There are days that keep repeating themselves. An artificial sunrise; a kiss onto the cheek from someone seen only for a moment; congratulations and references, emails thanking for some interference some time ago that concern the army, family matters and other gibberish. They all can be considered a flicker of colour unnoticeable in the sea of greyness encircling senses every other moment. Each of them should matter more to you, should prove that all of what you have done had sense. Such a thought ceases to be able to function independently without a good dose of sarcasm, however.
People say they envy you. After all, a good position and abilities such as yours are a miracle not so easily obtainable, something vital to preserve the universe among other god-like figures. You are a star. You are everything to many. Some soldiers know your name from the vids, other recognize the face from Alliance's adverts, a few mistake you for the one being in charge of the whole army. You cannot blame them but the knowledge does not make it easier to swallow the lump and flash an apologetic smile while clenching a fist in one of your pockets. Easy there, Shepard. A symbol cannot be angry at its followers, now can it? You tell yourself to relax, time and time again, because there is no need to have a nervous breakdown in front of a whole crowd that hears the name but cannot put a face to it. That fantasizes about an idea and not a human being made of flesh and blood like them. It is how it is, no matter the epoch and no matter the actors currently occupying the scene among different and yet fitting settings. After all, human nature always stays the same.
A half-finished glass of whiskey glimmers underneath the neon lamps in front of your outstretched palm while the silhouettes of the asari dancers melt within the smoke a few metres ahead. You cannot remember much from what you have been doing tonight. Got a few shots and smokes the head feels already quite heavy with, saw what could have been seen and later gossiped about. Hah, Shepard, the saviour of the galaxy drowning his sadness in a siddy pit not much more honourable than Chora's Den. At times, you like to toy with the thought of someone noticing your hunched down back at a far-away table, someone coming all the way up and running a sympathetic hand across the back. Someone ready to say that you could not have done anything differently, that you were a hero the moments you could have been and there is so much more awaiting, you just need to reach out a hand and try to grasp at it. You know, however, that you would sooner brush the person away than listen to anything they would have to say. It is easier to dream such situations than act upon anything resembling. A back-up plan for an mirage seems less pathetic than chickening out in real life, than looking closer and admitting there is a problem. There is no problem, none that you are aware of. At least that is what you like to tell yourself while the weekend's hours tick away and the drinks start slowly to change their colours and flavours.
It is all about survival now, is it not? A path of red, green, blue or white. Colours spinning, music pounding louder, loud enough to make the screaming fade in the darkness. Thirst for more drinks, more movement, more thoughts concentrating on the familiar silhouette easily seen there, at the back of the bar, in front of you, everywhere. It is your private little heaven. No one should be left alone without the possibility of seeing just a glimpse of one, right?
Aria is always there, lurking right in the shadows and smiling her Cheshire cat's grin. She knows what makes you tick nowadays and easily obtains anything one might ask for in a place like those of hers. Turian handiwork, krogan's toxic things some tried experimenting with, human sources of good quality, you name it, she gives it to you at half a price.
Aria says that she can comfort you because she knows how. A piece of heaven in Purgatory, a piece of hell in Afterlife. The powder silences the doubts for a moment, a dose lasting for more than a couple of shots and lazy smiles you meet the crowd with. Relaxed. Smiling. Blind and helpless but at least not sobbing in the corner. It is better this way. It is always better not to think too much.
You can feel her eyes on you when the music floods in and your limbs start living on their own. You do not have to worry now. It is all in the movement, all in the moment. It is you, the pounding of your heart and people pressing forward, from the back and sideways. There is finally silence in your head. Thane sips a drink in the far corner of the room, Mordin shuffles cards in front of laughing Ashley near the entrance. Everything spins, spins like in those old Alliance machines on Earth that get marines ready to fly and it's blissful.
You feel empty and so are your pockets when you leave for the hotel in the morning. There are a bottle and a few pills waiting for you on the table. They are your stash for the upcoming week. The blue one for the smile. The yellow one for the manageable void. The green one for sleeping in silence after the boy fled from your dreams. Nowadays it's only darkness filled with the rambling of gunshots, whispering and frozen frames composed of the vids and memories. There are faces that you might have seen only once, strings of words dissolving into buzzing of an out of order radio and shadows of silhouettes out of your reach. You keep on running, keep on turning your head round and round but there is nothing you can do and so the thresher maw shushes the agonizing soldiers, Kelly screams while being trapped inside a glowing coffin and Toomb's haunted mutterings cease to be heard. Every night, with bodies swapping their destinations and owners, phrases uttered at you with difficulty but the guilt stays as active as before. Suffocating. There is nothing that can bring you back from sleep if you do not take the already known for a while paths, do not try to shush the noise. Blackness is all you need, blackness like the silk dresses the strippers on higher levels of Omega wear, the colour of desolated planets' skies at night with no visible stars hidden behind cloudlets of space dust.
You can wait some more weeks to be able to see the sun again, the real, beautiful and solid one. After all, the sun would come back, right? Even though it kept silent for the past days, for the past month and your ways parted with unsaid things on minds, not looking back until it was too late to catch the other's eye. It would be sunny once again, after the prolonging night. And the meds? Well, they made it all bearable and worth waiting.
"You alright there, Loco?"
Vega asks you on Monday, when the shore live ends and the Normandy welcomes you back with its cold metal and plastic screens. You cannot be bothered to answer, not that there is any easy answer. He is cleaning the guns while Steve taps at the computer, smiling when he notices you coming their way. The expression changes quickly into one of concern though but before anything more happens, you grab the rifle you came for in the first place and stumble blindly back towards the lift. As long as a problem isn't spoken of or named, it does not exist. It is a simple truth, something frightening and yet soothing. No talking, no problem.
Easy as that. You can live on with little white lies that end up unspoken anyway. It is better for everyone. Everyone, including yourself.
You see questions in people's eyes as each member of the crew passes you on the corridor, their eyes on your back, nearly fishing into your pockets to know what is happening. Whispering has began, hushed talks silencing themselves the moment you come into the mess hall or stroll down to the cargo bay just to have thousands of questions explode at once.
Need anything, Shepard? Why, you are looking so pale, man, something's bothering you? Are you alright, Commander? Maybe we should change the menu or get you some supplements? Loco, you not gonna faint in the toilet, right?
You are thinner than you used to be as a teenager, cheekbones standing out sharper and casting visible shadows on the rest of your face. Muscles started to diminish a while ago, skin tautening over the lankier bones like white linen on a hospital bed. There is a ghost of the old Shepard enclosed in the mirror every time you look into it, no matter how many times you try to wash the nightmare away with icy cold water. Your hands shake. You feel heavier and more tired after a whole peaceful day than you used to after not having slept a wink in three days. People speak too loudly. Light is too bright in the morning and the silence of the ship does nothing but irk you. You do not go out of your cabin if it is not necessary, if it is no emergency.
You are a walking zombie. A husk with its bowels still intact and a shred of mind left to be toyed with by unreal fantasies.
You try not to appear too changed. The clothing gets anonymously sent to some tailors on Ilium to be taken in, the narcotics and alcohol appear in neat packages directly shipped to private quarters. Everything is well-organized and strictly private. Nobody has to see you rot alive, nobody has to help you deal with whatever haunting dreams. All of this is your own problem. Always has been. Since the pact with Cerberus you tend to get messages instead of direct conversations when someone is upset or in need. This time, no matter how hard you'd like to protest, it is not different at all. Liara wants you to eat something healthy, maybe see a human doctor on the Citadel. Tali asks about the core while babbling about the newest ships in the Flotilla and the news she got on your health from the crewmen. Nothing is wrong though, of course it is not. How could it be anything but alright by someone like you, Shepard. Don't be silly, ladies! You write sloppy and brief replies to each email someone concerned wants to entertain another hollow evening of yours with. Like James with his proposals of a boxing match like in the old times (you cannot hold a glass steady, you cannot run two flies of stairs without feeling light in the head); Steve and going out to Afterlife (Aria cannot see you with someone familiar, nobody can see the best dealers at the entrance who know you on a first name basis and offer discounts just for the Saviour of the Galaxy) or EDI and her questions (your attention span is poorer, words keep fleeing your grasp).
And one day, the supplies end and shipping is not available. You have to go get the needed fix yourself and an excuse for infiltrating a strip club quickly appears on the horizon. There have been a couple of murder cases in the district, but no, you will be fine on your own. You are a Spectre, you will manage with drunkards, don't worry Garrus (and you can tell he is worried, what with the way he keeps observing you during the meals and after the dullest kinds of missions, as if waiting for you to finally collapse and die of exhaustion).
In the end, you do not have to look for Aria for too long. She is sitting with some human strippers at one of the far corners of the counter, a sea of drinks occupying at least half the surface. She smiles upon noticing your hunched silhouette elbowing its way through the dancing crowd.
"Something new for you or just the usual, Scout boy? Or should I rather say, Mr. Soul of the Party?" The rhythm is too monotonous in your ears, head already nearly split open because of it while she is just smiling her indulgent grin. You hate her. You hate the asari that can pluck at each of your strings the moment she wants to, the moment she feels like doing so because otherwise, she might grow bored one day.
"I- I need something to make the void go away." Words stumble out of your mouth with no grace and if it was not for the drugs, you would not even try to utter them. The saliva feels heavy on the palate, too heavy to be able to think straight and the mob smacking your back with their outstretched limbs does not help much either. "I need more. I'm out of everything you gave me."
Her eyes grow cold when you finish. She gulps one of the drinks quickly, waving for the women to go dance or sit somewhere else for the moment, you neither know, nor care what the gesture means exactly. You come closer, obscuring her silhouette from the eyes of the dancers, something feeling only as natural as foreign when she whistles at a few Batarians from the other side of the room. No idea how they managed to have heard anything over the noise, they come and empty the contents of their pockets in front of you, their armours revealing uncountable amounts of neatly covered pockets and holes full of Red Sand, upgraded forms of human cocaine, synthetic heesh and other goodies.
"Paying now in credits or rather later in nature, Commander?"
Your hands shake when you reach for your Omni-tool, at least ten thousand credits to be spent on things good enough only for the rest of the month. Suddenly though, a hand seizes your wrist and your hips get pushed towards the counter, the grip tight and merciless. Whoever it is, they must be a marine to twist a bone as skilfully and unnoticeably. Or maybe an assassin. You try to struggle but you have no strength. Nobody has noticed anything being wrong yet as Aria sips another drink, looking disinterestedly at the dance floor and the Batarians have gone a few moments earlier.
Then a question ignites itself like a match in your hand. Do you want to have anyone notice a death sentence conducted on you, Shepard? Do you really want that? Maybe it would be better to have your stomach punctured in a nameless club for narcotics than have to go back and keep on pretending that everything is alright. That you can fix anything even though it hurts just to wake up and go round the deck with everybody starring, when there is nothing left to be said. Nothing that could look good enough or sound reasonable enough to anyone but you yourself.
There are marines dancing nearby, doing those crazy movements people from other walks of life tend to joke about without hesitation. Maybe you could call out to them, maybe they would help a shadow like you, maybe they would just laugh and pretend that nothing wrong is happening. After all, you are just Shepard. You are not invincible. Once dead, later resurrected, you can end up dead anyway any minute, even this very one.
"Aria, stop selling such shit to people. This man is barely able to stand on his feet, you're just using his weakness against him." The voice is muffled, sounding somehow familiar, a faint smell of cologne mixed with sweat. The hand grasping your wrist loosens somewhat, moving to grab at the arm. "It's below even your standards, we both know that."
When Aria glances at the person behind you, she does not look alarmed, quite the contrary. Her lips quiver as if she was about to laugh out loud.
"Below my standards? I'm certainly not in the mood for this." Her unsettling grimace only deepens when she moves her eyes to you. "Shepard, is there something you haven't told this Scout friend of yours yet?" She then huffs to herself humourlessly. "Just don't start a brawl in here, my boys have just finished washing the bloodstains from the morning."