mean, almost 1,000 reviews as I write this, the story will hopefully break that...it's absolutely phenomenal.

Speaking of which, I ought to specially thank the elite consistent reviewing team, for letting me always know there'll be someone to get feedback from, to bounce ideas off, and for helping in general. So, in no particular order, thanks to:

Kassandra Black
raazz
CitadelGamesSalesman
zarax
Super-Saiyan-3-Vegeta
Da Orky Man
Bugsquirt, for being so irritatingly constructive and right throughout this :-)
justsomebody2
Accipiter46
BlackAdder117
RiderPale
imp94
Umbra8191
zGreece
Lunatic Pandora1
YoshisSupport
Herr Wozzeck
Fluidfyre
Blackholelord
Jasubee
CPunchMaster
Sarge1995
TLMonkey
palecrimsongoddess
WilliamCornivus
Gone Rampant
Animesage
porcupinetheater
Tairis Deamhan
Lollaro
Ashunra
DelVarO
Thunderfury12124
the stone tiger
Jack Milo
blackmamuth

Wow. That's a lot of people…and of course, extra special thanks to close friends on the site for helping out so damn much over all of this (go read their stories):

Kassandra Black: Author of Melting the Ice in the Fable section, and numerous Kaidan fics in this fandom.
Herr Wozzeck: Author of Mass Vexations, most famously, along with The Tales We Tell (District 9 fanfiction) and Leads (Heavy Rain).
porcupinetheater: Author of After the Reapers and True Identity, both in the Mass Effect fandom.

So, Masses to Masses 3 is coming, and confirmed that'll it'll be the two year gap between Mass Effect 1 and 2. Where, though? Wait until it comes out for that. Hopefully that should start in July, and I'm afraid there's no chance of any plot bunnies attacking. From now until the end of June, I'm in revision mode for exams. Apologies. But it'll be worth the wait!

Y'all know you want to know the moment Masses to Masses 3 comes out, right? Then subscribe to author!

It's been such good fun to write this, read all your comments and messages, see the subscriptions and favourites…so thank you all, once again.

See ya later.

Ian.