"Can't Always Be There to Protect You" by Lukewarm_Yeti

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I hope you all like Tali and Nell. They'll (hopefully) see a lot of screen-time in the main story as well.
She sat with her arms crossed, bruises and scrapes all across her faces and arms. "Tali, you shouldn't get in fights so often," the tall boy whispered.

"And you should stick up for yourself," she responded. She huffed as he healed her wounds, the magical energy in the air dense around his hands. He shifted uncomfortably, looking down. "Nell," she said to him, "I can't protect you forever." He nodded. "I mean... I can try, but forever is a really long time."

His voice was hushed. "I know."

She huffed and turned to face him, her split lip cracking more with the grin she showed him. "Well if I beat 'em up badly enough, they'll eventually just leave you alone for good, right?"

+ + +

Tali was straddling the man, punching him in the face over and over and over, his arms barely staving off her furious blows. It took two bystanders to pull Tali off of the middle-aged man, holding her by the shoulders. As they dragged her off of him, she brought a swift kick up into his side and she spat on him, growling, "Don't you ever talk shit about Nell again, you stuck-up old shitbag. I'll beat you to within an inch of your worthless life!" She jerked her arms free from the two who'd taken hold of her, and she turned, walking away. As she walked through the streets of town, she touched and poked at the newly-forming bruises on her face. She was developing a black eye, her nose was still bleeding, and he jaw hurt a bit, but she wasn't in as bad of condition as she'd feared - he'd only landed a couple punches before she knocked him on his ass.

She stopped in front of a small, dilapidated house away from the others - more accurately described as a hovel, but it was a home away from home for her - and she knocked on the door, then moved it aside. "I'm hooome!" she called out, stepping inside and sliding the door back into place. "Nell? Are you here?" There was no response, but she knew he might just be sleeping. "Nell, I got into a fight. Some old guy was talking shit again."

"Tali..." Nell finally said, his quiet tone sounding somewhat annoyed or desperate. He ducked his way under the only archway in the house, which separated his bedroom from the rest of the ramshackle house. "You shouldn't be doing that..."

"Oh, whatever, Nell. You know I'm happy to stick up for you." Tali stepped cautiously into the main building, the third or fourth creaky step causing her foot to bust through the floorboards, the rotted wood giving way under her weight. "Dammit, Nell, we need to get you out of this dump." He was completely silent, his footsteps causing far less noise from the floorboards than Tali's. Nell was six feet and nine inches tall, and only weighed about 130 pounds, his incredible thinness contributing to a ghost-like or skeleton-like appearance with his starch-white skin and white-blonde hair, only worsened by the perpetual dark bags under his eyes, his deep brown irises, and his high cheekbones. His frame was narrow and frail, and despite the appearance of being malnourished to an extreme degree, he still held a soft smile on his face - a smile that was simply a light upturn to the corners of his mouth, but a smile nonetheless. Tali felt her chest tighten upon seeing him, and she scolded herself inwardly, thinking, "Stop it, Tali, you're not his friend out of pity."

"I don't know," he whispered, "I like it here. It's warmer than the streets, and it's free."

Tali put her hand to her forehead, sighing. "Nell, Nell, Nell, you need to reevaluate your priorities. Just because nobody's kicking you out doesn't mean this is a good place to live. Why don't you come live with my family and me?"

"I... I couldn't put that kind of strain on your family. I can't pay for rent a-and I can't find a job anywhere. I'd j-just be a leech..."

She knew he'd refuse, but she would keep offering as long as was necessary. "Well despite the fact that you're wrong, I think my family would be happy to have you. And in the meantime, I'm a bit battered up, so if you'd be so kind as to work your magic on me, that'd be great." She pulled her leg out of the floorboards and continued walking towards him, setting herself down on a decaying chair.

"My p-pleasure," he said, shuffling over to her to begin healing.

There was a vast silence between them - nothing out of the ordinary - when Tali noticed Nell's smile was a bit brighter than usual. "Did something good happen today?"

"Oh!" he said, startled, "I- uh... Well... Sort of?" He stopped healing Tali's face, the recent damage undone.

She waited for him to tell her, but when the information wasn't forthcoming, she prodded him. "Well? What was it?"

"I uh... I was offered to... well... I was offered to go to Paradise." Tali knew instantly what he was talking about. The Deities had told her about the quest of Lola's son and his partner to find Paradise. Pinon had told her to stop them, to kill them, to "end their miserable existences," but Anomo had told her to help them, to "raise them up and fill their needs." Nell chuckled a little bit, "It sure sounds nice, e-even if it's not real..." He winced, holding his head.

Tali put a hand on his shoulder. "Nell, go with them."

"What?" he asked, shaking his head lightly, "Wh-what do you mean?"

She looked him deeply in the eyes and held his shoulders firmly. "Go with them, Nell. I don't know if they'll find it, but it has to be better than what you've got here."

"Tali, I c-can't just leave l-like that," he murmured, "I-I've got to stay h-here to-"

"To what, Nell? To what? To keep living in this shitty hole?" She stood up, motioning around the room. "You've got to stay here to keep sleeping on a potato sack? You've got to stay here to keep dying slowly as the people around you laugh and sneer? This place is awful, Nell! Don't you see that?" The anger and confusion and pity were all pouring out of her all at once, bubbling to the surface in severities she didn't even know she felt. But, above the swirling torrent of what ultimately amounted to frustration, she cared about him. He was her best and only friend from the day she was born. She'd completed her purpose as a Demigoddess and was living day-to-day as a regular human, and she knew that Nell needed purpose. She wanted Nell to have better. "Nellith Haggard, I am begging you, please go with them. You'll die if you continue living this way, and I don't want the world to lose your smile. You're too soft, and too innocent, and too sweet - you don't deserve this shit hole and you don't deserve the way those bastards out there treat you. You're my closest friend, Nell, and I want what's best for you."

He looked up at her, his smile apologetic now. "I c-can't do that, Tali."

"Why the nether can't you?" She was practically shouting at this point.

"Because then who'd b-be here for you?" She was shocked. Stunned, even. She looked at him, confusion becoming the main component of her frustration, then disbelief shading it all over. "I n-never see you w-with other people... You've never t-told me a-about your other friends. I th-though that maybe y-"

"You thought I didn't have other friends?" she asked, laughing. "Nell! Nell, wake up! That's what I'm trying to tell you! You need to find yourself more friends! I can't be here to protect you and care for you and defend your name forever! I have my own life to live, I have other friends to spend time with, I have a family to call my own! What do you have? Nothing! You live in a shitty house being eaten by shitty bugs and you barely survive the winters with how Anomo-damned cold it gets in here. I don't pity you, Nell, I just want you to realize that you deserve better and I want you to get out there and try to fekking grab it for once!" She groaned. "You could have a future, Nell! You could have a family, you could be happy! Why won't you let yourself be happy?"

He looked down, kneeling and resting his hands in his lap. "I don't want to l-lose what I d-do have."

"What you do have?" she asked, bewildered.

He was damn-near silent with how hushed he'd become. "I don't want to lose the roof over my head... A-and I d-don't want to lose m-my only friend."

"Damn it, Nell!" She bent over to pick up the chair, which had fallen over when she stood up in her outburst. Sitting down, she sighed and shook her head. "You won't lose me as your friend, Nell. If you don't find what you're looking for, or you don't find happiness, I'm still going to be here. I'm still going to be in this town, and I'm still going to be alive, and I'm still going to be your friend." The two of them fell silent for a while before Tali got up and started walking out. "I care about you a lot, Nell. I want what's best for you. I think you don't have a lot to lose by at least trying to join them. And if you do somehow find Paradise, come back and tell me. Come back and get me. I'm sure as shit interested." She stepped out the door before he could murmur something in response, and she headed home, the frustration still hanging in her heart.

It made time pass more slowly. First, she counted the seconds, then found herself counting minutes instead, and then hours passed. The evening went by, and then the night. The frustration faded, and soon she was at work in the tavern, tending tables and keeping the hearth. The day went by, and in the early evening she made her way to Nell's house. Time slowed again as she approached, the seconds creeping up on her as she made her way footstep by footstep to his door. Her heart was racing, the hope that he was there contrasted against her hope that he wasn't. The preemptive frustration contrasted against the preemptive sadness. She knew he wouldn't leave, she knew he wouldn't take the hint. She knew he would be there.

So she knocked on the door and heard nothing.

She moved the door aside and heard nothing.

She stepped inside and looked around, and she saw nothing.

She wanted to call his name, but didn't.

An hour went by, and she found herself able to call for him. She heard no response.

She felt sadness and joy and frustration and hope.

She waited there for him, just in case he would come back.

An hour passed. He did not come back.

Two more hours passed. He did not come back.

The moon rose and the stars began shining. He still did not come back.

She nodded, standing up. Nell did not walk through that doorway.

She smiled, knowing he was going to find something better out there, and she cried because she would miss her only friend.

She held herself in the doorway for another hour before she made her way home.

"Good luck out there, buddy."
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