5/26/11. I edited the end of this chapter... In the first published version, I thought the characters were somehow losing their consistency near the end and I felt their interaction was not 'natural' enough. I think this version is much better.
Chapter 5. Epilogue
Even the fishes had survived. She watched the small aquatic creatures in their tank along the opposite wall. Everything feels so unreal. The collector base had disappeared in a fiery explosion just over thirty-three hours ago and the mixture of joy, worry, pain, combat stress and exhaustion that had permeated the ship right after their victory had mostly abated. Injuries had been tended to, repairs had been started, celebrations had happened and sleep had been obtained. It was to be a suicide mission and yet - unbelievably - everybody was alive and the collectors were no more than a memory. A terrible one for sure, but a memory nonetheless, destined to fade away like all others. The fishes, as most of the galaxy's denizens, were completely oblivious to what the Normandy and its crew had accomplished.
Sighing, she turned to her human lover, who was lying on the couch, head resting in her lap, eyes closed. He looks so calm. She felt herself flush as some recent memories rushed through her mind; I wish those memories would never fade... Compounding her feeling of unreality was the possible future she now saw opening up before her as a consequence of her surprisingly mild reaction to her out-of-suit experience. She had often dreamed of such a future with him, but had never allowed herself to believe in it. Until now, that is.
With a single gloved finger, she lightly brushed his forehead, then let her caress slide slowly along a curving eyebrow, down the side of his face, along his jaw, then back toward the midline, ending just underneath his chin. She then started on the other side with the same finger, taking care to stay clear of the swollen purple skin around the stitched gash on his cheek where a husk had managed to hit. Another scar in the making. This was a moment of quiet felicity and she wanted to be happy, but new worries were already gnawing at her. What if they were not convinced by my arguments? Would they ask me to come back to the Fleet? She knew where she had to be, but the mere thought of going against the admiralty board filled her with apprehension. The last thing she wanted was to be the cause of a misunderstanding between them and him. She sighed again.
Shepard opened his eyes and smirked, looking at her "You know, if they do recall you... I could hide in your luggage... You'd be boarding the Neema with a big crate, and everybody would be looking at you, wondering just what you brought back..."
She knew he was trying to make her feel better. And it was working a little, somehow... Yes, she could see it in her mind now, pushing a large wheeled crate - with squeaky wheels - along the passageways of the ship, then squeezing it in her small cubicle where it would take more than half of the space, barely fitting between her bunk and her desk, provided she had removed the chair first. She would then turn to the mob of curious onlookers just outside her doorway, yelling "Nothing to see" before closing the curtain she used as a door. The whole idea was funny. She snorted, and it was enough to send her into another coughing fit. Once her upper airways were clear again, she managed to say in a playful tone "And... Even if we found a way to fool the scans, how long do you think you could stay hidden?"
Despite his face being sideways as he looked up at her, she could see the concern in his eyes because of her coughing as he hesitated a little before replying "I could be very ...quiet."
Thinking of what they could end-up trying to do on her bunk she leaned forward until her visor was almost touching his nose and, gazing into his eyes, whispered in a sultry tone "Not if I can help it..." She felt herself flush again. How bold am I becoming...
He replied "Hmm... right. Bad plan." His intact cheek had taken some color too.
It took a moment for Shepard to steer his mind away from the images her reply had conjured.
More seriously now, he asked "Are you sure you have to send your report so soon? I mean... with the reapers still out there, this was just a part of the larger mission..."
"You have to understand, John... the admirals need to know I'm still working for them and my people. They would expect a timely report, sent as soon as we get back in Citadel space. And this will also help you... My report and the data will inform them of your rift with Cerberus, of your willingness to share critical information with the Fleet and..." Her eyes seemed to shine brighter as he heard the smile in her voice "... how trustworthy and honorable you are."
He smirked at her last words "Please stop the flattering..." His smile disappeared as he continued "But the risk is that they'll think everything is over and recall you for some other crazy mission of theirs..." He reached for her hand just under his chin and squeezed it gently. Sighing he added "But you're right... We've got to play this by the book."
Both were silent for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts. Looking at her again, he continued "Anyway, judging from the parts of your report I've seen, I think you can be pretty convincing. And the data from the collector base... It's been scrubbed?"
"Don't worry. I'll go through the files one more time. I asked EDI to verify everything also. All of the video footage I included is from Legion itself... so it is not directly visible in any of it. We also watched for reflections off any smooth surfaces... We checked the audio and edited out any geth sound." She shifted slightly to relieve some of the pressure in her hip, where the wound from a grazing collector shot was still throbbing. "We even checked for any scan data, to make sure there's no indirect evidence of a geth among us. This will be a great gift to the Fleet, John."
"We're going to give the same data to all our allies, so it's not really a gift... Anyway, I like the way you present it in your report, almost but not quite promising more of that kind of intel to come eventually if you can stay here." He smiled at her again "I also like the line where you say that you've come up with new insights on the geth and that you need to investigate further with my help. That will get their attention!"
She smiled, her spirits improving with each of his comments. Yes, her report will list many reasons why her continued presence on the Normandy would benefit the Migrant Fleet. Of course, the reason to stay that was closest to her heart had to be kept unsaid for the moment. She had to be here, at his side, until the end. She would cooperate if, despite all her efforts, the admirals decided to recall her; she would come and try to convince them. She was ready to make a fuss. She looked at Shepard again. Maybe I could even shout at them. But one thing was sure: she would come back to his side right away even if, in the end, it was against the admirals' will. What worried her however was that, if it came down to a confrontation, the whole idea of improving John's standing with her people would be dashed. She sighed once more.
Feeling Tali's mood darkening again, Shepard decided to change the subject altogether. "How is the morale in engineering?"
She took a few seconds to consider his question. "It's ok. ...Because of my wound, I'm reduced to 'just bossing around' as Kenneth said..."
"I heard Donnelly has been pretty shaken... "
"Oh, he's still quieter than usual... But I think all this talk about his near-death experience in a collector pod and how it made him reconsider things... I think it's just temporary... Gabriella seems more stable, but she probably just doesn't show it as much."
"They'll be all right, you'll see... Keeping their hands busy with the repairs will be good for them." He chuckled "I also heard Donnelly has lost his accent… I just knew this had to be fake; I'm sure nobody has had that kind of accent for a hundred years or more. Probably picked-it from some old recordings when he was at school, trying to impress a girl..."
She tilted her head to one side "Is that so? ...Are you're telling me you never tried to impress girls?"
He smiled smugly "No ...I'm just naturally impressive."
She smiled also as she recalled an appropriate human idiom. Delicately poking the skin close to his wound with the tip of a finger, she retorted mischievously "Oh? …No wonder you got hurt there! ...A big head like yours is hard to miss!"
He laughed and replied "What? Does it mean I can also comment on the part of your anatomy that got hit?"
"Why you little bosh'tet!" She punched his chest playfully.
He caught her three-fingered fist and brought it to his lips for a noisy kiss. He then kept it squeezed against his chest for a moment. He could not remember having felt so content and relaxed in a long time. Unfortunately, this could not last; his mind was already planning for the next move in his campaign. "So, tomorrow's the big day?"
"Yes... We'll be testing the drive core and the propulsion system with increasing loads. If everything runs smoothly, we could go back through the relay as soon as tomorrow."
"Once we're on the other side, I'll have to get in touch with some people... I've got a couple of options on where to dock for the repairs. And once the Normandy is shiny and new again, we'll have to start going from place to place, convincing people, gather allies ...you know, that kind of stuff."
"So... no more fighting?"
"I'm not really sure about that, but it's probably going to be more" he grimaced "...political."
"Oh, I'm not worried with that! You may not like it, but you're good at convincing people." Not done with the teasing, she added "...Well, it should be ok as long as you don't talk about 'convergent evolution' anymore that is..."
He snorted "You won't let go, will you? I bet that years from now, you'd still be teasing me with that!"
Locking eyes with him, she replied dreamily "Yes John, I wish I could still be teasing you years from now... and everyday in between now and then... And even after that..." Looking away, toward an invisible distant horizon, she added "Can you imagine what it would be like?"
Her words reminded him of what Kasumi had told him once, something about Tali talking in a 'rainbows and butterflies kind of way.' But he could tease her too. "You mean the sweet and sour feeling of being constantly nagged by a cute and way too smart quarian woman?"
"Come-on, you know what I mean..." She punched him on the chest again.
He chuckled and then just smiled at her. Of course, he knew what she meant. She had been hinting at it often enough. He too had briefly thought about it at some point. But now that they knew it was possible to be together without her dying, this warranted to be reconsidered. Could they make promises to each other while the threat of the reapers remained? On the other hand, what if they waited for nothing? Looks like she's dead set on this... and I could not be happy with any other... He thought of all the problems this could get him into, not only with the quarians, but with public opinion in the rest of the galaxy. He personally could not care less how other people would react to this, but public opinion can be a powerful weapon - and he needed everything he could get on his side for the coming campaign. Maybe it would be easier if we bunked together for some time... we could talk about it at least. In fact, now seemed the right moment to ask her, as the next sleep cycle would be the first truly quiet one since the collectors had been dealt with.
Slowly, he sat up, turned to face her and asked "Will you stay with me tonight?"
There was a pause, as if she had been surprised by the question. "...You know I'm not well enough yet to... My fever..."
Realizing this was not going exactly as he had hoped, he tried to reformulate "I meant... you know, just to sleep together... I would have asked before, but you wanted to keep things quiet because of the crew and all..." Embarrassed, he continued as his smile lost some of its initial assurance "But I think the crew knows now, so... you know, you could move in with me…" With one arm, he made a sweeping gesture indicating the whole place "This is more than big enough for the two of us!"
"Oh…" She too was embarrassed now, in part because of her misinterpretation, but also because of what he was asking. There were very serious implications to such a proposal among quarians - clearly, he did not remember their discussion of a few weeks ago on this very same topic. But she knew that, for humans, this 'moving-in' thing was considered more or less as just another normal step in a deepening relationship. She looked at him, at his slightly wavering smile and his eyes full of hope… Obviously, he was expecting a positive answer and here she was, hesitating because of a cultural difference and the weight of her upbringing. I'm being stupid... After everything we have done together... And this is not a quarian ship after all... Her decision made, she smiled back at him and said "Yes... I'll move in with you!"
Before her very eyes, Shepard's smile morphed into a big grin. "Good... You don't know how happy you've just made me" he said as he reached for her hand and squeezed-it eagerly. Getting up, still grinning, he announced "I'm going to prepare then... I'll be back in a few minutes."
"I'll be right here waiting for you" she replied as joyfully. In fact, she could literally see how happy he was as he bounced toward the bathroom and, really, there could be no better confirmation that her decision had been the right one.
Her sentiment of unreality caught-up with her again as she sat there, pondering on the many changes in her life these last few days… She was getting more than she ever thought possible, and it was bewildering. She smiled to herself. And now we're 'moving in' together. Oh, she so wanted to remind him of what it meant on the Migrant Fleet when a couple was moving in the same cubicle. Maybe then he would finally get the hint. Thinking of her fellow quarians, she also considered briefly the problem of how to reveal her relationship to her auntie Shala'Raan and then to others... I'll have to approach her carefully...
Putting these thoughts aside for the moment, she got up and took a few careful steps, surveying the incredibly luxurious room with a new perspective. Looking at the nearby bed they were soon to share again - but in a different way than the last time - she felt more and more excited now at the prospect of actually sleeping with him. The mild pain in her wounded hip helped to fight an urge to bounce around in joy. Forcing herself to focus on a more pragmatic consideration, she made a quick inventory of her meager belongings and tried to decide if it was better to move them to deck 1 or leave them in their current location down there.
That's when she recalled the sleep pod, the crew, the bets on her sleep schedule, and the deal Garrus had made with her. Quickly, she activated her omnitool and started writing a short message for the turian. She had been so angry when she had first learned of the bets - which were still on, Garrus had assured her earlier today. Cheating was like stealing and, normally, she would not even have considered doing something like that. But Garrus had had little difficulty convincing her that, in this specific case, it would not really be stealing but more a form of payback. "Take that!" she muttered, as she pressed the holographic 'send' button. Her share of credits would be small, but she didn't care; the exquisite feeling of having the last laugh was worth so much more.