Authors notes: Thank you to Robotkumo, Maxxiedemon, Asylumfarm, lLisbet, Heavenonfire & Bioticbooty. You are fucking awesome!
Thanks to lisbet for being such a patient beta, and a badass friend. To heavenonfire for the gorgeous art. Thanks to Maxxie for helping me with the plot. And EJ & robotkumo for keeping me sane
This is written for the fall edition of the Mass Effect Big bang, with art by the ever talented, and fucking awesome Heavenonfire (If you wanna see the art, find this story at Ao3 - goddamn the no links thing on )
This is my Mass Effect Big Bang for autumn 2013.
I pictured us married with starry eyed kids
'Til I found what you buried at the edge of the wood
Piecing together the life I've really lived
You and I and them
I'd like to find a way to love you
I'd like to find a way to forget the things you do
I'd like to find a way to love you
And if I don't, I'd like to find a way to say goodbye
-Mike Viola & Kelly Jones
CHAPTER ONE – ERROR! ERROR!
"Keep still," Liara had said, holding one hand on his forehead, and the other on Shepard's wrist, checking his pulse.
Shepard had closed his eyes and felt heavy like the bed was trying to swallow him whole. When he heard Chackwas' voice, he had opened his eyes and attempted to focus on her. Everything was blurry but he could clearly tell it was her. His mind felt muddled and confused, but he remembered her, he remembered her holding his hand, getting blood all over herself, slipping in it. It felt mostly like a bizarre déjà-vu. "Someone hold back his head!" Chackwas had yelled. "Stop that nosebleed!" Shepard's whole body had cramped up. Slowly starting with a dull pain, it had increased in intensity until it was a piercing pain all over. He would never forget that feeling.
This is it, he had thought, this is really it. His last thought had been of Kaidan, and how his smile would undo the world.
Chackwas had checked in on him some hours later, asking him all kind of questions, normal questions masking the odd ones. Even then, Shepard had thought they were weird. Why would she need to know what his opinion on the Geth was? She told him that he had had a seizure, most likely caused by stress, and had ordered him to stay calm for a couple of days.
It had rung true at the time. After all, he was only human, and his implants only did so much. He had agreed and had gone to his cabin and had slept for twelve hours straight. Shepard couldn't remember a time where he had done that before. Ever.
It had felt mostly like being stuck in a weird dream, those first days after his seizure. The crewmembers had avoided him somehow. He had never been the most talkative person in the galaxy. He was focused on getting through the mission, and when that was done, he focused on a new one. There was always something that needed his attention. Maybe his crew did, too, but he just never found the time. And besides, he had never been really good at small talk. Garrus had been avoiding him until he had cornered him in the mess hall, only then had he talked about stupid shit like calibrations. Not once had he asked how Shepard was doing, and that had been very puzzling. It was the same with Joker, Liara and Tali. They talked about mission parameters, field rations, boosters – it was all interesting, but it was somehow bereft of any personal input. Liara had always flirted with him, and suddenly she was all business. Tali had always joked about, but she had just talked tech. And Joker, Joker had just talked about food and EDI.
Shepard wasn't entirely sure it hadn't always been like that. Maybe he had driven them all away during his sprint with Cerberus? Had he really alienated them so much? If he had, it had not been something he had done deliberately. Days became weeks, and still he couldn't shake the weird feeling that they were acting differently.
He had some terrible nightmares. He would wake up screaming, feeling like his insides were aflame. The mental image of his own pale hands gripping onto a smaller, slimmer hand, slipping in blood. Fear and pain. He would be rattled for hours after one of those night terrors. In the beginning, he had asked Chackwas for something to help him sleep, but she wanted him to talk about the reason for his sleepless spells. He couldn't tell her that he wasn't really suffering insomnia, he was just afraid to sleep.
Alcohol had been his salvation. It had given him calm, dreamless sleep when he had not been able to hold it off anymore.
James and Cortez had been the only people who had given him a genuine smile, and he had punished them for it. He had been so hard on Vega that he almost regretted it, and so cold toward Cortez that he always left the hangar with a weird feeling inside, like he was contagious. Like his oldest friends had distanced themselves, and the newest crew was trying to make nice. It just didn't work that way. He missed Garrus, not that he'd ever admit that, but he recalled they had had a pretty good time. Now he never just came by to ask him down for a card game or a late night snack and gossip. He knew they all played poker with each other, and no one had once invited him. Odd that it hurt, because he knew he'd decline anyway.
Other than that it was business as usual, Joker giving him lip, calling him a slave-driver, but still being happy to take them straight into the thick of danger. Things had been more intense than usual with the Dalatrass and Wrex aboard the Normandy, but it had not been anything that Shepard couldn't handle.
What he couldn't handle was stepping though the doors to Kaidan's hospital room. He was all sweaty palms and tumbling thoughts as he finally walked in. He wasn't sure he could handle it if Kaidan treated him with the same level of mistrust as he had on Mars. If he was all polite smiles and civil exchanges of empty words, then it was the best he could hope for. Still something inside Shepard wished that they could be as they used to be. He had clutched the bottle of whiskey in his hand and put on his best smile. Kaidan had seemed surprised, but not in a bad way, but rather genuinely surprised to see him. Shepard had tried to read Kaidan's thoughts on his face like he had used to. But no, Kaidan was a completely closed book. They had talked about this and that, about Mars and about moving on. Shepard had given Kaidan the bottle and received one of those little shy smiles that he had loved so much back when they had both just been Alliance soldiers. All in all, he had left Kaidan's hospital bed with a good feeling. Maybe it wasn't all bad.
If Kaidan could move past the Cerberus thing, then maybe the others could, too.
It would be a couple of months later that Shepard got an email from Kaidan, telling him that Udina had invited him to join the spectres, the second human spectre. Shepard had written him back and politely congratulated him, telling him what he needed to hear, that he would be a great spectre, and that it was huge career leap. But after he had sent the mail, all he could do was to sit back with a feeling of loss. He knew that Kaidan would do the only thing he 'could' do, and that was to stay away from the Normandy, and from Shepard. Apparently it took a lot more to rebuild trust than one successful mission, along with Anderson and Hackett's willingness to let bygones be bygones.
Mordin's expression as he drew a gun on him would haunt him forever. Shepard had thought it would be easier than it had been. He knew there had been no way out, the Daltrass was right, Mordin would have noticed and probably corrected it. That couldn't happen. 'Why Shepard? That desperate for Salarian aid?' The voice wouldn't let him be, which was somehow a fitting punishment. He had asked him to step away, he had given Mordin a way out for old friendships sake. He had not taken it, that idiot, Mordin had forced his hand, that was what he had done. He would have to report to the Daltrass, but he didn't feel like it at all.
Coming back from that mission, Shepard had suffered from nightmares more than ever. He kept seeing Mordin in a shuttle reaching out as if he were trying to catch him, and then his expression when he realized he didn't. He told himself it was because he had shot an old friend in cold blood, and not sure he was glad that he wasn't as emotionally stunted as he thought he was. It was just business as usual. He had just done what had to be done. Like taking out a Batarian system. Thing was that those three thousand something Batarians had all been nameless, faceless. Mordin was not. And after all he had been right in his reasons for Shepard's betrayal. He really was that desperate for Salarian aid.
Another sleepless night had Shepard pull a bottle and a glass, reading over reports, pretending that he had to do this right now. On an odd hunch he went into his own medical records, seeing that he had been treated today for the injuries that the Brute had caused. And then there had been the seizure. Remarkably little was said about this, only that Chackwas thought it was brought on by stress, and recommended rest. He searched further back and found nothing, as in nothing. No minor injuries, nothing at all. He remembered that he had been injured on Mars, he remembered that the cyborg had hit him in the shoulder with a bullet. Strange images flashed before his eyes, like a hidden message in a tape, it made no sense, but still it made perfect sense. If only he could capture it and remember it. He looked down at his medical records. There was no mentioning of a bullet anywhere. It was like he had been the only one to escape Mars unscratched, which he knew not to be true.
It had been around then that he had noticed the model in the display. It seemed like it had been broken, and someone had tried to put it back together. Shepard had been looking at it for a long while, until he couldn't take it anymore and opened the display to take the little model ship out. Turning it in his hands, he heard something rattle inside, and with a twitch he snapped it apart and a small chip fell out.
Shepard had been puzzled by this, picking up the chip. He didn't recognize it at all, and had no idea how it had ended up inside the model. It did however look like a data chip, and so he plugged it into his omnitool, curious as to what was on it. Someone had obviously gone through great lengths to hide this, and hide it somewhere, where only he would notice.
He read the text file with dawning horror, and flipped back to click on the little vid link. When he saw himself emerge from the static, he sat down heavily on the bed, letting the message unfold. "Talk to Miranda," the recording had said. "She has the answers." Shepard had to play the message three times before he was able to focus on something else than his own face. It looked like him, but was it him? That made no sense, because he didn't recall recording this. Vaguely he wondered if he had suffered some sort of psychotic episode, and that was why people were walking on eggshells around him. Maybe it wasn't the whole Cerberus ordeal, maybe it was him? Maybe he had finally snapped?
He read the text file again, and apparently it was some sort of list of places and names. The word 'Resurgence' kept coming back, and 'Henry Lawson.' Shepard let himself fall back on the bed with a deep sigh, feeling a nasty headache coming on. Maybe this was all his own imagination, but what if it wasn't? What if this was genuine? Shepard had growled at himself and gotten up from the bed. These were the thoughts of a mad man. How could that recording be real? It had to be someone who wanted to manipulate him. Maybe there was a Cerberus mole on his ship? Not that it would surprise him if there were. He didn't know half the people serving on the Normandy. He hid the chip in his bedside table drawer, and decided to forget about it.
He had other things to worry about, other places to be. He couldn't allow something like this to mess with him. He couldn't afford to be thrown off focus.