Part 3 of 3, last chapter in the ME1 - ME2 series. Self-indulgent end-of-series author's note below.
In My Place
By Your Side
She wakes slowly, and sees that he's watching her, his eyes taking in her face before meeting hers.
There's a moment of panic - he probably regrets everything, this was probably a terrible idea...
"What are you - ?" she begins, losing her nerve and her voice. What are you thinking? she wants to say.
"Your smile," he says, giving her one of his own while he gently traces her mouth with a finger. "Guess I finally got to see it."
They somehow manage to make it through the Omega Four in one piece, and he resolves to tell Joker he really is the best damn pilot in the entire fleet. He walks into the briefing room to greet the squad, and, when Tali sneezes, he swears Joker smirks. He shoots him a glare, and he shrugs in a silent "what?" gesture.
All levity is forgotten, the mood sombre, as they finally realise that this is it. This is what they've been working for for so long, possibly the last time they'll see each other. He makes eye contact with each of the squad, nods to them, and then her; no words need to be said, and he swallows.
After the speech, they set out; he debates with himself whether to take her with him, wondering whether it will put her in more danger, but when he even suggests it, she immediately cuts him off. "I want to be by your side."
"This is a suicide mission - "
She nods, and he isn't sure whether to be overjoyed or terrified for her - whichever, in that moment, it's only her helmet that stops him kissing her again.
Miranda and Tali - the human and the quarian. For a moment it's just like old times, and he remembers how Ashley and Tali used to talk to each other. There was a lot of laughing involved, and they tended to stop rather quickly when they noticed him listening - Ashley couldn't have known how Tali felt. Could she? Should he be amused or horrified?
He remembers Horizon, and his heart sinks. If he survives... maybe he can patch it up. Sometime.
The minute they reach the entrance to the Collectors' base, he exhales. "You ready?"
They nod; he briefly squeezes Tali's hand - noticing the look it earns him from Miranda, which is, surprisingly, more curious than hostile - and then he lets go. He nods to Miranda, and she gives him a small half-smile of what he knows is false confidence, then he sighs. "Guess we're ready as we'll ever be."
In that moment, "John" is replaced by "Commander Shepard", and his breathing becomes steadier. The mission. Nothing but the mission.
They calmly walk into their battlefield, together.
She gasps when Grunt falls at the door, rushing with John and the others to help him. It takes a moment before they realise that nothing more can be done, and she sees pain flicker across John's face as it hits him. Then something in his face shuts down, and he is pushing them forward.
She has come to know that look - it's the one he wore at her father's funeral, the one he wears when he talks about his family.
She shakes her head, knowing that now isn't the time. The mission. Always the mission.
She sees that same pain at the loss of the colonists, but it's overwhelmed by relief for the crew. He sends Mordin back with them, and, for the first time since they entered this hellish place, gives her a smile.
Miranda, resigning? Keelah, that was... unexpected. Suddenly, she thinks she understands why John made the effort to strike up a friendship with the woman.
She is aware of the reaper falling, the ground tipping underneath them, and it's him she thinks of as she sees the drop. She knew this could happen. She knew this would probably happen. At least it will be quick for her - even with her own terror, it is him she feels sorry for.
Then his hand is around hers, clutching it tightly, and all she can think is that he should let go, what if he falls as well? Her breathing stops, every thought flying out of her head, when he pulls her back onto the platform and looks into her eyes, and he is smiling, of all things. "Like I'd let them get you."
He looks into the Illusive Man's glowing fake eyes, remembers Cerberus principles; he thinks he knows what they would say about his current relationship.
It's the main reason that he grins as he cuts the guy off. Sure, there's surviving the apparently impossible, too, but right now, that's not what's at the forefront of his mind.
He walks into the mess hall, pushing aside some debris and sitting next to Tali. He can't help smiling - this is where it all began; where he decided to talk to a lonely quarian on her pilgrimage.
She enfolds him in a tight hug, the shock of the mission still wearing off, desperate for something to cling onto after all that has happened. "I thought... I thought we wouldn't make it."
He still seems in good spirits, replying, "But we did. And that's what counts. Even if it was a pretty near-death experience."
She's rather grateful that her mask hides her expression when he tells the crew to take up any concerns for a few hours with Miranda. Oh, and definitely not to intercom the Loft for a while.
It is late the next day, a respectful silence falling, when the whole crew gathers to mourn Grunt, even though there are few who can say they knew him well - probably only Garrus and John, she thinks sadly.
Many of them are still nursing wounds from their experiences with the Collectors, and the sight saddens her. But at least they are all here, all alive. Grunt's sacrifice was not in vain.
He's always loved the stars; thought he'd never get to see them back on Earth, and now he's here. He admires them through the glass, not even trying to count them, grateful he's alive to see them. He really has no viable excuse to be on the observation deck, but Samara is in the mess hall with the others and this is probably the best time to... well, stop and breathe, after the chaos of the last few days.
There will be a Council report (though they'll probably find some way to disprove this near-death experience, as well), he's pretty sure Cerberus will want to reclaim their ship, and he'll need to talk to Anderson. For now, though, he's off the radar, and so is she.
"What do we do now?" Her voice is tentative, worried.
He looks at her and smiles. "For now? A break, I guess. Anyone deserves some shore leave, after what we've just done."
She lets out a small laugh, bad as the joke is. "Shore leave? Shouldn't we be... doing something?"
"Oh, I can think of a few things," he replies, raising an eyebrow, and then he adds, "Probably not involving the Council, though."
She looks worried. "But they - "
He's still smiling - hell, it's hit him that they're alive, and nothing can dampen his mood right now. "There's time, Tali. There's time."
He puts an arm round her, and they watch the stars.
And so we reach the end of this little series - certainly until ME3.
This ends pre-Arrival, since I didn't want to try and speculate too much about the final game. There was also the fact that I'm a sucker for small pieces of happiness, cheesy as that is.
If you lurked - it's fine; I'm just glad you took a little time out of your day to read this at all. Thank you for doing so.
Reviewers: it's been great to see that there are still new readers, even at this stage, so thank you. Reviews are always a pleasant surprise.
Those of you that have followed this series through, even if you came to it late: well, you've been great, and probably made fair chunks of it better with the feedback and support. Expect some very sappy PMs.
Thank you, and goodnight. :)