2186 - Earth

Rain pattered against the glass, drawing his gaze over to the window as he slowly opened his eyes, images blurring for a few seconds before everything cleared as if looking through a lens. His head throbbed mercilessly, his eyeballs felt stiff, and his limbs ached. He longed to crawl back into his bed and sleep some more, but that was an avenue he did not want to travel down just yet. Just a bit more time to build his courage and then he could face the blackness willingly.

From his vantage point, he could see the city of Vancouver stretched before him through the trickles of rain beading on the clear surface, the endless rows of skyscrapers spread out across the horizon. The tips of the buildings scratched the bottom of the cloud cover, shrouded in a mist that was difficult to permeate. The nearby bay was flat and grey, ripples moving from the wind and precipitation as it intruded upon the otherwise clear surface.

Shepard sighed and reached for the glass on the armrest next to him as he simultaneously ran his other hand over his scratchy face, figuring that he was due for a shave soon. Swirling the contents around for a bit, he raised the glass to his mouth and drained it in one gulp. The scotch burned as it went down his throat but he did not cough. Rather, he grimaced a little and sighed as the alcohol resonated throughout him. Three glasses down so far and the bottle was not even half done. There was plenty more where that came from so his limit appeared to be firmly established for the afternoon.

He repeated the process several more times until the room was noticeably spinning around him. He leaned back and grunted in relief as the plush chair depressed to accommodate his figure. It wasn't as comfy as his cabin on board the Normandy, but it came pretty damn close. Of course, it was not as stocked to the brim with booze as his confined room right now, oddly enough. Perhaps that was the one perk of being under house arrest or maybe it rather had to do with his reputation, seeing as he was the Savior of the Citadel and that title surely allowed him some special consideration with regards to his current amenities. He didn't know why this circumstance was so fortuitous in his favor and frankly he didn't care, only that his stores were well loaded at all times was the one thing he had left to care about.

Shepard did miss his old cabin though, as he scowled within his room. He missed the skylight where he could look up into space from his bed, he missed his large desk with all the room in the world to move about in, and he even missed that ridiculous fish tank that occupied one wall of his cabin. Still, you don't exterminate half a million colonists and not expect some consequences to arise from your actions. The first few days he had been confined here after the Alpha Relay incident, he could not stop cursing out everyone in sight, for all shared the blame in his eyes. Admiral Hackett, for sending him on that mission in the first place. Amanda Kenson, for screwing everything up. Garrus Vakarian, for simply existing. And Tali, for…

I tried to save them…I tried my damnedest and look where that's got me.

House arrest, rank pulled, ship taken, the list read like a dossier of a disgraced war criminal. Although, Shepard had to concede that he was technically a criminal for what he did. History would judge him poorly for his decision, despite it being the right one. Shepard downed another glass as he glowered. Fuck them all, they weren't there. So help me if they need me to save the galaxy for them again.

As Shepard slipped further into his haze, he could still feel the annoying pulsation of pain. His implants were flaring up again. This happened from time to time ever since it started back up six months ago. He thought that the side effect had been thoroughly kicked but it was more than obvious that it was now back in force. The doctors said that the pain had to do with his mental attitude and that he had to adopt a more positive outlook if he wanted the pain to stop. Easier said than done.

Positive…yeah right.

Shepard shifted his weight on the chair but a headache from the scotch was now starting to rise up in addition to the burning from his implants. The alcohol was not doing anything to alleviate his discomfort so clearly more drastic measures had to be taken if this problem was to be rectified. Groaning, he got to his feet, hearing the pressed leather hiss as it was suddenly relieved of his weight, and stumbled over to the nearby dresser, miraculously not tripping and falling over his own feet. Considering how much crap he had already ingested today, that was truly an achievement.

His hand found the top drawer and slid it towards him. Plunging his other hand into his sock pile, he felt the cool plastic of the canister and withdrew it, blurred vision picking up on a hint of orange and white from the small object. Despite his inebriation, he quickly removed the child-safe cap and considered the contents before dumping two pills into his hand. It had gotten to the point where one produced no relief from his torment anymore. Two would mean that he would run through his stores quicker but he could always buy more if it came to it. Money was not a quality he was worried about these days.

He was about to search for a glass to fill with water when he remembered that he had just been using a glass and that any liquid would do, in theory. He stumbled back over to his chair, eyeing the golden liquid that lay inside. He spent all of two seconds wondering if it was a good idea to mix these pills with the scotch when laziness took over and he quickly popped the pills into his mouth, washing them down with the liquor immediately after.

Shepard coughed and sputtered, belching as his esophagus uncomfortably flared but the deed was now done. It would be at least ten minutes before the painkillers would start to take effect. Oxycodone was one of the more common forms of painkillers, most commonly known in its OxyContin form, despite it being a controlled substance. With the back-market dealers scrounging around in the military, obtaining these pills was not as hard an effort as the vids made it out to be. Shepard was actually still in the process of debating whether the oxycodone was effective enough in treating these implant flares, cautiously researching the effects of morphine as an alternative. Strong as oxycodone may be, there were still several stronger painkillers that could be utilized for his purposes, and the pain was only getting worse the more he lingered here.

The prospect of going with stronger drugs did seem more alluring to Shepard as time went on. The possibility that his physical pain could vanish entirely, rid him of his disturbing thoughts, sounded sweeter with each passing moment. Could he be able to cure himself of this disease, wipe away his past, give him a reason to not care anymore? Hell, even just overdosing one of these days did not sound as crazy as it used to. No one else had any right to judge, they had never been in his position before. What did they know of the plight of Commander John Shepard?

I just don't want to think anymore. Nothing else matters. Not the war…not the Reapers…not even Tali…

He backed up a few paces and his luck finally ran out as his heels hit the edge of his bed, causing him to topple on his back onto the mattress. As he lay there, he could feel his extremities start to numb. It was like this these days, the first time he had started using he had felt like he was flying, now he just felt like deadweight floating in a pool. At least it was a comfortable deadweight, otherwise he would have been discouraged from using to begin with.

Shepard lay spread-eagled as the oxycodone flowed within him, calming his body and letting the pain from his implants steadily fade away. He knew all about the dangers of addiction, the lengths people go to in finding their own high. But that was all long term, for all he knew the Reapers could kill him tomorrow so why give a crap now? They could have finally found their way to Earth and blasted apart the building where he now lived at any second for all he knew, causing his flesh to melt as his bones blackened from the heat. Not a pleasant way to go but at least he figured it would be relatively quick. Alternatively, he could always save the Reapers the trouble and take care of that problem by himself as the resources to do so practically laid in his palm at the moment. That concept always vanished within the first few seconds of conception. Suicide was an ignoble option but what use was nobility when everything would soon be torn apart at the seams?

His thoughts on the matter vanished as a new memory, an unwanted one came to mind. He shut his eyes, desperate to drive out his tortured soul but the moment was experiencing itself more frequently, more assertively, as if it wanted to punish him for all of the sins he had performed in his life. The monster in his mind was awake yet again and Shepard knew what would come afterward.

Halfheartedly hoping for an overdose this time, he opened his eyes wide as his breath seemed to be sucked out of his lungs.


Six months earlier – The Citadel

Shepard checked the time on his chronometer. It showed nineteen hundred hours on the dot so that meant that it would be two more until the Normandy would depart for Earth, where he would begin his isolation as his reward for a job well done. Some victory this turned out to be, he got assurances from all his superiors for doing the right thing by destroying that goddamned relay and all he received was a one-way ticket back to Earth in chains.

What was this all for, appeasing the batarians? Conflict with that misguided society was inevitable, had Shepard been calling the shots he would have requested Khar'shan be nuked a long time ago. But no, for the price of three hundred thousand colonists, he now received his own private room at Alliance HQ back on the pale blue dot. Mission fucking accomplished, then.

After all this, in the blink of an eye, everything that he had worked for had been lost. The majority of his crew had left, unwilling to stick it out with Shepard in the clink by providing somewhat convenient excuses for their absence. That was funny, they all embraced the concept of a suicide mission with no worries but now the prospect of jail sent them scurrying? Definitely the wrong team for the job.

At least he understood the reasoning for why Garrus had to back out, seeing as he had the opportunity to do good work back on Palaven. A good friend like Garrus would never leave Shepard willingly unless it was heavily weighted in his favor. That was fine, at least the turian was accomplishing something while he would be languishing in a room in the meantime. Had he a hint of motivation he would have gone down that elevator, stormed the CIC and taken the Normandy by force, departing for parts unknown and letting the Reapers exterminate everything behind him. What right did the Alliance to dictate his life in this manner, to ruin it at the whim of some four-eyed freaks? He could get rid of this problem, easily. He could just find another asteroid, tow it to Kite's Nest, level it at that relay and watch the batarians disappear in a-

The door to his cabin hissed open and Shepard's eyes were drawn upward, a smile coming to his face naturally. Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, the ship's engineer, glided down the steps and gave him a quick hug. Shepard was pleased that she could be here right now, he needed someone to distract him from these poisonous thoughts.

Tali was a quarian, an alien in a blunt sense, but that in no way impacted on how Shepard viewed her. To most people, she was just someone trapped behind an enviro-suit, a sturdy black covering that prevented anyone from gazing upon their true forms as they hid behind their visors. Castaways that deserved the exile that they had received when they had meddled about with AI technology three centuries ago, the pariahs of the galaxy.

These points were ultimately lost on Shepard as Tali had been more than just a loyal member of his team that he had recruited all those years ago. She was a friend, and now she was his lover, after the both of them realized that they were more alike than they could have perceived. Finding solace in their aloneness at being abandoned by the people they trusted, they found comfort in the other and found the kinship that they had been seeking all their lives.

Before they embarked on the mission to the Collector base, Tali came to Shepard in the night and showed him her face behind the visor, the first time she had done that as an adult. Shepard knew that such a thing was a rare experience and he treasured the fact that she trusted him enough to show him what she truly looked like underneath. Later that night, they had made love, both pledging to the other to be together always. Intoxicated by desire and Tali's naked embrace, Shepard had felt a glimmer of hope for the first time, a feeling that had not been experienced since his resurrection.

Now, a far cry from being the meek pilgrim he initially knew her as, she stood before him, a woman full grown, alienness not dissuading him in the least. Shepard gently brushed his fingers along the back of Tali's purple hood, feeling the frayed fabric scrape along his skin as her enviro-suit made a crinkling noise as she pressed into his hug.

Almost immediately, he could sense that something was wrong. Shepard pulled away, frowning, as he detected a stiffness in Tali's limbs, and the fact that she had been gazing expectantly at him through her deep purple visor this whole time. Quarians relied on body language to convey their expressions to compensate for their difficulty in relaying their facial features, a habit that resulted in all of them practically wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Letting his hands trail from her back, to across her arms, to end up in the grip of her three-fingered hands, he felt concerned as Tali's eyes dipped down for a few seconds, now taken by shyness.

"Tali." He spoke her name softly. "How are you holding up?"

She sighed, the exhalation of breath seemingly making her wilt to half of her size. "I think I should be asking that of you." Tali rubbed a hand over his shorn hair. "Are you okay?"

He forced himself to smile, a painful grin more like. "No, to tell you the truth, I'm not. I've got less than two hours before my life ends as I know it. I'm…I'm scared but I'm also pissed off, you know?"

Tali's shoulders drooped for a microsecond but perked up before Shepard could detect it. "I…" she considered thoughtfully, "I think I have an idea what you're talking about. You're mad because you have no control over everything anymore and that you should be treated better."

"Right!" he exclaimed as he sat down on the bed, Tali beside him. "And no matter what I do, there's nothing out there that can reverse this. I'm just so helpless right now."

"Helpless? It sounds like you're more worried about going back to Earth than tackling the Collector base."

"Compared to this, the Collector base was a relatively straightforward mission," he laughed nervously. "Right now, I have no idea what I'm in for whereas with the Collector base I only had an inkling. Still, an inkling was better than nothing and this time I'm headed off without anything. I've lost my command, my ship, and most of my crew. I'm effectively naked at this point."

"Yeah…" she nodded worriedly. "Yeah…"

"But hey," Shepard shrugged, "It shouldn't be too bad. You'll be with me, right?" He looked over at Tali to find her suddenly glance away, as if she was terrified to look into his eyes. "…Right?"

Her fingers clenching the sides of the bed, Tali wished to the Ancestors that she would just wither and die right here and now. "John…" she began, "I wanted to tell you…but I've been putting it off so that I could spend as much time with you…"

What the hell? "Tali, what is it?"

"It's…it's…" Unable to find the correct words, she hurriedly started typing in her omni-tool and soon Shepard heard his own device ping as he received a forwarded message. Opening it up, he scanned it a couple times before waiting to hear Tali's explanation on the matter.

Tali was still fumbling with her words, however. "I g-got this message a week ago. It-It's a notice recalling all quarians b-back to the flotilla…"

No…no… Shepard's mouth was a flat line as he considered this information, mood getting more and more sour, yet willing himself to be more optimistic. "So…I take it that you being here means that you plan not to join up with your people, right?" I swore to you that I would care for you, that I would protect you and love you. How is this even a tough decision right now?

"John…I…" Tali's hands were now seemingly trying to physically manifest her words for she had none to offer from her mouth until she mustered the last of her courage. She could never imagine that what would be uttered would shatter all hope for John Shepard as he knew it. "I…can't refuse my people, John. I have to go to them."

Shepard barked out a laugh in disbelief, perhaps a bit too loudly as Tali jolted from fright from him doing so. "And so you're just going to leave me like everyone else did? Leave me all alone just like Thane and Jack and Samara and everyone else on board this damn ship?!"

"N-N-N-No…" Tali stammered. "I don't want to leave you…"

"Then why go to your people now? Who do you have over there that cares for you as much as I do? I told you once, Tali, that you were more to me than a suit and a mask and I haven't changed my stance one bit. Is it because you feel like you made a mistake, that you can't bring it in yourself to love a serial killer, is that it? Is it because I murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians that you now view me as a monster for what I did?"

"That is not it!" Tali reached for Shepard's hands as she saw them involuntarily clench. "What you did with the Alpha Relay had to be done, you know it and everyone on this ship knows it! You did nothing wrong!"

"Then why are you leaving me at all?!"

Tali quickly withdrew her hands, holding them up in surrender. "John…this order came from the Admiralty board. If I fail to link up with the flotilla in time they will consider my tardiness an act of treason. They have declared a state of war, John, and they need everyone they can…"

Shepard was completely dumbfounded as he surged to his feet, standing over Tali as he watched her cower in fear, him not feeling anything in the slightest with regards for her fright at the moment. "You would rather choose the fleet who, need I remind you, already accused you of treason for the purpose of requiring a scapegoat to justify them going to war. By the very idea that they have already declared an act of war it looks like someone got their wish without you helping them. They wanted to use you Tali! They wanted to use you, despite you being a well-known member of the community, and then discard you to send a political message! You would rather go back to the people who tried to betray you or would you rather stay with me, someone who has always valued your individuality and respected you as a person?"

Shepard knelt down and gently gripped the quarian by the shoulders. Judging by the slight trembling from her body, it was apparent that she was crying. Choking around her sobs, Tali's words were almost unintelligible, "They…they need me…"

"I need you!" Shepard whispered, now lowering his voice so he wouldn't frighten her further. "I need you because you're the only thing keeping me together right now. Please…please don't leave me…"

Tali stopped shaking abruptly as the words came out of his mouth. Tilting her head upward, it was clear that her choice was made and that all fear had been pushed aside. There were no more tears to be shed, only her hope that the man across from her would understand. He had to…he just had to! "They…" she said slowly and somewhat regretfully, "They only did what they thought was best. They're my people, John, and I can't abandon them. I can do so much more good over there than here but I…"

Shepard's hands lifted off Tali's shoulders as if they had been burned. He walked backwards as astonishment passed over his face, followed by horror and disgust. "Fine," he muttered. "Fine. Go. Leave. Go back to your people then, if that's what you want. You would have done more good to me if you had chosen to stay but you didn't. Just get out of my sight."

"Please, you don't understand!" Tali begged. "Come with me, sneak off the Normandy, you can make a difference on the flotilla-"

"No, you don't understand! The Alliance's decisions, as flawed as they are, make more sense than another military body outright attempting to banish one of their own for a crime they didn't even commit! My duty is to remain here until called upon once more by my people. That's my job and I will follow it, no matter how wrong I think it is."

"But…" Tali shook her head in disbelief, "Shouldn't that mean that my duty is with my people as well?"

"To do what, become another scapegoat? You also had a duty to me, you know. I swore to protect you and love you and you swore the same thing. And what do you do? You went and chose your precious fleet over me so it's pretty clear what you think is more important."

Tali grasped for Shepard as she fell to her knees on the floor. "You are important to me...I love you, John. I love you…"

Shepard's face could have been set in stone for he gave no hint of forgiveness. "Obviously you didn't love me enough."

"Please…please don't push me away…"

"It's too late for that!" Shepard shouted. "You made your choice and now it's over!" He started waving at the door, causing her head to swivel back and forth in panic. "Go on! Get the hell out of here! It's over, so grab your things and get off my damn ship!"

"Don't…please…my love…"

"GO!" he screamed, kicking the edge of the table and letting a wineglass perched upon it topple off and shatter upon the ground, the noise frightfully loud in the confined area.

Terrified, she scurried off the floor as she began shaking violently, breath coming in short, panicked gasps. Tali shot up the small staircase, clutching herself in fear as she turned back to view the red-faced human fuming at her with hate. "If…if you ever loved me…you would understand…"

"If you ever loved me…" Shepard retorted, tears now starting to fill his eyes, "You would have stayed with me. Now get off before I call the guards to have you thrown off. I don't want you here anymore." He wanted to stop himself so badly, he wanted to shout out how he didn't mean anything he said, that he would do anything to have her here, to fall upon his knees and tell her that he would rather die than have her leave.

But, in perhaps his most foolish act of his life, he stood still and said nothing more.

Crying, Tali backed into the elevator, Shepard watching from afar. Sinking to her knees in the tiny metal box, she sobbed out, "You bastard."

There was a rising heat that Shepard had never known before in his life. Every single fiber of his body was pulsing unnaturally as he watched the doors close, his last view of her being of a completely hysterical quarian weeping her eyes out. One part of him was yelling for him to chase after her and the other was shouting at him to remain put. Drops dangled precariously on his eyelids but they did not fall. Rather, he wiped them away angrily but gasped as pain spread across his face from the mere act of wiping his arm across his skin.

This new sensation was the final straw, he had never felt this sort of discomfort before. Shepard gingerly prodded his face and gasped as agony emanated from his touch. It felt like his skin was splitting apart, brought on by Tali's absence. Was he meant to suffer this torment in conjunction with this emotional tearing of the soul? The implications of what happened seemed to finally sink in and he collapsed to the ground, moaning in pity as he still gazed at the door, praying that it would open once more and reveal a regretful quarian. Only then would he have welcomed her back with open arms.

"I loved you, Tali…" he whispered pathetically before roaring, "I LOVED YOU!"

His cry of anguish was all for naught as Tali did not reappear and the ship had logged her leaving its confines just minutes after she had departed his cabin. Shepard continued to sit on the floor, heartbroken, as it firmly dawned on him that she wasn't coming back.

Embracing his pain, he howled as loud as he possibly could, his anger raging toward the heavens as he thrashed in pain, in sorrow, in hatred. Spittle flew from his mouth as he ripped his shirt from his body, tearing the fabric as if it were paper as the loss of Tali sunk in. He smashed a fist into the ground and was rewarded when his flesh sank into the shattered shards of the wineglass, drawing blood instantly and causing him to drip fat beads all over the carpet. Just another reason for him to scream some more in frustration.

She's gone. She's gone and she's never coming back. What have I done? Oh god, what have I done?

His skin was starting to itch on top of the scratching pain but Dr. Chakwas was not on board the ship right now so he couldn't access the med bay for any medication. His hand was bleeding heavily so he used the tattered strips of his shirt as a makeshift bandage, wrapping it around his fist so that it looked mummified. The rest of his body was in a bad way and it hurt to breathe as he fruitlessly gasped on the ground. Only having the strength to crawl a short distance, he reached underneath his dresser to procure a bottle of whisky that he had been saving for important occasions. There were glasses by his desk but additional movement was not an option right now.

As he unscrewed the cap and tilted the bottle upward to drink from it directly, he could have sworn he heard a laugh.


Present

A solitary tear trickled down Shepard's cheek as he finally was granted his reprieve from his recollection. He was still numb at this point but there were some wounds that drugs could not overpower. His arm flopped to his face to wipe the tear away, struggling to properly aim his fingers so that he could penetrate the permanent soupy mess that was his world at the moment.

Rubbing his eyes to the point where they felt raw, he let his arm down to the bed again. Just moving it felt like a hefty exertion, as if he had been lifting weights with that arm for hours. He struggled to turn his head over to view the chronometer on his desk and was shocked to see that it was already seven in the morning. Evidently he had dozed off but he had not even noticed. Shepard considered for the umpteenth time that he should not be so surprised because every time he took oxycodone, time always became warped and distorted, following unsaid rules that applied to no one in his own private little world.

Shepard sighed out loud as his internal author summarized past events in his head. Six months. Six months and nothing. Face it, Johnnie-boy, she's gone for good. She's gone and you'll never get her back.

Now he wished he could go back to sleep again. He didn't need more chastising from himself when other demons were doing a proper job of that already. In fact, it had been a while since one of them had returned to mock him. Now seemed like a perfect opportunity, right when his mental guard was down. It should make for an interesting conversation, at the very least.

"I know you're there," he said aloud, grunting as he sat himself up, spotting an oily figure immersed near the far wall. "You going to skulk in the shadows or am I going to have to wait on you this time?"

"Patience," Saren Arterius replied as he took a seat across from the bed, implants glowing blue in contrast to his dark, mottled skin. Tiny hisses came from the dead turian's synthetic arm as fingers tightened and relaxed, waiting expectantly for stimulation. "There's plenty of time for us to talk."

Shepard did not give the turian any satisfaction, letting his cold stare work away at him. "You've had plenty of chances for us to converse tonight. You're not as predictable as you think."

"Perhaps, or maybe I'm not as predictable as you want me to be. These past few weeks it's almost as if you've been awaiting me purposefully, like you're in need of a conversationalist." The dead man let out a throaty laugh, "What, Shepard, your fellow humans not providing any mental stimulation that an enlightened primate such as yourself obviously deserves?" Shepard did not produce a response to that. "Heh, I see how it is. I know what it is you're thinking about. Let me take a guess -although it's not much of a guess seeing that I know you all too well already- you've been thinking about the quarian again, haven't you?"

Tali. Her name is Tali. "Yes," he muttered tonelessly, refusing to say her name out loud. "We've been over this before. Don't you have more drivel to spout about the Reapers being the only solution to the chaos at hand tonight or are you going to try a different tack?"

"What was her name again? I do recall it was something very simple. As yes, Tali," Saren let the name roll across his tongue as he ignored Shepard. "Yes, I remember. She was the one that did this to me, right?" The turian tilted his head so that Shepard could see the enormous hole on top of his skull, pieces of bone forced out from a pistol burst at point blank range. A shot made in confirmation of the man's initial demise.

Still unable to move his body fully, Shepard gave a curt nod. "She was also the one that put you down afterward." All of a sudden, he grinned. "Shotgun blasts to the chest hurt, huh?"

To his surprise, Saren started laughing, mandibles parting to allow the raucous noise to echo around the room. "Ah, yes. Well, she was a very good shot, though. An unceremonious end for someone like me, I'll admit. Still feeling any regret at pushing her away from you like that?"

"I didn't push her away-"

"Your lies won't help you here, Shepard," Saren snarled. "You still can't admit the truth, even to yourself. Face it, Shepard, she lied to you."

"Tali didn't-"

"She lied to you. She made you believe that she loved you and you, in your fragile state, believed every word out of her pretty little mouth. Perhaps the prospect of intimate relations weakened your resolve somewhat, no? And when she finally tired of you, she discarded you and you proceeded to push her out of your life when you saw through her shallow manipulations for what they were."

Shepard was in no position to shut out the turian's hateful words, but the truths it did contain were enough to warrant a fraction of his interest. Saren would always filter through his mind, no matter how hard he tried to stop him. and he would never cease until the dead man had said his piece. "She…she meant it when she said she loved me…"

"Did she? If she did, then wouldn't she be here now, with you? I don't suppose that the quarian ever made any passing mention about loving everyone else, even among her own family, yes? So, if she loved you, then her decision to stay or go would have been remarkably easy, right? At least, it would have been easier than this farce you've been forcing yourself to relieve every single night."

"I suppose…"

"There's no supposition about it. It's a definite fact."

There was a slight tingling in his limbs as the painkillers were on their last legs. Shepard drew himself up higher as he cautiously eyed the rogue Spectre. "How are you so certain?"

"Look at the evidence," the turian said lazily, absentmindedly glancing at the nails on his one organic limb. "The concept of attraction is taken very seriously in quarian society. Love to them is much more than a word, more of a bond that is something akin to a metaphysical aspect. Stop me if none of this is ringing a bell."

"No, no…" Shepard tilted in, listening. That conniving bitch. "I recall this just fine."

"Good, I was worried that I might have to explain such benign concepts to your primitive mind. Point is, if that quarian actually loved you, she would be mentally unable to break away from you, right? It's all part of their biology, quarians get physically ill by being away from a supposed loved one for so long as a result of isolated contact with the person they designate as their bondmate. This isn't pseudoscience but actual facts. A completely useless bodily function, if you ask me. "

"And I should just believe everything that comes out of your mouth?"

Saren bared his teeth in a cruel grin as he spread his arms wide. "That all depends on you. But the unequivocal truth stands before me, she made a bad choice and you made a worse one from your impulsiveness. That wasn't very smart of you, in hindsight."

Shepard blinked. "Wait…what the hell are you talking about?"

"Oh come on, Shepard. Don't be dense. She made a choice to go back to her fleet and you snowballed that blunder even further by forcing her out of your life purely out of spite." Saren gave a gravelly chuckle. "Damn, even for someone with my reputation, that's harsh. But...it was probably for the best after all. I mean, she's probably going to die anyway very soon, as are you. No sense in allowing yourself to feel false hope in this case."

The human's teeth gritted as a stab of pain near his sternum caused him to wince. Now he couldn't stop thinking about her. Just the mere glimpse of her in his mind sent his chest throbbing, as if the monster that lived within him threatened to burst out of his chest. A memory of them, tenderly caressing the other's face as they whispered soft words underneath a bedsheet spilled forth. They came in flashes; a soft moan, a passionate kiss, feet brushing the other as they laughed; they all hit him like a freight train, causing him to grimace and grunt loudly, squeezing his eyes shut to put him out of the trajectory of his memories.

"Fragile humans," Saren noted as he watched the thrashing Shepard with interest. "Fragile indeed."

"Get out…" Shepard spat through clenched teeth. "You've had your fun, now get the fuck out. Just stop talking about her."

"In time," the turian said mildly. "But this topic draws so many more entertaining reactions from you. I'm sure you'll find that next time, you'll be seeing me sooner than you might expect. Perhaps I'll recount to you how your cross-mating between species violated all laws of nature as we know it. How does it feel, knowing that you have sunken to the level of an animal from your addiction to flesh itself? Does she know about the painkillers, Shepard?"

In desperation, Shepard finally broke his spell and reached for the chronometer to chuck it at the turian when the door to his room suddenly burst open, flooding the place with sterile light from the hallway. A tall, muscular marine walked in and immediately saluted the dazed and disheveled man. Shepard blinked from the light and was trying to determine who the hell was intruding upon his room when the man stood up straight and saluted.

"Commander," James Vega said in a voice softer than one might expect. The man had been assigned to him as a bodyguard, so to speak, by Admiral Anderson. Vega, as Shepard suspected, was a soldier and always followed orders therefore he was a good soldier. Shepard rather admired the keen sense of morality that Vega possessed and for his excellent abilities on the combat field, quietly pointing out the similarities between the two.

I used to be just like him, once.

Quickly, Shepard set the chronometer back on top of the dresser, cautiously glancing at the chair which now stood empty, purged of any signs that it had been occupied at all. Breathing hard and hoping he did not look too out of it from the events of the night, he swung his legs over the bed as he slowly rose to his feet.

"You're not supposed to call me that anymore, James," he groaned as he clutched his head, grudgingly noting that his headache had returned and that his body was starting to pulse with pain. Perhaps he'd only take one pill this morning, just for added lucidness.

"Not supposed to salute you either," the marine countered. "We've got to go, the defense committee wants to see you."

It took Shepard a few seconds to process the man's words but he eventually willed his body to move into action, stealing over to his cabinet and procuring a shirt that was not wrinkled from sleep or smelled like it had been worn non-stop for two days straight. Feeling slightly refreshed from the application of clean clothes, he walked over to his sock drawer and opened it up. Checking to see if Vega was paying close attention, Shepard prepared to sneak a capsule when a funny feeling came over him. Throwing caution to the winds, he slipped the entire vial into his pocket instead, oddly feeling that he might not regret his decision later.

Now fully dressed, he followed Vega out the door and did not spare a second glance back at his room before the door shut behind him for the last time.


An Interval of Calamity


A/N: So...onto the next one, eh?

I've posted this chapter as a taster for what's to come. Depending on audience interest, I'll move my production schedule around based on its reception.

With this story, I will be pulling out all the stops to make this one my darkest tale yet. It will be a tough slog, but I'll do my best to maintain an optimistic attitude throughout all this. As you can probably tell, this story is dealing with a much more fragmented relationship between Shepard and Tali, an area that I've wanted to try my hand in for some time but only now do I think that I've developed the proper plot for the job.

I hope to push my boundaries with this story by tackling several psychological aspects, themes of addiction and loss, instead of a simplistic relationship that suffers no bumps down the road. Hopefully, the premise at the outset is believable enough so that the conflict at least has some realism to it.

Let me know what you think and we will see where this goes.