So now, I disembark into a strange and scary new world, fanfiction. I didn't exactly follow canon here to the letter, but then again, what would be the point of fanfics if they did?
This is a bridge piece staged between the first and second ME, though if my plans follow through (and I'm determined that they will) this will eventually be a series that spans the time of all three ME games and then launches off into it's own unique story within the ME universe.
Important thing! A LOT of the quarian culture stuff in here is borrowed off of Calinstel's work in the To Survive series. I highly recommend reading them, admittedly, after reading them myself I can't imagine quarians any other way! Also, I have to give credit to the brilliant fic author venomRED who inspired me to start this writing. Both he and Calinstel's work have greatly influenced my views of the Mass Effect universe.
Final Note: I started this fic after making a personal observation that Tali/Shepard fic writing was more or less dying out. It saddened me to see so many incredible authors come and go, and I decided to take it upon myself to try my hand. As long as there are still readers out there who want me to continue working, I'll do my best.
Now get reading! XD
ME: Valley of the Shadow of Death
Prologue: Opening Your Eyes in a Tub of Vinegar
A weightless, still sensation that one never seems to notice at the moment, but in hindsight was always present as settled dust in the back of the mind. The soft and steady buzz of the drive core came to the forefront of her awareness as she swayed momentarily on her feet, waking consciousness slamming back into her as her silvery eyes shot open. Tali quickly shook her head to clear the drowsiness. Keelah, falling asleep on her feet, she hadn't realized that she was that tired. Squeezing the fatigue out of her eyes, she slid her hands to the small of her back and stretched, evoking several satisfying pops before turning her gaze back to the core-readouts on the terminal in front of her.
Tali still felt the pride from her achievement of adapting the core-readout codes she had learned from her father and concocted herself to the highly-advanced systems of the Normandy. It had been disappointing at first to not have anyone to tell of her accomplishment, but eventually she had decided to talk of it with Shepard. The corners of her mouth unconsciously turned upward as she thought of the human. She was sure he'd had no idea what she had been talking about, but he had cared enough to listen none the less. He was just being polite, the logical part of her mind whispered to her. Stop grinning like an idiot.
She didn't stop though, the grin turned into a full blown smile, and she slowly shook her head at the memory of him stumbling over the technical talk. Shepard really did try; he listened, engaged actively in conversation, she had told him a quite a bit about her people, and herself. He had proven to be possibly the best friend she had ever had—perhaps more.
Tali's fingers stumbled for a moment over the terminal's interface as a runner would stumble on the track if a gun were to go off next to his ear. What was that? She picked up her pace again and continued typing, dismissing the thought as induced by her exhaustion. The quarian's face assumed a neutral expression of concentration that was ofttimes present when she was immersed in her work, though no one would have known the expression she wore behind her visor anyway. However, had her visor not been there, Engineer Adams would have been able to perceive a smile bloom across her face from clear across the otherwise forsaken engineering deck when a familiar swooshing sound sounded behind her. Of course Tali knew who it was. Third sleeping rotation was when engineering was supposed to occupy the sleeper pods, only one person would bother to head down to the supposedly empty deck at this time.
Shepard. Her heart leapt at the realization of his presence, that had been happening more and more lately, which struck her as a bit odd, but then again, why shouldn't she be happy he was here? It was genuinely enjoyable to talk to him after all. Tali tapped a final key to confirm the next systems-check and turned around to see him walking into the blue aura emitted by the drive core.
"What are you guys doing down here?" a joking grin played across the commander's face as he pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "Don't you know what time it is? Sleeper pods are waiting." Of course they were still at work; they always were, as if playing some endless game of attrition with no possible winner.
"Must've gotten away from us, Commander," Adams replied in an equally joking manner. "Maybe the 'most advanced frigate in the galaxy' should get a damn clock on the wall." He said this without lifting his head from the terminal in front of him, engulfed in his work.
"Nah, then you'd never leave. Another thing to run tests on." Tali could hear the Head Engineer's barking laugh echoing across the engineering bay at Shepard's reply, and saw him turn to face the commanding officer as he finished his own readouts.
"Well then, I think I'll head up now." The engineer rotated his neck and stifled a yawn before nodding to Tali, and then Shepard, each of which returned the gesture. He then walked out of the bay to the same familiar swoosh. Alone now with Shepard, Tali turned her full attention to the commander.
John crossed the engineering bay to stand in front of the quarian, a friendly smile still playing across his lips. John, she had started calling him by his first name in her head a while ago, and it never failed to thrill her, it just felt so... familiar? No, personal. The thought startled her momentarily, but she was snapped out of her internal conversation by Shepard's voice playing into her audio pickup.
"I would ask if you were sleeping better, but you don't appear to be even trying." The commander's tone was humorous and she replied in kind, crossing her arms over her chest and stepping into a defensive stance.
"Well someone has to make sure that crazy pilot doesn't cause a core meltdown with those ruthless maneuvers of his." Tali lathered her words in sarcasm.
"In that case, I'll be sure to report that to someone of authority," Shepard consented. His tone then turned a bit more serious as he continued, "But seriously, I could still have a cot or two moved down here if it would help. I'm sure Adams would be on board, seeing as he is thoroughly convinced someone is going to carry off the drive core while he's gone." Tali felt a slight flicker of embarrassment at the offer, remembering how he had offered to make arrangements for her to sleep down in the engineering bay. She had truly appreciated the gesture, but secretly felt mortified by the special treatment.
"N-No, that's quite alright. It's gotten better," she replied a bit hastily. That was a lie, the deafening silence had not increased in comfort by the slightest, but she had started playing background noise within her helmet to compensate.
"Glad to hear it." Shepard nodded in reply, his tone then became suddenly more hesitant—perhaps, nervous. The human spoke slowly and haltingly. "So... Now that the mission is over... Uh..." As Tali had gotten to know the commander, she had come to realize that for an incredible military leader and strategist, Shepard was extremely reserved about his past life and his personal feelings off the battlefield. She had asked him about his life before, but he always nervously avoided the topic. Of course she had read articles about his life, but that felt impersonal and she had wanted to hear it from him. The quarian tilted her head slightly in confusion as he continued. Left foot.
"So your pilgrimage is over now since you have a gift to bring back to your people... and um..." Her mood darkened considerably. Shepard had assisted her in capturing a significant amount of geth data that would prove to be an extraordinary pilgrimage gift when she returned to the fleet. Returning to the fleet was the problem—she didn't want to; in fact, she desired the opposite. She wanted to stay. Her time aboard the Normandy with Shepard had been the highlight of her life. Was he trying to dismiss her? To force her to leave and go home? Tali suddenly felt a thousand measures more nervous than she had a moment ago. Right foot.
Shepard inhaled slowly, centering himself and collecting his thoughts, he tried again. "What I'm trying to say is... Wow, uh... How often do quarians leave the fleet after their pilgrimage?" Tali's heart skipped a beat. He wasn't asking her to leave. He was asking if she'd come back. The puzzled expression in her eyes turned to outright confusion. "I mean, do quarians sometimes decide not to come back?" Woah, left foot.
Tali almost laughed at how nervous the newly dubbed 'Hero of the Citadel' before her appeared, but she didn't. Shepard rubbed his hand across the back of his neck, "Because I mean, I'd hate to lose practically my whole engineering team, and my tech and geth expert all at once..." Right foot. The commander swallowed anxiously, having decidedly put an end to his clumsy stumble through words as if it were a field of cacti.
Realization came over her like a wave, and with it came relief. He definitely wasn't asking her to leave. Tali's iridescent eyes roamed slowly over his face, taking in every contour, every fading scar and small cut from the battle of the Citadel. Eventually the silvery eyes found his own soft blue ones, and she tilted her head upward to look into his eyes. Time seemed to stall for a moment, and she felt the front her suit brush against the fabric of his regulation off-duty outfit. WAIT A MINUTE. Reality jolted back into the forefront, and she realized where she was standing. Throughout their conversation she had been inching slowly closer to the commander, and now she found herself mere inches from him. What are you doing?!
She stumbled backward perhaps a few more feet than were necessary and spluttered out a string of apologies, her face burning like a torch. "Keelah, sorry, I- um... Sometimes... Um, keelah, I'm sor-" Tali's frantic attempts to salvage the situation were cut short by Shepard's hands clamping on her shoulders. Though she didn't meet his eye, she instead kept looking down at her hands as she furiously wrung her fingers.
"Tali." The quarian felt a finger below her chin, and Shepard lifted her face to meet his welcoming gaze, and her fears melted. "It's alright." Tali looked into his eyes for a few moments. Shepard had called her eyes unique and interesting before, but to be honest she didn't understand why. She found human eyes, specifically his eyes, much more fascinating, beautiful even.
She forced herself to speak despite the insistence of her mind to stay blank in the presence of his hands on her body. "I-It's almost unheard of... but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened..." Tali forced herself to assume an air of professionalism and formality, gently stepping out of his grasp. For a moment she saw something enter his expression, but she was too busy building a brick wall around herself to notice what it was.
"You won't have to worry though, Shepard. You can rely on me at least a while longer, I have no intention of going home while we're still hunting geth." Tali couldn't help but notice the bitter taste the word 'home' had left in her mouth, the Normandy was more her home than the fleet had ever been. Anxious that she may do something else foolish, Tali continued, "Now it's late... I should be going."
The commander nodded in understanding, and Tali quickly walked past him, out of the engineering bay, and onto the elevator. What the hell was that? What kind of bosh'tet are you? It took a considerable amount of restraint not to run through the crew deck and hop into her sleeper pod to shelter from her embarrassment. Instead, she walked calmly through the mess and climbed into the only empty pod.
Tali spent the next few hours replaying what had just happened over and over within her head. She hadn't bothered turning on the background noise. Her mental chatter was already overwhelming. Her behavior around him, being out of breath at his touch—she had already discovered what they all pointed to, but refused to acknowledge it. She was bonding with him. Rather quickly too. Her cheeks burned within her helmet at the simple thought.
The young quarian's mind drifted through all of the numerous interactions she'd had with John. The pemla'tiyl had happened rather quickly. He had just demonstrated such an interest in her people, in her. Somehow, though, it had moved past simple friendship. He had cared for her, protected her. He does that for all of the crew, you bosh'tet. Tali sighed in exasperation. Even as she told herself how foolish it was, it did nothing to deter her feelings. To her profound mortification, she had realized that she had indeed been unconsciously flirting with Shepard. Now, as she lay awake inside the quiet pod, she replayed the same question within her head a hundred more times. What do I do?
Tali's frustration mounted, and as a distraction she checked her chrono, realizing that third rotation was almost over. She wasn't tired anyway. She opened her pod and headed down the ramp into the mess hall, all the time replaying the unanswerable question in her mind. What do I do? What do I do? Her heart stopped dead when she spied Shepard leaving his quarters, and she felt her cheeks smoldering behind her visor.
Act normal. Nothing's changed. Tali buried her feelings and continued around the corner to the elevator. Shepard turned the corner and came to a standstill next to her. She felt a slight nervousness building within her, but along with it was a strange happiness. Shut up. He just needs to use the elevator.
She stepped into the elevator and he entered beside her. "Hey, Tali, you must really not like sleep, huh?" he jabbed jokingly.
Tali felt an incessant anxiety knotting in her chest, and she stuttered out an answer, "H-heh, no, I suppose not..." Shepard must've sensed the anxiousness in her voice. He turned toward her and tilted his head in concern. She shifted to look back at him.
"Is everything alright, Tali? You were acting strange earlier..." Her silvery eyes were again enraptured in his deep blue ones, and she felt her heart longing to be in contact with him. Silence permeated the lift, Tali suddenly felt immensely self-conscious, her feelings loomed over her. She looked down at her gloved hands and commenced in nervously wringing her fingers.
"N-no, everything's... I'm fine." No. Her emotions raged within her, I'm not fine. The doors to the lift opened abruptly into the cargo hold, and Tali quickly walked out and rounded the corner. Walking into the engineering bay, she saw a few crewmen who had already come down and gotten to work. Breathing deeply and closing her eyes, she centered herself and waved to Adams as he greeted her before walking back over to her terminal.
Working always allowed Tali to collect her thoughts and help her come up with a solution. As the hour drifted by, Tali ran checkup after checkup and adjusted drive outputs. That solution seemingly out of nowhere dawned upon her. The quarian's fingers slowed and then stopped completely as an absurd idea entered her head. She would leave soon anyway. Tali muttered under her breath, "Should I tell him?"
The deck below her shook with a cataclysmic force that threw everyone on the engineering bay and surely everyone on the entire vessel to the deck. An alarm wailed throughout the ship and Joker's voice sounded over the intercom, "Attention! An unknown vessel has detected us and opened fire! I repeat! We are under attack!"
Tali shakily pushed herself to her feet and instantly noticed that something was amiss. The blue glow of the drive core was absent, leaving the room dim, save the emergency lights. If the ship were under attack, then they were dead in the water. Immediately, she knew what she needed to do. The engineer ran back to her controls, her hands flying over the interface as she bypassed safety protocols left and right. Suddenly, the drive core began to flicker and turn once more, making an unpleasant grinding sound as it rotated.
Behind Tali a few engineers lay dead where their terminals had exploded, but she kept typing, clipping energy outputs and diverting what she could. She punched her terminal in frustration as it shorted and died before her. She turned in alarm at the feeling of a hand tugging on her shoulder.
"Tali! It's over, Shepard's ordered everyone to abandon ship! We need to leave now!" The quarian nodded and ran after the engineer, piling into the elevator with the rest of engineering. Agitated grinding filled the air as the lift climbed to the crew deck, and they all held their breath, knowing very well this could be the end, but the elevator opened and they streamed toward the life-pods. As she climbed into a pod, she saw Shepard run past, making for the CIC. She made to follow, but Adams's hand gripped her firmly and pulled her into the pod.
The life-pod's door closed immediately, and it fired out of the besieged ship they had all come to call home. Tali frantically asked no one in particular, "Where was Shepard going?!" Ashley Williams turned to face her and replied steadily, "He was going to save Joker. He knew that he wouldn't make it out on his own." Tali nodded; that was exactly what Shepard would do.
She clambered across to the front of the life-pod's cabin and quickly activated the rear external camera. She, along with the rest of the occupants of the spacecraft gasped at the devastating damage the Normandy had sustained.
Tali's heart was in her throat; her lungs insatiable black holes; her hands were shaking. Where did all this emotion come from? She wondered silently to herself as she watched the cockpit with a gaze that could bore holes through steel. Shepard would retrieve Joker and use the bridge escape pod to flee the Normandy. Despair rose in her throat as she continued to watch the Normandy burn. Tali cringed when a baneful yellow beam that had thus far sundered the Normandy's hull again appeared as it ripped through the CIC. A small yelp escaped her as the Normandy's death throes ended in a plume of fire and slag.
A moment of falling, beyond despair, then Tali spied a small object flying away from the explosion—the bridge pod. Tali's shoulders slumped and exhaustion overcame her as she sat back in her seat, muttering a prayer of thanks under her breath. "Keelah, thank you, Ancestors." She hardly noticed the survivors around her all celebrating as well.
Ashley passed her and began interacting with the interface on the terminal. She started to make a list of the survivors, all the pod's vital readouts on their occupants replacing the view of the burning Normandy. Ashley's words cut through Tali's relief like a razor, "Attention, Pod One, I need you to list your current occupants. Your instruments appear to be malfunctioning."
Joker's voice was both despondent and morose. "Nope, you got it alright, I'm all alone..." The next words may as well have been whispered directly into Tali's ear as she sat frozen. "Shepard didn't make it."
A hellish screeching filled the escape pod, Tali instinctively attempted to cover her auditory pickups to no avail. She screamed, but it could not be heard over the deafening cacophony that shattered her eardrums and tugged at her very soul. The life-pod and its occupants crumbled away around her as if it were made of sand, and she suddenly felt horribly exposed to the desolate void of space. The young quarian turned her gaze to the massive bulk of the planet looming beside her, and saw a small figure writhing as he was seared away in the upper atmosphere.
"Shepard!" Tali screamed as she sat up on the mat she had been sleeping on in the shelter Garrus had found for them on the Citadel. Her skin was soaked with a mixture of sweat and tears, and after a moment of labored breaths and recalling where she was, she muted her audio output and burst into tears.