A/N: Thanks for the kindly feedback and watches, everyone! Ah, this story is much longer than I anticipated it being. Thanks for hanging in there. And thanks to Allusive Man for correcting my extraordinarily silly mistakes.
"I don't want that thing on this ship. Keelah, Shepard, first Cerberus, then an AI and now a geth? You ask too much, Shepard. Will you ask me to give up everything I believe in for you?"
Shepard stares at the geth, lying prone on the bench in the AI core and back to Tali. "My decision stands. That thing stays, at least until I activate and talk to it. I'm not going to risk this mission and an opportunity for critical data just because you're holding a grudge."
"A grudge?" Tali's voice flares, fingers curling. "The geth drove us from our homeworld and hunted us out of the Perseus Veil. It's the reason we're stuck in these suits! You know, the suit you hate that I have to wear? They hate us, Shepard. They serve the Reapers and have tried to kill us many times over and now you're telling me to trust them?"
"I'm not telling you to trust them. I'm telling you to stand down. Don't bother arguing with me. As much as I may want to blast it out an airlock I know that the mission comes first. Maybe it's time to bury old hatreds."
"You, telling me to bury hatred?" Tali paces, shakes her head. "You know what bothers me about you, Shepard? The way you can be such a hypocrite when something doesn't directly involve you." Shepard frowns, not liking the accusation but not able to directly argue it either. "Whatever you think you can get from that thing, just remember that it's a geth. And it's wearing a piece of your armor." She approaches it, hands clenched tightly before slamming them down beside the inert body. "Damn it, just looking at it wearing a piece of your N7 armor pisses me off. You died wearing that! And now our enemy is wearing it?"
Shepard looks at the geth. Yes. It's wearing her armor. Yes, it's unsettling. But if she backed down because something happened to unsettle her she doubts she'd have gotten as far as she has. "It helped us."
"So did Cerberus, in the beginning of this. And then the Illusive Man betrayed you on that Collector ship. Who are you? Have you forgotten? I thought we were on the same side. Are you another geth sympathizer? When you were at my trial I thought you knew about the dangers. Now I'm not so sure. Now I wonder if Cerberus brought you back right."
"You're going too far." Shepard says tightly.
Tali is silent. "I'm sorry…"
Shepard approaches her cautiously, touching a hand to her shoulder. She's tense. Shepard slips her arms around her waist, drawing her close. "It will be all right."
Tali shrugs her away. "No. Don't make promises that you know nothing about." She brings a hand to her forehead. "I can't do this. Not now, anyway. Just… give me some time."
Shepard sighs. "Are we going to be okay?"
"I don't know."
Shepard bites her tongue. Goddamn it. She hadn't known going to get the goddamn Reaper IFF would be such a pain in the ass. As if things weren't difficult enough. First Cerberus, now a geth. She doesn't blame Tali for being pissed off. "I don't want to argue about this. If it were as simple as you're making it seem do you think I'd hesitate to throw it out an airlock? I don't want this to come between us."
"If it were as simple as what we wanted…" She shakes her head. "I really need to go."
"Do you want to be here when I activate it?"
"Do I get to bring my shotgun?" Tali asks. Shepard crosses her arms. "Then no."
They fight their way through the hordes of geth and in the end Shepard destroys the heretics. Tali is unsure whether Shepard takes pleasure in the action. Shepard's face is neutral. She won't tell herself that Shepard did it for her sake, to quell the argument between them. Shepard isn't motivated by emotion. In all likelihood, the decision will help them tactically in the future. Tali is reassured by her action but she doesn't know if thanks are in order, no matter how grateful 'Legion' appears to be.
Creator Tali-Zorah he calls her. Shepard-Commander, he calls Shepard. She is still unsure how Legion is able to talk. Have the geth evolved? The idea terrifies her more than anything. They have already hunted them mercilessly and last time, her people lost. To think that they could do battle with them again, the enemy they lost against before having gained an advantage… But at least Shepard destroyed the heretics, at least they have lost some of their numbers… at least… Keelah.
She doesn't want him on the ship. If it were up to her, they would have left Legion on the Heretic Station when they blew it up. Now she finds him scanning her omni-tool, spying, just as she expected he would. She was not exiled and she disapproves of what her father did, but she'll be damned if she lets him transmit classified information back to geth. They do not need a war on their hands.
She can't go to Shepard with this. There's no time, really. She discovers the breach in her omni-tool and heads up to the AI core, gun in hand, hearing the murmurs of the other crewmembers as she passes them but not stopping. If he transmits the data before she has the chance to talk to him, to stop him—she will stop him. It. She will stop it.
She enters the med-bay and moves past the doors to the AI core hissing open. Legion looks up, Tali lifts the gun, pointing it at the flashing light on what can only be described as his head. To think of the countless people who think she's the same thing he is beneath her helmet! "I know what you're doing," she says, "and if you don't stop it this instant I will blow your head off."
"Creator Tali-Zorah." His eye, sight, whatever, zooms and fixes on her. "Are we not allowed to protect ourselves? Are we not allowed to fight back?"
Her blood boils. These things have served the Reapers and destroyed any chance of her people having a normal life. They have tainted the quarians reputation across an entire galaxy and it acts as if the geth are the victims?
Her grip on the gun tightens. Then Shepard walks in. Tali can scarcely control her breathing. Here is a geth, the one she is grudgingly working beside for Shepard's sake. It is part of the collective that forced her people from her homeworld, the reason she's stuck in a suit and Shepard can look between the two of them and not be able to tell how frustrated she is, how angry and sad, how the tears burn her eyes. Shepard can't see that all because of the damned helmet, all because of the damned geth.
"I never thought we'd be at each other's throats like this," Shepard says.
She's visited Tali in her room. Things have been tense between them. She isn't sure Tali trusts her anymore. That hurts. In more than a handful of instances Tali has swayed her decisions—but not this instance. If she can get the geth to turn away from the 'Old Machines' and 'Nazara' and strip the Reapers of an ally she'll do it. If it costs her Tali then so be it but damn it, if it isn't the last thing she wants.
Tali rips open a package, removing several syringes. She looks at them and then at Shepard. "More immune system boosters," she tells her quietly. She clutches them in her hand. Shepard wonders how difficult it is for her. Does it hurt her? Do they make her ill? Is she worth this? Probably not. She uncaps one, looks for a seal in her suit, finding one near her hip and positioning the syringe.
Shepard covers her hand. "Tali, if you don't want to do this, don't do it." Her eyes appear to narrow on her. "Things have been difficult between us. I don't want them to be. Damn it, if it were up to me I'd give you back your homeworld. I'd give you anything. But I have other responsibilities. I have responsibilities to people other than you and myself. I'm sorry."
"I didn't think that word was in your vocabulary," her voice is weak, tired but there's a hint of a smile in it. "Do you think I'd get so angry at my bosh'tet captain if I didn't care about her? Shepard, I want this. I want you. But sometimes I don't think you understand what I give up for you. I don't even know how to make a comparison. But imagine that Saren was alive and I was asking you to work with him and maybe you agreed to—but then you find he was feeding information to, I don't know… the geth, the Reapers." She sighs. "Maybe there's no adequate comparison."
Shepard grimaces. "I think that about covers it. I know it's hard. Maybe I don't know how hard but I do know." She sighs. "Should I go? If you're going to do this," she looks at the syringe. Tali has been defensive about it before, not wanting her around, stating that it takes the romance out of things if she has to see her make preparations for their future night together.
"Why don't you stay? You said you needed to talk to me. But if this bothers you—" Tali stops when Shepard shakes her head. She nods.
"With an injection? Not really. But…" she stops when Shepard's fingers close around hers. Their thumbs settle on the plunger of the syringe, pressing down at the same time until it's emptied. Tali sighs softly and removes it. "If nothing else, at least I know you're serious about this. I've heard horror stories of quarians dating humans. Trying anyway… as soon as all the preparation necessary enters the picture they tend to run."
Shepard quirks a smile. "I'm not going anywhere." If it were an option she would run, get the hell away from Tali'Zorah vas Normandy. If it were an option. Somehow she has cemented herself firmly to the woman; she didn't have a goddamn choice in all of it. "I'd let you sting me a few times," she tells her, "but Mordin's already dosed me to capacity. He's got me taking different supplements and inhibitors though. Anyone saw the collection in my medicine cabinet they'd think I was doping."
Tali uncaps another syringe, hesitates and recaps it. She shifts, away from Shepard but facing her, head bowed. "I don't know, Shepard. Is this right? I know what I want. I know that I have never wanted anything or anyone more than this. But is this right for you? Do you really need to go through the trouble?"
Shepard touches her knee. "I like going through the trouble." She hears Tali's exasperated sigh. "I'm with you on this until the end. Don't doubt that. I wouldn't do it if I didn't want to." Still Tali hesitates. She looks small with the syringes in her hands. "Come on, don't you know by now that no one makes me do anything I don't want to?"
"No? And here I was beginning to suspect you had a soft spot for me."
Shepard smiles. "You bet." She settles a hand on her shoulder, sliding up to her neck. She won't tell her about all the material Mordin has sent her way. Any talk of sexual positions would be enough to send Tali into a flustered state and would no doubt make Shepard find her all the more irresistible. "But before I let you distract me too much. I got an email from Xen." She shows Tali the e-mail.
From: Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh
Shepard vas Normandy,
I've been digging through the Alarei. Just wanted to let you know that I did find a few things from the experiments Rael'Zorah was conducting. Had you shared them with me, humanity might have reaped the benefits. Instead, once my own experiments are complete, you and your people will watch from a distance as the quarian people reclaim not just their homeworld, but the largest synthetic army in the galaxy. Rael'Zorah's death will not have been in vain. I will complete what he started.
Admiral Daro'Xen vas Moreh
Tali reads the email what must be several times over, she's silent for so long. She stands. She paces. "She's crazy," she finally says.
Shepard grins. "Want me to shoot her?"
Tali chuckles. "If only if it were so simple. Anyway, I'll assume you were joking. Quarians may not like involving themselves in intergalactic matters but I promise you, that taking out an admiral, even one like Xen would have serious repercussions. We do have the largest fleet in the galaxy, in case you've forgotten." She takes a breath. "I worry about her intentions. I thought we took everything from the Alarei that would expose what happened there."
"We were in a hurry to get back before they blew us to hell. We might have missed a few things."
"If there's something there… Shepard, what if she gives my father away?"
"She won't. If she wanted to she would have done so by now." She shakes her head. "We have enough things to worry about in the meantime. One thing at a time, all right?"
"Yes. All right." She allows Shepard to pull her down on her lap, taking a seat delicately, wrapping her arms around Shepard's neck. She's slighter than she looks. "Every time I think things can't get any worse, the galaxy goes ahead and surprises me." She sighs. "Don't you wish things would settle down every now and then?"
"If it did we'd get bored."
"You would, maybe," she touches her face. "Last time things were this bad I was a girl on the Normandy. And you were running around with Liara." Shepard thinks of those days. It seems like a lifetime ago. In some ways, they were. She died, didn't she? That was another life. "I was just a kid but I was so jealous."
Shepard wraps her fingers around Tali's hand. "You're not a kid anymore."
Everyone is gone.
It's a ghost ship.
The Collectors took everybody.
"What the hell happened?" Shepard demands. Joker flinches, shrinking back from her words. "I go out on a routine mission and return to find the entire crew missing?"
"I don't know," he sputters, "EDI thinks there was a virus in the IFF. It broadcast our location—"
"It was not Mr. Moreau's fault," EDI interjects.
"You shut it, EDI," Shepard snaps. She grabs Joker's shirt violently, yanking him close. He winces, groans.
Tali takes her arm. This is terrible. This is too tense. Shepard has never reacted this way toward Joker, Shepard has never reacted this way towards anything. She's too close to the edge. "Shepard, let him go. It's not his fault. It's the Collectors, it's the Collectors, all right?" Shepard squares her jaw, her nostrils flaring. Tali has never seen her look so angry and just on the outskirts of that panic, something else—fear. "We'll get them back but hurting Joker isn't the answer."
Shepard reluctantly lets him go. "You should have been here," he fires back at her, hobbling over to his seat on the bridge. Shepard storms away. Tali looks at Joker. He covers his face with his hands and takes deep breaths. Shepard and Joker both need to take it easy on each other.
"We'll get them back," Tali tells him again.
"Yeah, we'd better."
Tali leaves him. As uneasy as she felt when she first arrived on the Normandy, this is worse. She hadn't thought things could get quieter. Kelly's gone. So are Gabby and Kenneth. Gardner and Chakwas. Keelah. What will they do if they don't get them back? What will that do to Shepard…? Should she go to her now? Should she keep her distance? She isn't sure.
If the Collectors took the Normandy crew who knows what's being to done to them now? Are they being experimented on? Turned to husks? Liquefied? The horrors are all easy to imagine.
It isn't long before Shepard unites everyone in the comm room, making bold, threatening speeches. They will get the crew back. They will make the Collectors pay. They will go through that Omega-4 relay and do the unthinkable: come back. If any of them doubt Shepard, none of them show it. They're emboldened, determined; they believe. They will get the crew back, they will stop the Collectors and they'll all live to tell the tale.
Everyone disperses, Mordin lingering behind to ask all too personal questions about Shepard and things they haven't done yet. Kasumi fades into a wall and Tali combats Mordin's questions the best she can until he finally grows bored and goes to focus on more important things than 'interspecies copulation'. Kasumi appears, cheerfully striding beside her, seemingly untouched by the events that have just transpired aboard the ship. "So you don't have to tell Mordin but why don't you tell me? How are things with you and Shep? It's been a while since you gave me an update."
Tali glances at her, exiting the comm room. "There's not anything to tell, yet."
"But how can you hold back? Especially after that speech she just gave. Hearing Shepard talk is as exciting as seeing her in a fight, I think." Kasumi says somewhat dreamily. Tali wonders if Kasumi has a crush on Shepard too, besides the one she has on Jacob. Maybe she only needs something to fixate on that isn't Keiji.
"There's still time."
"Are you getting cold feet?" Kasumi takes Tali's arm delicately. "In a couple of hours we'll be going through that Omega-4 relay. We don't know what's going to be on the other side. Don't you want to be there for Shepard? Or be with her just once—well… in case we all get blown up?"
"I can't let myself think that way," she pulls away from Kasumi. "I have to believe in Shepard. I have to believe we can win this. We will win this. I can be there for her…without there being more," she shakes her head, feeling her nervousness grow. "I should go see her."
Kasumi smiles. "Good luck. And relax!" she slaps her arm gently. "Come see me before everything. I want to hear it all. Don't worry, I'm not going to sneak in and spy."
Tali looks after her as she saunters away. She hadn't been worried about that. Now… She shakes her head. What's most important is to have a talk with Shepard. She hasn't been able to since the Collectors attacked the Normandy again and took everyone. Shepard has been busy with meetings, with gathering intel, with planning an attack.
Being with Shepard hadn't been on Tali's agenda. Though…technically, everything is ready at long last. Her immune system is as fortified as it should be and if Shepard has done her part then… then things should proceed naturally. Damn it. Why did this have to happen now? There is no time to wait. What if they go through that Omega 4 relay and something happens to her or to Shepard? What if she never has the opportunity to touch her, to feel her skin on her own?
The thoughts are selfish and it bothers her. Is that what really matters now? The Normandy crew might be dead—and it's likely that more will be joining them soon. Shepard is an exceptional commander and captain—but their fight is a difficult one, to survive without any losses… is it possible? She doesn't know.
What if being with Shepard makes her sick? What if she can't join the final battle? How awful. She shakes the nerves. That isn't the first order of business. She and Shepard have always been able to talk and be open with one another. That is what Shepard needs now more than ever.
Tali takes the elevator to her cabin and takes a deep breath, trying to shake the nerves away. She's gone to her cabin before. They've talked, they've touched, they've whispered wonderful things that have made her cheeks flush hot. But that isn't what matters now. What matters now is being with Shepard and letting her know that everything will be okay, that they will get through all of this, together.
She touches her fingers to the cabin door and it slides open. She enters the dark space, lit scarcely by a computer terminal, a small lamp and the aquarium. There are more fish than she remembers. Maybe Shepard does have a soft side after all. Shepard is lying on the bed, her legs hanging off, arms crossed behind her head. She appears relaxed. Tali considers that maybe she's the only one that's worried.
Tali moves closer, self-conscious as she sits on the bed. Shepard doesn't open her eyes. Maybe it's something about her step or the audacity to sit on her bed that alerts Shepard as to who's with her. "I wasn't expecting you."
"No? You haven't learned by now that I like to check up on you?" She smiles nervously. "I was worried. And we hadn't gotten to talk—talk since… well, since we came back and—now everything is moving so fast again. This is the end, Shepard. How are you?"
Shepard resituates on the bed. "Collectors came and took my crew and now we have to go through an Omega-4 relay that could lead us to a black hole as soon as we cross over. They might be dead and we might be too. All things considered, I'm doing just great." She shakes her head disgruntledly and sits up. "I'll take care of it, the way I always do."
"Somehow I knew that you would say that. I can't help but to worry over you, Shepard. You face a lot. You never complain."
Shepard laughs dryly. "I just throw punches and yank glass boned pilots around." She runs her fingers over her face. "Tali—"
"Shepard—" Tali shakes her head. "You first."
"Yeah, okay." She allows a moment. "I've been thinking about us. A lot. It seems that all I do is think about us lately. That and killing Collectors."
"Yeah, me too," Tali adds quickly.
Shepard smiles as if pained. Tali's heart constricts. She breathes words that Shepard can't see or hear. "We shouldn't do this." The air goes out of Tali and even Shepard looks smaller. "I've gone over this a hundred times in my head—"
"But—" Tali sputters. "But—you said—I asked you, Shepard—I asked you time after time," Tali is unsure if she's heartbroken or angry, her voice wavers between both, "and you said it was fine and that we could do this and we would prepare and—and I've done everything," she takes a gulp of air, "I've taken supplements and antibiotics and immune boosters for weeks now, injection after injection and suit modifications and—and—" And what else can she say? She feels as if she's been betrayed. "Shepard—how…" how could you do this? How could you say this?
Tali thinks of Miranda. She thinks of the things Shepard said about her, about her unbelievable body and her perfection, her prowess in bed, all those things said long ago before they began their courtship. Has Shepard suddenly remembered them? Has she remembered better, easier options?
"I thought you wanted to be with me," Tali says. She bows her head and feels the tears running down her face. She's happy she can leave her helmet on, she's happy that Shepard can't see what a stupid, little girl she is, so wounded by this.
"I do," Shepard takes her hand calmly, her voice more desperate than the strength of her hand.
"Then why? I didn't come up here for this," Tali says defensively, "I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to see if you were okay…" Maybe somewhere in the back of her mind she had considered this possibility. Maybe if Kasumi hadn't presented it so recently, maybe—the disappointment is crushing. She hadn't known how much she looked forward to this. "But eventually—I have wanted this for years now. I have wanted you for years. Damn it, Shepard. Why did you make me think you were ready for this—was it a game?"
"Then why make me believe that you were willing to go through with this if you don't-"
"Damn it, Tali, will you let me talk?" Shepard shouts. She brings a hand to her face, to her forehead. She exhales. Her fingers shake. "Goddamn it, just give me a second." She takes a breath and then another. "Saren, Sovereign, the Collectors, this IFF bullshit—none of that had me half as panicked as this does. Goddamn it, Tali—I love you. And I'm fucking terrified. All right? If something happened to you—if I did something to hurt you… God, I'd never forgive myself." Tali stares at her. Shepard loves her? Shepard is scared? "I'm trying to do the right thing. God knows I've been dying to rip this suit off of you for ages now. I want you so much it hurts. But I'm scared. I don't want to kill you with a kiss."
"Can I talk?"
"Yes," Shepard snaps, apologizes.
"Have you taken everything Mordin gave you?"
"Yes," she says sharply. "I've double checked everything, I've had him run tests, I've done everything."
"Well…so have I." Tali scoots closer to her. "Shepard…"
"Why are you even here? This isn't your war. They're after humans."
"I know what you're doing. I know you're trying to protect me. You did that before but I won't let you do it again. You know as well as I do, that after they take the humans, they'll take everyone else. And Shepard, I would rather die a hundred deaths than live the rest of my life without knowing you, without you looking on my face."
"I don't know…" Shepard whispers.
"I do." She takes Shepard's wrist, holds it a moment, releases it. She lifts a hand to her helmet and finds the release. She pushes the cloak back and pulls the mask away. Cold air hits her face. Shepard watches, without moving, as she pulls the rest of the helmet away. Long brown hair, ringlets spill over her shoulders. Tali takes a nervous breath. What does Shepard see when she looks at her? "This is who I am."
Shepard's chest heaves.
"Well… won't you say something?"
"Hi," Shepard breathes.
Tali smiles anxiously. "Hi."
Shepard's fingers touch her face experimentally. Her skin is softer than Tali imagined. Warmer. But her fingertips are callused, hard, soldier's hands. They graze her face. Tali follows the movements. Shepard's thumb traces her lips gingerly, her lower lip, tugging gently.
"You're…beautiful," Shepard says.
"You sound surprised." Maybe it is a little surprising. Is she? Is Shepard just saying it? What is beautiful anyway? Shepard slides closer, hands still on her face experimentally. She'd thought Shepard's hand would move elsewhere as they tend to. "I want a kiss." Shepard is conflicted. "If I die, I'll die happy."
"Don't joke about that."
Tali leans forward and joins their lips, perhaps clumsily. It always appears strange in the vids, something about the timing or the rhythm, she isn't sure. Her eyes should close. She knows that. So she closes her eyes. Shepard regards her curiously. "Are you going to hold back on me?" Tali asks and feels self-conscious the moment the question leaves her lips. "Please, Shepard. I've never done this before and I already feel like a giant idiot."
Shepard cradles her face in her hand. "You're doing fine," she reassures quietly. "Here… let's try it again."
Electricity shoots through her as their lips connect again. Shepard's mouth is soft, wet, warm. Her tongue is a surprise but not a bad one. Tali mirrors the kiss as best she can until she doesn't have to think about it anymore and it's happening, impassioned, demanding. The two of them pull at each other's clothing, slowly at first, Shepard unsure of how to undo the suit, Tali too shy.
"I'll help you," Tali breathes between kisses. And she does help her. Soon there is nothing between her and Shepard, just skin, just kisses and sighs and the future, all of it laid bare, like them, for the taking.