The flickers of ruined light reached up to the dark sky; darker than it had been in generations before and as dark as it might be for many following.
A sound carried, hollow and distant, over the crackle of indiscriminate fire, dotting the wreckage with light like the last flickers of life on the ruined planet. The gentle fizz echoed through the decimated city in a low hush, just stronger than the shallow breaths his lungs wispily drew in; just quiet enough that it rang in his own ears.
Sound came like breaths of wind, growing and then waning with the tempo of Shepard’s dying heartbeat. Distant and indiscernible nouns, adverbs and fervent tones echoed across the concrete, but they grew away from him, the breath of life drawing back like a wave recedes from the shore. It was just the wind; faint and distant.
The feeling of loneliness, cold solitude, sank into his fading mind.
I hear the wind call my name
It sounded as though his name was being breathed by a ghost; a low, distant whisper that drew his attention and flitted it away with a turn of the light. Orange flame flicked over his closed eyelids, tainted deeper in color by the blood that smeared over his features; the crimson substance that bubbled up and drowned his last breaths.
The sounds carried over the wind and strengthened with the small crackles of fire, but the entire world was an apparition to him. Reality was blending to and from tangible creation and a haze-like dream out of his reach.
His name was nothing. His body was nothing. And within another few shallow breaths, he was assured by the weight on his chest and the lack of feeling everywhere else on his body, he would be nothing.
The sound that leads me home again
His name floating over him, strong like a gust and lingering as the syllables of his name were stretched, expanded to give as much force. But then it died away like the abrupt end to a sharp storm, dropping from the constant sounds of the ruined city, from the constant but waning sound of his own raspy breaths, away from the heart that beat weakly and weighed like a rock in his chest.
Reality blurred and his eyes ached as they rolled back in his head. The world suddenly turned on its side even as he couldn’t see it and spun him until he could almost feel his body pulling from his mind. He was losing reality and he couldn’t quite remember why it was he was holding on.
“Shepard!” A voice, a true voice, cut through the air enough to shock Shepard from the pulling and spinning of the darkness. His body was still, frozen in place, weighed down by the concrete piled on him and the ripped, ruined armor pinning his strength-deprived form to the wreckage. The voice was strong enough to pull his mind up from the ruins even if his body remained.
A thicker voice called, clearer, human across the wreckage. Not the wind. Not some deadly, hope deterring echo.
It sparks up the fire - a flame that still burns
His heartbeat rose with the sound, gently, carefully as his lungs drew in another breath that burned in his chest and burned in his ears. Raspy and painful, the breaths came to him; but the ringing in his ears faded as the voice broke through the distant echoes. The voice sounded familiar, but so different from the haven he’d found with his ship -- with his team.
The voices came more fervently, stronger and closer, and they consumed his mind as they grew in volume. His form was motionless, but he could feel the heat growing like the distant flicker of the fire in his chest. His head would have span, but it had never stopped spinning to begin with. He would have felt coldness in his body, but there had never been warmth.
Shepard was alive, and he let the burning in his chest spread through his lungs and through his dying organs. He breathed in the pain and feeling his heart sink like a stone in his chest, because the voices where no longer echoes but real, tangible people that he could hold onto.
His ears were muffled, and the voices were garbled and unclear, but he strained to hear; unable to move a breath but still straining to drag his dying form to attention. He strained for the metallic, accented, high toned voice of Tali to break through the muffle. He strained for the easy, warm voice of Garrus to reach to him. He strained for his team, for Anderson with his deep, resonating tones to finally reach him.
The voices were familiar, but he couldn’t recognize them, and he strained his ears to hear those tones he needed to hear. They didn’t come, even as he felt himself rock to the side, not at his own command. Even as he felt blood suddenly pushed away from his face. Even as he felt the numbed sensation of something pressing into his throat. He strained for the metallic voice of the person he suffered for especially, and it was for her that he could remember why he was holding on.
It was for her, even if the voices that crowded him were not of her accented softness, that he drew in another raspy breath and held the line.
To you I will always return.
Time passed like the reality that was fading from him, like the tangible world he tried to hold onto even as he couldn’t feel or see it. Even as his own senses were blunted and the only sensations he could register were numbness or choking pain. He held onto the voices swarming him, held onto them as something outside of the wreckage, the fires, the firefights, the sharp destructive light that warned of the Reapers. He let it hold him to the real world, the breathing, living world outside of the ruined trap of his own body, and time was an immeasurable creature; only the voices mattered to him.
Time came to him, left him, and returned without warning or explanation. Voices of all unsystematic sorts flooded him and receded, and the mechanical beeps and whines so blessedly different that the wheeling and roaring of the Reapers came to and from his senses.
His eyes finally opened and rather than the darkness of a ruined sky or the color of a Reaper’s blast, he was blinded by white light. It blinded him for an infinite amount of time, until finally he blinked away the burning in his eyes; a sensation different than what he suddenly noticed was the absence of the crippling pain in his body.
His body was still frozen, still weighed down by the numbness consuming him, but his eyes, burning and aching, opened to the world not tainted by crimson blood. His eyes caught a movement and moved weakly, bloodshot, to the side.
Tali’s purple hook and dark faceplate didn’t fill his vision, but the dark skin and close cut hair of Anderson was in its place. His voice was deep but slow, eyes soft and soothing as they met Shepard’s; but he could only take mild comfort in it. The world was lost to him and he couldn’t tell what reality had become since he pressed that button and felt a blast rip through his body.
Shepard parted his lips and a weak, raspy sound came from his mouth; half formed and alien even to his own ears. He persisted, feeling his throat burn and Anderson shook his head, urging him to stop. Shepard couldn’t stop, he needed to know.
In a voice so foreign and weak to his own ears, he spoke her name. “Tali.” A single word, carrying so much meaning behind it. He asked after her, where she was; he needed to see her.
A flood of sudden need came over him and he had to see his team as well. He had to see everyone of the Normandy and know who were still intact after the blast and who would never rise from the wreckage like he had. He had to see them all; he had to know where they were.
Anderson looked tortured, and his soft eyes were strained as they looked down on Shepard. Shepard’s muffled hearing stopped taking in word by word as Anderson spoke them and instead brought in only the meanings.
His team was gone, his team wasn’t heard from. His team had to be alive, but they weren’t coming back. Tali was there. Tali was gone.
A pain so sharp it cut off the oxygen to his words spiked through his body. It radiated deep inside him, and the pain in his chest wasn't just his broken ribs. It was having her worlds away, so far out of his reach, and he couldn’t even draw himself up from the hospital bed to go for her.
I can't stand the distance - I can't dream alone
Shepard was rebuilt, and he wondered if that was something he’d need to get used to.
The muffling over his ears faded to an acute sharpness once again, and words began carrying value and sense to him, rather than only meaning and pain. The pain in his chest didn’t leave and, even with the new tissue built into his throat, it cut off his air. His mind could rise from the pressure holding it down and think past the pain something that could rescue him from it.
He already knew it had only one answer, and it required a solution of its own. If he was to rescue himself from the tightness in his chest, from the sleepless nights and from the restless moments filling his existence, he’d had to rescue Tali from wherever space had taken her.
I can't wait to see you - Yes I'm on my way home
Words stopped being a grounding for him, stopped being expressions and opinions, and started to be only a line of definitions he could piece together. Every word from someone’s mouth would be a piece to a puzzle that he would try to put in place, and discard if it didn’t match up. The puzzle was getting to his team and finding his way to Tali, and whatever offered to him that didn’t make the puzzle more complete was meaningless to him.
The final attack of the Reapers had made it irrefutably clear to every being on Earth that when Shepard spoke, everyone should pay attention. It made it evident what Shepard’s word was worth. So when he said finding a way to put the Mass Relays back online, or find another way to bring back the soldiers marooned in their destruction, people acted.
To be listened to and taken seriously, at any other time, would be an answer to all of Shepard’s problems. But he was too unreasonably focused on the command he had given, and the mission at hand, to appreciate anything other than progress.
I know the road is long but where you are is home
Wherever you stay - I'll find the way
Commander Shepard was the savior of the galaxy. The title had been present before, but always conveniently ignored when he brought himself before the Counsel. He’d reason, demand, plead and finally scream at the high collared, richly clothed politicians that held his ship, his team and the fate of everyone around him in their hands. The title held force, but lost all of its strength like the weak gust of a dying storm when he tried to employ it as another tool or another weapon.
Now the fall of the Reapers had become a badge of its own, the signature at the bottom of any contract he signed, the clearance that had been taken away but now returned. He had been a savior, but the annihilation of the galaxy’s supreme destructive force raised him to a legend. Shepard was reconstructed, fixed, repaired, but the now hidden wounds he suffered made him all but a deity to the survivors of the Reapers’ final attack.
The sentiment wasn’t of much worth to him; he couldn’t enjoy anything while he knew his team was stranded somewhere amongst the cosmos, maybe more helpless than he was on this blue planet.
But the value of this notoriety was everything. It made things achieved as soon as he spoke them, it didn’t bind him with red tape, and that’s what held the most significance for him. Plans to fix the Mass Relays were cycling through hands and through minds. Creative ideas for space travel rose where those plans fell. The title that had been ignored was now making sure the key to reaching his team was not.
At the end of long days and into the long nights of restless progress, Shepard took a break from the eye-burning, body exhausting work of searching for an answer and found himself instead out under the skies. His blue-eyed gaze wandered into the dark, star specked night and knew the suns still shined only because the Reapers were destroyed.
The sky was dark and colorless, but he knew which spots of white light were surrounded by streaks of pink and ribbons of orange under closer inspection. His team would know that. Tali would know. He knew she could look up somewhere in the stars and see the same patterns as he could; maybe a different angle, maybe a different color, but they were the same stars that they had journeyed across together.
I'll run like the river, I'll follow the sun
I'll fly like an eagle to where I belong
When exhaustion finally drove him to bed, he would close his eyes and not find peaceful rest, but only her face. When he let himself relax into the bed, muscles wound tight, he could almost feel Tali’s touch on his skin, and he longed to wrap his warm embrace around her. With his eyes closed, he felt his mouth pull into a smile. His features were scarred, but they brightened at the image of her inside his eyelids. He let her drive him onwards in this new mission; and what he had to lose if he failed drove him on stronger.
When exhaustion slowly lulled him into darkness, he could almost hear her voice in that metallic high tone. "You're here? But how?" She was always so surprised. Impossibly free of her mask, she’d look up at him with those bright eyes.
"I did it once.” His voice wasn’t coarse with repairing vocals; it was soft and confident as it had been in those close moments they took together. The smile on his face was soft and more genuine than any expression he’d felt in these long, hard years. “I came back for you before, Tali. I'll do it again."
And when he’d rise the next morning, he’d repeat the words under his breath. “I’ll do it again.”
Now I know it's true
My every road leads to you
Every flaw in the plan was like the slam of a warp shot into his chest. The Reapers were gone, but the dwellers of Earth -- and most likely every single soul beyond -- were all but crippled.
They were a civilization, a species, beings, which depended on their technology; who’s every breath was affected by the pulsing, by whirling, by the bright lights of their mechanical creations. And now they were all at once deprived of it. Things like that couldn’t be fixed in days or -- as much as Shepard ground his teeth at the thought -- even in months.
Shepard could breathe because he hadn’t been vaporized or liquefied by the Reapers. He could breathe because he could manage without a door opening at his presence or an Omni Tool responding at his touch – or responding at all. He could breathe without ever seeing the stars or the Normandy or his home on a mining planet again. But he couldn’t breathe with this pressure in his chest and this tension at his throat. Only one thing would fix that.
Shepard put his head in his hands and felt the prickle of close cut hair across his calloused palms. He closed his eyes and breathed out, feeling the tension in his chest and seeing her face in his closed eyelids. Everything he looked at brought him back to her, everywhere he looked screamed of her absence. He had saved the world but lost the only reason for living in it. The pressure in his chest wouldn’t leave until he could see her with his eyes open.
He raised his head up, and continued on.
And in the hour of darkness
Your light gets me through
One step closer, one month gone without a resolution. Two steps back, two months past without a fix. Garrus could have calibrated and found a solution to every roadblock. Liara would have known some ancient piece of information to push them further along. Tali would have had every machine up and running if she had been working with these men and their graying, thinning hair. Commander Shepard needed his team, but he knew somewhere, up past the blue sky, they needed him more.
Shepard closed his eyes, rolled his head into his pillow and let the fading image of Tali burn under the intangible colors in his eyelids.
He’d see tears glimmering in her eyes as she pulled him tighter, and he could feel the same tightness in his throat she had to be feeling. Her mask-free features were open for him to see, and she pressed her bare face into the crook of his neck. "Keelah- I missed you."
He missed her, and he let himself sink into the pillows; letting exhaustion and malnourishment sink him into a dream he knew would be of her.
You run like the river - you shine like the sun
You fly like an eagle
You are the one
Months went like minutes on a clock and Shepard found himself living for the green marks of progress more than he lived for rations or sleep. He spent immeasurable amounts of time every morning burning her image into his head; not willing to admit it was fading, not willing to admit he couldn’t tell anyone the color of her eyes, not willing to say he couldn’t remember if the clips of her helmet were nearer to her neck or her forehead.
Not thinking of it kept the painful grip of guilt from his chest, but it did nothing for the cold feeling that settled over his shoulders.
Green marks of progress rose like the red marks on a calendar, and then finally there’s a spark. The spark of an engine was greater than the spark of hope in his chest. The feeling could only be rivaled when there’s a flash of light from a nuclear fusion reactor. Progress jumps like the spike of green on the chart, or the flash of power in their creation.
They’re airborne before Shepard could feel any doubt, and he hoped to keep the feeling at bay even longer by piloting the craft himself. He sank into the cockpit, feeling his hands wrap around the foreign but familiar controls, and heard the roar of a too-loud engine in his ears.
He tugged back on them and the entire machine moved under him, making a weightless feeling in his chest contend with the tightness. Shepard pushed the controls forward and his vision filled with the blue of the sky, and he wondered how he ever lost his appreciation for this.
I've seen every sunset
And with all that I've learned
Individual days started to have meaning again, and he could measure the hour by the amount of green found on the progress chart. He started savoring food again, and when he slept, his muscles unwound and his eyes could see her vividly. The coldness in his body remained, but he could feel the warmth boarding it on every angle, slowly gaining ground every day that passed.
He continued to find himself out under the sky. His eyes kept to the air as they caught the movements of a testing machine hovering over the ground and then, with a wide arc, shooting up into the clouds. The sky was a rich red with washes of orange, and all at once he was reminded of the nebulas Tali chose as her favorites over others. He wondered what she thought of her sunset, somewhere, and if she thought it was anything like the one they witnessed together on her home planet.
Shepard started savoring the colors -- the colors of the sunset, the toning on their flying craft, the changing shades of the fuel, the ever persistent green on the chart. He felt his hopes rise just like the craft rose from the ground, and he knew the tightness of his chest would rise just as soon as their craft rose from the atmosphere.
Oh, it's to you
He breathed in deeply, feeling the suit around his body tighten around the swell of his chest and then ease back with his exhale. It’s just as restrictive as he remembered, but it felt like the comfort of a cocoon, with its colors and its markings. Badges on his chest, like signatures at the bottom of releases, to tell those who glance to him that he won’t be stopped.
When he closed his hands, tightening them into fists, he could nearly feel the controls in his grasp. He can almost feel the endless orders for propulsion and gravity, the commands for starboard and full speed on his tongue. Finally, the tightness was leaving his chest and he knew it would ease from his body as they eased from the gravity of the blue planet.
For the last time on Earth, Shepard closed his eyes and let the dark lids dance with dull color and show him her face. He breathed in deeply, and he could feel his own lips parting to speak to the image feeling more real by the moment.
His soothing voice was close to her ear as he held her, "I always come back."
I will always…