A Warning: This story contains extremely graphic depictions of Violence, occasional mild to moderate language, and thematic elements. One chapter contains explicit content. The story also features very strong religious themes. If you are offended by these, please don't read the story. Thank you.
Original opening notes:
Shepard is an incredibly tough character to write, as each player has a different view of him. Even going full paragon or renegade, his persona is still somewhat up for grabs. For this reason, I've largely scrapped BioWare's Shepard in favor of crafting my own. This Shepard is stalwart in combat and cares for his crew, but is still human. He has hopes and fears like anyone else (in his case, most of these revolve around the woman he loves, i.e. Tali.) If you go into this story expecting a canonical representation of the man, you're likely to be disappointed. I'm working on improving my character development, and this narrative is still very much story-driven, so bear with me.
The combat sequences are always a pleasure and a nightmare to write. Keeping them fresh and interesting is a welcome challenge, but communicating the horror that is war has a draining effect.
I am always seeking to improve my work; constructive criticism is welcome. If some part of the story is good, tell me why it works, not just that it does. If a segment needs improvement, PLEASE let me know! Thanks and enjoy the story.
Philippians 4:13 - I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Episode 1: The Ties that Bind
Chapter 1: Guardian
"We'll fight and win without it, I don't put my faith in chance and I won't let fear compromise who I am." An air of finality laced the Commander's words as he again faced the console and inserted the remote charge that would start the reaction necessary to obliterate the base.
The Illusive Man's projected face contorted to a desperate grimace. "Shepard, think about what's at stake, about everything Cerberus has done for you! You-"
With a satisfied smirk, Tali severed the connection, abruptly terminating the man's rant. Shepard finished inputting the security codes in the detonator and slid the terminal back into the platform. No sooner had the aperture sealed than a colossal tremor echoed through the structure. A strange, synthesized noise resonated below the platform and Shepard's blood ran cold. It was still alive?
As if to confirm his fears, two massive 'hands' gripped the hexagonal railing surrounding the platforms, tilting the entire surface enough to catch Thane off balance.
The drell lost his footing and slid down the polished surface towards the edge. Shepard leapt after the drell, his rough armor slowing him as his teammate neared the end of the metal plating.
Thane caught the lip of the platform, struggling to maintain his grasp against its erratic swinging. For several torturous seconds, he felt his fingers slipping. Just before he fell, a strong hand gripped his wrist, pulling him up over the edge of the abyss. John grunted as he hefted the assassin onto the cold metal surface.
Even as he was pulled up, Thane looked back and caught the menacing glare of the Reaper 'larva' they had sent plummeting to the bottom of the station's central chamber. It had climbed all the way back?
Shepard caught sight of the abomination's three eyes as they drilled into his soul.
We offered you Godhood.
A final grunt sounded from the drell as his feet met the metal and he and Shepard bolted to the center of the platform. The two warriors leapt behind one of the low walls on the pad's surface, chased by a stream of blood red plasma and superheated metal.
Tali felt the heat from the Reaper's attack bleed over the lip of the wall. It was so intense that her shields actually started to flare. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Shepard holding the M-920 Cain, its muzzle shone with a pair of brilliant topaz spears that spun in ever faster circles. Keelah! If he didn't fire it soon-
Before she could even register what had happened, Shepard had hefted the weapon up and over the lip of the low wall, just before the 'nuke launcher' ejected its mighty payload. Shafts of white-yellow light trailed behind the projectile as it closed the distance with its target.
Tali shielded her face as the shot impacted, releasing its horrific destructive energy in a single, blinding burst. Even at this distance, even through her air filters, she could smell the charred metal and polymers that composed the Reaper's body as they boiled away under the Cain's fury.
The Reaper ejected another blast of its own, this time actually melting through portions of the squad's cover.
"DISPLACE!" Shepard's order was met with an immediate response in the form of his two squad-mates scurrying for new cover. Tali vacated her position none too soon. One of the abomination's arms slammed into the panel they'd occupied only seconds before. Metal screeched at them as the panel sheared into dozens of fragments, yielding to the might of the sentient machine in a glittering cloud of metal and glass.
Shepard glanced from his new position long enough to get bearings on both Tali and Thane. The quarian crouched roughly eight meters left, quickly rifling through the options on her omni-tool, looking for something, anything to turn the tide back in their favor. Thane knelt nearly twice as far to his right, a biotic glow licking across his body.
The Commander shuddered as the Reaper screeched; its voice a metallic, synthesized howl that chilled him to the core. Could nothing kill it? He risked another glance and was almost relieved to see the gaping cavity in what amounted to the thing's skull. He checked the Cain's ammo display, Another shot could- 23%. The Cain had 23% charge, just enough to do… nothing.
Lord, I'm out of ideas… Shepard's prayer was immediately answered as he caught sight of Tali popping from cover to shoot one of the collector drones that had joined the engagement, just as her shields finished recharging. "Tali! I need you over here! Now!" An acknowledgement light blinked in his HUD and the quarian raced over to him.
Before she had a chance to ask, Shepard presented the heavy weapon's power supply and turned his right shoulder to her, exposing the back plating of his armor. "Patch my shield output into the power cells!" He turned a little more. "THANE! Cover us! As much time as you can!"
Tali's head jerked for a moment as she realized what he was asking her to do. Not a chance, John. The quarian hastily opened her own shield generator and began feeding the power into the heavy weapon. Shepard's hand quickly found its way around her wrist.
"My. Shields. I can't let you throw your life away."
Tali offered him a steely glance. "Yours don't have the output this needs." It was a lie; Shepard's shields had more than enough power to charge the weapon, but Tali'Zorah Vas Normandy nar Rayya would be damned if she let her captain, the only man she'd ever truly cared for, go unprotected while she traipsed the battlefield with a full-strength kinetic barrier.
"Shepard, we won't make it if this keeps up…" Thane's voice bore its usual calm, but the sense of urgency in his statement was still keenly present. Another searing attack from the Reaper slammed into the platform and the rancid smell of burning flesh filled the air; several drones had been unfortunate enough to be in the beam's path when it fired.
Shepard again checked the readout, the numbers were slowly, steadily climbing. 37%... 38... 39…
Too slow! "Tali you HAVE to add my shields! We don't have time for this!"
Tali squeezed her eyes shut and sighed. She reached for the projector matrix on Shepard's back, felt the hard, angular casing through her gloves. Everything seemed to slow. She could well be condemning this man to his fate. Charging the Cain this fast could short his shields, and she wouldn't have time to do battlefield maintenance. Seconds later, the Commander's shield output was added to her own and the Cain's charge began to increase at an accelerated rate.
56… 58… 60… 63… 66… 69…
Shepard felt the vibrations as the Reaper loosed another jet of molten metal at their cover, nearly boiling through the wall. One more shot from the Reaper would do them in, one more shot from them might finish the reaper.
88… 91… 94…
100%! Shepard waited only for an instant as Tali disconnected the shields and closed the projector on his back. Ruby light reflected from the solid black surface of the platform. The Reaper was prepping another shot! Shepard crushed the trigger into the weapon's grip, prompting its firing sequence. Energy flowed from the power cell into the firing chamber. The red glow from the Reaper intensified as the illumination from the Cain's muzzle grew.
Shepard wasn't sure which fired first, but the Reaper's shot missed, slicing between the quarian and the Commander as they leapt apart. He could feel the heat bleeding from the molten slag even fifteen feet away.
Shepard caught sight of the Reaper larva as its grip on the railing failed and it slipped from the platform, the top half of its 'head' gone. The entire chamber seemed to tremble as the reaper exploded beneath them, sending a searing fireball that licked along the sides of the platform. Tali shouted something indistinct over the roar of the explosion and pointed over to the oval entrance. Shepard looked over in the direction she'd indicated.
A pair of drones flew towards them and the Commander realized only now that his kinetic barriers still hadn't recharged.
The particle beam lanced across his armor, charring the metal and knocking him back. He smelled the stench of melting metal. Thane sighted on one of the collectors with his sniper rifle and sent a round sailing through its angular, T-shaped skull. Brown, chitinous shards flew in a conical pattern behind it. The second alien exploded a moment later as Tali loosed a combat charge powerful enough to cook its insides.
Four more of the brown aliens lit on the pad, one of them was covered in brilliant gold cracks radiating amber light. "Your victory is hollow; you will die in this place!" The voice reverberated though the cavern, echoing from the walls and shaking the platform.
Shepard jumped at the possessed collector and sent a boot into its chest, causing it to stumble back. The Commander's combat knife flashed out of its sheath and raked across the monster's chitinous skin. Rancid black gore coated the blade and spewed from the alien's throat.
John brought his arm up to deflect a blow from one of the other collectors, but the force of the alien's swing numbed the limb, causing him to drop the knife. He pulled the shotgun from his belt with his left arm and blew a hole through the creature's torso. The Alien staggered before collapsing to the ground in a puddle of its own gore.
The head of another collector next to him blossomed apart, courtesy of Tali's heavy pistol. Tiny fragments of the creature's hard skin ricocheted from his armor. A feeling of nausea washed over Shepard as the platform shifted again, this time moving back towards the entrance to the main chamber.
Where was the fourth collector? John's question was answered as he heard a chilling scream from the other side of the massive hexagon. A spray of purple-red blood erupted from Tali's enviro-suit as the insectoid executed a savage swing across her gut with its razor sharp talons. Time slowed as the alien's claws severed muscle and cut across bone, spilling her blood across the platform.
"Tali!" Shepard felt all of the blood drain from his face as the young woman collapsed to the platform. He sensed, more than felt the knife as he picked it up and sent it spinning into the drone's eye. The collector sank next to its victim, clutching at the blade that had pierced its skull.
The next few minutes felt like an eternity to him. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realized he was carrying the woman he loved, unconsciously readjusting his grip as the blood on his suit made her slip in his arms. He could smell the coppery aroma of blood even through his helmet. It was everywhere.
Once during the run he glanced down at the quarian's limp body, instantly seeing her lungs moving weakly under the ribcage. His strength ebbed momentarily at the sight before a renewed vigor surged through his veins, He would not, he could not, give up now!
Lord God, let her live! He prayed as he ran, desperately pleading for her survival.
Bullets sang through the air, glancing off his armor and burning past as he carried his precious load. "Just hang on," he heard himself say. "Just hang in there!"
Eleven days later:
Commander Jonathan David Shepard sat in the Normandy's med-bay with his head in his hands. He should have felt relieved, he had gone through the Omega-4 Relay, destroyed the collectors, and brought his entire crew back alive. Instead he felt exhausted, burned out, angry, and guilty.
Thane Krios sat next to him. A talented Drell assassin that had agreed to help in the fight against the collectors, Thane had helped him carry the only crew-member not to return from the battle unscathed. Granted, all of them had suffered cuts and bruises, but she had suffered far more.
John watched the young quarian behind the glass. She was sedated and asleep in the clean-room environment, but her suit and skin still bore the marks of the collector's vicious attack. Her stomach gently rose and fell; every time she drew a breath, he could see a different image of her spirited, energetic personality aboard the first Normandy.
Each expulsion of air summoned a darker memory, a recollection of the sadness borne by the more mature, disillusioned woman she had become after his death two years ago. She'd still been something of the same, upbeat person that he'd known two years earlier, but her thoughts were more rational and her voice bore a singular sadness that could only be attributed to having lost someone close to her.
Shepard clenched his jaw and forced back the tears that threatened to spill out. He had to be strong, had to contain his emotions. Anything less could cost more lives, disrespect those he'd already lost. He wasn't on the battlefield; he should let his emotions out. Tali had told him as much, several times for that matter. 'It's not healthy to keep it hidden. Your men would want you to be happy, you did what you could for them, treated them like family.' He shook his head. If he couldn't control them here, how could he do so when it really mattered?
"You needn't blame yourself," Thane put a hand on the Commander's shoulder, breaking him from the debate raging in his head. "There was nothing you could have done."
Shepard tensed and very nearly sent a fist into Thane's chest. Nothing! He collected himself and drew a deep breath. When he spoke, his eyes were closed and his voice little more than a whisper.
"There was plenty I could have done. I could have ordered her to stay on the ship, help Joker and EDI get the Normandy back online. I could have left her with the second fire-team. I could've…" His voice trailed off and he turned away, jaw clenched and tears leaking from his eyes.
"None of us can know what the future holds," the drell responded. "We must strive to live rightly each day to the best of our ability. You have accomplished more in your twenty eight years than I have in my forty." Thane paused, letting his words sink in. "You care for her but she has not gone to the sea. Don't make the same mistake I did with Ihrika. For her sake," he motioned to Tali as he stood, "don't give up."
Thane stopped partway to the med-bay's door and turned slightly. "If you need me, I'll be in life-support."
Shepard allowed small flurry of tears to roll down his cheek. He made no attempt to blink the others away. At the moment, he didn't care if he let his emotions show, no one was around to see it, and it felt like his heart had been put through a meat grinder. His thoughts drifted back to the night before the mission. Tali had come up while he had been reading, her demeanor initially timid and uncertain.
He could recall every word with perfect clarity.
"So, I've taken some antibiotics, as, well as some, herbal supplements to bolster my immune system," She had taken the data-pad from his hands and set it gently on the desk beside him. "I was going to bring music, but I didn't know what you'd like, and I'm babbling like an idiot…"
He set a hand on her shoulder and smiled. A hint of sadness crept into his eyes and he shook his head. "I… we can't do this Tali, it's too dangerous."
Tali thought he was referring to her immune system. As a quarian, she had spent nearly her entire life in her environment suit. Like her fellow quarians, the lack of exposure to pathogens had caused her immune system to atrophy severely. Every time her suit was breached or opened outside a clean-room, she was at risk of getting a life threatening infection. Removing her suit, even in a semi-clean room environment could have disastrous consequences if she were unprepared.
"I already told you, I've taken the necessary precautions."
"That's not it. I don't want you to get sick, obviously, but we… I can't, not now. If I lost you…" He looked down, trying to hide his face.
"It's not like you're making me do this John, I want this, I want to share myself with you." Her voice caused a wave of regret to wash over him. She lifted his chin to make their eyes meet. "We may not get another chance."
Shepard brought her in for a hug. "I know, and, I want to be with you. I've never been with anyone else, but it's…" Finally, the main reason for the decline surfaced, "We're not married Tali. I can't do that to you… I can't take that away from you-… …I can't take the most intimate, precious and sacred thing you have; it's something you should be able to share with your husband. I love you too much; respect you too much, to take that from you." He'd felt horrible. Even though he knew he'd done the right thing, nothing could have prepared her for his refusal. It's for the best, he'd reminded himself. For her.
Shepard couldn't imagine her thoughts afterwards. As she left the cabin her gait seemed subdued. Was she dejected? Angry? Heartbroken?
If he had known Tali's thoughts afterwards, much of his anxiety would have evaporated.
She had left the cabin depressed at first. She had felt sure that Shepard loved her. Was he just toying with her? No, she knew him too well. He'd meant every word. She went over the conversation in her mind. Her head had been too clouded by confusion at the time to fully register his last few sentences, but now she could remember each syllable as if it were being spoken aloud. 'I can't take the most intimate, precious and sacred thing you have….'
She nearly wept at the realization. No man had ever cared about her that much. Plenty of the younger quarian males had made advances on her, (they always received a cold refusal) but Shepard was different. He had seen her as a person, not an object or a prize; he wouldn't sacrifice her honor, her purity, for a few minutes of pleasure.
Shepard's mind was drawn to the present as the young quarian stirred. A small grunt emanated from behind her mask. It took Shepard a moment to realize that Doctor Chakwas was already cycling through the decontamination filter. Tali tried to sit up but the doctor put a hand on her shoulder. The quarian moaned and set a hand across her stomach.
"Try not to move, you've been badly injured."
"Shepard!" Tali gasped, the pain secondary in her consciousness. "Is he all right?"
"The Commander is fine, he's been watching you since we brought you here," Chakwas reassured her.
"What happened?" Tali whispered. "Are we on the Normandy?"
"Yes we are. You took a lot of fire on the collector ship. Thane and the Commander carried you back here" the doctor explained as she ran a scanner across Tali's battered frame. "I'll be back in a moment with some medications, lie still."
Chakwas cycled back out of the clean room and left the med-bay, giving Shepard a nod as she went. John took a moment to collect himself then stepped up to the glass.
The Quarian turned her head. "John?"
"How are you feeling?"
"Not, too bad… All things, considered." He could hear the strain in her voice.
"Chakwas says you'll live, but," He choked. "She says you'll be back on your feet in a month or two." He couldn't bring himself to tell her that her odds of walking unassisted again were slim-to-none. She had barely survived the injury. Even after cryo freezing her to buy time, the quarian's chances of seeing the next sunrise had seemed slim.
Ironically, her survival was probably due in large part to Shepard's having declined her offer the night before the mission. The antibiotics and immune boosters in her system had been 'untapped' prior to the foreign contaminants that she'd been exposed to with the injury. Even so, between blood loss, tissue damage and infection, it had been nothing short of a miracle that she had survived.
"Tali, about what I said-"
Tali raised her hand and slowly shook her head. "It's okay." Her breathing was labored, but consistent. "It, took me a while, to realize what you meant. I want to thank you. I still want, you, to see my face, to share myself with you, but, it can wait. I'll wait."
She smiled behind the mask. "Besides, it probably, saved me, the antibiotics and such." Another pause. She noticed the glistening trails left by the tears on his face and surmised the rest. "John, it's not weak to have feelings. Let them out."
He offered a weak smile and watched as she peacefully drifted back to sleep.
Thanks in no small part to all of my readers (in fact almost entirely in thanks to you all) much of my focus with the revision will be (and has been with the second part of this chapter) character development. I'll still be paying a healthy, (perhaps even unhealthy) amount of attention to the other aspects of the story, (plot, pacing, fight scenes, descriptions, etc) but I know that characterization is easily my weak-point and will thus be receiving the most attention.
Original Author's Note:
I started by writing the second section but realized I needed to open with an action sequence to cement the story as being far more than just a Tali/Shep romance. (while their relationship will be integral to the story, it will by no means be the sole focus) I quite like the way the opening turned out, especially the knife bits (something tells me we'll be seeing quite a bit of those as the story progresses).
The recent additions and edits went a bit further into the horror of Tali's injury. The first version of the scene didn't communicate Shepard's agony over the event as powerfully as I would have liked, nor did it portray how close she came to death. The new edits have done just that, I may do more modification if I find the inspiration.