Shepard approached the briefing room door and paused to listen. If Tali was in the middle of wrangling with the Conclave, he didn't want to interrupt. But the room sounded silent. Had she gone through the lab on her way to CIC and missed him?
Inside, Legion and Platform two both stood next to the table on the right, behind Tali, slumped slumped over in a chair with her head and arms on the table. Shepard scowled, concerned, until he saw her shoulders rise and fall, and he heard a faint snore coming from her vocalizer. She'd forgotten to turn it off. The two geth kept their cameras on him as he approached.
"How long has she been out," Shepard whispered.
"Forty-six minutes," the geth answered simultaneously.
Shepard hated to wake anyone with bad news, especially when bad news was the norm of late. But there was no point in putting it off. He reached out and gently shook Tali's shoulder.
Tali inhaled sharply and sat up, then blinked as she tried to remember where she was. "Oh. Shepard. I'm sorry, I didn't know when you'd be back so I just put my head down for a minute and... Wow, you look really nice."
Shepard smiled and smoothed the front of his uniform. "Yeah, well, I couldn't go over to the Vellius looking like I just came off a Cerberus ship, could I?"
Tali smiled back. "No. This is a much better look for you. Um... You had a good talk with their captain?"
"I did. She's agreed to take Mordin back to the Citadel."
"Oh, that's great. I mean, I'm going to miss him, but it will be a relief to know he'll be safe." Tali stood and looked Shepard from head to toe. Maybe it was because she was so tired, or that she just hated seeing him a Cerberus uniform, but she couldn't help but comment again. "You always looked so handsome when you wore that on the Citadel."
"Thanks, Tali. I have to say, I miss wearing it."
"Me, too. I mean... miss you wearing it. I mean- So, did you hear from your ambassadors?"
"I did. And I'm afraid the Alliance is out of the picture. At least for now."
"I see," Tali said and sat back down.
"I'm sorry, Tali." Shepard turned to Platform Two. "But it's only end if you let it be. Maybe this is a good thing. Sometimes middlemen only slow down the process, right?"
Platform Two buzzed. "Our lack of experience in negotiating with organics could encourage the creators to take advantage of us. Given the creators' hostility toward geth, we view outside mediation as necessary for any chance of success."
"Blue, come on. All you have to do is talk to them. Don't let this be a roadblock. You're so close, and all the right people are out of the way now."
"Shepard," Tali said from her chair, "Blue's right. They're right not to trust us. I hate to say this, but... You know how long it took me to change my mind about Legion. A long time, much longer than you wanted, remember? And I think my progress with him has given you unrealistic hopes about how my people view the geth as a whole. Do you remember how I acted when..." Tali swallowed and cleared her throat, "I thought Legion was dead and you asked me to bring him back? That was only a few weeks ago."
"Seems like years," Shepard took the chair next to Tali. "I guess it's a little naive to think everyone would change their minds like you did."
Tali laughed, to Shepard's surprise. "They haven't seen what I have, have they? Unfortunately, quarian consensus doesn't work like the geth. Or as well. I mean, after me, Kal is probably the closest thing to a friend in the fleet that the geth have, and you know what he thinks of them. My people have lost too much, suffered for so long. Three weeks isn't nearly enough to heal. And especially after everything that's happened with Rayya..." She looked up. "Do Miranda or Miss T'Vari have any leads on who was behind the attack?"
"No, not yet."
"That makes things even worse. Most of the fleet think the geth are responsible. Even the ones who were open to negotiation. Blue is right. There has to be a neutral party to mediate. It won't work otherwise."
"Okay then," Shepard said, looking between the quarian and geth. "The key thing was getting you two back to the bargaining table. You're there. It shouldn't matter who does the arbitration, as long as we can find someone who is mutually accepted."
"Agreed," Tali said.
The blue geth nodded. "Affirmative."
"So who, then?" Shepard leaned back in the chair. "Did you ever consider any alternates?"
"Negative," Legion spoke up. "The peace proposal originated with the human diplomats at Arcturus. They were considered ideal by both sides because of humanity's influence on the Citadel but their simultaneous willingness to exclude the Council from the proceedings."
"I assume that means going to the Citadel with this is still out of the question?"
"Yes," the two geth and quarian said in unison. "No Council," Tali said firmly.
"Just checking," Shepard said. "So who does that leave? The volus? The elcor? Aria on Omega?"
Platform Two's flaps contracted. "In spite of her considerable influence, we do not believe T'Loak-Aria to be a viable option for-"
"I was kidding, Blue. Just a joke."
Shepard looked back to Tali at the table next to him. She rested her helmet in her hands as she leaned against the table, her eyes closed once again. "I don't know, Shepard," Tali said. "I can't even think anymore. I don't want to."
"Right," Shepard said. He was about to say don't take too long, the clock is ticking, but if there was one person who was aware of time slipping away, it was the woman in front of him. "Look, we're going to have a little going-away gathering in the lounge for Mordin, assuming he can break free from his call with Hackett. Why don't you think on it here for a while, and come down when you're ready and give yourself a little break. You've earned it."
"I don't know," Tali said. "No one in the fleet is taking a break right now. I shouldn't."
"Right," Shepard wanted to kick himself for inviting the quarian to a party while her people faced starvation. He patted her thigh and stood. "Well, as soon as you figure it out, come find me."
Shepard nodded to the pair of geth and walked toward the hatch.
Legion took a step to follow. "Shepard-Commander."
"Yeah, Legion? What's up?"
"We were not proposing a query," Legion said. "We were answering yours. Shepard-Commander should arbitrate negotiations between the geth and the creators."
"What?" Shepard asked.
Tali sat up straight and looked between Legion and Shepard, her eyes wide with excitement. "That's brilliant!"
"Woah," Shepard said. "Wait a minute..."
"Consensus achieved," Blue stepped in front of Shepard and sound as excited any geth could. "Core collective reporting one-hundred percent in favor of Shepard-Commander assuming mediation role in negotiations with a margin of error of less than zero point zero-one percent."
"Hey, hold up-"
Tali jumped from her chair. "Please, Shepard! It's a perfect idea! I know you were at odds with the Admiralty Board, but they're gone now. The Conclave is in control. When you represented me at my trial, you have no idea what that meant to the Captains of the Conclave. They know you and respect you. Quarians throughout the whole fleet do. Most of all, everyone knows you'll leave the Council out of it."
"Shepard-Commander," Blue said in his other ear, "the entire collective is confident that you will provide fair and comprehensive arbitration in any dealings with the creators, and will reciprocate on the creators' behalf."
Shepard rubbed his neck. "Look, I don't even know where I'm going to be in a week. There's been a huge breakthrough on the reaper invasion. I can't commit to something like this, give it the attention it deserves."
"Just get us started," Tali clasped Shepard's hands in front of her. "Please. We don't have time to start from scratch."
She stood close enough that Shepard could see the desperation in her eyes, but also the hope that he gave her. But all he felt was dread. "You need a diplomat. An honest-to-goodness negotiator. Not someone whose solution to every problem is to point a gun at someone's head until they agree. That won't work here. Trust me. I'm not the right man for the job."
"Yes you are," Tali said, her voice constricted.
Shepard sighed. At times like this, he was amazed at how much emotion Tali could convey simply with her eyes. "Tell me one way I'm remotely qualified."
Tali squeezed his hands. "Because you believe in this. More than anyone. You did from the start, even when I didn't."
"Shepard-Commander," Legion said. "You are the only entity trusted by both factions. You are the logical choice."
Shepard locked in on Legion. It was sometimes difficult to tell when the geth was actually looking at someone, but for the first time, he felt the geth was actually making eye contact. Platform Two stared silently from behind them, watching his slightest movements. Shepard found himself unable to speak. When he did, it came out with a hesitant stutter. "I'll have to think about this."
"Okay," Tali blinked. "Um, okay."
Not sure of what else to say, Shepard nodded. "I've got to go check on Mordin. See if he's ready to go."
"Right. I'll, uh, wait to hear from you then."
Shepard pulled his hands away from hers and headed out of the briefing room. Why didn't they understand what he was saying? He had always pushed Tali and Legion closer together, encouraged them to cooperate as crew-mates, but he'd always insisted that they not put him in the middle of it, but talk to each other instead. It was the only way they could possibly get over their issues, and was the only reason they had come as far as they had.
You've always been a facilitator, he told himself. Not a mediator. It's one thing to bring two parties together, but you've always left it up to them to make peace or not. You can't make them do it, no matter what they think.
And how long would negotiations take? Days? Weeks? The Alliance Diplomatic Corps had planned for the long haul and had the personnel and resources to see it through, until their diplomat had been killed in the attack which crippled the Rayya. But with everything still going on with the reapers, with Cerberus and all the other problems in the universe, could he afford to stay out of the loop long enough to have any effect?
By the time he finished that line of thought, he was in CIC, punching the button in the elevator for the the crew deck. Or do you just not want this to be your problem, on top of everything else?
"Hold the elevator!" Joker hobbled toward him from around CIC's central island. When he stepped inside, he leaned against the elevator, out of breath. He carried a rectangular slab of black plastic under one arm. "Thanks, Commander."
Shepard kept his hand on the elevator and eyed Joker's cargo. "Bringing a date, I see."
Joker flashed an embarrassed smile. "Well, you know, she doesn't have a terminal down there, and it seems kind of wrong to leave her out when we get together..."
Shepard stared at the door in front of him. "Very thoughtful of you."
As the elevator descended, Joker kept glancing at his captain. "You okay, Commander?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Why?"
"You've got that little crease on your forehead that you get when you're really pissed off and you don't want anyone to know, but we all still do, anyway."
Shepard touched his forehead and at the same time realized he was wearing a deep scowl. He relaxed his face and pretended to shrug it off.
"What is it this time? The Council? The Illusive man?"
"It's not me, is it?"
"No, Joker, it's not you. Not yet."
"Just making sure. But if you keep it up, you'll end up with wrinkles. So... What's the latest with the quarians? How's Tali doing?"
The elevator doors opened onto the crew deck and Shepard hurried out without answering, leaving Joker behind. The door to Port Observation stood open and the sound of light conversation and trance music echoed through the corridor. He walked in to see much of the crew standing about or sitting on the couches scattered about the lounge, talking and laughing and drinking from disposable paper cups.
Personnel from different divisions were all clumped with their own kind, but that always changed after a while. And, as usual, the members of the squad were camped out next to the bar, Except for Grunt, who stood with four people from Technical, towering over the small group of laughing humans. Then there was Garrus, sitting by himself on the aft couch, staring out the window.
Shepard made his way forward. Kasumi stood behind the bar, on top of which were dozens of the small paper cups filled with orange fruit punch. Miranda and Jacob sat on the stools, while Zaeed leaned against the wall at the end, his traditional spot where he could lean comfortably, still see the exit, and not have to reach very far for his drink.
Kasumi whistled at the sight of the Commander as he approached in his dress uniform. "Finally, a customer with class! What can I get for you, sir?"
Jacob stood from his stool and snapped a salute. "Good day, Commander, sir!"
Soon, everyone around the bar was grinning and saluting Shepard, except Miranda, who just shook her head and sighed. Shepard stood with his hands on his hips and waited for the laughter to die down. He leaned over the bar to inspect the cups. They were filled with a translucent orange liquid. "So what's everyone drinking?"
"Water, or fruit punch," Miranda said, to a chorus of boos from around the room. She raised her voice to be heard. "As per your order, Commander, no alcoholic beverages are being served."
Shepard nodded and picked up a cup of juice. "Good. We're moving out as soon as Mordin transfers to the Vellius. I don't want anyone getting trashed. Zaeed, you read me?"
The mercenary stared sadly at the paper cup in is hand. "Loud and clear, Shepard."
Miranda cocked her head. Ordinarily, Shepard would try to make light of the sudden dry spell, up to and including implying that it had all been her idea. But not now. "Everything all right, Commander?"
"He's still on the comm with Admiral Hackett and the Citadel. He might not make it down here in time, though."
"All right, well... If he's not here in fifteen minutes, have everyone assemble outside the airlock so we can see him off."
All around the bar, the gathered squad exchanged worried glances as Shepard quietly downed a cup of juice. It was as if a dampening field had enveloped that corner of the lounge.
"Joker!" Kasumi cleared some of the paper cups away on the bar to make room for him as he hobbled up to the end of the bar. "What will it be?"
Joker placed the black plastic tile under his arm on the bar's surface. Almost instantly, EDI's spherical avatar materialized over its surface. "Nothing for me, thanks. I'm driving. That is a joke."
"And it's a good one, too, EDI."
Everyone around the bar now exchanged slight smiles at the change in their pilot's and AI's attitude toward one another. Joker now took a portable projector anywhere he went on the ship; to the mess, to the lounge, wherever there wasn't one of EDI's consoles present, he brought her with him. It was a far cry from the pilot who bitched incessantly about the mechanical intruder in the sanctum of his cockpit. Now they were inseparable.
Kasumi pointed at the pilot. "What about you, Joker? Water, or artificially flavored and colored powdered 'fruit beverage?'"
Joker winced at his options. "Could I get a coke?"
"Special order for a special man," Kasumi pulled up the bar's fountain gun and squirted fizzy brown soda into a cup.
"Woah, hitting the hard stuff," Jacob said. "Slow down, there. Kasumi, he's cut off after this."
"Definitely," Kasumi said, "Don't want him scuffing up the ship again. Already needs a new paint job."
"Yeah, one more ding and the Normandy will look almost as busted up as Zaeed."
EDI's avatar pulsed in time to her words. "'Scuffed up' and 'dinged' are hardly adequate descriptions for what I have experienced the past few days."
"Ooh, that's right," Kasumi winced. "It's your body, isn't it? I never thought about that. You sure you don't want that drink, now?"
"No, thank you, Kasumi. I don't feel pain in the same sense as organics do, but I am aware of the state of every component of the ship. When parts of it are non-functional, it is... disconcerting."
Joker patted EDI's tile. "We'll take better care of it from now on. I promise."
"That is not entirely under your control, but thank you, Jeff."
Jacob raised his cup. "Hopefully we can go without any of us getting dinged for a while. Shit's gettin' old. So what's the word, Commander? What's next?"
Shepard shook his head. "Not sure yet. We'll have to see what Hackett says."
When the bar fell silent once more, Miranda tried to keep the conversation going. "So what did Arcturus have to say about sending another representative?"
Kasumi's eyes lit up beneath her cowl. "The negotiations are back on? Oh, I'm so happy to hear that. I knew the geth wouldn't hold a grudge."
"It's not that simple," Shepard said. "Arcturus said no. The Alliance has rescinded their offer to mediate, and the geth won't move forward without it."
"What are they going to do?" Kasumi asked, looking directly at Shepard. "The geth know the creators are about to run out of food, don't they?"
"They know," Shepard snapped.
Jacob looked up at him. "So what's the plan, Commander?"
Shepard set his empty cup back on the bar and looked at the ring of faces around him, all watching him for his answer. "I don't know," he said and walked away.
Garrus didn't look to see who sat on the couch next to him, instead focusing on the starscape outside the window. He didn't have to. Being on the Normandy, a visit was inevitable, whether it was here or in the Forward Battery. "I was wondering how long it was going to take you to come over here."
When he didn't get a reply, Garrus turned his head. Shepard watched his crew mingle about, laughing and chatting, seemingly without a care of the world in spite of everything that had happened the past few days. Shepard usually fed off of that kind of energy, but now he just looked beaten down.
Tali and Legion walked through the open hatch to their right. Tali stopped in the door and looked around nonchalantly, as if surveying the room just to see who was there, but there was always one person she looked for, first. When Tali saw Garrus looking back at her, she turned her head and made a beeline for the bar with Legion in tow, all the time somehow managing to keep Shepard in her line of sight. The squad and crew of the Normandy all gathered around her to offer their sympathies for the Rayya. Shepard watched briefly, then redirected his gaze to the ceiling.
Not good, Garrus thought. Shepard always went out of his way to comfort any of his crew in time of crisis, but instead of rushing to join the others, he pretended not to see her. "I take it things aren't going so smoothly between the geth and quarians."
A flash of anger crossed Shepard's face, then he closed his eyes and sighed. "You ever make a decision you knew was right, but made you feel like crap?"
Garrus let out a laugh and turned back to the window. The Commander must have gotten the story from Captain Artuis about what happened on the Vellius, and as usual was slow-playing his hand. "Why don't you just come right out and say it?"
Garrus turned back to Shepard, and saw his own confusion mirrored in Shepard's face. They stared at each other for several seconds. "Hmm. We're both obviously not wanting to talk about different things."
Shepard raised his brow. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."
"No, you first. That's an order. What's the problem?"
"Yeah?" Shepard gave a grunt. "So do humans."
Garrus settled into the couch. Shepard obviously had some great weight pressing down on him, and had actually come to get it off his chest. Somehow he knew whatever was bothering Shepard would be more important. If it would get him talking about it, Garrus would play along. "So I'm over on the Vellius, drinking with the crew, laughing, having a great time. As fortune would have it, three very lovely ladies gathered to keep me company."
"What, only three? I would have expected at least ten or twelve, based on your previous stories."
"I have no need to exaggerate my conquests, Shepard. You're just projecting."
"Whatever, dude. When was the last time you saw me get shot down?"
"Can't say. When was the last time you actually got into the air?"
The two of them laughed. Shepard held up his hands. "Okay, enough about me. Let's get back to how you had three hot women on the line but yet you came back on board with an empty net."
"Not hot," Garrus corrected. "On fire, Shepard. I mean on any ship there's always one or two that will turn your head, but on this little frigate, with a crew of maybe twenty-four, there were three. And they were all right there, all vying for my attention..."
"Hold on," Shepard said. He pulled an invisible box from his pocket and went to work on it with an invisible screwdriver. "Can this wait? I'm in the middle of calibrating my bullshit meter."
"I mean it. Two of them were talking about taking me on at the same time, and I think they meant right then and there. And the third was about to take them on to stop it. Being the diplomat, I was going to suggest that we just make it a free for all, and let strength and skill determine who came out on top. So to speak."
"Right. I think I heard this one somewhere. 'Dear Fornax, I never thought this could happen to me...'"
"Do you want to hear the rest of this, or not?"
"No, please, continue. I'm hanging on every bullshit word."
"So anyway," Garrus sighed, "I was the middle of destroying their champion at a game of daggers when the rest of the crew starts asking about life on a human ship. That's not unusual. Most turians only ever serve with other turians. I mean they already understood that you all smell funny, and we already know you look funny, but outside of that, for the most part, turians respect humans as equals."
"The feeling is mutual, on all counts."
With another sigh, Garrus continued. "But then they started in on the other people on the Normandy, other species that they don't respect... and all of the sudden, it wasn't funny any more. I mean, I know you're kidding, just like you know I am. But they weren't."
"Let me guess, 'I'm not racist, but...'"
"No, not even that. They didn't even try to justify it." Garrus stood and started to pace. "The worst part is they automatically assumed I felt the same way they did. They wanted me to. I was ashamed, Shepard. Turian society is built on merit. It doesn't matter what a person's lineage is. If you come from the lowliest, poorest clan, if you start with nothing, you are judged solely on your achievements and can achieve the highest stations. But apparently that doesn't apply to other species. If you're a human you're a diplomatic disaster. If you're a krogan, you're a mindless savage. If you're a quarian... you're a shiftless thief, unworthy of helping, even if your entire species is facing extinction. I guess that's what really set me off. It wasn't that they didn't want to help. It's that they didn't even think they should. One of them even suggested using force to... end the quarian problem once and for all."
Garrus found himself staring at his own reflection in the observation window in front of him. He couldn't look himself in the eyes. "And I didn't say anything to stop them. I just left without saying a word. I'm a coward, Shepard. I should have said... something."
Shepard looked at the back of his friend's head. "Seems to me like you said plenty when you walked out of there. Not everyone would have done that considering what you were there to do. But you know what you would have accomplished by making a scene?"
"Nothing. They'd have started in on you two seconds later."
"At least I would have been in good company."
"Maybe." Shepard stretched back, his hands behind his head. "Hey, you remember Charlie Pressly, don't you?"
Garrus looked over his shoulder at Shepard. "Of course."
"When you first came aboard the Normandy, you remember what he called you?"
"No. Wait, what? What did he call me?"
"Spike. Or spike-head."
"Really? You serious?"
"Oh yeah," Shepard shrugged. "Never to your face. And not in front of me, once he found out I didn't like it. But that didn't stop him. Actually he had a lot of names for you. Space chicken, vulture, dodo bird..."
Garrus scowled. Most of the slurs Shepard mentioned represented avian species on the human homeworld he'd never even heard of, but because of their repeated use by humans every turian knew what they meant. But to hear Shepard say it so casually, putting words in the mouth of a dead crew mate he thought of as a friend disgusted him.
"He hated having you on board our ship," Shepard explained, "and he wasn't alone. Probably a full third of the crew felt the same way, and maybe even half if you count the ones who didn't speak their minds. And don't even get me started on Ash."
"Well I knew how she felt about me from the start, but she got better. But everyone else on the Normandy? You're talking about the SR-1, right?"
Shepard nodded. "The original. Pre-Cerberus. Of course, I wasn't going to tolerate it. Not on my ship. But no matter what I did, it happened anyway. I had private meetings, one-on-ones, group sessions, gave speeches, handed out reprimands. You remember Vera Lesmono in communications?"
"Vaguely. She transferred off not long after Tali and I came aboard."
"That's one way of putting it. Another is that I kicked her ass off the ship because she was a raging bitch when it came to aliens. God, she made Ash look moderate, and she didn't even try to hide it. She was like a cancer. She somehow worked it into every conversation. You could be talking about your favorite flavor of ice cream, and she would bring alien oppression into it. It was poisonous to morale and cohesion of the crew, so I got rid of her.
"But it didn't do a damn bit of good. None of it. You see, I could order them not to say it, but I couldn't keep them from thinking it. The more I tried, the more it made them resent me as their commander, because I didn't 'get it.' I was a sympathizer, an alien lover, because I allowed the four of you on an Alliance ship. And Pressly was one of the worst."
Garrus stared at Shepard in disbelief. "I had no idea."
"Well, they never did it when any of you were around, and I never wanted any of you to find out. So I made sure everyone kept their mouths shut and did their jobs."
Garrus's mind slipped back to the past, remembering names and faces of his old shipmates. Nothing Shepard said was connecting with any of them.
Shepard cleared his throat. "Did I ever tell you I went back to the original Normandy? Before you came aboard the second time around, before I picked you up on Omega, I went back to Alchera. Hackett found the crash site and asked me to scope it out. Found a few things while I was there... personal effects, mainly, including Pressly's personal log. You know what he said about you in it? In one of his last entries? He said he was wrong about you. All of you. And in the end, he would have died for any one of you. Even though you never knew it, in the end he was sorry for how he felt."
"I never even knew to begin with." Garrus shook his head. "I still can't believe it."
"Maybe it's just as well. Maybe it doesn't even matter now. What counts is that in the end, he thought of you as a friend. You know what finally changed the crew's mind, though? It wasn't my lectures, it wasn't the punishments or anything I did. It was Therum. Feros. Noveria... Virmire. It was pretty amazing how fast the hate speech dried up once we were all getting shot at together. The point of all this is I wouldn't be so hard on the Vellius crew. Nothing you could have said would have changed their minds in the least. Some things have to be learned first hand."
Garrus sat back down on the couch and looked across the sea of mostly humans which now crowded the room in front of him. Many still wore their Cerberus-issue uniforms, sporting a symbol that had long symbolized the worst of humanity, of what many of the original Normandy crew apparently felt at the start. He glanced over at Shepard, who nodded his head toward the bar. Someone in the squad had said something funny, because everyone around the bar, now including Grunt, Kelly and Doctor Chakwas were laughing hysterically. Miranda held her hand over her eyes, but there was no mistaking the smile on her face and the heaving of her shoulders as the ordinarily reserved Cerberus operative laughed out loud. Most striking of all was the quarian woman, doubled over with laughter, clasping onto the arm of the geth standing next to her as it supported her with its other arm to keep her from falling over.
Shepard kept looking at Tali and Legion. "People can change, Garrus. It doesn't happen overnight, it can't be forced, and it's never guaranteed... but under the right circumstances, it can happen. Being turian has nothing to do with it."
The two of them continued to watch their shipmates around the bar. Garrus laughed to himself. "You know, that's going to be a tough act to follow."
"Well, I told you my problem, and in true Commander Shepard fashion, you put things in perspective. Very nicely I might add. I'm wondering if I'll be able to do the same when you tell me yours."
"Don't worry about it. It's not important."
"Not important? This from a man who's saved the galaxy at least twice in the last week. Something's bothering you. Spill it."
Shepard laughed. "Well, as it happens, turns out I'm a coward, too."
"Yeah, okay. Now my bullshit detector just blew up in my hand."
"I mean it, Garrus. The Alliance was all set to send another diplomat to help the quarians make peace with the geth. Then Udina called the whole thing off. And I agreed with him. God help me, I couldn't think of a single argument against him. Right or wrong, mostly wrong, helping the quarians puts the Alliance at odds with the Citadel again. With the invasion coming, we can't afford that. We have to work together, or no one's going to make it."
Garrus looked down at the floor as Shepard talked. "You know, I just whine to you about personality conflicts. You bring me threats to interstellar peace. You always have to one-up me, don't you?"
"Want to trade?"
"Not on your life. So what are the alternatives?"
"Funny you should ask that," Shepard said, "because right after I told Tali and Blue, Legion suggested that I do it."
Garrus blinked. He was about to comment on what a brilliant solution that was, but the look on Shepard's face indicated the Commander didn't agree. "So what did you say?"
"I didn't say anything. I pulled a Garrus Vakarian and ran out on them. Except your reason for turning tail was a little more noble."
Like a missing puzzle piece falling into place, Tali's reaction to Shepard now made perfect sense to Garrus. "So... what? You don't want to butt in? That certainly hasn't been a problem for you before."
Shepard looked around the lounge. "It's getting late. Where the hell is Mordin? We've got a schedule to keep."
"I'm serious, Shepard." Garrus let the obvious attempt to change the subject go. "How's this any different than what you did at Sahrabarik to get the fleets to work with each other again? You, personally, stopped a war, and woke the Citadel from their slumber about the reapers in the process. I had front row seats to the whole thing. And it's not the first time, either. It's habit with you. You can't help yourself. So it can't be because of the stakes involved. This is nothing compared to what you've dealt with before."
"It isn't. This is different." Shepard rubbed a hand over his eyes.
"Outside of the geth, nobody wants this. The Alliance doesn't want it. The Citadel doesn't want it. Enlea's secret council of Matriarchs don't want it. Whoever hit the Rayya really doesn't want it. Ant to hear Tali talk, even though they're hanging by a thread, most quarians don't want it. The only people who really care are on this ship." Shepard lowered his hand and looked over at Tali and Legion. "And if this blows up I fail both of them. So, you got an answer for that?"
"If that's what's really bothering you, then yes. Yes, I do. You've never failed any of us. You can't. It's just not possible because of who you are. We all know that. You've always put your crew first. Always. And, as a frequent beneficiary I can tell you this: plans go wrong, shit happens. But you've never let that stop you. You never give up. In all honesty, the only way you could possibly fail any of us is if you did."
Shepard let out a deep breath, glanced briefly at Garrus and then back toward the bar. Garrus had seen that look before many times as the commander ran through scenarios in his head, trying to consider all possible outcomes to a situation, and how to choose a path that lead to the best one possible.
"So you had a foursome lined up," Shepard said, "and you walked away because it was the honorable thing to do?"
"You're a fuckin' idiot." Shepard stood up from the couch and headed for the bar.
Garrus leaned back into the cushion, a slight smile on his face. "Takes one to know one, Shepard."
Shepard smiled and patted his crew on their backs as he made his way to the bar, stopping to ask Hawthorne about his injured hand, and with Matthews to see how his leg was feeling. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy, which always had a synergistic effect on their Commander. He stopped short of the bar itself, though. They were still chatting and laughing there, and given his prior performance there, he didn't want to ruin it. But he knew he wouldn't have to wait long before the person he wanted to talk to would see him.
Sure enough, Tali's glowing eyes flashed in his direction a few seconds after he moved, and he beckoned her over. She excused herself as she hastily bumped into Legion, then walked over as if merely on her way to check out the temperature reading on the room's thermostat. "Commander?"
Shepard took a deep breath. "All right, I'm in." He had no time to react before he was shoved against the lounge's wall by the diminutive quarian, who squeezed with a hug that would have made Grunt gasp for breath. She made no noise, having cut off her audio feed. With her face buried against his chest, Shepard couldn't see her eyes, but he could feel her trembling inside her suit as he hugged her back.
He looked about the room as he continued the embrace. Most of the crew didn't even take notice, still involved in their own conversation spaces. At the bar, he barely received a glance from Grunt, Jacob and Zaeed, while Joker simply touched the brim of his cap. Kelly, Kasumi and Doctor Chakwas cocked their heads with expressions that read "awww", while at the end of the bar, Miranda tapped her omnitool indicating that it was time for Mordin to transfer to the Vellius. Across the floor, from the back of the room, Garrus just smiled at the sight of Tali trying to crush Shepard in her arms.
Shepard gave Miranda a nod and waved a finger around in a circle, a sign to wrap everything up. Tali still clung to him, but he didn't pull away.
"All right," Miranda announced. "Attention, everyone. Mordin couldn't break away from his call to be here, but he's due on the Vellius in just a few minutes. We're going to move up to the airlock to see him off. You can take your drinks, but anyone who leaves a cup in CIC will suffer the consequences..."
Tali let go of Shepard as the crew filed out, nodding and waving as they passed. As the squad walked by, they either smiled or winked, but said nothing, at least not while in ear-shot. Garrus walked by, a knowing smile on his face. Shepard couldn't be certain, but the turian looked like he mouthed idiot as he passed. Then Legion stopped in front of the pair, its camera panning back and forth between the two of them.
The quarian reached out to touch the geth's shoulder, while keeping her other arm wrapped around Shepard. "He said yes!"
Legion stood in front of Shepard and straightened as Tali had seen it do as it looked at its reflection in the Armory.
"At ease, Legion. Just looking for another excuse to wear this uniform again." Shepard nodded to more of the passing crew as they made their way out. Since it was a Normandy-only event, none of the ship's guests had been invited. "Do me a favor, Legion, and let Blue know. And, Tali? You should probably let the Conclave know they've got a new negotiator."
"Oh! I already told them. I mean, asked them. If it would be okay if you- I mean I didn't say you'd do it I just asked them if you could and they said that that would be fine and that they were really sorry about what happened with the Admirals, and-"
Tali paused, inhaled deeply, then let out a huge, cathartic sigh. "I'll let them know."
"And as soon as Mordin's away, we'll get started. How's that sound?"
"Great," was all Tali could manage, before launching into another hug. Shepard returned it and rocked the crying woman back and forth for a few moments before pulling away. "Come on, let's go. We don't want to miss our chance to say goodbye."
"No," Tali said after she composed herself. "Absolutely not." Then, like some switch had been thrown, she bounced excitedly and scrambled out the hatch. "I'll go call the elevator!"
Shepard was about to turn to follow, but for some reason the geth just stood there staring at him. "You don't want a hug, do you?"
Legion cocked its head, then extended its right hand. Shepard smiled and shook it.
"Thank you, Shepard-Commander.
"It's an honor, Legion. I mean that."
"No, Shepard-Commander," Legion continued to grasp when Shepard released his grip. It buzzed and clicked while its face plates shuffled through several configurations. "We are honored."
Shepard's stared at the machine in front of him. His first impulse when Legion uttered phrases like that was usually to question it as to what it thought the word really meant, and to ask if it was merely trying to mimic organic behavior. As convincing (and unsettling) as Platform Two's diplomatic routines could be, he knew that geth was merely running a simulation based purely on programming.
But now, staring into its bright white camera eye, in spite of all the conventional wisdom and evidence that AI's didn't have real emotions, Shepard knew Legion meant it. He clapped the geth on the shoulder and nodded toward the door. "Come on, let's go. We don't want to keep the Vellius waiting."With that, the geth followed the human to the ship's elevator, where a beaming quarian stood waiting for both of them.