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Time Enough at Last

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Some moments were just so perfect, Imani never wanted them to end. This was a moment like that, sitting beside Tali, watching the sun sink below the horizon in a dazzling array of colors, upon a distant world at the farthest reaches of the galaxy. It was bittersweet, as all things were in such a time of chaos and upheaval; both women were deeply aware of the tremendous sacrifices so many had made. Somewhere behind them an enormous geth spoke with newfound clarity to Admiral Raan, in a voice that sounded all too familiar to them both, and all too painful to consider. Tali's words were especially poignant, then.

"I look at this picture of hope and peace, and all I see is everyone I've lost," she said. "My team on Haestrom, my father, even Legion. I'm mourning a geth. How crazy is that?"

"It's not crazy at all," Imani replied softly, and she understood it more than most.

A child of Mindoir couldn't help but understand.

"It is beautiful though, isn't it?" Tali mused a bit wistfully, rising to her feet to stand at the cliffside. Imani stood up to join her, standing at her side. The sky above them was utterly magnificent, painted in hues of rosegold and rusty ochre. Imani had never seen a sunset like that in her life, not even as a simple child on a rural farm so far from here. It was beauty enough to make her heart ache.

But it wasn't even the beauty of that sky that held Imani's attention, so much as who stood in the frame of her vision, basking in the glow of the sun's ebbing light for the first time. It was the light of a world Tali'Zorah could finally call her own, after so much pain and grief and loss, and she reflected it far brighter than even she could have ever believed. Imani smiled, soaking in that warmth for herself, and gazed at her with a profound compassion swelling inside her heart--and no small amount of admiration, for this proud young woman who bled for this world and her people in ways Imani could scarcely imagine, even after knowing her for so long.

"Yeah, it is," Imani said, and her eyes never left Tali when she said it.

Finding the joy abiding even amidst sorrow was something that had always seemed to define Imani's life, but never so much as then. Her heart ached for yet another placard to be placed on the Normandy's memorial wall, but even so, she was moved by the gift that sacrifice gave. It was what made this most perfect of moments possible.

Tali stared out into the distance for a moment. "It'll be years before we can live without our suits, but right now?" She paused, and to Imani's astonishment, Tali raised her hand to her mask, and released it from place with a sharp intake of air as the vacuum seals unlocked around it.

"Right now, I have this," she finished, and for the first time Imani heard her lilting, accented voice in perfect clarity, with none of the reverb it normally had--it startled Imani a bit, realizing it wasn't a quality inherent to quarian speech the way it was with turians. Tali's voice had been distorted by the electronics embedded into her suit for all this time, and Imani had never truly heard what she sounded like until then, in that moment.

But even that stunning realization was nothing compared to the revelation to follow. Imani's heart nearly stopped dead in her chest then, as Tali took a deep breath--taking in the scent of her homeworld for the first time, one completely unfiltered--and slowly turned to face her, to return Imani's gaze at last with one of her own, also unfiltered, unclouded by a haze of purple, no longer the shadowy silhouette that she'd known. Imani looked at Tali, truly looked at her for the first time, bathed in the light of Rannoch's setting sun, and her eyes grew wide in amazement.

She was one of the most beautiful women Imani had ever seen.

Her skin looked smooth, something like an asari's but in a rich shade of deep violet, with mottled scales in paler colors at her temples and along her jawline, pastel pinks and blues. To Imani's surprise, Tali also had thick, arched eyebrows, and her eyes glanced up to notice a dark hairline peeking out from her hood. There was a hint of textured curls similar to her own, if somewhat looser, but in a deepest shade of blue-black, just like her brows. It seemed that unlike every other species, quarians apparently had hair, just like humans did. What struck Imani to be so remarkable about Tali's appearance in general was how much her features wouldn't have looked out of place in the family holo archives of Imani's late Egyptian-Canadian mother. More than anything else, Tali looked so much like a human woman of color remixed with an alien twist: she had impossibly high cheekbones, a large, aquiline nose not dissimilar to that of Imani's aunts, and thick, pouting lips in a shade of mauve. Imani was amused then, and wondered if that was why Tali found her so attractive--maybe Imani looked a hell of a lot like a quarian, to her. Perception was funny like that.

But it was her eyes that truly shocked Imani, more than any of the rest of her features. She'd always assumed the angular points of light obscured by the violet opacity of Tali's mask were some kind of optical illusion, a trick of the light reflecting off it, or some kind of function of her helmet. With nothing to obscure them, however, Imani was stunned to see that Tali's eyes really did have a faint white glow to them, enveloping large silvery grey irises. They were narrow and angular, deep set and upturned at the corners, framed by dark lashes nearly as long and thick as Imani's own, and rimmed with thick black lines--whether it was eyeliner or some natural quality of quarian appearance, she couldn't say, but it didn't especially matter. The effect was what mattered to Imani. 

Everything about her was utter perfection.

"Mashallah," Imani breathed, overwhelmed by the sight of her. It wasn't just her beauty that took her breath away, though; it was equal parts the way Tali stared at her. There was a hunger there in those soft eyes, an unmistakable yearning. What Imani once suspected to be little more than infatuation and hero worship had deepened into something far more than either, and she'd been just as oblivious to it as she had toward her own deepening feelings. Imani had tried to dismiss them during the Collector mission, and thought she was simply overthinking things. 

But gods, overthinking was the last thing on her mind then. All Imani wanted was to hold Tali. She settled for taking her hands into her own, entwining their slender fingers together, caressing the thick fabric of her gloves with the smoothness of her own thin gauntlets.

"After time adrift among open stars, along tides of light and among shoals of dust, I will return to where I began," Tali said softly, a hushed prayer spoken in reverence.

"And you did," Imani said, smiling like she hadn't in weeks.

"Because of you," Tali said. "I could never have done this without you. This journey began with you."

Imani stared at her, utterly unable to take her eyes off her face, but she was struck then by the memory of a conversation they'd once had seemingly ages ago, back on the original Normandy. "I thought y'all went masked even with your families," Imani said, quirking an eyebrow in curiosity.

"We do," Tali replied. "But I wanted to be the first quarian in three-hundred years to breathe unfiltered air on the homeworld. I wanted to see it without my mask."

"Why show me, though?" Imani asked. "I won't lie and say I haven't been curious about what you look like, all this time. But you didn't have to do that. It can't be a gesture made lightly."

Tali's eyelashes fluttered, and she lowered her eyes in embarrassment; Imani could see a darker shade of violet creeping across her cheeks then. "You're right--I mean, it isn't something we do lightly, it's like linking suits in that way, it's a gesture of deep trust. But you're the person I respect most, the person I--" Tali caught herself, blushing harder then, and her hands were trembling a bit; Imani squeezed them, and she steadied herself enough to continue. "I was never just a suit rat or some dumb kid to you, even when I was on pilgrimage. You saw past the mask, to see me for who I truly am. You believed in me, and stood by me through so much. I wanted--I really wanted you to see me, Imani. Here, on the homeworld. The way my people used to be, so long ago. The way I want us to be again, and the way we will be, because of you. I feel like I owe that much to you, after everything you've done for me."

Tears welled up in Imani's eyes then, her heart swelling, so moved and humbled she was by Tali's gratitude. "You don't owe me a thing, Tali," Imani replied softly, caressing her hands. "You've paid me back tenfold in ways you'll never know."

For as much as Imani had been there for her, the reverse was just as true. Not just in combat, the day to day fighting in the trenches. She couldn't help but think of Freedom's Progress, when she was scarred to within an inch of her life with angrily glowing cybernetics in her face making her look like some kind of sci-fi monster--flanked by a pair of Cerberus operatives no less. Despite all that, Tali had just the same unshakable faith in her as she'd always had. In a time when Imani felt trapped, uncertain, unable to trust anyone or anything, just plain lost...Tali showed up out of nowhere, a light in the darkness if only briefly, familiar and comforting. That was when things started to change between them, and maybe it took far too long for Imani to realize that.

Imani was a bit startled from her reverie then, as Tali leaned in close to her, glowing eyes half shut even as she trembled against Imani's lightweight armor. For a moment, a single moment, Imani lost herself and leaned in to meet her, her heart warm and eyes soft and filled with nothing but the woman before her. But she froze before their lips met, that warm heart pounding when it rose into her throat, and she tensed, bending every ounce of self-discipline she had to pulling back from Tali. She thought of the Alarei again, and the pain and frustration reverberating through the quarian woman's voice. A single kiss could put me in the hospital!

She shut her eyes, commanding back the tears forming at the corners of her eyes through sheer force of her indomitable will. She couldn't, they couldn't, no matter how much she wanted to--no matter how much Tali wanted to, no matter how brilliantly perfect the moment was, or how it would never come again.

They couldn't have this. No moment was worth losing her.

"I don't want to hurt you, Tali," Imani said, in a quiet but firm tone, her voice hollow. "And I meant what I said when I told you don't have to prove anything to me."

"This isn't about proving anything to you, Shepard," Tali said hotly. She leaned forward a second time, wrapping her arms around Imani's waist. "When I said that 'for now I have this', I wasn't just talking about Rannoch, you bosh'tet."

But--" Imani's protest was silenced by a soft, gloved finger pressed against her lips. When Tali lowered her hand, her eyes grew wide in sudden embarrassment, and she chewed her lip nervously.

"Wait! Am I being too--I mean, you don't have to let me down easy or anything, I mean if you don't want--"

Imani couldn't help but laugh softly, lowering her eyes. "You're kinda killing the moment here, Admiral."

"Sorry. I mean, I do that a lot," Tali replied sheepishly. "I'm kind of a nerd sometimes, especially around beautiful women. I can't help myself."

"My favorite nerd," Imani said, hugging her tight.

"I won't tell Garrus you said that," Tali mumbled into Imani's hair. Her hands were trembling against Imani, and she squeezed her tighter. "But don't worry about me. I'm dosed to the eyeballs on supplements, anyway. All of the admirals have been on a vigorous regimen of immunoboosters for weeks now, to prepare for reclamation of the homeworld. Our biologists have said re-adaptation to the environment could take years, and that's time we don't have, not with Reapers on the loose."

"What a wonderful coincidence," Imani chuckled. She pulled out of the embrace and stared at her again. "You think I'm beautiful, huh?"

"Don't play coy with me, Shepard," Tali said archly, even as a deep violet flush crept down her face and neck.

Imani laughed again, and reached up to gently stroke her cheek with the lightest of caresses. "So are you. I always knew you were."

Tali's smile, although bashful, was still brighter than the setting sun. "Do you say that to all the girls?"

"Just the ones with pretty homeworlds," Imani said, cupping her cheek in her gauntlet. She was warm to the touch, and it made Imani's own smile that much brighter. "I didn't stop you because I didn't want it, for the record."

"Really?" Tali asked.

"Yeah. Really," Imani said, gazing into her silvery eyes. "I didn't want to hurt you, that was all. I needed to know you'd be alright, with everything at stake--if this is what you really wanted." She reached up to cup her cheeks within her hands again, both of them.

Tali returned her gaze with one no less faltering in its intensity, in its yearning. "All I've ever wanted is to kiss you. Even if it was only just once, just one time. I feel like I can't even remember a time before I didn't dream of it. And now--right now, I'm here, and you're here, and the sky is so beautiful, and everything is so perfect. My heart is breaking but it's perfect. It's not a vid or a dream--you're here with me and keelah, it's so perfect."

Imani drew her closer, so close she could feel her breath upon her own cheeks. "I'm not going anywhere unless you want me to," she whispered.

"I don't," Tali whispered back, her thick fingers sure and measured as they raised up to touch Imani's skin, her thumbs tracing the infamous cheekbones, still damp from exertion during the harrowing fight, but the adrenaline racing through Imani's veins had nothing to do with Reapers then. It was the rightness of everything, of looking into the eyes of someone dear and warming beneath her touch. She felt her lips part in an almost involuntary response then, an invitation extended.

It was accepted, when Tali's lips pressed against her own, soft and tender and not tentative in the slightest, when her thumbs drifted back along Imani's jawline and three-fingered hands reached up into her bright red curls. Imani felt herself whimpering softly against her and shut her eyes with a tilt of her head, as she felt Tali's tongue part her darkly painted lips and plunge into her mouth. It was like a dam had burst within Tali, years of hesitation and insecurity crumbled all at once, and a torrent of pent up, deeply buried emotion released; all Imani could do was wrap her arms around her, clinging to her, melting into her embrace, losing herself in sultry sweetness and returning it with her own heat as their tongues met and darted between each other's teeth. Tangled in each other's arms, it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began, but it didn't matter to Imani; nothing mattered but the softness of her lips and the fierceness of her embrace. The fingers of Imani's gauntlets curled and dug into the thick fabric of Tali's suit even as the quarian's fingers clenched into a fist full of red curls at the nape of her neck; Imani gasped with startled delight into her mouth at that, lost in the intoxicating sense that she was drowning in her. They pulled away from each other only briefly enough to catch a bit of air, noses brushing against each other as their heads tilted from one side to the other, and Imani's teeth caught Tali's bottom lip. 

"My gods," Imani breathed hoarsely, her pulse racing as they rested against each other, brow to brow; an easy thing, given the way they stood tall at equal height. It had been a long, long time since she'd kissed anyone like that; Thane, maybe, the night before the Suicide Mission. Her blood ran just as hot now as it did then, and Imani silently cursed the fact that they weren't alone there. The way Tali's breath came so heavy against her face, Imani wagered she wasn't the only one cursing that fact. 

"Keelah," Tali said, her long eyelashes brushing against Imani's cheeks. "We should have done that sooner."

Imani giggled softly, and stroked Tali's back. "No kidding."

"I didn't imagine it, did I?" Tali asked a bit wistfully.

"Nope," Imani replied with a gentle smile. "We could always do it again though, just so you're sure."

It was Tali's turn to giggle then. "You mean…?"

"That wasn't a one-off," Imani answered, tightening the embrace. "Not for me. Not ever."

"But what about Thane, and Garrus?" Tali asked, her voice suddenly very small. "Keelah, the reason I never said anything before is that I was so scared of ruining things for the three of you. I didn't want to cause any stupid drama like…well, what you dealt with before. And I heard about Horizon. I thought..."

Imani straightened up slowly, and gently took Tali's chin into her hands, lifting it so that she could look into her eyes; glowing silver met sunset brown then, and Imani's heart nearly stopped again at how beautiful she was. "I was oblivious for so long about us, in a way I almost never am. About you, and my own feelings. Me and the boys have something incredibly special, something that means everything to me--I've loved Thane and Garrus so hard and for so long I can hardly remember a time when I didn't. But you mean a hell of a lot to me too. Gods, Tali, I spent two years dead while the galaxy spun on without me, I came back and nothing was the same, I didn't know what or who to trust. I was so lost and alone, and you showed up in that dingy prefab like a bright star guiding me home. It felt like everyone in the world had abandoned me, everyone I loved turned their back on me--except Garrus, and you. I can't tell you what that meant to me, what it still does. That's why I went so hard in the paint for you when they put you on trial. I wanted you to know that I believe in you as much as you believe in me. All I wanted was to protect you from everything. I know I can't, I know you don't need it--but I need this. I need you. I love you. And there's a place for you in my heart if you want it, all you've got to do is ask."

Tali's eyes filled with tears then, and the relief on her face was palpable. Her entire body sighed, the tension completely slipped away. "It feels like I've waited my whole life to hear you say that," she whispered. "It's only been three years, hasn't it? But it feels so long."

"I'm sorry I made you wait," Imani said, and pulled her into another tight embrace.

They stood there for a long, silent moment, as if each of them were somehow afraid of ruining the power of that moment, and simply held each other, basking in the glow of the rising moon. Somewhere in the distance, Imani knew Garrus was waiting by the commandeered geth vehicle; and with him Thane, back on the Normandy. She wasn't afraid of what they'd say, not by a longshot--she knew them too well, and she knew Tali's fears where they were concerned were entirely unfounded. But polyamory meant sorting these things out, laying everything on the table. There would have to be time for thinking and processing all of this, what it meant for each of them, and how they might proceed from here. But not now. Now was for warmth and the simple pleasure of knowing what was right--of home, found not just in a place but in the ones you loved. Moments like these didn't come along every day, especially not in the midst of so much suffering and pain and strife.

But every moment had to end, eventually, no matter how perfect it was. They eventually pulled away from one another, and with one last smile at Imani, Tali reached down to pick her fallen mask up from the ground--it had dropped outer side down, thankfully--and replaced it snugly against her hood, the vacuum seals tightening in their whooshing sound. Imani extended a hand to her, and Tali grasped it, their fingers weaving together despite their disparity; the other reached up to the comm unit in her dormant sentry visor and pressed the holo button.

"Cortez, we're gonna need a pickup," Imani said, falling all too easily right back into work mode. "Everything's good to go down here."

"Roger that, Commander."

Imani lowered her hand from her visor, and tucked a stray ringlet behind her ear; Tali leaned into her side then, and she smiled. Hand in hand they waited for the shuttle, staring out into the darkening sky.

Everything else would come later. Tali was right: for now, they had this.