Face the Music (and Dance).
The end of the geth-quarian war deserved parades, a month-long holiday, and nothing less than seventeen gallons of intoxicating liquids per person. What it got was two days shore leave on the Citadel, and (in Tali's case, at least) a single glass of turian brandy, drunk very carefully. That was all anyone could spare, these days.
It was odd, in a way. She'd been trying so long, pushing as hard as she could, all to get to this point, and now, now they had everything- victory beyond her wildest dreams, geth and quarian, if not quite in harmony, at least not actively trying to murder each other- all she felt was tired. She'd become so used to the pressure she scarcely noticed when it was gone.
And speaking of gone…
When James had suggested they all visit Purgatory (his rationale being "it's not a real party unless you can't hear yourself think and they charge you fifteen credits for a beer") nobody had been more supportive of the idea than their commanding officer. Nobody was entirely sure how he had managed it, but he'd persuaded practically the entire crew to leave the ship for one night on the town. Even Javik had come along, albeit primarily to find more targets for his boundless scorn. Tali suspected that was how Javik relaxed, though, so that was alright.
But as they were preparing to leave the ship, Shepard's voice crackled over the intercom, curt but apologetic, informing them that Admiral Hackett needed to speak with him, and they should go on ahead.
Everyone seemed to accept this (with the exception of Ken, who began muttering to Gabby "I was sure he'd come with us!" "You know the Commander has a lot to deal with, Kenneth." "He's always found time before." "Well maybe he'll come out later when the Admiral of the entire Alliance Navy doesn't need his help."), but his short message had somehow seemed… off to Tali, and a quick glance to Garrus confirmed it. He'd heard it too, and nodded at her, briefly.
Tali resolved to slip away from the group the second she could. After all, if it was anyone's party, it was hers (and Shepard's, but he'd already absconded) and she could leave if she wanted to.
It was odd, being on the Normandy with its already-skeleton crew reduced to a few knucklebones and a bit of femur. If it had been too quiet before, now it was a tomb. The silence was eerie, almost cloying.
However, it seemed someone at least was still working merrily, judging by the whistling coming from the shuttle bay.
"Ah! Ms. Vas Normandy." Tali paused for a second, before recognition set in. Cortez. The shuttle pilot.
"Steve," she said, brightly, the second she remembered his first name. "What can I do for you?"
"You planning on seeing the Commander sometime this evening?"
"I might be," she answered, cagily, waiting to see where this was going, "why?"
"Just if you do, could you tell him his package has arrived?"
"Actually, now I think about it, would you mind taking it to him?" Without waiting for an answer, he passed a slim, square packet into her hands, wrapped in paper. A painting, maybe? Very mysterious. "Thanks. And tell him he'd better appreciate it, because it was an absolute bitch to find."
Well. She supposed there was only one thing to do. Testing the weight of the parcel- surprisingly heavy, for its size- she made her way to the elevator.
"Shepard-" Damnit, she had to stop calling him that, it wasn't as though he didn't have a first name- "Ajax? You there?"
A few moments of silence. Then his voice, thick and fogged with sleep, and the sound of a creaking mattress.
"Come in, it's open."
He looked like he'd barely remembered to kick off his shoes before stumbling into- or rather onto- bed. He was raising himself up on his elbows as she walked in, blinking the sleep from his eyes, one hand scratching at the chin he'd neglected to shave, fighting to conceal a yawn.
"Tali!" he said, and the energy he injected into her name- the way he always said her name- was a tiny rush of happiness. "You're back! What time is it? Did you all have a good time?"
"Ajax, it's been half an hour. I came back to look for you."
It was probably a good thing he couldn't see her expression, because it was impossible not to grin at how badly his face fell. Looking down and slightly to his left, his foot scuffing the floor like an abashed child, his face heated up. "Oh."
"You said you had urgent Alliance business."
"In my defence, Hackett did call," he said, trying to put on his Sensible Voice. "I just…"
"You just…" Tali prompted, and she was sure it was obvious by now how much she was smiling.
"I don't like clubs, okay? I never have. I just- I never know what to do, so I just end up shuffling back and forth and drinking, and the last time I had a drink in a club I was literally poisoned, and the time before that I ended up getting so drunk I ended up drinking krogan beer, and-"
Tali had, in fact, heard about both of those incidents- from Garrus, who had found it all incredibly amusing- so her only reaction was an internal spark of gratitude for whichever Cerberus scientist it was that decided to give Ajax an indestructible liver.
"Why didn't you say that, then?" she asked. "It's not as though anyone would have taken offence."
He shrugged, hopelessly. "I guess I've just… gotten used to it." He tried for a smile, but it didn't seem to stick, lost and alone on his long face. "I'm never really off duty, am I?"
He'd been reduced to making up emergency meetings just to get some time to himself. Suddenly, Tali felt very inattentive.
Her first instinct was to hack his computer, block all incoming messages, and stand guard outside his door with a spear until he was ready to re-join society, no matter how long he needed. But. But so much was on his shoulders. So many people needed his help (and why did it need to be him (because, so, so often, he was the only one willing to give it (and that's why you love him))) that the wrong ten minutes he spent unavailable could mean so many killed. And that on his conscience would destroy him.
So all she did was take a step toward him, and say, as brightly as she dared, "Well, you're off duty now, aren't you?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am," he said, as though she had answered some philosophical conundrum. Suddenly, his eyes flicked to the package in her hand, the one she had completely forgotten about, and his eyebrows twitched in recognition.
"Oh! Yes, sorry, this came for you. Cortez asked me to bring it to you." She handed it over, and watched as his eyes fairly lit up.
Tali couldn't help but notice the brief flash of pure glee on his face as he tore into the paper, and the sight twisted something inside her. It was so… him. He was open. Not with everyone, certainly, and it wasn't as though he was prone to wild displays of emotion, but if he was happy, or sad, or hurt, it showed. It was something she was scared might be burnt out of him one day, and then the galaxy would be just that much darker.
After a moment, the wrapping paper was balled up in one hand and pitched over his shoulder into the wastepaper basket, and a slim cardboard sleeve was in his other hand.
"What is it?" she asked, as he gently eased a large, slightly reflective black disc out of the cardboard.
"It's a record. Old human sound recording technology, but it keeps coming back every half-century or so. Never found a sound to match it. I used to have a few, but… well; I kept them in my cabin in the original Normandy."
Tali cocked her head, and read the title blazoned on the cardboard sleeve. "Singing in the Rain?"
"It's music from a film. One of my favourites. Not the 2100 remake," he added, hurriedly. "The original. Want a listen?"
"Sure," she replied, and he moved over to a strange device he had set up in the corner of his room.
He set the record onto the machine, and after a second there was a crackle like a breeze on embers- a rich, warm sound that filled the room, and as Tali settled back into the sofa, a woman's voice began to sing, joined quickly by a young man's.
"Good morning!" "Good morning!"
A third voice- another man, slightly older- took up the melody, as the instruments began.
"We've talked the whole night through…"
The song was strange- unlike anything she'd ever heard from human music before- but cheerful, rolling, and warm.
Shepard stood in front of her, jacket discarded, a smile on his face and an outstretched hand.
"Care for a dance, Ms. Vas Normandy?"
"You know what?" she replied, taking his hand and letting him pull her up. "I think I do."
Shepard was hardly the daintiest of movers- there were probably elcor that were lighter on their feet than him- but he was strong, he was fast, and he at least knew where his feet were supposed to be.
That meant he was one up on Tali, but as far as she was concerned, two out of three wasn't irredeemably awful. It wasn't what she had been expecting, though.
If she had to imagine dancing with Shepard in his cabin, she might have expected something a little more… well, romantic. Something more along the lines of a slightly mobile hug.
This wasn't. It was energetic; it was light hearted, and more than a little silly. It was full of twists and spins and elaborate shimmies with the feet (something Tali wasn't going to attempt, seeing as they were really designed with forward-facing knees in mind). It was… fun. And in his eyes she could see something unwinding, something almost like relief unfurling.
Eventually, the song ended, and the two of them were left in the middle of the room, entwined around each other, the soft crackling of the record filling the air. Tali looked up to see Ajax staring at her, green eyes wide and serious.
"I love you," he said, abruptly. "I should have said it before." Keelah, he managed to sound sorry about it.
There was only one thing to do. One hand left the small of his back, and ghosted lightly across the contours of his face, sliding along delicate cheekbones and a strong jaw.
"You never had to," she said, and wondered dimly if there was such a thing as being too happy.
"But I could stand to hear you say it again."