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hit the ground running

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hit the ground running

i.

Kal’Reegar is born aboard the Antebellum, squalling and astoundingly robust for a quarian child on a recently retrofitted human ship. He grows up amidst a time where the galaxy is at peace and the geth stay within the Perseus Veil, never quite straying out and away from the lost homeworld. His mother treats him well, and his father devotes as much time as possible to his only son when he is on leave from the Fleet’s Marines.

ii.

In the flotilla, your accent becomes one of your calling cards. While Kal’Reegar nar Antebellum grows up toddling after his mother, the inherent gruffness of the Reegar family finds a way to live on in his syntax and speech. And when he becomes the last Reegar alive, the warm and rough tones of his voice becomes his in singularity.

iii.

He fights with his fists before his words, tiny three-fingered hands learning how to punch far before his brain learns how to speak. Kal comes home with cracks in his exo-suit and slight fevers weekly without failure. And though his mother chides him for his clumsiness and his inability to be patient with spoilt brats who have both of their parents at their sides, Kal sees the truth of it in her tense shoulders and stuttered breathing.

Kal’Reegar is right to fight for his parents’ honor, especially when one is dead and the other is dying.

iv.

The Reegar family is well-known and respected throughout the Fleet for consistently turning out honorable military men (and the occasional woman when she had the guts to speak up and out about it). It’s a shame, Kal’Reegar hears while he runs through the halls of the Antebellum with his playmates, that they’ve dwindled down to this one son.

And it’s a shame, they continue, that this son seems to embody his mother’s mischievous nature rather than his father’s impassive one.

v.

“I want to be a Marine,” he tells his mother offhandedly. He immediately feels bad, because she stumbles – his graceful mother, a retired dancer, a renowned dancer stumbles – and has to catch herself with the wall.

“Why’s that, Kal?” she responds, trying to maintain her cheerful manner.

Kal pumps his long legs back and forth, watching them swing with increased momentum as he’s perched himself on the tiny table. “Honor?” No, that’s not quite right. “Because,” he amends, “I want you to see Rannoch.”

vi.

All young quarians are given self-defense lessons when they are young, and the two years before they embark on their Pilgrimage, they are taught how to use a gun. Everyone holds a pistol awkwardly at first, unable to manipulate their hands around the trigger, but however hard this is, it is nothing compared to learning how to fire off a shotgun or an assault rifle.

But of course, Kal’Reegar flies through these lessons, learns to enjoy the hard recoil of a shotgun juddering against his shoulder and the vibrating choppy rhythm of an assault rifle. The instructors ask him his name and nod like they should have seen it before; of course a Reegar would take to this so easily.

It’s in his blood.

vii.

His Pilgrimage lasts a couple of years, because he can never just settle for this or that, he needs to deliver the best gift out of his yearmates. Kal’Reegar opens a cab service and tries to understand the galaxy; how one turian can insist on absolute silence while being driven over to his stop and how an asari will politely pursue a conversation even though she is clearly uncomfortable with his existence.

Curious how much the galaxy will let slip through its hands into his cab – the asari tips him well, the salarian not so much in money as he does in information.

“You’re on a Pilgrimage,” says the salarian, leg bouncing up and down, hyperactive like the metabolism of a quarian child.

“Yessir,” answers Kal politely. “Fee’s about a hundred credits, sir.”

The salarian hmms. “I don’t have that money. What if – ah. What if I told you about a ship junkyard no one uses but everyone knows?”

Kal looks back at the salarian, the salarian looks back at him. “You lyin’?”

“As a general rule, no. Do you accept the exchange?”

It’s only a hundred credits that could easily be paid off for by another customer, so Kal’Reegar agrees.

viii.

The ship junkyard is preceded by a gate and a guard monitoring the premises – from his cab’s window, Kal can see parts of ships that have been utterly trashed and other ships in clean shape but deemed worthless to others. It’s easy to bypass the guard, because the guard does not care whether a quarian wants ‘scrap metal’ from a pit of metal hell.

Problem is, Kal’Reegar has never been too clever with his hands when it came to fiddly things like this. So he hunts and digs and finds a dinged up turian fighter. He runs a hand over its sharp edges and makes a humming noise in the low of his throat. Maybe, if the guard would let him out of here with it.

He squirms his broad frame inside – never mind how lanky his physique is, he’s been blessed with the Reegar shoulder-to-waist ratio – and explores the cramped and complicated console with ginger fingers.

Kal’Reegar finds a busted drive core in the back, lacking sorely in eezo, and he’s putting together a picture of how one turian fighter crashlanded and blew out its drive core and was judged to be utterly worthless afterward.

Can I fix this, he wonders, assessing the engine room.

The Fleet had no such turian fighters in the Marines last time he checked. So this could be the first, a revolutionary ship that would modernize the weapons-systems in the other ships. Turians don’t give up their technology easily for quarians – especially for quarians.

ix.

Kal’Reegar thinks about naming the damn fighter as he tinkers with it and tries to get the refined eezo to sync with the dead vehicle’s systems. But, he reasons, ripping open the floor to reveal a congealed mess of dust and brown mud, just ‘cause I bring this ship back don’t mean I get to keep her.

So he doesn’t name it anything but ‘fool’ and ‘girl’, and when he finally pushes it to work again, to fly into space and bounce through the mass relays – the Migrant Fleet Admirals and Captains look at Kal’Reegar wordlessly.

“How?” asks Admiral Junn vas Qwib-Qwib incredulously. “Did you bargain with the turians?”

He shuffles uncomfortably as he stands, greatly aware that a lot of quarian eyes are on this upstart Reegar who brought back a somewhat functional turian aircraft fighter. “No, ma’am. A salarian told me where to find a ship junkyard.”

“Did he help you fix it?”

Insulted, Kal’Reegar’s head finally snaps up from where it’d been pointed at the floor in deference. “I fixed it, ma’am, no help offered after the information.”

“Did you name her?” Admiral Malo’Telum vas Fargut asks – he is the most compassionate of the admirals, and also the most sentimental.

“Thought the Admiralty Board would appreciate the honor – the fighter’s been removed from turian intel and its identification number scraped off.”

They name the fighter Primarch, because even quarians like to have their jokes.

x.

Kal’Reegar is in the Marines and being confronted by an Admiral’s daughter, Tali’Zorah nar Rayya. She’s a spritely thing, full of spitfire and curiosity about the galaxy, and she’s not so much younger than him. He would liken it to having a little sister, except little sisters don’t share the burdens of growing up under an Admiral to a quarian under said Admiral’s current employ. Marines go where they’re needed, even if he’s chosen the Neema for his home.

He’s made it a job to ensure everyone remembers his name, his accent, his Pilgrimage’s gift. He hopes very hard that Tali will forget everything about him when she returns to her father, because he thinks her father takes to widowhood too well and his daughter’s pre-Pilgrimage years even more so.

“I’m old enough to go now,” she says, frustrated and kicking her legs back and forth. The embroidered purple fabric of her hood glitters in the light, and Kal’Reegar does his best not to react.

“What the Admiral says, goes,” he offers. “And the galaxy’s always waiting, miss.”

“The galaxy’s always changing, you mean,” Tali corrects, exhaling loudly. “I want to see it when it changes, how it changes, and why it changes.”

“They say patience’s a virtue.”

“Well, whomever this mysterious ‘they’ are, they should pay attention to how the galaxy changes.”

xi.

When she goes off on her Pilgrimage, Kal wordlessly gifts her a long belt of tech proximity charges, grips her hand a little too long, and stares at her. It’s hard to communicate be safe to a quarian as equally reckless as he is, but he tries.

Everyone wants Tali to come home bearing a gift of unimaginable proportions; he’d like her to come back alive.

xii.

Tali’Zorah nar Rayya comes home to the Fleet bearing a gift of heavily encrypted data detailing the evolution of the geth ever since the Mourning War, and it is all the Fleet can talk about for several days. Oh yes, the Admiral’s daughter did this, the Admiral’s daughter did that.

Oh yes, the Admiral’s daughter did participate in the battle at the Citadel.

Kal finds it odder that the latter is not as mentioned so often as the gift she’s brought home, but dismisses it for another day. He’s a Marine – it’s more reasonable for him to place more importance on the fact that Tali’s been part of the Commander Shepard’s precision strike team.

She asks to join the Neema, and then Tali talks to him before she goes to the welcoming ceremony.

“Ma’am,” he greets her neutrally.

“Please, you’re only two years older,” she huffs in return. They’re both silent for a few minutes while they clean their respective guns (his is an assault rifle, hers is a heavily modded shotgun), and Kal’s partial to this atmosphere in the armory. Armory’s not exactly an area to chatter in, mind you. Finally, Tali says, quite needlessly, “I chose the Neema.”

Wryly, he responds, “I know. Everyone’s jealous of Captain Zonn’s latest crew member.” Kal wipes down the generic barrel of his rifle and thinks of his next patrol assignments. “Y’know you had a pick of the fleet, right?”

Tali mumbles something in return, something a little grumpy, like: ‘oh, leave it alone.’ So he does.

xiii.

It takes around two years for Kal to bump into Tali again, her having been busy learning under Zonn about the intricacies of leadership and he having been rising in reputation in the Marines. They haven’t changed much, to be honest.

Well, maybe his voice is a tad rougher and his gait smoother. Tali, he can’t describe. She’s certainly – he decides to firmly stay with ‘confident’. Adulthood suits her, accommodates the eager curiosity of the child and the earnest aspirations of a responsible adult with aplomb.

She looks good too, though he’ll never say it aloud under pain of death.

“Be prepared for a long trip,” says Tali, hands interlocked at the small of her back, shoulders pulled back and spine straight. Reflexively, Kal and thirteen other men and women salute; she nods at them to stand down and doesn’t miss a beat. “We’re going to Haestrom.”

Kal blinks. Haestrom’s awfully close to Rannoch, and Rannoch is too close to geth space. Carefully, he says, “What do we know about the mission, ma’am?”

Turns out, they don’t know an awful lot, just that they need to find out what’s wrong with the sun.

xiv.

There is a lot wrong with the sun, Kal decides immediately. The shuttle’s practically frying with them inside it. After a week of traveling in air-conditioned space craft, the heat’s seems far too eager to wrap them in its cloying embrace.

They scramble out of the shuttle and into blessed shade, except it’s barely cooler. “What a pleasant change,” drawls Kal. “I always wanted t’see if it was possible to overheat an exo-suit.”

Dryly, Tali says to him, “You’ll have to overload your shields first, Reegar.” Ah, the joys of professionalism. It sobers Kal – the usage of his last name and the implication of Haestrom’s sun burning up far faster than it should be.

“Any theories?” he asks, blunt but quiet. Fifteen quarians in total, fourteen of them highly-skilled Marines meant to escort Tali’Zorah vas Neema on a top-priority mission. It’d be nice to tell them a reason why, even if all Kal’Reegar needs as a reason is simply ‘protect her’.

xv.

The month-long stay at Haestrom ranks easily as one of the best missions and one of the worst. Worst, because Haestrom is a sunny hell that should be specially reserved for geth bastards. Best, because two days in, Tali drops all professional manner so her geeky personality can shine through and admire quarian architecture and science. She sleeps next to her terminals, draped across chairs, and rarely ends a day without making these rounds.

Kal points the rounds out, not necessarily because he hates them. It’s a high point of the day, when Tali’s done talking with everyone and ends up sitting next to him for near an hour inside the shelter.

“It was a thing I learned on the Normandy,” she tells him, laughing a little. “Shep – Shepard made it a point to talk to the alien members of the crew as well as the human members. Captain Zonn’s similar, but he’s a lot more ‘yes, how’s the baby, is it grown up yet, we need more Marines’ and less ‘yes, how’s the baby, oh, what’s his name?’”

Under the mask, Kal feels a reluctant smile tugging at his mouth. “Makes Shepard sound like a hell of a Commander.”

She bumps his shoulder with her own carefully – everyone’s careful not to cause a breach in their exo-suits. No one wants to be the first to see what happens if delicate quarian skin meets harsh Haestrom sun. “More of my command-style does come from Shepard, so maybe the Commander had known something right about leadership.”

xvi.

Go, he’d roared at her. Fifteen quarians arrived on this hellish planet, and by any gods of any race, one will make it out alive. To her credit – no, that’s not quite right. Tali’Zorah is no weeping damsel in distress; she searches the glowing eyes under the mask and takes the initiative.

“You make it out alive, Kal’Reegar,” she breathes, pressing a hand to the side of his mask. And then she’s backing away to her terminals, swiftly packing up her research and destroying any trails. Kal struggles to remember how to breathe himself, but regains some semblance of mind to curtly respond with ‘Ma’am’ and run outside to fend off the geth with his team.

xvii.

As Kal’Reegar stares Commander Shepard in the eyes, he is abruptly reminded of Tali’s offhand comment: Commander Shepard could never let life slip away without meaning. A heavy hand is pressing him down under cover, and Kal tries to protest.

He is a Reegar, he is a Marine. He was born loud, and hell, he will die loud too, taking potshots at the geth milling about waiting for Tali’s last line of defense to fall.

Just apparently not today, or so says Tali’s old illustrious Commander.

xviii.

Tali’s been on the Normandy for all of a month before the Admiralty calls her back for a trial for treason. It’s ridiculous, and he’s never felt this helpless. Politics. The broad generalization no soldier can fight normally with guns and fists – the one great wave of disease no cure can halt.

“I’m sorry,” is the first thing he confesses to Tali. “Keelah. I’m sorry, Tali, I tried.”

“It’s okay, Kal.”

He laughs and remembers that he is in an Admiral’s ship as an acting Marine. “Well, ma’am,” Kal replies bitterly, “if you say so.” He spies Commander Shepard – Captain Shepard vas Normandy – weaving a path through the meandering crowds of quarians. “What’d you say about the Commander before?”

She blinks. “I think I said a lot about Shepard.” Admiral Raan calls her name, and she turns halfway, and Kal wants to reach out, grab her, hold her tight and whisper apologies over and over. Apologetically, Tali turns back and says, “I have to go.”

“Keelah se’lai,” says Kal, putting as much feeling as possible in the farewell.

Shepard’s unstoppable, Kal. Once the Commander had an eye on the goal, we were dragged – sometimes kicking and screaming, oh, you should have seen the krogan, Wrex was the worst when it came to riding in the Mako – to the end of it. And we always were the victors. It’s that Shepard luck, I think.

xix.

Kal’Reegar knows tells, and Tali’s are ringing plain as day. So he knows that the Commander and Tali are hiding something – what, he’ll never ask. Admiral Daro’Xen is looking suspicious too, but in the end, everything turns out alright.

And then Tali drops from the grid for about two months.

It’s not an especially happy time, for him or any of the Fleet. When she does return, though, Shepard is there to drop her off personally, a winning smile hidden behind a breather mask. Afterwards, after a wasteful welcome-back party that sends some of the liveships into a frustrated mood, after Kal spends half a morning curled up next to the toilet –

Tali’Zorah tells a story about Reapers and Collectors, and only Admiral Koris truly believes that what Rael’Zorah’s daughter has gone through is important. To everyone else, it’s only the weapon advancements Admiral Xen’s made against the geth that matters.

They want to go to war with the geth for Rannoch – they want to see the walled garden one more time before a Reaper fucks it all up.

xx.

“Do you think what we’re doing is a mistake, Reegar?” asks Admiral Tali’Zorah, sitting in a chair with Kal politely situated two seats from her. “The war,” she clarifies.

“I understand the motivation, ma’am,” he answers, glib. “It’s one thing t’have a homeworld stuck in the hands of geth, it’s another thing t’spring the fact an ancient race of intelligent synthetics are gonna rain hell on us too.”

Tali might be pouting, might be sulking, might be smiling at his dry tone. He’s resolutely not looking at her, because where the harrowing gap used to be the overprotected Admiral’s daughter? It is now a chasm wide, an abyss deep – Marines do not fall in love with Admirals.

“Thanks, Reegar,” she says, a little droll herself. War begins in a few months, the Commander Shepard is in human incarceration, and the Reapers are heaving themselves through dark space into the galaxy. Tali sighs and slouches. “I liked it a lot better on Haestrom,” she grouches.

“… Haestrom was good while it lasted,” he quietly agrees. His hands clench into fists and uncurl into back into their placid positions.

xxi.

Because Kal’Reegar is a good Marine, he does not immediately try to board a shuttle to Admiral Gerrel’s ship to throttle the bastard. He hears Commander Shepard suckerpunch him in the gut instead, and feels quite vindicated.

The galaxy moves fast, though, sometimes a little too quick for him to follow. Shepard darts from place to place at Rannoch, saving Admiral Koris and diving into a geth server before venturing into the geth stronghold with a turian and Tali.

Rannoch holds a Reaper, and Kal’s glad he’s witnessed its fall from far away. One Reaper seems small in comparison to the herd, but here, alone, it is a spitting angry monster out of the deep.

Then he’s hearing chatter in his ear, about how a geth wants to update its race to a Reaper-like intelligence and how the Fleet will be absolutely destroyed –

Sometimes, he reflects faintly while hearing Tali and Shepard talk down the Admirals from continuing fire, there’s too much war for a soldier to fight all at once.

xxii.

When all is said and done, the Marines are split into groups to help aid ailing worlds of species that have been looking down at them since the Mourning War. Kal’Reegar and his squad are supposed to be shipping out to Palaven tomorrow, along with everyone else, but tonight is for Rannoch to welcome its children home.

“Heard you took off your mask,” he says conversationally. “Any sickness yet?” Tali’s sitting at the edge of a cliff, overseeing a rich body of water and migrating flocks of birds, and he hasn’t seen any guards around her (not that she needs one, but there’s the pretense).

She wordlessly pats the patch of rock next to her, and Kal tentatively takes her up on the offer, letting his long rangy legs dangle over the side of the cliff. “I did,” she confirms. “Everything I imagined, just a little less bright.”

Kal squints at the moon and stars and doesn’t twist to look at her face. “Did you get to say everything you wanted?” It’s a loaded question, one riddled with vagueness so Tali can avoid answering it if she prefers.

Tali hums noncommittally, then hums that blasted Fleet and Flotilla song. It’s awful and cheesy in every way, but it does the trick, making the both of them laugh. After a minute, she catches her breath and teasingly bumps his shoulder with hers. “Alright, Kal’Reegar. As a – healthy soldier with the immune system of a varren…”

“Ma’am?” Where’s she going with this?

“Will you take off your mask?” And hell, she sounds genuinely interested. Not the interested-interested which would lead to fraternization protocols being broken, but the scientifically-interested. Which still interests him, damn it all. “Breathe in some Rannoch air before you leave for Palaven?”

Kal snorts. “Could get sick.”

“Could not. I’m still perfectly fine.”

“Ma’am,” keelah let this entire conversation just be a friendly joke about unmasking, “you have the immune system of a varren.”

He swears that she’s frowning at him. “Kal’Reegar, you bosh’tet, live a little and take off your mask. Do you really need proof it’s fine? Fine.” Tali’s already releasing the electronic seals of her helmet and raising a hand to discard the lavender-tinted plate when his own are reaching to take it off for her.

She lets him do it, neither of them are breathing, and Kal’Reegar is painfully careful about lifting the plate – it comes off with a hiss, and he’s frozen in place, still holding the mask and staring.

Tali’s gorgeous.

And impatient.

With a huff of laughter, Kal sets down the lavender plate, releases the electronic seals of his own mask and the same procedure happens – the intimacy of the moment strikes him as vastly improper.

He stays stark still while she peruses the features of his face – strong cheekbones, a square jaw, and an unbroken nose despite his less-than-sedate childhood. His hair’s slightly feathery for all it doesn’t even reach his eyebrows, and his wary half-lidded eyes track her every movement.

“And how does Rannoch smell, Kal’Reegar?” she asks, impertinently gleeful. In reply, he makes a garbled noise, someway half-cough and half-disbelief that she’s really taking it in this direction.

xxiii.

He survives Palaven. Barely. So does most of his team. Barely.

Kal’Reegar hears a lot of ‘barely’ when they describe the ‘fool quarian squad that went to reestablish the Palaven signal tower’. But he’s alive at a turian encampment, and he’s on the good drugs. It makes life a lot loopier and infinitely funnier – his fingers reach for his omni-tool to tell Tali the great news.

“’m alive,” he informs her happily. “Cheated fate, I think.” The image of her is shuddering in little short stops, like communications terrible at her end rather than his. Kal imagines it is this encampment’s crap lack of a good communications tower. “Tali,” he urges. “You okay?”

It is, of course, a cross between a dream and a hallucination. Turians don’t like to give away good drugs to the quarians, of course, and he is barely alive, hanging on by a strand.

xxiv.

Here is what he knows at the end: Commander Shepard went up into the Crucible and decided that the galaxy had had enough of Reapers and that they knew how to fix the mass effect relays. So the Commander destroyed them, the relays, and supposedly herself until the Alliance practically tripped over itself to dig out any remains from the Citadel.

Commander Shepard is quite alive, and so is everyone else. Supposedly. The quarians are best off, in the end, because they are intimately close with the mass effect relays – much more than the other alien races.

Here is what he knows at the end: the quarians used to be a very undependable race in the galaxy, and now they are the unsung heroes, activating mass effect relays where they can. It doesn’t even take them long to activate one after they figured out how to kickstart the first.

Two weeks after repairs are done for a good portion of the galaxy, Kal’Reegar commandeers a ship and sets off to find a broken Normandy and her lost crew for a doubly lost Commander. And after he finally scours fifteen systems and finds twenty planets capable of life and finds one blasting a signal as loud as a Fleet and Flotilla love theme song, the Legionnaire saves a mostly intact crew.

Tali is alive, and that’s really all that matters for Kal, even though the sight of the Normandy wreckage hurts the scavenger in him. “You would’ve gotten her up,” he murmurs, eyeing the cleaned wings and the intact hull.

“But not very far,” she sighs, stroking the metal. “It was a good run. Maybe the SR-3 will be better.”

xxv.

Kal’Reegar is born aboard the Antebellum and is expected to roam the galaxy with the Fleet, scavenging where they go and fighting for the husks of still-living ships at ship junkyards. He has never anticipated living on Rannoch where the air is beautiful and some of the geth servos are still functioning in their exo-suits, or living in a house built from his hands and Tali’s creative genius right at the shore of a lake.

“So what does Rannoch smell like to you?” he asks her, chin tucked at the top of her head and arms wrapped around her growing waist.

“You know the cheesy answer?” Tali leans back against him, giggling at her inner joke.

“Nah, but I’m sure you’ll say it either way.”

“Like home, then.”

fin