Disclaimer - I'm not affiliated with BioWare, don't have any claim to the Mass Effect universe or its characters, and don't receive any compensation for writing this. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
A/N: This follows the Mosaic Project. I suggest reading the Prologue first, but it's designed to be a series of stand-alone vignettes so it isn't really necessary for continuity's sake. Shep is a Colonist, War Hero, Vanguard, and Paragon … not that any of this necessarily comes to play in this installment.
Sand mired with blood and grease, impossibly wedged between armor and skin – scraping and scratching with each movement of his body.
They were particulates as much a scourge as he.
Granules digging into flesh, little pieces of Virmire fighting to worm their way inside of him.
The armor could come off; the bits of Virmire would stay.
He wanted to be clean again.
Will I ever be clean again?
Gray as a hailstorm of shrapnel, as an angry vortex of soot spreading from ground to sky, streaking armor and skin.
There would be no shrapnel, no armor, no skin.
There would be no fulsome burst of Vesuvius to freeze time, no ash-covered remnants, no reminders of people long passed.
There would be nothing but scorched earth – no traces of life, and no traces of death; no rebirth, no phoenix, no sentiment of spring.
Gray as the dust of atomic ash, as brooding clouds pregnant with fallout.
One decision, one order, two lives – a heart and a feather balanced on scales, each silently battling for which would prove the lighter.
He had somehow survived the debrief, had forced back reflection behind his well-worn mask – but things could not be contained much longer. His mind escaped the bounds of body, memory replayed and recalled, days blending to nights, time losing all meaning amidst weighted thoughts and burdened self-reflection.
There were moments in life when one would come unstuck from time, a dissonance of man and minutes. He had wished then for the world to freeze, to allow slow seconds for him to be and just be, to think and just think.
Ordering men to their deaths had never before been easy; ordering men to their deaths had never before been like this.
Logos, Kaidan: superior officer; holding position with the bomb; a file full of commendations; an L-2 biotic; specifically assigned to serve the Normandy due to the strength and merit of his character, his temperament, his reliability.
Pathos, Ashley: no reason to save her, aside from it was what he wanted most.
He needed time – more time!
Let me come unstuck, let me have more minutes!
Man and Commander waged a silent war.
Damn it, marine! This isn't that difficult!
Then why is it so difficult?
You know what choice to make – the right choice to make.
But how can something be right when it feels so wrong?
Because you don't feel – you think!
What do I think?
Am I to let her name become her destiny, to let her become nothing but ash?
Does it matter?
Think of the squad: a biotic or a grunt?
Let them both live – please, take me instead!
Don't be a coward. Make a choice: save Alenko, or save Williams.
No – not Alenko or Williams; it's Kaidan or Ashley.
Does it matter?
Because I feel, and sometimes I cannot think.
What do you feel?
Two phantom voices on the intercom would give him no relief. In two hands he held two wicks, both aflame.
One was waiting to be snuffed.
He silenced his thoughts.
It was decided: logos would prevail.
It would be Kaidan.
A wave of anxiety rushed through him, surging down arms and legs, fingers and toes tingling uneasily. The energy set nerves humming, and Shepard's eyes opened abruptly, straining to identify the form of hazy objects in the dimly lit darkness of his quarters. His desk was not where it was supposed to be; the screen on the far wall was missing; the expanse of darkness loomed before him, larger than expected. He blinked away the lingering fingers of the fog of sleep and restless mind, squinting in the near-darkness. A pleasant blue glow emitted by his fish tank faintly illuminated the room, reflecting brightly off of couches, a table, model ships, absorbing deep and dull into stark white sheets covering his legs.
This was not Virmire, nor was it even the SR-1.
Heaving a deep sigh, Shepard pulled himself to sit upright, small pearls of sweat that had collected on his brow dripping in shivering streams down the side of his face.
It been over two years since Kaidan had been left to die.
As the images and thoughts of his dream came rushing back, he inhaled sharply, doubling over slightly. Kaidan had been left behind … hadn't he?
He needed to know – to see. But what if … What had he done?
Head in his hands, he turned slightly, breath catching in his throat as he glimpsed the faint outline of a woman lying next to him.
He had decided: logos would prevail. It would be Kaidan.
It wasn't what he had said.
From miles and years away, his own voice had penetrated the heated and heady silence: "Williams."
So logos fell to the sword of pathos. Two sides of a coin, two sides of a man – so often in conflict, and so one would win.
"Understood, Commander. You made the right choice."
Did Kaidan know why he had been chosen?
Forgive me, Kaidan – I know not what I do or why I do it.
Can you forgive me?
Gray as dusk, gray as first light.
Gray as the hull of the Normandy as it left him behind.
Ashley was there, still sleeping quietly, dark brown hair fanned across the white linen of a pillow. She lay on her side facing away from him. Shoulders heaved gently with each breath, air passing in a soft, deep hiss through lips slightly parted. A hand propped under a cheek, an arm drowsily cast across a pillow pressed to her chest. The faint outline of her curves glowed ethereal in the deep bue halo glowing from the fish tank, tinting dark hair and tan skin.
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come …
A figure – dressed in blue – standing at Kaidan's terminal, bathed in the familiar orange halo casting light like a burning ember, tinting dark hair and tan skin.
The figured turned.
Its ember was still smoldering; the other's ember burned no longer.
He could not face her yet.
He moved past; she followed.
"Skipper?" she sounded again, insistent as on the intercom – that voice! That horrible and tragic voice!
Did she know, did she suspect? Did she come to him for reassurance now, seeking scraps of knowledge of a broader plan – a better reason she would be spared her foil's fate?
There was nothing to give her, no reason to impart.
He was pathetic in his pathos.
Walk faster, leave no opening, provide no window of opportunity. Don't look back – don't look up – don't meet those cognac eyes still damp with hidden tears, don't touch that soft and solid flesh still warmed by life.
"Shepard, won't you talk to me? Please? I'm sorry! I'm sorry for what I said during the debrief."
Her voice both male and female, gruff and honeyed.
She was them both and still herself.
How long would it be before he could separate them again, no longer see in her a breathing reminder of what he had done?
What had he done?
Kaidan had been allowed to die for what you want by her. Would you not indulge it now, not even as she comes to you, needing and wanting?
But what's left of me to give her?
Did she think him mad at her? Oh, Ash …
Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.
Gray as remnants of man scattered throughout space.
We are nothing but that which we are remembered by.
How would he remember Kaidan?
She wanted a reason; she would be left wanting one.
What was he to say?
To acknowledge something was to elevate it to that worth acknowledging, and once said, it would become the fact of the case.
A friend dead and gone – there was no logic to behold, no reason to admit, nothing gained in telling the woman that she was it.
There could be nothing accomplished by sharing truths.
Men willingly believe what they wish: the die was theirs to cast.
Let them speculate, let others defend the choice.
There was no defense he could offer of his own accord.
She was there beside him, as she always had been – sleeping quietly, oblivious to what had coursed through him then as it did now.
Shepard gently brushed errant strands of hair behind Ashley's ear, his fingers trailing down her cheek, lightly tracing the soft curve of her jaw. She stirred at his touch, rolling onto back, her lips forming the tiniest hints of a drowsy smile. He allowed his fingers to wander down her neck, lightly running across the exposed ridge of her collarbone.
What had he almost done?
His eyes closed tightly at the thought. Had it truly taken two days before he looked and saw only her, until she spoke and it was only her voice, until those cognac brown eyes were hers alone?
Sand, scraping, scratching, sifting into places it had no right to settle.
Little pieces of Virmire fighting to worm their way into him.
His back, thighs, neck, arms all straining under the weight of a burden his alone to carry.
The armor would come off; the bits of Virmire would stay.
Gray as the shut-down terminal.
Gray as matter.
"Skipper?" That voice!
His eyes opened once more.
Her voice. Her eyes. Her skin. Her hair. Her ember burning still.
Ashley was propped up on one elbow, facing him – her expression heavy with sleep and confusion, tinged with concern.
"It's nothing," Shepard whispered gruffly, noticing that his hand still somehow rested on her chest. He gently lifted it, cupping her cheek with his palm, trailing his thumb across her lips. "Just … go back to sleep."
Ashley brushed his hand way, pushing herself into a sitting position, and scooting closer to him. She studied the outline of his profile thoughtfully through heavy eyelids. "Another nightmare?" she ventured carefully, stifling a yawn. His ocular implants emitted a faint glow of their own, contrasting unnaturally against the ambient light the fish tank was casting off his features. "No electric sheep, I hope."
He chuckled softly, smirking. "Electric sheep? I'm many things, Ash, but an android isn't one of them." Things would be easier to reconcile, sometimes, if he were incapable of reflection, of emotion, of regret. But what was there to trouble him now? What was here to regret?
A life without her – did she even suspect how close she had come to …
He snaked a long arm about her shoulders, pulling her into his chest as he laid them both back down. She turned her head slightly, settling without protest into the crevice between his neck and shoulder.
His hand found the small of her back, her hip, her arm – her soft and solid flesh still warmed by life.
"What was it then?" she mumbled quietly, voice already slurred and heavy as sleep gripped her once more. "The beacon?"
"Yeah," he lied breathlessly in reply, now smoothing the hand over her head, lightly wrapping his fingers through loose tendrils spilling across her shoulders. "Just the beacon."
Despite the length of time, there were some things still better left unsaid.
Gray as the hollow of an empty man, slowly filled with warmth and light by another's brightly burning ember.