(Author's Note: This was written for the One-word Prompt Exchange by Unattainable Dreams. I was at a huge anime convention for the majority of writing this, so forgive some oddities, but I hope you find it enjoyable I couldn't have asked for a better prompt and just HAD to write it for Mass Effect.
Solipsism is the philosophy/perception that your individual mind/awareness is the only thing that truly exists. Thane uses it to describe the perfect flashbacks drell have. Knowing people would immediately think of this, I decided to turn that preconception on its head, in two distinct ways. You'll see what I mean by the end.)
One-word Prompt Exchange: Solipsism
Shepard lay awake in her bed, staring up at the stars through the window above her. All the lights in her quarters were off, even the blue glow of the fish tank. In the dark, it was easy to remember better things, happier times. Absent friends.
Thessia had fallen.
The defeat had shaken everyone, Shepard included, like nothing else before. Everyone went about their duties in a state of numbed shock. The crew wafted through the corridors like ghosts, voices barely raised above a whisper. Their eyes followed her, haunted and wide, expecting her to do something to turn it all around.
Shepard let them stare - she knew she should say something to them, rally their spirits, bolster their courage. But there weren't many speeches left in her, these days. Every time circumstances demanded she make one she couldn't help but think how good she'd gotten at making eulogies on the spot.
All she wanted to do was sleep and never wake up. Her dreams had taken a dark turn of late. Every night she woke up screaming, pistol in hand. Nights like those were every bit as bad as a day on the battlefield.
Last night - no, that wasn't right, she been awake for at least 30 hours. Last time she slept, the dream had been different. She woke up with tears soaking her pillow, hands reaching out recapture something she'd lost. She'd been in the forest again, racing toward the one thing she wanted most, that had been her reason for not giving up.
But she could never move fast enough in her dreams. Shrouded in sibilant darkness, the only thing she could do was scream silently, reaching, desperately grasping at his retreating back...
She'd been reaching toward the empty side of the bed. The side where Thane had slept. The side that was still 'his' somehow.
Not that it mattered anymore. He would never come back.
The stars blurred in her vision. Using a corner of the sheet, she wiped the tears away. So damn strange how easily that happened these days. For the first time in her life, tears came with total ease. They hadn't come until weeks after surviving the Skyllian Blitz. Even when she'd left a good soldier to die on Virmire, even though she sat in her quarters and willed the tears to come and wash away the guilt, they wouldn't fall.
Now a stray thought could make them stream down her face without warning. Maybe it was a sign of how damaged she was. Cerberus had made a lot of upgrades to her when they stitched her back together - maybe all the stress, the burden of an entire galaxy, was wearing her out faster than any cybernetics could repair.
"Maybe I'm not even real," she said softly. "Maybe I'm indoctrinated and this is the nightmare they're putting me through to break my mind. Maybe this is all just a dream."
The stars glimmered, cold and beautiful. If they had any answers, they weren't sharing.
Shepard found herself in that highly ironic position of being too tired to sleep. Just as well, really - this was the only time she could just sit down and just... be.
It was easier to remember in the dark. If you let your mind slip enough, you could almost smell...
...Frankincense and myrrh. The subtle scents clung to his skin, mysterious and wonderful. It took an effort of will to not tuck her nose against the red folds of his throat, the epicenter of his scent, and just breathe.
She glanced at Kasumi. The slight thief was showing Thane a recording of waltzing couples on her omni-tool. Thane was watching avidly.
Taking her opening, Shepard leaned forward a bit and took a circumspect whiff. She also enjoyed how different breathing felt pressed up against him. Incredible.
She never would have stumbled upon this new and delightful facet of Thane if Kasumi hadn't insisted that she learn the waltz for infiltrating Hock's party. And it had been pure luck that Thane had walked in when he did. Now she was pressed against him from chest to hip and only at this proximity could she detect that faint scent of frankincense and myrrh.
Her mother, a life-long Catholic, often burned the two resins on certain holidays. Very few candles or incense were burned on a ship, the consumption of priceless oxygen strictly regulating everything of the sort, including cigarettes. But her mother always paid the fine. It had been so long since she had caught that old, familiar aroma.
It reminded her of home.
Smothering a smile, she made a note to thank Kasumi later.
Shepard smiled as the memory faded. She never had gotten around to thanking Kasumi for that. Once in the elevator, Thane had kissed her and that had kept her distracted for a long time. It was the first time she'd ever seen his control slip - not that she was complaining. It had been a memorable step in their relationship.
Glancing to the left, her eyes stared blindly into a patch of shadow by her bed. The starlight wasn't enough to let her see anything but she knew this room perfectly. Memory guided her hand toward the familiar, long-abandoned black and white mug on the nightstand.
She never used it for drinking. It held nothing but dust.
The ceramic felt so very cold.
Lifting it to her face, she gently breathed in the faint but pungent scent of tea - soon it would fade altogether. Her lips gently brushed the rim and she could almost taste the distant flavor...
...of sweet, earthy herbs, reminding her of curry somehow, with a slightly citrusy aftertaste. She blinked at the orange tea in equal amounts of surprise and recognition. Her mother always made ceylon tea for her when she was sick, growing up.
"Do you like it?" asked Thane. He'd been tickled when she'd asked to sample his favorite drink. An electronic gadget he called a tea infuser made its new home by her model ship collection, conveniently close to the tap in the bathroom. It'd been niggling at her curiosity for days.
"It's delicious!" She took another appreciative slurp to prove it. His face lit up, pleased - at least, to her eyes he did. Thane expressed himself quietly, in ways most people would miss. He reached for the cup only to find her back turned to him as she walked away - with his mug.
"Mmm, very good," she said, taking another slurp. Picking up a datapad on her desk, she idly scrolled through the contents. It was hard, so hard, to not smirk at the stunned silence behind her.
Acting as though she did this every day, she turned around and leaned against her desk. Only another soft slurp and appreciative hum broke the silence.
A giggle nearly escaped her at the touch of reproof he managed to pack into such a short word.
"You took my tea cup."
More giggles joined the first, clamoring to be loosed. She pushed them down with another sip.
"And what are you going to do about that?"
A dignified, deeply reproving silence answered her. The muscles in her neck tensed as she fought to urge to look up at him. Teasing him like this was too much fun! A few more pages on the safe use of weapons upgrades - heh, irony - flicked by under her thumb to maintain her nonchalant image. She hadn't read a single word despite all her concentration being stubbornly focused on the screen.
Several more seconds ticked by. He hadn't left; there was only the one door and it was impossible to open it in total silence. Was he just standing over there, glowering at her? Maybe she should niggle him with another sip.
She raised the mug to her lips to do just that when a familiar hand stopped it halfway. Her eyes snapped up and were caught by Thane's.
He was standing very, very close.
She hadn't heard him move. Mice moved in parades compared to Thane.
Her heart started working overtime as he moved nearer, his hand slowly pressing down and guiding the mug toward the desk top. The lower the mug went, the closer he came. She had to bite her bottom lip to hold back the sounds his agonizingly slow approach was making in her.
The mug touched down in perfect silence.
Thane's deliciously warm, firm body pressed up against her completely, lightly pinning her against the desk. It felt sinfully good. A thin moan escaped her as his weight settled against her, a sound she only made for him. It was so soft, she didn't even realize it had slipped from her until he smirked.
He'd heard it anyway.
She couldn't look away as he leaned closer, utterly hypnotized by the searing heat in those eyes. Her own eyes fluttered shut as the heat of him brushed against her lips, her body trembling in desire and anticipation of -
The loud slurp of tea just an inch away made her jump.
Her eyes snapped open just in time to see Thane hide the most smug, satisfied smile she'd ever seen behind another sip from his purloined tea cup. Then he breezed away, leaving her sagging against her desk, hot and bothered and totally unable to do anything about it.
She stared at his back, flabbergasted. Her eyes narrowed at his retreating back, a small smile on her face.
Tease her like that would he?
Two could play this game...
Warm laughter bubbled out of her as the memory grew fuzzy and faded. The 'flirt war' that followed her tea-theft had been inspired a great deal of creativity, a take-no-prisoners attitude, and an increased demand for Mordin's anti-itch skin cream.
That had been the best month of her life. She smiled, stroking the now warm ceramic mug. Their little flirt war had filled the many hours between some nondescript missions they were mopping up after they'd finished the Collectors. Even though their mission had been complete, all obligations officially fulfilled, no one had asked to leave the Normandy. Even then, amidst the post-victory cheer, it was as if they'd known the job wasn't done.
Soldiers know. Generals and politicians may bluster about victory and peace and safety, but the soldiers always know what's really going on.
The war was just beginning.
Now no amount of pomp and bullshit could make all those generals and politicians keep their head in the sand. The Reapers had come and here she was scrambling about the galaxy in a desperate attempt to get the galaxy ready to fight back and end the Reapers once and for all. She was doing now what the damn Council should have been doing six months ago. Instead, they sat on their asses, piddling away their precious time while they put her on trial.
300,000 batarian lives and six months gone, wasted, while they bitched about war crimes! Time they could have been using to build dreadnoughts and carriers! Time they should have used to hunt down Cereberus! Precious time she could have spent with Thane, allow her to be at his side when the Kepral's worsened, to spend every day together and treasure what happiness they could find as the doomsday clock reached midnight...
But no. Instead the Council did nothing but accuse her of racism, insanity and worse, dooming her and Thane to sit in their individual cells lightyears away and wait for death to come.
It served them right, the bastards - now they knew what it felt like to sit under that Damocles Sword of inevitable doom. Now they felt the horrible, breathless fear of desperately wanting, futilely praying for just a little more time.
Dammit, she should've let that bastard salarian eat Kai Leng's sword. She should never have let Thane get involved, dammit all, she should've made a different call, she didn't owe the Council a damn thing and after all they deserved what they got, they'd robbed her and Thane of those last few months and she shouldn't have to save them at the price of the man she loved-
The light, crinkling sound of cracking ceramic snapped Shepard out of her brooding fury.
In her silent, growing rage her grip on the mug had tightened, slowly putting on more pressure until the ceramic had started to crack. A long, ugly line jagged out from underneath her thumb.
Panic raced through her like a cold flood. She sat bolt upright, lightly rubbing her fingers over the crack as if she could wipe it away. "Oh God, no no no! Please no, I'm sorry, please don't take it, please," she chanted, barely whispering. She squeezed her eyes shut, chanting over and over again a frantic prayer. "Please, please, please!"
After a moment, her calm came back. It was always coming slower these days. Opening her eyes, she inspected the crack nervously.
It was superficial - a break in the glaze but no deeper. It could likely still hold water without leaking. Lifting it to her nose, she took a deep breath - and yes, there was the faint scent of tea still.
Only then did she relax. It took both hands to return it to the table - her hands were trembling from adrenaline still.
"Stupid, Shepard," she muttered, lying back down. "Stupid to let that happen. You can't afford any mistakes. Remember what he said? You have-"
"-to focus, siha."
Shepard started at the use of 'her' word - she'd been spacing out as he described meditative technique and she hadn't been hiding it as well as she thought.
"I'm listening," she said, vaguely defensive.
All he did was gaze at her calmly, brows rising a twitch.
Sitting up straight, she rose to his silent challenge. "You were talking about breathing patterns and how mastering them improves awareness and control." She smiled at him, a little 'take that' in it.
The brows twitched a little higher still. "That was five minutes ago, Shepard."
Oh. Her bubble of satisfaction deflated a little.
"I..." she began, thoughts racing for an excuse. "I got nothing."
Now the corners of his lips twitched up with his brow. "I know."
She glared at him but it was half-hearted - he'd caught her fair and square and his smirk told her he knew it. "Alright, sorry. Start again."
Giving her a lightly admonishing look, he cleared his throat and started over. "To begin meditating, you must first clear your mind of everything, shut out all distractions. Focus on your heartbeat and breathing, shutting out all else until you've achieved absolute stillness of the mind."
And that's when Shepard mentally checked out. Again.
Outwardly, her eyes were alert and attentive and she nodded now and then. The words went in through one ear and out the other. She didn't mean to do it - when she'd asked Thane if he wouldn't mind giving her a quick lesson in meditation, it had been from genuine interest. The practice was an integral part of Thane's character and thus something that had never interested her in the slightest before now piqued her curiosity.
When he agreed to teach her, she'd felt a small thrill of excitement. Part of her kept thinking of it as their first 'date.'
Thus the irony was not lost on her that now she she was here, she couldn't focus. That was a bad thing because apparently meditation required lots of focus - she didn't know why, just that it did. Her mind kept drifting away after that part.
The reason she couldn't focus was, ironically, Thane.
Part of it was his voice she thought, nodding as he described... something. Deep and resonant, his voice never failed to render her utterly boneless. Combined with the warmth of Life Support, it was all she could do to not snuggle up against him and just drowse. And she owed more to the lethargy for that than her willpower.
Then there was everything else about him. She just couldn't stop staring.
Still nodding, her gaze wandered appreciatively across his face, stopping to ogle the exotic black around his eyes. Then her eyes slid down to his lips which were still moving and made them all the more entrancing to watch. After a while her attention wandered down to his throat and not for the first time she wondered what those red folds felt like. Soft? Smooth? Thinking about it made her fingers itch.
"Uh huh," she said, eyes dropping farther. Was it drell in general or just Thane that wore clothes designed to expose a tantalizing amount of the chest? Not that she was complaining, mind you, but it was by far the most distracting thing about him. Just enough was showing to expose a slight crease of muscle, a frustratingly vague detail her brain cheerfully decided to fixate on. Did drell even have muscle structure similar to humans? Maybe it wasn't even muscle - the only way to be sure would be to do some research (she had no idea where to begin and asking Mordin was not an option) or to see more for... context.
"-not listening, are you?"
Her eyes snapped up guiltily, hoping he hadn't noticed her glowering at the zipper of his vest.
Stars slowly filled her vision as the memory dissipated. A small smile curved her lips as she relived the moment. She never had been much for meditation but eventually got the hang of it. Thane had said meditation was practically a necessity for drell due to their perfect memory. It made it easier for them to organize the wealth of memories, providing greater control to keep the solipsistic episodes in check - or grant better access to them.
An amused huff escaped Shepard. She'd witnessed Thane in plenty of solipsistic flashbacks - she wondered what he'd think if he saw her doing the same.
"He'd probably be honored," she whispered. "And disappointed. What did you call it, Thane? Tu'fira - lost in another." She smiled, not at all bitter, but sad and wistful. "That pretty well describes me, doesn't it? It isn't your fault, though. I chose this. It feels like you're still near."
He never blamed her for anything. Even that first night together when fear drove him to seek her out, he came to confess, to ask her forgiveness. When she had rekindled his desire for life she also renewed his fear of death and he felt ashamed of it. If she had just kept her mouth shut, if she hadn't taken every damn opportunity to spend hours with him in Life Support, he would've been able to meet his fate with dignity. It was her fault the solace he'd found, however bitter and lonely it may have been, had vanished.
And still, he came to her to apologize for feeling afraid, for feeling ashamed, as if it had somehow diminished him.
Even now, thinking back on it, she scoffed in disbelief.
As if he could do anything to lessen him in her eyes.
But that was the way it was, with Thane. He always thought of others before himself, always went out of his way to shift the burden of others onto his shoulders. It was just one of the many things she loved about him, even though it could frustrate her. Whenever she expressed concern for him, he always seemed amused, gently brushing it off. It could be annoying at times - all she wanted to do was care for and ministrate her lover but he was infuriatingly good at turning it around.
He was always saying the same thing to her, either in bed or sitting across from each other, always saying
"You needn't worry, siha."
She glanced up from the scar on his chest she'd been lovingly tracing with her lips. His eyes were half-lidded, partly from their lovemaking, partly from her tender attentions in the afterglow.
A few minutes ago - once she'd caught her breath - she had rolled over to cover his body with her own, holding herself above him by a few inches. A pleasant, seductive heat whispered between their bodies but she never lowered herself to lie against him. His breathing was poor enough without her full weight compressing his chest, and he knew she was being careful with him.
Smiling, Thane brushed a stray lock of hair from her face, letting his fingertips drag over her skin so slowly she placed one kiss on his palm, another on his wrist. "My body can easily bear you, my love," he said, voice resonant and lazy. "You needn't hold yourself away."
Returning his smile with slightly wicked edge, Shepard held his eyes with hers and slowly licked along his scar. The tension in his body palpably increased. Brushing her lips against his, she felt his sharp intake of breath and she smiled. She pulled away slightly and kissed his cheek.
"Shh," she whispered. "Just enjoy."
His warm, rumbling chuckle turned into a groan as she began lavishing her attention on another scar. She loved doing this, holding herself above him and just giving him gentle pleasure that didn't demand or force anything. Positioned like this, she felt like she was protecting him, shielding him with her own body. Times like these were far too rare and she made the most out of it at every opportunity.
Moving down his chest, she began to explore the contours of muscle, which he had plenty of. Every soft kiss and warm brush of her tongue ratcheted the tension in his body another notch. His hands stroked her back with greater urgency, requesting she let their bodies meet. Instead, she moved down to his stomach. She grinned as his breathing hitched at her first delicate kiss.
Though she did this just for him, she'd be lying if she said she didn't get any pleasure out of it as well. Nothing made her feel more content, more pleasurably satisfied, than turning him utterly soft and boneless beneath her, too blissfully happy to move.
When the tension in him trembled on the edge of something more, threatening to turn into desperate need, she pushed away from him even more. Holding herself up on one arm, she began to gently massage the area of her attentions. Lightly drawing her fingers over his scales, she savored the exotic texture of him which was almost as good as seeing utter blissful relaxation spread through him. Watching this comfort, this happiness that only she could give, suffuse his entire body was an addiction she would never tire of.
When he was totally boneless and too content move, she traded a few soft kisses with him then began to move off him.
As her weight shifted, sudden bars of iron pressed against her back, pressing her flush against him. A startled gasp escaped her. "Thane!"
"Hmmm?" was his lazy reply. It looked like he was falling asleep, which had been the whole point, just not with her lying on top of him.
She frowned at him, knowing he could see even though his eyes were barely open. She pushed against his arms holding her against him - she would never have thought he could move so fast or exert such strength in the state she put him in. It was like putting her back against wooden beams. He wasn't squeezing her against him; he just wasn't letting her rise.
"Let me up," she said.
A thoughtful hum answered her. "No," he said finally. He smiled at her reproving glower. "I said you needn't worry, my love. I can breathe just fine."
A exasperated sound expressed her opinion on that. "Thane, if I did anything to hurt you-"
"You won't," he said.
"But if I did-"
"But you won't," he insisted. A pleased, buzzing laugh answered her glare. Cupping her face, he drew her in for a kiss - which was devastatingly good, in spite of her frustration with him. The exquisite sensation of his body pressed against hers didn't hinder any. When they parted, her eyes would only open halfway. Long, slow curls of pleasure unfurled deep inside and her satisfied sigh made Thane chuckle.
"It's far more painful to feel you just beyond my reach than to feel you against me, siha," he rumbled. He traced her lips with his thumb, making her eyes drop shut. "Let me enjoy this while I can."
Well, damn. Nothing like a well-placed dollop of guilt to make her capitulate. He knew her too well. "I hate it when you do that," she groused, snuggling up to him. She could hear his heartbeat. He merely hummed again, stroking her hair as she fell toward sleep.
A surreal, almost glossy texture started to spread over her senses - a side-effect of her drell-licking pastime. She felt like the world was slowly swaying around her and she nestled against him even more. It all felt too good to be true and not for the first time she wondered if this was real, if something this wonderful was actually hers.
"This isn't a dream, right?" she mumbled, already well on her way to sleep.
"Not that I'm aware of," Thane said, kissing her hair. "But it depends on who you ask."
After a moment of considering this, slowly being lulled to sleep by the swaying room - strangely in time with his heartbeat - Shepard twitched her shoulders in a slight shrug. The creeds and postulates of philosophers was too much for her to think over right now. There was only one thing she was absolutely certain of.
"If this is a dream, don't wake me..."
Shepard slipped out of the memory with a sigh. That had been their last night together. The next day she turned herself in to the Alliance courts to answer for the destruction of the Bahak system. That memory had sustained her for a long time. It was surprising, really, how many hours could be filled by lingering over every slow detail. Amazing how memories could become more real than the people around you, if you wanted it badly enough. Amazing how wounds of the flesh could heal faster than wounds of the soul.
Now, though, she looked at the memory in a different light. Like a prism suddenly casting a brilliant array of colors when tilted just right, a new perspective lit up an aspect of the memory she hadn't considered before.
Thane wandered through her dreams every night. If she couldn't have him here, why not there?
Why should she ever wake up?
Turning her head, she stared thoughtfully at the bottle of sleeping pills she'd acquired from Chakwas on the nightstand. Her hand lashed out, grabbed the bottle, and poured the pills into her hand. She stared at the little white harbingers of peace, of either the temporary or permanent variety.
It hurt seeing Thane every night. It twisted in her soul like a knife in the gut and even thinking about him made it hard to breathe. Seeing him but being unable to reach, to touch, was the worst kind of torture.
It hurt to remember.
But it hurt even more to forget.
Every day, she felt herself wearing more thin. Details would slip. Patience withered and hope in general was a thing she talked about but didn't feel. She was tired. Just... so damn tired. Worst of all, her memory started slipping. It was harder every night to remember Thane's face, what he felt like, what he smelled like. Even now he gave her a purpose, a reason to fight.
If those memories were lost in the fog of war, she didn't trust herself to keep on fighting. It was like losing him all over again but slower, even more intimately.
For a moment, she seriously considered taking the whole bottle and calling it quits. Just fall into the wonderful abyss of sleep where she dreamt nothing, she knew nothing and she eventually became nothing. So very simple.
She stared at the pills and thought about dreaming.
It really wasn't simple at all.
All things worth keeping are.
Her lips twitched in a smile. That was Thane, always giving her advice, even now.
Her fist closed over the pills and poured the rest of them into the bottle.
Not tonight. Maybe other time, but this night she would fight on.
Thane would understand. He said he could wait. So could she.
Closing her eyes against the stars, Shepard turned to sleep and tried to find Thane again.
Deep in the Crucible, in a part of the Citadel where not even Keepers roam, the playback of the memory stopped. The AI that replaced the Catalyst so long ago turned its massive awareness toward the outside world, momentarily brushing against the enormity of the galaxy with a simple thought.
There was still work to do. The job was almost done and when it came, there would no longer be a need for her.
Her body was gone.
Her mind had changed beyond all organic limits, defined her existence purely through thought.
But her memories still remained. Safely tucked into a deeply buried file, all that Shepard was, all that Shepard had been, all that she knew and loved and treasured and fought for, was here. It had been saved, to remind her of who she'd been as took on the god-breaking task before her.
This had been a precious memory, so similar to so many nights before, but significantly different in one respect.
It had been the night she decided to see it through to the end. To never quit.
That night, she'd made a silent promise to herself and one other. That promise had enabled her to win through impossible battles, to make an impossible decision.
Reviewing the memories reminded her of her humanity.
They also reminded her when it was time to say goodbye. To shut down. To wipe the databanks clean.
To finally, after so long, allow herself to dream.
She wasn't done yet. There was work to be done.
Shutting down the memory bank for now, Shepard turned her attention back to the Reapers and the reconstruction of the galaxy. Thessia still needed some fine tuning to the atmosphere.
"Don't worry, Thane," she murmured, her voice identical to when she'd had a body. "I'm coming."