Commander Shepard saw blue.
This struck him as curious. He could see. That meant he was alive. The blue thing he saw – it was the sky, Earth's sky, the bright vibrant blue of a beautiful day, and he could feel a light breeze caressing his face. It couldn't be a hallucination. Hallucinations didn't have light breezes.
He quickly wished he was hallucinating, though, as he became aware that every part of his body felt like it was on fire and being crushed by an Alliance dreadnought simultaneously. He tried to scream out in pain, but his mouth, or his vocal cords, or both, didn't cooperate – his mouth merely opened silently. The only sound that resulted was a loud crack as his jaw protested.
Commander Shepard saw black as he closed his eyes. Where was he? What was happening – why was he in such awful condition –
His eyes snapped open again, and his heartbeat hastened in a sudden adrenaline rush. The Reapers. He was fighting the Reapers. Earth had been conquered, was being bastardized and raped by those damned sentient machines, part of their cycle, a cycle where all advanced organic life in the galaxy was snuffed out for the sake of –
The created will always rebel against their creators
No, he wasn't fighting the Reapers. He had managed, barely, to get to the Citadel and activate the Crucible. The Reapers were destroyed. He had chosen to destroy them. We destroy them, or they destroy us.
Anderson was dead. The Illusive Man had made Shepard fire his gun, and the bullet had sealed Anderson's death warrant.
I killed him.
That wasn't true, the rational part of his brain knew. He had just been the Illusive Man's puppet, an unwilling part of the Indoctrinated zealot's demonstration of power. That rationale didn't ease the pain. Anderson had died sitting next to Shepard, looking out on Earth, and the bullet in his side had come from the Commander's pistol. But that wasn't all.
He had killed them all.
He felt heavy. Not just his body, which might as well have been a corpse. It was his heart that felt heaviest.
With considerable effort he turned his head to the side. Rubble gave way at the movement, trickling down – he was apparently on a slope made entirely of the stuff, bits and pieces of ruined buildings and vehicles. He wondered how many corpses lay around him, beneath him, waiting to be discovered. He wondered how much longer until he joined them. The thought, strangely, gave him a sense of peace. So many lives had ended because of him. New lives. The geth, and EDI, were just starting to become aware that they were well and truly alive – before he killed them.
He still saw blue, but now there were buildings reaching up into it. A city – London. He remembered London now, the desperate push in to the city, fighting through hordes of Reaper ground troops to reach the beam of light that would take them to the Citadel. He remembered the Reaper destroyer that he and his squad had helped to take down with some well-placed missiles. He remembered Harbinger, and he remembered the red beam that consumed his world.
There was none of that now. What Shepard saw now was a picture of peace that made his breath – which, he observed, was already coming in short ragged spurts – catch in his throat. There was considerable damage, buildings in varying states of disrepair, dozens of columns of smoke. But there was reconstruction, too, massive cranes, scaffolding being erected, vehicles buzzing around, and that blue sky, so blue, not gray and foreboding as it had been under Reaper reign. Life, which he had fought so hard to preserve, was continuing. For a moment, he felt he could jump up and join in the rebuilding efforts despite his injuries, so great was his inner jubilation.
The joy died as quickly as it had come and he squeezed his eyes shut, turning his face back upward. At what cost was that peace bought? How many millions had died for this peace? Not just the synthetics that died collaterally when the Crucible fired – how many souls had been horribly extinguished while he flew around in the Normandy, playing diplomat for aliens stubbornly consumed by their ancient prejudices?
No. This was a beautiful thing, this peace, but it felt wrong for him to be here. He had fought. He had tried so hard, but it wasn't enough – he couldn't save everybody, and that, to him, was the worst failure.
Humans want to save everybody
Garrus. Despite himself, the thought of his old turian friend brought a weak smile to Shepard's cracked and bloody lips, which he regretted instantly, as it made his face feel as though it would break. Turians, Garrus had told him once, considered it a victory if, at the end of a battle, even one man was left standing, but humans wanted to save everybody. He was right. And he had been right, too, when he said in the battle against the Reapers, that goal was impossible. Shepard found little consolation in his friend's wisdom now.
He let his eyes open and stared up into that endless blue sky, which wasn't actually endless at all but just a thin blanket beyond which lay an entire galaxy full of life, although just how much less life there was now he could only speculate. Blackness, tinged with red, was creeping in to that blue, from the corners of his vision.
This didn't bother him. Yes, he was dying, and that was as it should be. It wasn't that he felt undeserving of life – it was more that he felt it was his time to die. He was a relic. His purpose was fulfilled, even if it had been fulfilled in a way that repulsed him.
Shepard inhaled deeply, wincing reflexively as his ravaged innards exploded with pain, and then exhaled. The blackness crept in ever more, snaking its tendrils into the peaceful blue sky. Let death take him, then, to where it would. Let him join all those friends who had gone before him, Anderson and Ashley Williams and Navigator Pressly, Mordin Solus and Legion. Once he might have scoffed at the idea that synthetics could ever have an afterlife or even the concept of one, but Legion had been so alive. If only he could talk to Legion and explain why he had done it, why the geth had to die – maybe his friend would understand and give forgiveness – but how could he, when Shepard was responsible for the death of his entire race –
Another deep exhalation, another corresponding burst of explosive pain. He wanted to forget, to push all of these thoughts out of his mind, but he couldn't allow that. He was about to die, and he wanted to die with some semblance of pride – he would bear the full brunt of his guilt, painful as it was.
Peace continued to reign over his body as numbness, like the blackness in his vision, began to creep in, granting some blissful relief. Shepard felt his muscles relax, and he realized his back had been arched for some time as it slowly collapsed back onto the rubble. The only thing to do now was wait.
He had smiled not long ago – what was it that had made him smile?
There's no Shepard without Vakarian
Shepard couldn't resist another grin as the image of Garrus popped into his mind, but this time, there was sadness in it. This was really it – he had said his goodbyes to the turian before the final charge for the Citadel, but now there was no doubt. He wouldn't see Garrus again.
If there was one thing that gave him real solace now, it was remembering the friends he had traveled with over the last few years. Garrus, who had gone from a stern C-Sec officer to a wittily sarcastic gunslinger; Liara T'Soni, whose cute naivety had turned into an almost dark cynicism but who had always remained true to herself and her friends; Kaidan Alenko, powerful human biotic, proud Alliance soldier, friend and brother to Shepard; James Vega, a man whose apparent toughness and ruthlessness was belied by a deep concern for everyone around him; Tali'Zorah –
Shepard's eyes abruptly widened, his relaxed and increasingly numb body stiffening, as adrenaline rushed through his veins.
I have a home
Come back to me
"Tali," Shepard whispered, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. His heart was beating loudly in his ears – the darkness in his vision had stopped its encroachment, staved off by something unexpected: a desire to survive.
I can't die. I can't do that to her, not again. Not now.
The gnawing guilt that had consumed him so quickly after regaining consciousness was pushed aside, replaced only by the image of Tali'Zorah vas Normandy (or was it vas Rannoch now, after all, she had a homeworld, they had fought for it together, achieved it together), the young quarian woman who had very unexpectedly stolen his heart and given him something to fight for besides not dying. It was like an injection of medi-gel, these thoughts, and a semblance of strength returned to his limbs.
This had two immediate results: one, it gave Shepard hope, and two, it dispelled all of the comforting numbness that had begun consuming him when he resigned himself to death. Pain flared up in his body as freshly as though he was feeling it for the first time, and Shepard was completely and utterly convinced, as his vision went black and then returned to normal and then repeated this cycle several times, that he would die.
But he couldn't die. He had to get back to Tali.
Shepard fought, and if there was one thing he was good at, it was fighting. He focused all of his inner strength on repulsing unconsciousness and was, at least for now, successful; the adrenaline rushing through his veins was fuel enough for that much. That left the daunting task of rising to his feet. Taking it slow, he tried to move his arms, gain some kind of purchase on the slope of rubble –
And screamed loud, long, and hoarsely at the pain that resulted. His arms weren't broken, but they felt impossibly hot, impossibly heavy. Still, the fact he had screamed was encouraging, made him feel alive, because even though there was so much death, and even though too much of it was his doing, he had reason to live, one very good reason, and he wanted so badly to see her.
His arms shook and protested with fresh waves of pain as he gritted his teeth and propped himself up on his elbows. His vision turned black again and he saw stars as the transition rendered him dizzy. In this position, he could better see his surroundings. The rubble pile he was laying on was considerable, stretching far to his right side and a little less so to the left, but to his relief it was not very high up. As he had suspected, he was not the only occupant – dozens of bodies lay scattered around in positions of varying grotesqueness, including an unfortunate asari curled backwards so unnaturally that her head tentacles nearly reached her feet.
Beyond the pile of rubble was a cracked and pitted street littered with deserted vehicles, both civilian and military. It was deathly quiet save for Shepard's own ragged breath and –
Was that birdsong?
Shepard listened, spellbound, to the melodic shrilling of a bird somewhere nearby. It felt like it had been years since he heard a bird sing, and that stood to reason, because birds did not sing in war zones, and Shepard had made such war zones his home for what seemed a lifetime. That there was a bird giving vocal testimony to its existence on the streets of London was a heartrending confirmation that it was over, it was finally over.
This only spurred the Commander to greater effort, and with a gleam in his eye, he mustered all of his strength and propelled himself from his elbows to an upright sitting position. Predictably, the resultant agony was enough to making him scream out, and this time he was almost unable to avoid unconsciousness, but there was more than birdsong driving him onward.
Come back to me
"Tali," Shepard breathed, his voice cracked and hoarse, an unconscious affirmation of why he was fighting death, and then he placed his hands on the downward-sloping pile of rubble before him, poised his legs – noting that his right ankle was almost definitely broken, judging by the particularly vicious wave of pain from that region, but it was hard to distinguish one pain center from another – and propelled himself onto his feet.
It was by no means a graceful transition. Shepard stumbled forward, white-hot pain and dizziness hitting him simultaneously, his right ankle (and it was definitely broken now, that much could be confirmed) twisting and cracking at the unwelcome load it was being forced to endure. It was only through sheer willpower that he managed to stay upright; he knew that if he fell back onto the ground, he would not rise again. It had taken every ounce of energy he had in his body, and then some, just to get up the first time.
He stood there for a full minute, body heaving with heavy and exhausted breaths, sweat dripping from his face, blood dripping from his hands and his legs and every part of his skin that was exposed. He looked down at himself, vaguely amused at his state of disrepair. If only Garrus could seem him now, appearing like some specter of death, his N7 armor chipped and broken so badly that one could not even infer how it might have looked at its prime, so caked with dried blood and grime that its original color was a mystery.
Puts his facial scarring to shame, Shepard thought with ironic pride. The fact that he was well enough for his dumb sense of humor to come through heartened him, and he looked up, exhaling heavily.
The pain he felt was still ungodly, enough that he should very well have been dead, or at the very least unconscious, but there was no time for either of those inconveniences now. He had no idea how long he'd been lying there in the remains of some ruined building, his only companions being the hapless dead of recent war, had no idea how long Tali had been left to speculate on his fate. The idea of her going through any kind of pain on his behalf filled him with rage at everything and nothing at all, because the only one he could blame was himself.
He stepped forward.
Then he took another step.
And then another.
With every step he died anew, his mind flooded with unwelcome memories of the Collector assault on the Normandy SR-1, how their powerful corrupted Prothean technology had torn the ship to shreds and left him spaced, oxygen venting through his suit and death pressing in with slow relentless certainty. That death had been frustrating in its unavoidability. He had been unable to fight it because there was no way to fight it, but now, he had a chance to survive, and he would be damned if he let some Reaper-inflicted flesh wounds finish him off.
Come back to me
He trudged on, every step a monumental effort, a catalyst for a new wave of searing white hot agony in every limb, but all he saw was Tali'Zorah, Tali, the woman who proved to him that he was capable of more than soldiering, the woman who he would die for if he had to. The unpleasant memories of his death on the Normandy SR-1 faded and were replaced by memories of her, memories of embracing her, holding her close to him, feeling her hot breath on his ear as she spoke tenderly in to it with her suit off, the way his stomach felt light and he couldn't stop smiling when he was around her, and with those memories sustaining him, he could have walked a thousand times the distance despite his physical pain.
Commander Shepard's thoughts were still of Tali, only of Tali, when he finally trudged into a populated part of the ruined city, an impossible forty minutes later, were still of Tali as dumbstruck soldiers and civilians stopped their construction or their talking or whatever they were doing to gape at this grim and bloody man staggering through the streets, were still of Tali as a medical vehicle swept in, landed nearby, and deposited a small team of paramedics. They spoke to him, assured him that he would be okay, asked him to stay calm as they injected him with several needles and gently pushed him back onto a stretcher and then loaded him into the vehicle, but he did not hear them. If he had remained aware of his surroundings, he surely would have succumbed to the pain and fallen long ago, but there was only one thing on his mind, and it proved more effective than any painkillers ever would.
"Tali," he whispered as he was whisked away to fall under the mercy of fate and Earth's best remaining medical professionals, and then Commander Shepard saw black, only black.
Shala'Raan was distressed.
This, admittedly, was not an unusual frame of mind for the longtime quarian Admiral, who had once commanded a segment of the Migrant Fleet and played a sort of informal peacekeeper amongst the strongly opinionated Admirals who were her peers, a task much more daunting than it could ever impress.
Still, with the quarian people in a state of peace, real meaningful peace, for the first time in centuries, and with the threat of the Reapers apparently gone (although many still couldn't believe this to be true), Raan had hoped, apparently naively, that she might be able to relax. There was building and rebuilding to be done, a homeworld – Rannoch – to rediscover and reclaim, but these were happy tasks, she had reasoned, not worrisome ones.
What she had not anticipated were the complications. The fleet was crippled and largely decimated after the assault on Earth and the activation of the Crucible; while noncombatants had largely stayed behind on Rannoch, many had insisted on joining that final struggle, to die fighting instead of cowering on the sidelines and hoping for the best. A significant portion of the able-bodied quarian population had gone forth into battle, and barely half of them survived to tell the tale.
And then, of course, the damage to the mass relays had been discovered. The victory fleet, or the tattered remnants of it, consisting of a couple hundred ships of various configuration, human and turian and asari and even a few salarian cruisers thrown in for good measure, spent weeks after the Reapers were destroyed hovering around the Sol Relay, their best engineers struggling to fix the device. The damage had looked worse than it actually was, and two weeks of constant repair sufficed to get the relay up and running. Comm systems were still functional, and so the quarians in the victory fleet had been able to coordinate with those back in Rannoch; the relay in that system was fixed only a day later, and so the quarians returned home with wishes of good luck from the other races.
As if helping to supervise her people during those repairs had not been stressful enough, Raan had immediately been launched headlong into the political struggles brewing on the homeworld. The quarian people were in a state of transition, from a nomadic life among the stars, residing in their massive Liveships and a hodgepodge of other craft, to a more conventional terrestrial existence. This was what they had sought for centuries, but now that it was finally attained, the more tedious aspects of that change were becoming evident.
The governing system that worked for the Migrant Fleet, one of admirals directing fleet movement and defense, and civilian representatives serving in the Conclave, would not work for a quarian world, that much was obvious to all. The question was, what would the new system be? How would its leaders operate and function when there were yet to be any cities or towns on Rannoch, when everyone was busy racing to claim land of their own before it was all snatched up?
These were the debates that dominated Raan's world now, and she was unsure if they were any less dreadful than trying to keep millions of quarians alive in a fleet of creaky starships or sending her kin headlong into suicidal battles with ancient sentient death machines; but it was not why she was presently distressed.
She was distressed because Tali, for the umpteenth time in a handful of days, was missing.
The young quarian woman, with whom Raan shared a close bond – and that she considered their bond uniquely close was telling, because all quarians were like family out of necessity, sticking close together to survive in a frequently hostile galaxy, and so considered one and all their brothers and sisters – had arrived not long after the remnants of the victory fleet, in the recently repaired Normandy SR-2. The ship had gone down, its pilot, Joker, had told them, on a comfortably forested planet in the krogan DMZ, after the mass relays shut down. Fortunately for them, the krogan set to repairing their mass relay with aid from their turian allies, and so the Normandy was able to use it to reach the first system with a functional corresponding relay that they could find – which just happened to be the one in the Tikkun system, in which Rannoch resided.
Admirals Raan, Koris, Xen and Gerrel had all come out to greet the ship when it landed in their makeshift base of operations, which must have seemed the only reasonable place to land from orbit, as it hosted the most activity for any scanners, indicative of a population center. In the case of the resettling quarians, this base of operations consisted of a massive sprawl of tents and houses constructed of any materials that came to hand, from scrap metal to whatever wood could be found in the sparsely vegetated area. Hundreds of thousands of quarians lived there as they waited for direction from the admirals, but millions of others were already spread all over the planet, hoping to claim the best real estate before a proper government could regulate re-colonization.
The ship hadn't stuck around for long, and its entire crew was subdued during their short pleasantries. Tali in particular hardly spoke a word as she descended the ship's entry ramp and greeted the admirals, exchanging dispassionate hugs with each of them, and when she did speak, to tell them she was alright, it was with a low and, to Raan's perception – a perception honed from a lifetime of experience with the girl – sad voice. This suspicion was confirmed when Koris cheerfully asked where Commander Shepard was; Tali had looked wordlessly in his direction for a long moment, then to the ground, and then she had mumbled something about settling down before walking quickly off.
Raan's heart had gone out to the girl. She knew what that reaction meant. Commander Shepard was not on the Normandy, and he would not be present for any 'victory celebrations in the Commander's honor' as Koris so obliviously proposed while Tali faded from view. He was dead, presumably killed in the climactic fight against the Reapers, and Tali had lost more than a friend, much more.
The relationship had never been explicitly shared with Raan, or with any of the admirals, but Raan knew Tali better than the young woman suspected. Ever since the unfortunate treason hearing almost two years earlier, in which Tali was accused of knowingly putting the Migrant Fleet in danger by sending in active geth, it had been glaringly obvious to the older woman – whom Tali had once called 'Auntie Raan,' and sometimes still did, when she was in a good enough mood – that her young friend was smitten with Commander Shepard.
Raan had watched with wistful amusement as Tali followed him about, her eyes almost always glued adoringly to him, had listened to the way her voice softened, became more tender, somehow, when she spoke to him. The only way Tali could have made it any more obvious, Raan had thought to herself, was if she started humping his leg where he stood.
It made her happy, knowing that the girl had found someone to love, and only hoped that Shepard wouldn't break her heart, not when it was so obvious that her entire world revolved around him; and when, the next time she saw them together – shortly before the battle of Rannoch – it was obvious that they were bonded, she not only felt happy for Tali, she felt secure, knowing that such a capable and noble man was looking after her as more than a comrade and friend – as a lover.
And now the worst had come to pass – Commander Shepard was dead. Tali, whose heart had already endured so much pain during her life, from the passing of her mother as a child, and then the passing of her father as an adult, who had endured the shame of a public treason hearing just so admirals could advance their respective political views, was in the most pain of her life, and she didn't deserve such a thing.
Expressing these sympathies and providing a shoulder to cry on proved much harder over the next few days than Raan would have liked. Tali was elusive, undoubtedly consumed with her own thoughts, still trying to come to terms with events weeks after they had transpired. Everyone in the makeshift colony wanted to speak with her when they heard she'd returned, wanted to thank her for fighting so hard for them, and more dauntingly, to ask her to express their gratitude to Commander Shepard. Raan's colleagues ran out of patience for Tali's isolation in just over a day, and that was understandable enough; the quarians were a very social people, and expected every member of their society to actively contribute to shared betterment. Behavior like Tali's upon her return was almost unheard of and universally frowned upon. Raan held them at bay, pointing out that Shepard was presumed dead and she was taking it very hard.
For now, at least, it was working.
Still, Raan couldn't make excuses for Tali forever, and eventually, she would be confronted over her unhelpfulness, war hero status or not. The older woman wanted to avoid that eventuality, and so now she was seeking the girl out, hoping to finally have a heart-to-heart conversation with her.
It took more than a trek on foot to find Tali'Zorah. Raan searched all over the main colony's perimeter looking for her, going two miles out in all directions, but there was no trace of her. An epiphany hit her halfway back to the tents, and she quickly made her way to the nearest available land vehicle. These were rare presently, as the quarians had lived exclusively in space for a very long time, and hadn't wasted any resources maintaining a fleet of land vehicles, but they had managed to secure a few from the turians and humans before leaving the victory fleet.
Raan drove to the deserted geth base where Commander Shepard, with Tali's help, had released the synthetic race from Reaper control and then destroyed the Reaper destroyer that had resided there. She knew with sureness that she would find Tali near there, and she was right. The young quarian woman was sitting, knees drawn to her chest, on the cliff where she had looked out at the sunset with Shepard after their actions in the base. Raan felt her heart ache with fresh sympathy as she landed the vehicle nearby and stepped out, closing the door as gently as she could so as not to startle Tali, although she was sure she'd been heard hovering in.
And then she stood for a long moment next to the car, looking at Tali's silhouette framed against the sun which now, as it had been weeks ago, with Commander Shepard present, was setting. She tried to come up with a speech, comforting things to say to the girl, but soon abandoned the effort, and instead just walked up and sat down next to her.
Tali had indeed heard the vehicle approaching, and while she had briefly and irrationally considered slipping away, she remained sitting on the cliff's edge. For the last couple of days this had been her sanctuary, a blissfully silent and cherished place where she could listen to her own thoughts. Now that she'd been found, she supposed that was done with.
The couple of days she had managed to find solitude, at least, had provided some solace. Ever since the Normandy had left Earth – and Commander Shepard – behind, on Admiral Hackett's order, she had been unable to find any alone time. The Normandy crew, her friends, had constantly tried to be there for her even as they themselves were trying to deal with Shepard's apparent death. While she appreciated their comfort and their offers to talk, inwardly she had been screaming, constantly screaming. The man she loved, with whom she'd had so precious little time since they found each other – really found each other – was gone, and there was nothing she could do about it. It had hurt the first time Commander Shepard died, but this was different, because this time, they weren't just good friends, they were bound together by love, and the forceful severance of that bond hurt more than anything she'd ever experienced.
She'd watched, as though from a great distance, as her friends and crewmates on the Normandy reacted in their own ways to the news that the Citadel had been left a charred and smoking mess after the Crucible fired, knowing that Shepard had been on it. Their ways of coping were as varied as they themselves were.
Garrus, ever tough, ever eager to keep his friends' chins up, made encouraging jokes about how Shepard had died once, and it had only managed to piss him off, but Tali heard the sadness in his voice, and saw the dullness in his eyes, even as he confidently wagered that they would all see him again soon.
Liara was calm and collected and even cheerful while around the others, but Tali noticed that she spent inordinate amounts of time, even for her, alone in her quarters, and on one occasion, she had emerged with fresh tears running down her cheeks, walking very quickly to the women's restroom nearby.
Kaidan was the most open about his pain, and Tali had found some, if little, comfort in talking with him. He didn't pretend that he thought Shepard would be all right, instead making a point of accepting the apparent fact of his death and celebrating his life, "this time for real," he had said with a sad smile, referring to Shepard's death at the hand of the Collectors. While this was in many ways a better coping method than the others were exercising, he still spent a worrying amount of time at the Normandy's bar, drinking and staring out the viewport, into the stars.
James Vega, like Garrus, tried to keep everyone hopeful, pointing out more than once that only someone as 'Loco' as Commander Shepard could ever have beat the Reapers, and that someone as 'Loco' as he was surely would be remiss to let himself die a second time, but it was obvious that he was just as much trying to convince himself as he was the others. Still, he shared Kaidan's unwillingness to hide from the truth, and he often joined the human biotic in the bar, swapping stories about the Commander and speculating on the fate of the galaxy.
Tali's heart went out to Joker most of all, as the pilot had, like Kaidan, been with the Commander 'since the beginning,' and had lost more than just one good friend: he had lost a loved one, EDI, and so could sympathize with Tali in that regard. When the Normandy had abruptly come out of the mass relay's sway and crashed on a planet, Tali and a couple of the others had immediately gone to the cockpit, to find Joker cradling EDI's body in his arms; the rim of his hat had concealed his eyes, but the tears dripping to pool on the synthetic body had been testimony enough of his pain.
Almost everyone else on the crew, Engineer Adams, his assistants Kenneth and Gabby, Dr. Chakwas, Samantha Traynor, and the others, had all shared the general subdued sadness as well, but Javik, their prothean crew member, had stood apart. Where the others swapped consolations and sympathies, he strolled about the Normandy's decks with his regal chin held high, looking piercingly about with his four eyes and loudly, boldly declaring at every possible chance that Commander Shepard had done what needed to be done, had done better than any organic in the history of the galaxy, that they had all had the honor of serving under his command, and that in his time, statues would have been erected in his likeness, cities and planets would have been named after him, and his story would be added to the most cherished war histories. If he felt any sadness at all, Tali was unable to detect it.
Tali was an emotional and sympathetic girl, and she had been unable to justify pushing her friends aside during that time, no matter how badly she wanted to, no matter how loudly she was screaming out inside; and so landing on Rannoch, and finding some peace and quiet, had been a jarring transition. Just as the quarians had sought a planet of their own for so long, and were now being constantly surprised at all the obstacles that arose after achieving that goal, Tali had been unprepared for the pureness of her thoughts in the isolation she had sought for weeks.
For the entire first day on Rannoch, she had cried. Not nonstop – that was, of course, impossible. But she had sat there, on that cliff, knees drawn closely to her chest, or curled up on the ground, clutching the stone that Commander Shepard had given her when they landed on Rannoch to liberate the geth from Reaper control ("It's a start," she had said, her heart swelling with love at that simple indication of his understanding), spending long periods of silence where it felt that she wasn't thinking at all, was just trying to understand, and then the silence would always be broken by a simple sob which collapsed her barriers and left her crying, body quaking with emotion, feeling more alone that at any other point of her life, before more periods of silence in which she tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. At times she remembered Shepard so vividly that she felt she could turn to her side and see him sitting there, face lit warmly by the setting sun, his eyes twinkling and a smile on his face as he looked at her and into her and made her feel naked and free despite the suit she was forced to wear.
I want more time
It was unfair, so monstrously unfair, that she had met Shepard so late, that they had realized their love for each other so late, that at every turn the universe had seemed to conspire against their being together, first in Shepard's death by the Collectors, and then by the petty warmongering of her people that left her scrounging for geth parts while Shepard gathered his team, and then, after they finally sealed their commitment to each other with passionate lovemaking hours before a suicide mission (and that was Tali's most cherished memory, how he had looked into her eyes and told her it was always you and how for once in her life she hadn't felt inadequate and awkward but beautiful and loved, and how only he ever made her feel that way), the conflict with the Reapers had shaken them out of their new and fragile (but it had seemed so invincible at the time, like they could have taken on the entire Reaper fleet and won) togetherness and left him in house arrest on Earth while she, once again, was consumed by the squabbling and politics of the quarians. And then, finally, they had come back together, and held each other, and gave each other meaning, only for circumstances to drive them apart again – this time, for good.
What was she supposed to do now?
Her people would no doubt expect her to take up a position of leadership in whatever government rose from the ashes of Rannoch. They would expect her to spend the rest of her life dedicated to the cause of the quarians throughout the galaxy, working until her dying breath for the good of her multimillion-member 'family.' Once, this would have appealed to her, even made her happy; she, like every quarian child, had been raised to think of herself as secondary in importance to the good of the Fleet. Someday, perhaps, this would appeal to her again.
But right now, she had this – this broken heart, a feeling that nothing could ever give her fulfillment without the strong arms of her beloved wrapped around her, now that they would never embrace her again, that she would never feel her heartbeat quicken and her stomach flip with excitement and nervousness the way they had when Shepard would reach up, caress her bare cheeks, and lock his lips with hers.
All of this went through her mind as she looked at Shala'Raan, who had been like a mother to her after her real mother had died, and said, "Nice view, isn't it?"
Raan nodded, her masked face turned speculatively out to the setting sun. Before them was a vast expanse of desert, but it was beautiful in its rich hue, and the vegetation which popped up here and there, as well as the trickling body of water that ran off into the horizon, lent the scene a soothing vibrance.
"Yes," she agreed at length.
They were silent for a long moment. Finally Tali released a weak chuckle and looked ruefully down at her knees. "Koris and the others sent you out here, didn't they?"
Raan turned to look at her, feeling a little hurt in spite of herself at the implication that she would not come out to check on the girl on her own prerogative. "No, Tali."
Tali looked up and met her gaze, and cocked her head a little, but said nothing.
"The admirals were admittedly…concerned about you," Raan explained, eliciting a skeptical snort from the younger quarian. "But I told them to give you some time, child. You've had…" she let her voice trail off, suddenly unsure how to proceed. "You've had a rough couple of weeks."
Tali immediately returned her gaze to her knees, feeling a tumult of emotion. A childish corner of her mind was ready to lash out at Raan, insist that she had no idea what Tali was going through and could only pretend to understand, but she felt shame, too. Here Raan was, checking on her, not because she was asked to, but because she cared about Tali. With her own heart in a fragile state, it was all to easy to forget that other people had feelings, too. What must her friends in the colony think of her, running off to dwell selfishly on her own thoughts while they struggled to build a home?
"Tali, I…" Raan started, then trailed off again, obviously struggling to find the right words. Again, she considered a million different speeches she could make, a million different platitudes that might take Tali's mind off of things, but finally, she chose to speak frankly and from her heart. "I'm so sorry, child."
The sheer simplicity and earnestness and love in Raan's words took Tali completely off guard. Her collectedness, brief and manufactured as it had been, collapsed, and the purple world she saw through her mask blurred with tears.
"I miss him, Auntie Raan," she said, her voice thick and wavering, and then she began to cry in great, mighty sobs, more fiercely and purely than she had in the entire time she'd been on Rannoch, and Shala'Raan, cooing with empathetic sadness of her own, moved in and wrapped her in an embrace. Tali willingly reciprocated, resting her head against Raan's chest, shoulders heaving, body shaking.
"Oh my poor Tali," Raan said, sadness weighing heavily on her heart. Watching the girl go through such pain was worse, she was sure, than if she went through it herself, and she wished that she could reach through the veil between life and death and bring Shepard back, if only it would stop the tears; and she wanted to say more – there were so many things she should say – but she could not muster the words, and so they just sat like that for a long time, as the sun descended ever further beyond the horizon.
After a time Tali's sobs subsided, as did the trembling and heaving of her body, and she lay weakly in Raan's comforting embrace. She felt like she could sleep for years, and it occurred to her she had been so busy mourning Shepard that she hadn't been sleeping much.
"I should have been with him," she whispered, feeling the tears drying on her cheeks.
"That's not true, Tali."
"Yes it is," Tali said more fiercely than she had intended. "I was there with him, and I wanted to end it with him, but I got – I got hurt, and – "
Raan smiled sadly beneath her mask, anticipating the rest of the story. "And he told you to get to safety."
Tali was silent. Raan took her by the shoulders and gently pushed her upright, turning her so that they were face to face.
"He loved you, Tali," she said in a low voice aching with empathy. At this, Tali tried to look away, to protest the words that she knew were coming, but Raan felt that she needed to hear them; she lifted one hand and, still gently, pushed her face back to the front. "He wanted you to live, for yourself and for him. He died so that trillions of beings could live, so that you could live, Tali!"
Tali stared at her, her eyes blurring again, mouth working as she considered and rejected a million different responses. "It's…it's not fair, Auntie Raan," she said weakly at last, looking down at the ground between them, and this time, Raan didn't interfere. "We didn't have enough time. I…" she held up a rock that Raan hadn't realized she was holding and they both gazed down at it. "I wanted to be with him. I thought…I thought I was going to be with him." And then she looked back up, and though her purple visor concealed her eyes, Raan could feel the passion behind them. "I would have gone anywhere, done anything, to be with him."
"Oh, I know, child," Raan said, and pulled her in for another embrace. "And he felt the same way, don't you see?" she pushed Tali back to arm's length. "What did he say to you? What was the last thing he said to you?"
Tali's efforts to contain another bout of crying failed, and she tossed her head to one side as she stifled a sob. "He said," she began, valiantly trying to keep her voice even and failing miserably, "…he told me to come back to Rannoch and…build a home." Her voice softened at the end as she remembered the way he'd said it, his eyes looking into hers, piercing hers.
"He's looking down at you now, Tali," Raan said softly, and then added in a gently teasing voice, "and he's wondering why you're wallowing around out here instead of building a home he would be proud of."
This was apparently the right thing to say. Tali released a strange laugh-hiccup and lovingly caressed the stone Shepard had given her. She remembered how he, while she despaired over her father's death, had pulled her into his embrace, giving her the strength she needed to finish their mission. "Yeah," she whispered. "You're probably right."
Raan stood and looked down at Tali. How quickly the girl had turned into a young woman, and this heartbreak, once healed, would see her turn into an even stronger person than she'd already become. Shepard, she was sure, would have been pleased that his death could have such an end result. Tali looked back up at her, and they simply gazed at each other for a long moment, each lost in their own thoughts about the other.
Tali, in turn, felt much better; she knew the wound in her heart would never heal, but was that so bad? She never wanted to forget Commander Shepard, never wanted to forget how impossibly powerful her love for him had been, and that very wound in her heart would always remind her. And she knew, as Raan had said, that he would never have wanted her to live like this, stuck in the past, despairing over what could have been.
He told her to build a home on Rannoch. She would build the best damn house on the planet, and she would think of him the entire time – not with despair, but with fondness and joy that she had been fortunate enough to know him, to love him, and to know his love.
Shala'Raan offered a hand.
Tali'Zorah took it.
A/N: This is the first of 9 or 10 chapters planned. I'll try to deliver them all without too big a gap between each one. I don't have the best history with finishing stories to completion, but for once I actually outlined the damn thing before starting, so I'm determined to go all the way.