"Did you find anything on the Alarei that could clarify what happened there?"
Hundreds of quarians stared down at Tali from the tiered benches in the Assembly Garden, but she did not acknowledge any of them. Her eyes were locked on Commander Shepard as he approached the raised dais where the Admirals presided. They had found evidence... indisputable, undeniable proof that her father was guilty of everything for which they blamed him: weapons tests, AI experimentation, and worst of all, willfully circumventing safety procedures which resulted in the deaths of everyone aboard the Alarei. The fleet would tear itself apart if the truth came out, and then the Citadel Council would swoop in and further cripple them by imposing sanctions for continuing the crimes their ancestors had committed that sparked the geth uprising in the first place.
It would be the end of the quarian people. Still, she could only see Commander Shepard. Because of quarantine, he wore his combat helmet at all times, which obscured his entire face except for his eyes. She found the appearance of humans tolerable at best. Like quarians, they had the same bilateral symmetry that most species in Citadel space shared in common, two eyes, one nose, one mouth... But the uneven distribution of their hair on their bodies always struck her as unhealthy, and their smooth brown skin was nothing like hers, their eyes bizzare by quarian standards.
It struck her as odd that now she had to to look upon Shepard he always saw her. All she could see were his eyes; dark, sensitive, attractive, though non-reflective. She always liked the radial pattern in his irises that seemed to glitter in light. Even when she could see his face, though, she always focused on his eyes when they talked, especially in those moments when he looked directly back as if he could see through her semi-opaque faceplate. Most people would lean in close and leer out of some twisted curiosity to see her face, even though it was nothing special amongst her people. Shepard, on the other hand, just seemed to do it to make eye contact, like any other quarian would. He was the only human who ever treated her that way.
Now those eyes carried with them a pain like she had never seen before. Shepard always went to any length to protect his people, no matter what. He always did the right thing by them. That both comforted and terrified Tali, because now she needed him to do the opposite. During the entire flight back from the Alarei, he tried feverishly to convince her to reveal the truth, convinced that they could find a way to exonerate her without sparking a civil war in the Flotilla. But she couldn't risk it. There was too much at stake.
In her mind, it made sense. Her reputation, and possibly her life were a reasonable sacrifice for the fleet. But she knew Shepard saw it differently. In his mind, he was sacrificing two of the things which mattered the most: his own honor, and that of a friend. Ordinarily, he would have died before giving up either. He glanced at her, his eyes confused, hurt, but with the resilience of a man who had done hundreds of things he didn't want to do because duty demanded it. But which way would that sense of duty take him now?
She held her breath as her commander stepped towards waiting Admirals. She opened a private comm link. "Shepard, please..."
Admiral Raan's voice was calm. "Does Captain Shepard have any new evidence to submit to this hearing?"
Shepard's fists clenched at his sides he raised his head to look at the admirals. "We found nothing on the Alarei that we wish to submit as evidence."
Tali closed her eyes and let out her breath. The entire chamber fell silent. All of the admirals on the board activated their omni-tools to cast their votes, except one.
"Tali?" Admiral Han'Gerrel stared at her in disbelief. Could the human captain be acting against her wishes?
Shepard looked over his shoulder to Tali at Gerrel's shocked exclamation. Rael'Zorah's oldest, and most trusted friend was giving her one last chance for her to tell her side of the story, to say what really happened on the doomed research ship. Take it, Shepard's eyes pleaded. Please!
"I have nothing to say," Tali was in a daze. She hardly even heard the words over her own thoughts, or noticed Admiral Gerrel reluctantly keyed in his vote after each of the admirals had already done so. The future of the fleet, at least for the foreseeable future, had been saved.
The only thing she saw was Shepard lowering his head upon hearing her sentence, ashamed as if he had cast the deciding vote himself.
"Tali," Kelly said over the intercom. "Tali, are you there?"
Tali blinked a few times and looked around her small berth on the Normandy. "Oh, yes. Sorry, Kelly. I'm here. I just got distracted for a minute."
"Tell me about it. We've got so many people coming and going here in CIC that Shepard is going to have to assign me a yeoman. EDI was able to correct the signal drift and we have reconnected with the Migrant Fleet. Admiral Gerrel is standing by to talk to you."
"Thank you," Tali said. After her exile, she had no direct contact with the Flotilla. The Admiralty Board, the Conclave, even her friends in the fleet all regarded her as a traitor. Even with the onset of negotiations with the geth, all communications had gone through the Alliance or Commander Shepard himself. A few weeks ago, she would have been too nervous to speak at the prospect of confronting the Admirals on her own. Now, she wasn't even curious why they sought her out directly. She was just too tired to care about it. "Put him through."
When the holo screen finally activated, it showed only one suited figure where she expected four. But, she supposed, she should be grateful any of them were talking to her.
"Hey, kid," Han'Gerrel said. "How are you holding up out there?"
Tali spoke as if she were responding to a tech support call. "What can I do for you, Admiral Gerrel?"
Gerrel stared at her momentarily, then chuckled to himself. "You know, you used to run up and hug my legs when you saw your dad and me come back from patrol. Guess it'd be foolish for me to expect that kind of welcome after what we put you through."
Tali stared back at him.
"Tali, for what it's worth, I tried. I did everything I could to keep the others from making you the target. But someone had to answer for the Alarei. For what it's worth, I know what you did and why. It was the right play, and it took guts. Something that sadly our leadership hasn't been showing enough of lately. Including me."
Tali felt tears welling up in her eyes, but she said nothing. She never asked for an explanation or exoneration, and she wasn't going to now. What the Admiralty Board had done was on their conscience, and it was up to them to make it right.
Gerrel laughed again. "You know, half the Conclave wanted Shepard's head when he read us the riot act after your trial. But then, about half of them wanted ours, too. Can't say which half I agree with more. But I know one thing. He was right. This had nothing to do with you. It was all fleet politics. All of it. And we threw away what may be the finest example of a quarian to the rest of the galaxy the Fleet could have asked for."
He shook his head sadly. "Shepard was right... It was a disgrace what we did to you."
Tali sat and waited. She had heard the Admiral say all of the right things, except for what mattered most. Unfortunately, after everything she'd been through, she wasn't surprised.
Gerrel kept trying. "Good man, your captain."
"You have no idea," Tali said. "But you didn't answer my question. What do you want from me?"
Gerrel cocked his head. He knew Tali could be stubborn. How many times had Rael been forced to acquiesce to his daughter's demands to go on dangerous salvage missions into geth space, or to permit her access to the Fleet's finest technical resources so she could solve a mechanical problem on her birthship? But when it came to putting on a humble face for the sake of the Fleet, Tali never hesitated.
She hated ceremony and politics as much as her father or himself, but when required to show up to functions as the daughter of an Admiral of the Board, she dutifully showed up in her finest suit and veils and played the part. She chatted amicably with the captains of the Conclave even though she hated every moment of it but would trade anything to be crawling through some cramped vent shaft with a spanner in one hand flashlight in the other. Because of her positive spirit and good nature, her mere presence was sometimes enough to blunt the assaults of angry dissenters, because as mad as they might get at Rael, they couldn't bear to say anything too harsh while his daughter was around.
He refrained from saying it, but he couldn't help but think it. If only your father could see you now, kid. He'd be so proud. She was a grown-up now, though. He should treat her like one. "I'm sure you've heard by now that this business with the geth is all fouled up. Some bosh'tet posted the geth codecs on the net and they've cut themselves off from us. They're not talking any more."
Tali gave no indication that she knew exactly who that bosh'tet was, or that she agreed with its reasoning. "I know."
"There's a geth on the Normandy, isn't there? Did it survive your mission? Are you still in contact with them?"
"I am," Tali said. "And they still want to negotiate with us."
"They do?" Gerrel said, stunned. "That's- precicely why I'm calling you. The Conclave has appropriated the vote to decide on whether or not to pursue negotiations. But the vote will go against negotiations if we don't have anyone to talk to. If your geth were here, now, we could settle this, once and for all."
"You're in favor of negotiations?"
"The way things are," Gerrel sighed, "we can't take on the geth. It took me some time to come around on this, but it's time to look for alternatives."
Tali exhaled and took a deep breath. Han had always been for fighting to take back the homeworld. To hear him come out in favor of negotiations like this made her tremble with joy. Even though the Conclave was still stalemated, Han's vote for peace as an Admiral would carry great weight. "We were on our way to you but... it's gotten complicated. First we got attacked, and then the collectors came back through the relay-"
"I know," Gerrel said. "I've seen the reports. And Shepard and his Cerberus pals are in a spot of trouble with the Council, aren't they?"
Tali nodded, thankful she didn't have to explain.
Gerrel grinned. "That collector ship you bagged earned him some points, though, didn't it? Bet the chief engineer didn't get any credit though, did she? Commanders always steal the glory. But we all know who does all the work on a ship."
She couldn't help herself. Tali laughed. Han'Gerrel might have been kicked to the highest level of command, but he never hesitated to give credit to those who served under him. Just like Shepard.
"I need your honest opinion, Tali. No holding back. Do you think we can make peace with the geth?"
"Yes," Tali said. Her defenses down, she struggled not to get emotional. "I'm sure of it. Keelah, if you talk to them, hear what they've said to me... If you could see what I've seen..."
"Let's make it happen then," Gerrel said. "We've dispatched a ship to Erinle in the Osun system, one jump away Sarhabarik. They're waiting to pick up your geth."
Tali patted her chest to settle her sudden congestion. "Oh, no... Commander Shepard wants to... he said he would be happy to bring them to the fleet."
Gerrel shook his head. "Not gonna happen. With all the heat Shepard's got on him right now with the Council, with Cerberus... there's no way that's going to fly with the Conclave or the other Admirals. Besides, it sounds like he's got his hands full with this reaper threat."
Tali gave a single nod. She could not disagree.
"So, our ship will bring the geth straight back to the fleet," Gerrel confirmed. He paused for a few seconds as if trying to find the right words to say. "And the offer's not just limited to mechanicals either. There's room for you, if you want."
Tali inhaled sharply. "What? Really?"
"I'm going to try and get your exile overturned, kid. If I have to call in every last favor I've got in the entire Flotilla, I'm gonna clear your name. You've earned it."
"Keelah," Tali said. Home, she thought. They'll let me go home. Aboard the Normandy after her trial, she couldn't bear watching the fleet disappear in the distance as they maneuvered away. The last time she actually laid eyes on the magnificent expanse of stellar machinery was on their way to the Alarei, and that was a memory she actively tried to forget. To go back to the Flotilla...
What would become of Tali'Zorah vas Normandy? The SR-2 and her crew had become dearer to her than the original Normandy, and even as important to her as the Migrant Fleet. They had stripped her of her identity when they cast her out, but she couldn't have asked for a finer name to take than the one they bestowed on her in shame. She had been completely honest when she consoled Legion in the AI core after it had been ejected from the geth collective.
The Normandy was her home now.
"I'll need to make arrangements with Commander Shepard," she said. "But I'm sure we can work something out."
Gerrel leaned back, surprised at the mild response. "Understood. But don't take too long. We need you back here as soon as possible, before things really start to heat up."
"We'll be there as soon as we can."
"Glad to hear it. And Tali?"
"I'm sorry," Gerril's eyes lowered on the screen. "About your father, about the trial... about not standing up for you when I should have."
Tears flowed down her cheeks as her eyes clamped shut. That's all she wanted to hear from anyone in the Flotilla, but coming from him... She sniffed and opened them once more. "You did what you had to do for the fleet, venya."
Gerril smiled at the informal familial title. "Take care of yourself, kid. I'll see you in a day or two, huh? Let me know what the plan is. Gerrel out."
Han'Gerrel leaned back in his chair. Sitting across the small table in the Admiral's antechamber, Daro'Xen shook her head.
"I never would have expected such sentimentality from an old soldier like yourself," she said.
Gerrel hoped the disgust in his voice was clear, towards her, and himself. "Or such deceit. I'm spending too much time in your company."
Xen stood and walked toward the door. "You're adapting, which is also something I never thought you capable of. So, our ship has reached its destination at Osun?"
"That's right," Gerrel said.
"Excellent. Then our timeline won't be affected."
"Just one thing, Admiral," Gerrel said. Xen turned back to face him. Through hundreds of years of adaptation, quarians had learned to utilize body language and expression using eyes alone to convey meaning. Han'Gerrel's posture and eyes showed he was now expressing an absolute truth. "If she gets so much as a micro-tear in her suit, I'm holding you responsible."Xen looked down at the table before her eyes narrowed with a smirk. "Come now, Han, have faith. This time next year, Tali will be throwing her suit on a giant bonfire with the rest of us, commemorating the anniversary of the day we reclaimed our home."