It was a mistake.
That's what it was.
A giant, brewing, boiling, mistake.
"I'd arrest that pompous bastard. He's lying, Rael. You should have told me this before the goddamn briefing."
Rael's fingers brush over the edge of his notebook and flip the pages repeatedly while he thought it all over.
He didn't bother replying to Han; his head was too wrapped up with worry to.
"Rael, did you hear me?"
"Yes." He replied.
Rael wanted to explain to Han what it was like to foresee a mistake your daughter was going to make. But it wasn't particularly enriching for someone like Han to go into such detail.
He trusted Tali. Loved her immensely. Proud of her.
Though her judgment had been… under some ambiguity lately. More so after the schism she developed in her behavior since returning from pilgrimage.
She was a different woman now.
She still stammered apologies endlessly around him. Still wrung her hands anxiously whenever she'd get nervous or backed into an endless conversation about stuff she never liked talking about.
But the attitude changed.
Two years ago she'd happily sit by and listen to a lecture or converse about Eezo-block theory or the latest shipment of supplies they could use to repair or replace something.
Now it was about how fast she could get her work done so she could retire for the night.
The fire was gone.
It worried him. So drastically in fact, that Rael had made attempts at trying to change and reconcile his ways after Shala had called him out on his lack of attention. But the signals he received from Tali in return for his efforts were shrugged off and ignored. Likely too wrapped up with Shepard's death.
Rael used to label her with a wide magnitude of qualities.
Stubborn even (A trait of her mother's).
He'd never openly expressed his praise. Not directly in front of her anyways.
She didn't need it. And he realized, years after it was too late, that he should have. He should have praised her the way a father should.
But it was different today. And it was obvious why.
The two hours that Rael was giving the briefing, he'd noticed, from every glance he'd give her, that her mood mirrored the Tali he'd known back three years before.
As a father, it did well to see the most important person in your life look happy.
On the other hand, it made him realize it was one of the one things he'd failed as a father. The time he made Tali smile as a child could only have been numbered in the dozens.
After his wife died…
It was never.
Shepard had been the 'tipping of the bucket', if lack for better word. The 'helping hand' or the 'ladder of reprieve'.
From what Rael could tell, John was helping her climb out of the hole she had fallen into.
If Rael were to do anything other than begrudgingly accept this 'relationship', Tali would, without a doubt, bury herself willingly in her hole rather than climb out.
"He's still here. If you want to talk to him, now's the time." Han said, interrupting Rael's aimless pondering, "I won't say anymore. Though the best place, I believe, for Shepard, is in a goddamn holding cell. At least until you can make the determination of where he stands and whether or not he is legitimate. The Real Shepard was goddamn hero. Either he's turned into a lying loser, or an imposter working for Cerberus."
"Or maybe's he's telling the truth." Rael said mostly to himself.
The words sounded empty.
Han gathered his personal belongings, ignored what Rael just said, and leveled one last stagnant stare at the other admiral. "See you until next time, Rael."
Rael nodded as he left and finally put his notebook back on the table with a meager sigh.
He contemplated his choices, then decided to page his assistant.
"Keenlah. Please have Shepard escorted to my office at his next available opportunity. I wish to speak with him. Personally."
"And it was right here." Tali said through a smile as she watched the Rayya's irrigation system sway and rumble with a sludge of a biomass.
"Wow…" John replied. He peered at the dozens of valves and buttons to try and make out what they said. Then he remembered they were in a different language.
"Tell me what it tasted like." John asked.
"The sweetest and softest thing I've ever tasted. Literally melts in your mouth. I'd fight Sovereign again just for another bite."
"That good, huh?"
"It only exists on the Rayya. And Rannoch, of course."
She leaned on the counter next to her and pointed with her chin to a group of 'tourists' (as the Rayya's home dwellers called them) line up to get their small piece of fruit. Many of them bounced on their toes or tilted their heads to get a better look out of the man near the front slice it up for them to sample.
"See that?" Tali said.
"Yeah." He nodded.
"They're visiting. An official field trip. Every quarian takes a visit to one of the live-ships someday. And part of that field trip is to get some of that." She pointed at the guy who started inserting the sliced fruit in a device that would purify, seal, and package the single slice to be distributed.
"How do they eat it?" John asked, puzzled.
"SM-10's." She turned to him to explain, "Solid Meal, Version 10. With the right stuff, they can eat it right here without having to take off their helmets.
"All that just to eat." He whispered sadly, "How often do they get to do this?"
"Once. That's it." Tali shrugged and looked at the line of quarians happily getting their wrapped piece of fruit, "Part of me wants to sneak in line for some. But that'd be wrong. And Pas over there knows me anyways."
John, inwardly, frowned.
Not just two hours ago, he had a sizable helping of some packaged pineapple to snack on while Tali showed him around the Rayya.
Close to four hundred years before, the weirdly shaped earth fruit was a delicacy to large parts of Europe, and to an extension, Colonial America. It was so rare and expensive, that people would, quite literally, 'rent' the fruit just to have it on display at the host's party or celebration.
A conversation piece to brag about during the festivities with drink, fall-off-the-bone pork, and jam.
To sample its deliciousness would have cost thousands of credits if one were to compare the price today.
To the quarians, it was that rare. Actually, more rare than that.
And here he was with a whole box back on the Neema full of the damn things in single serve packets.
It was curse in its own right. Some things needed to be taken for granted. And the list of things the quarians could take for granted could probably fit on a post-it.
And those things were family and friends.
He stuffed the negative thought to the back of his mind.
"Maybe I can get in the line for you." John joked by leaning next to her. He put on a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"Please. A quarian could spot you a light year away."
"Okay. Funny. A space pun. Like I haven't heard of that one before."
She snorted and laughed. "And you haven't ever used one? Who doesn't like a good space pun?"
He ignored her. "Here's a good substitute, Tali. Next chance you get, buy some dextrose sugar in bulk. And eat it."
"Maybe." He crossed his arms and pointed with an elbow at the bundle of quarians chewing away and conversing about the experience, "But you'll lose the sweet tooth."
Tali shook her head and leaned closer to him so their arms touched. "I don't know how we always end up talking about weird things like this."
"Neither do I."
She nodded quickly. "Not that I'm complaining." She said quickly.
"It's better than talking about you know what." He breathed with a sigh.
She stayed quiet for a moment. "Well. That's the end of the tour. We can do part two and three whenever we get the chance to visit again. The shuttle's going to be leaving back to the Neema soon anyways. Best if we get to the docking bay."
"Thanks Tali. I had a lot of fun. And seeing everyone staring at me was the best part. Especially the other quarian women. Hot damn. Pretty good looking veil's man. I tell you."
"Tali'Zorah. Commander Shepard."
Tali's head tilted at the familiar voice. She turned around and was surprised to see her dad's assistant.
"Keenlah…" Tali stuttered, "Hi… what can we do for you?"
"Your father wishes to speak with the commander." Keenlah said, staring blankly at both of them.
Tali hung her shoulders in worry and tried to hide it.
"Oh, that's fine, I guess." She turned to John and shrugged, "Come on. Let's go, John."
"Alone." Keenlah added flatly.
Tali's words left her mouth. Her jaw hung for a moment and looked at John again. When nothing came out of him either, she shrugged worriedly. "Okay…" she whispered. Her hands started wringing anxiously.
"But, how will we get back to the Neema?"
"He'll be taking a separate ride back." Keenlah answered.
Tali didn't like this at all. Alone was one thing, but she wasn't going to take a trip to the Neema and leave John on the Rayya. Call her clingy, but if something bad was going to happen, she was going to be right there for it. Her shoulder's straightened out.
"I'm not leaving." Tali said with finality, "I'll wait." She crossed her arms and dared Keenlah to disagree.
When Keenlah was going to argue even further, John raised a hand to save the woman's breath.
"That's perfectly fine. I can go. No big deal."
"I'm still not leaving." Tali said.
"You can bring that up with Admiral Zorah." Keenlah relented, "Follow me, you're father's pressed for time."
While Tali waited outside her father's office, John stepped inside, alone, and saw Rael with his hands clasped behind him watching the ships that would pass by his window.
It was quiet. Other than Rayya's thrumming hum of her gryo-ducts and slowly moving sludge of biomass meters below their feet, was John's erratic, anxiety ridden, gulps of breath.
He did not want to get into another argument with the guy.
"Reporting as requested, Admiral." Shepard announced. Out of formality, he stood at parade rest and looked ahead.
Rael finally turned around and faced the human.
"At ease, Mr. Shepard."
John took his moment to look around his office. Beside his desk, computer, notebook, and pen holder, it was bare.
Not a single frame of his wife or a holo of his daughter.
No doodled drawings Tali had drawn when she was young…
No letters, or notes, or a meaningful card his wife would have given him…
There wasn't the barest hint of anything that would remind him of family.
Above his desk, however, was a single picture of a sunny and bright shoreline. Above that, was a shelf full of colored patches of fabric, stitched with small insignias that had to be the human equivalent of medals he'd earned over his career.
Either Tali wasn't exaggerating with the resource supply, or Rael kept a thick line between what was considered professional and not.
Both equally depressing answers.
Would his home be any different?
John couldn't find himself an answer when Rael sat down in his chair.
"You wanted to see me?"
"Yes. I did." Rael took off his omni-bracelet and set it aside next to his notebook before sighing.
"Tell me why I should let you stay."
John's brows furrowed, and, with a second to think, spoke.
"She came back from pilgrimage." Was all he managed to say.
Rael leaned back, turned his chair around, and pointed to the portrait of the shoreline above them both.
"You see that?"
"It's the Capital of Veras. Her shoreline." He explained with a wary whisper, "Considered one of the most beautiful on the entire planet of Rannoch. Just south of the republics of Gera and Raymoh. Formally considered a meeting ground for international affairs."
John stayed quiet and listened.
"They'd sit in the sand, under Rannoch's sun, and discuss the continuity of a country's relationship to the other. Fares and goods, trades and tariffs, exports and imports."
"What republic did Veras belong to?" John put in curiously.
"Veras belonged to the Grand Republics of Moranah. That picture… Is older than you, than me, and any krogan alive today."
Now that John got a better look out of it, it really did look old. He wondered, just for a moment, how it'd been preserved so well.
"It is. Passed down the line, generation after generation… and eventually to me." Rael finally turned back around, "The Zorah's we're descendants of Moranah." He stated factually, "They were the envoys of our republic… and one of the last cities on Rannoch to fall during our exile."
Rael looked back at the picture again, like he did every day he was in his office, and shook his head.
"I'm sure you know very well of what happened during our exile."
"Tali has made me very aware, yes." John answered.
"It was the downfall of my entire species." Rael began anyway, "Two hundred eighty nine years we've been without a homeworld. And not once during these past three centuries, has anyone lent a hand to helping the quarian cause."
Rael took one small breath and held it. "Billions dead. Parents murdered in their homes. Children, slaughtered in their schools. Families killed in their living room begging for their lives. It was genocide in its entirety. One to be talked about in a history book for millennia to come."
Everything Rael said John agreed with.
But John knew he'd never truly understand what it was like to be denied even the most basic of freedoms that the rest of the galaxy took for granted.
And while John was intrigued by the small history lesson, he didn't exactly know where Rael was going with this.
"But something peculiar happened." Rael continued, "The man in front of me, a human, fought the geth and defeated them, and was the very first to -ever- help a quarian the way you did." He webbed his fingers together and set them on his notebook.
"According to Tali, you saved her life. Helped her with her pilgrimage, and allowed her access to the Normandy and everything within. Paid her even, for her services as an equal."
"All true." John affirmed.
"Why?" Rael asked.
John smiled and leaned as far back as comfort would allow; but wondered how he could answer the question without coming off as a pompous boasting ass.
"Why…?" John looked down momentarily.
The answer was obvious.
"Tali earned it." He said in a thoughtful whisper, "I'd give my life for her if I had to. No questions asked."
Rael nodded and, for once, looked like he was smiling, albeit slightly. "I can't say which direction the future of my species is going… but if I had any say, you certainly were a step in the right direction for my daughter."
Rael's head dipped and it reminded John of Tali. "...Thank you, for what you did for her, Commander." He mumbled.
"You don't have to thank me sir. She deserves much more."
Rael nodded slowly and looked back up.
The man in front of him was definitely the same man his daughter had fallen in love with.
And while a human wouldn't have been the first option he'd want for his daughter, he couldn't complain. Saving the galaxy with Tali on his side scored the man some points worthy of keeping, he supposed.
"I couldn't agree more. You're free to leave. Welcome to the Flotilla, Shepard. With luck, the Neema's captain can push some papers and have you become an official member of her crew."
John's brows rose in surprise.
That easy then?
No long lasting animosity?
No butting heads?
No cell to be escorted to?
Just a little talk and little exchange of words?
Shit… That went better than expected.
"Thank you, Admiral." John stood up, saluted the man, and walked out.
The door opened, and Tali whirled around with a wide-eyed expression.
"Keelah. What happened?"
John smiled and reassured her with a pat on the shoulder. "Nothing. We're on good terms now, Tali. Let's go home."
"I was expecting you to be in there for hours… I think we still can make it in time for the ship to bring us back home if we run."
John chuckled, "Okay! Let's go."
Three Hours Later…
"Pass me the bolts."
"Which ones…?" John looked dumbly at the dozens of fastening bolts. Next to small pile was Tali's box of oddly shaped gizmos and tools Shepard couldn't put names to.
"The bigger ones. Right there. To your left, Shepard." Juel said in a hurry.
John handed him the bolts and Juel hovered them over the open holes. "Okay, hurry the hell up… I can't hold the pipe up forever."
"I thought your new arm was supposed to make this easier." Tali called out as she drilled the screw through the bolt Juel was holding.
"It's still connected to a regular fleshy socket. I can still get tired."
"So this is what it's like?" John asked, "Day in and day out? Replacing pipes with new ones?"
Tali shrugged as she searched for a new drill bit. "…And guessing where you put your tools. So yeah. That's about it."
"Tali's lying." Juel remarked pointedly, "It's a lot more complicated than she would care to admit. The other half is praying the equipment forum doesn't crash when you're downloading something from the compartment cloud."
Tali groaned. "Ugh. You can't imagine how many times the Neema loses the Flotilla's intranet connection. And it always seems to be when you're downloading a diagram for making something." Tali finally found the right drill bit and started screwing the bolts in again.
"That sucks…" John said.
Tali nodded. "It'd be easier just to have the whole list locally… but you're talking about having millions of parts on your omni-tool." Tali pat Juel on the shoulder to tell him she was done.
"It's just not worth it." Juel finished for her.
"Why not just use the extranet then if the Neema's intranet sucks?" John mused.
"Because the Flotilla's forums have information extranet websites lack. Mainly hands-on quarian input." Tali answered.
Juel watched the pipe's PSI dial return to normal.
"All that work just to replace one little sensor…" John shook his head.
"Yup." Juel croaked, "Looks like we fixed it. O-rings are on right and the seal is checking out."
"What's next then?"
"Mundane maintenance checks until we get another call to get something else replaced or fixed." Tali supplied.
"Tell me your worst maintenance nightmare." John asked.
Tali gave John this 'are you serious?' look.
Juel piped up.
"Well, besides cutting my arm in the septic tank and losing it, I'd have to say it was when Tali and I had to take a trip outside the Neema to get the intranet antennae fixed."
"Worst. Ever." Tali quipped with a grunt, "This idiot almost lost the panel to keep the thing in place."
"Yeah." Juel laughed, "I had to tie a rope to Tali's ankle and have her get it back."
John stood shocked. "You don't have EVAs for that?"
"Ordinarily, yes." Tali said while rolling her eyes, "But in order to fix the EVA suit problem, we had to fix the antennae to download the right part first."
"And there's no… contingency for this? Don't you guys have a second intranet antennae? Or someone to lend an EVA suit from another ship?"
"That was the second one and no, we couldn't borrow one."
"Why didn't you guys just have the piece needed on hand for it?" John asked disbelievingly, "That makes no sense."
"John? Look. Sometimes it happens. We're used to dumb things like that all the time." Tali explained.
Somehow, Tali realized that convincing John that 'this was just how the way things were' wasn't going to fly with him.
As he would say, 'shit happens'.
And shit happened a lot on the Neema.
And they were used to it.
"An endless self-perpetuating circle." John murmured with a small frown, "That's bad guys."
"Yup. But we deal." Juel shrugged, "But it's not like we've got a choice in the matter."
"Maybe." John said, nonplussed, "It just worries me that Tali's life was in the balance with only a rope tied to her foot. That's all."
"Hey. It was a good ass knot." Juel retorted.
John and Tali groaned.