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Passing Time

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It was easy enough, standing there in Udina's office, for Shepard to trust the quarian woman who had just handed them the proof they needed to discredit Saren in the eyes of the Council. She offered Tali a spot on her crew without a second thought, just like she had both Garrus and Wrex. Tali had helped her, had helped them, and that's all there was to it.

Exactly what that entailed didn't even cross her mind.

It wasn't until much later that Shepard found out just how many strings Pressly had pulled to get everything Tali would need onboard the Normandy before they left the Citadel. Food, not just dextro but dextro that had been specially prepared and sterilized. Medical supplies, so that a clean room could be set up if needed. Armor, because the suit Tali had been wearing when they'd met clearly wasn't meant for combat.

She'd invited Tali to join her crew. And if she hadn't had a competent XO, the poor girl probably would have starved to death.

Of course, Tali laughed at her when Shepard had finally admitted to it.

"You had other things to worry about, Shepard," Tali said. "Besides, I brought nutrient packets with me when I came onboard just to be safe."

Shepard bit her lip, sheepishly rubbing the back of her neck with her hand. "Still, I should have—"

Tali cut her off with a gesture of her hand. "Bah, what's done is done," she said. "I'd much rather talk about that omni-tool you brought back with you from the asteroid."

Even though Shepard knew Tali was trying to change the subject, the engineer in her couldn't resist giving in. She held up her arm, activating the omni-tool. Tali clapped her hands together eagerly and leaned in to inspect it.

Looking back, Shepard couldn't help but think that might have been the moment when everything began to change.

*

Tali didn't tell Shepard about the infection she'd gotten on Virmire until they were halfway to the Mu Relay.

Shepard's hands clenched into fists at her sides. "Damn it, Tali, why didn't you say something before now?"

"If I had, would you have left me on the Citadel?" Tali asked.

Shepard glared at her. "Yes!"

Tali crossed her arms in front of her chest and tilted her head. Even without being able to see her face, Shepard could read Tali's body language clearly enough. Right now, it was very obviously saying "and that's why I didn't say anything, you bosh'tet."

She could almost hear Tali saying the words in her head. And, just like that, Shepard felt her anger fade away.

"I want you to stay on the Normandy with Ash," she said tiredly. "With an infection you're a liability." She gave Tali what she hoped was a reassuring smile, to try and soften the blow. "Besides, there's no way we can possibly fit more than four people in the Mako."

To her credit, Tali didn't argue. She simply nodded her head in agreement. "Not when one of those four people is Wrex."

Shepard let out a surprised bark of laughter. "True," she agreed, the corner of her mouth twitching. Then her face sobered. "You and Adams keep my ship flying while I'm down there, okay?"

"Of course, Shepard," Tali said easily. "Always."

*

Two years of her life were gone in the blink of an eye. Her crew was scattered among the stars, all of them convinced that she was dead. She had been rebuilt from the ground up by Cerberus, like a modern Frankenstein's monster. The goddamn Collectors were abducting entire colonies. The Reapers were still out there, somewhere, doing who knows what.

And what was the great Commander Shepard, hero of Elysium and the Citadel, doing? She was curled up on her bed in her giant, empty quarters, trying her best not to think about the fact that Tali had said "no" when she'd asked her to rejoin her crew.

"Fuck my life," Shepard said to the universe at large.

Thankfully, the universe didn't reply. And neither did the Cerberus AI that Shepard knew was probably listening in, which was a small mercy in itself.

Shepard wasn't certain why it hurt so much. Two years was a long time. A lot of things had changed. Tali had changed. She'd said so herself: she wasn't some kid on her pilgrimage anymore, she was a full-fledged member of the Flotilla with responsibilities of her own. She'd already dropped everything to help save the galaxy once; twice was too much to ask for.

The rationalization didn't make it hurt any less. And she couldn't help but think that at least part of it was because it was Tali.

Garrus had been the one who she trusted to watch her back. Kaidan had been the one who she trusted to speak from his mind. Ashley had been the one who she trusted to speak from her heart. Liara had been the one she trusted to decipher the mess that had been poured into her head. Wrex had been... well, Wrex.

But Tali? Tali had been her fellow engineer. Tali had been the one she'd visited in the middle of the night when she couldn't sleep, when they'd sit there and talk and fiddle with the engines and drive the poor crewmembers on the night shift up the wall. Tali had been her friend, her confidante, the sister she had never had.

And if she said "no", how could Shepard expect anyone else to say "yes?"

*

"It's just that the tradition also signifies a willingness for, um, intimacy."

The words hung in the air between them. Tali shuffled nervously, ducking her head as if she was trying to avoid looking at Shepard's face.

Shepard stood there, frozen, her hand still resting on Tali's arm.

She was distantly aware of what sounded like some hurried whispers coming from nearby. A soft thud, like someone getting hit, and a distinctly Scottish-sounding "ow." The door opening and closing. And she just... stood there.

"Say something? Please?" Tali asked, and there was something in her voice that Shepard didn't think she had ever noticed before. "I'll even take embarrassed laughter at this point."

Shepard blinked. Then she realized that her hand was still on Tali's arm, and she jerked it away. "Sorry, I—" She trailed off, not quite sure what she was even trying to say. "I mean—"

Tali didn't say anything. She didn't have to say anything. That was something Shepard had always loved about her, the fact that she let her body language speak so clearly for her, and right now it was saying more than words ever could.

And Tali clearly thought that she was trying to say "no."

"I thought it was just me," Shepard finally managed to blurt out. Then she grimaced. She'd never been good with words, not when it was important. She could make grand speeches with the best of them, but when it came to things like feelings she tripped over her own tongue.

Tali stared at her. Or, at least, Shepard assumed she was staring at her. It was hard to tell, without seeing her face, but she was definitely getting the impression that she was being stared at.

"Are you saying—?" Tali asked, trailing off as if she was having just as much trouble as Shepard when it came to finding the words. There was hope in her voice that hadn't been there a minute or so ago, though.

Shepard couldn't help it. She smiled. "Yes," she said simply. "I am."

*

The first time Shepard saw Tali's face, the only thing she could think to say was: "oh."

She was staring. She knew that she was staring. But she couldn't quite force her body to do anything else, not when she was seeing her best friend—her girlfriend—for the first time.

Tali stared back at her, and for the first time ever Shepard could see her staring at her. A thousand and one different expressions were flooding over her face, as if she couldn't make up her mind on just one.

"Good 'oh' or bad 'oh'?" Tali asked, a hint of her earlier nervousness still in her voice.

Shepard kept staring for another second or two, trying her best to memorize exactly what Tali's face looked like under that mask. Then she leaned in and kissed her.

Tali made a surprised sound, but she didn't pull back or push Shepard away. She leaned into the kiss instead, even if it was a little awkwardly at first.

"Good," Shepard murmured against Tali's lips, not pulling away. "Definitely good."