The screams echoed around him. The sound of dragging bodies, heavy breathing, scrambling and crying as the futility set in. The white and black uniforms were stark in their absence, his crew gone, taken. Moving toward the cockpit, the chairs empty on either side, the sounds of pressure seals failing. The cold of space creeping in as he banged on the door.
“Joker! Get out of there!”
An indistinct response. A scream that climbed in pitch until it hurt his ears. There were no Banshees on the Normandy.
“Commander, hurry, we can’t wait much longer!”
Joker’s voice from behind him – he must have made it to the escape pod after all. Turning back, the CIC stretched before him. He ran toward the elevator, the galaxy map suddenly behind him.
The screams were back, but different. Liara’s shriek morphing into a high-pitched wail, echoing through the ship. Shouts of surprise from James, then gunfire. Other voices, all around him as he stumbled forward into the cargo bay. A gaping hole in the side of the Normandy, angry red light streaming in from outside.
Lurching forward, he stared out at the broken ships that blocked out the stars. Turian, Human, Geth. A resounding bass thrum as the red light changed, a child’s laugh, the Citadel surrounded by hulking black shadows.
He spun, catching his reflection on the side of the Hammerhead. Red eyes, red like the light from outside, tracing down his cheeks. He opened his mouth and the red light spilled out, the low screech of a Husk escaping as he lifted the gun that was now his arm. The hull cracked as he focused on Joker, reaching for him inside that escape pod, screaming –
John jerked as the datapad hit the deck. Blue light filled his vision, replacing the red that had been there. A deep, gasping breath as he looked around. Bubbles from the fish tank, the Normandy’s hum, the temperature a comfortable cool.
Collapsing back into his chair, John exhaled. He ran a hand over his face, muttering to himself in reassurance. “Joker’s fine. They’re all fine.” He ignored the slight tremble in his hand as it dropped back to the arm of the chair.
The last week had been running from Cerberus base to Cerberus abduction, and he’d gotten so behind on the mundanities of command. He’d been determined to get through at least a dozen reports tonight; instead, he’d fallen asleep at his desk instead of in their bed.
He could see a shadow of his reflection on the glass cases that held the model ships Tali had such fun building. The Geth dreadnought, the Alliance cruiser, the Turian single-pilot flyer. The lights of the fish tank were reflecting oddly off them tonight, highlighting orange marks he hadn’t noticed before. Leaning forward, John froze when the marks moved.
Not marks. The reflection was from him.
John reached up to feel his chin. The scar there had never gone away, not since he’d woken up in that Cerberus lab. As he ran his fingers over it, he wondered again why the skin didn’t feel more disturbed. Why it didn’t feel like a wound or a proper scar. He wondered yet again what upgrades he didn’t know about. Miranda swore they’d brought him back as close to John Shepard as possible, but it wasn’t like The Illusive Man to waste an opportunity. Why not better memory? Aim and accuracy? A little more ruthless and efficient? Less inclined to crack under pressure?
And John could feel the cracks. Thin ones from forgetting to swing by for lunch with his friends. Fissures where pressure built as he faked his way through yet another encouraging interview. Chasms as he marched off to answer Hackett’s call, failing yet again to have new information or a spark of hope.
He didn’t know how the others kept going - the reports and the vid-calls and the politicians and it never stopped. Victus, for all his stoic concern, had taken to the job of Primarch without more than a moment’s hesitation. How Wrex had come to be the head of Clan Urdnot, let alone leader of the Krogan, had never been discussed. Anderson stayed on Earth without a second thought, ordering his best chance at surviving the next week away with confidence and certainty.
John had enlisted of his own freewill. It seemed the best way out of the Reds. It was naïve to think he’d be able to keep people safe in a life that was inherently dangerous. The boss had tolerated John’s need to look after the young ones and the working girls for far longer than anyone expected. It was borderline insubordination, depriving the Reds of that kind of income, changing the dynamics by preventing the traditional hazing, risking split loyalties of new members. And then things had come to a head and he’d needed a way out, no matter who he left behind. They’d told him to go, told him he was worth saving, and knowing he agreed with them was worse than imagining the things that were about to change without him there to hold the line.
It hadn’t mattered before. A soldier, good at his job, who rose through the ranks because he didn’t complain when things got hard. Taking the extra training because it meant he could do more, do better. Meant he could keep more people safe. Making the hard choices and learning to sleep on his guilt instead of turning to drink or company every time they had shore leave. And then he’d died. Frightened as he’d been, gasping for Joker to “shut the damn door”, it had just been the end. Everyone dies.
But he hadn’t. Somehow, he hadn’t. Four billion credits just to get him to feasible, Cerberus hadn’t even blinked as they dragged him back to life. Supposedly. If anything The Illusive Man ever did could be trusted. Because the Great Commander Shepard was a bloody icon, xenophobic claims and all, who could bring anyone together, get anything done. Who reappeared after two years, like the fabled King Arthur driving back the darkness at the edge of his realm. Science must have been able to explain what happened – Miranda wasn’t the sort to tolerate anything less – but nothing explained how there was anything left to save. People are more than flesh and electrical impulses. Suffocating, freezing, plummeting through an atmosphere – any one of those things was enough to kill a man. And yet…
The pad had powered down long ago. John couldn’t remember what he’d been reading before this morbid train of thoughts got the better of him. It’d been a long few days – a long, miserable few years in some ways – and it was just getting to him. He’d been pushing himself to stay awake until Kaidan’s shift was done, but it wasn’t working. He’d just have to risk the nightmares tonight.
Pushing back from the desk, John dropped the datapad back onto the stack of things he’d need to read over and sign the next day. His head was starting to hurt from exhaustion, a nasty pulling around his eyes as he stood and made his way to the bathroom. He debated a shower, but he really was too tired; he’d brush his teeth and deal with the rest of it tomorrow.
Grabbing his bag of toiletries from the shelves, John stepped in front of the sink. The lights were still dimmed from Kaidan’s migraine yesterday and it threw his scars into stark relief. Cutting along his chin, bisecting one check bone, perched on his right eyebrow. They glowed orange, brighter than he’d seen since he’d surrendered himself to the Alliance.
John remembered how some of the soldiers had tried to be polite; others had stared openly at his face and arms while he was handcuffed. He remembered the Alliance brass asking question after question, and he hadn’t known what to say. He remembered being introduced to Lieutenant James Vega, the look of disgust on the younger man’s face at the inhumanity those scars represented.
John couldn’t fault him. He’d asked Chakwas more than once why his scars weren’t healing. Skin healed; it was a unique element to human physiology that it healed as well as it did. And yet John’s scars not only persisted, they changed based on his mood. Like the worst possible evolution of Tina’s mood ring obsession or Anna’s compulsive need to dye her hair. Maybe the universe thought he’d forgotten about his choices, gotten too comfortable with his guilt. Easier to behave with your sins woven into your skin.
Setting his bag on the counter, John reached for his shirt collar, pulling it slowly, reluctantly, over his head. The scars were everywhere, and they lit up his skin like something was peering through. Illogically placed lines that appeared at random down his arms. The one on his left shoulder had reopened in the last few days. John’s eyes tracked down to his chest, choking at the reminder. Two scars started at his shoulders, tracking down to meet in the center of his chest before continuing south. Autopsies hadn’t changed over the centuries; even Cerberus didn’t think the technique needed improvement. The evidence was carved into John’s chest, glowing faintly.
No reason to fake scars like that. No reason to put those marks on a living person. Those were marks worn only by the dead. And the dead should stay dead.
Head dropping to the sink, John retched. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten, for which he was suddenly grateful. Four billion credits was enough wasted supplies on his unnatural state; no need to cost the Alliance precious resources on a walking corpse. If he counted as even that. He didn’t count as dead anymore – he’d seen the paperwork that reinstated him among the living. But he bore the marks of death, angry red light bleeding out from the proof that he wasn’t supposed to be here.
But if he wasn’t dead and he wasn’t alive, then how the hell could he be John Shepard? John Shepard was a person, even with all the lies, who did things and knew people and made choices. But a person was alive, by the very definition of things, and living things healed. It wasn’t a scar if it was in the process of healing, it was just a wound. And since it wasn’t a wound, and it wasn’t healing, what did that make these things?
“Seams.” The edges of something pieced together to cover up what was inside. The red light was showing through where the pieces didn’t quite fit or, according to Chakwas, he’d managed to apply too much pressure. Been too rough, too callous, too inhuman to keep the cover intact. He bit back on the hysterical sound clogging his throat. A cover, not just to fool the galaxy, but to fool him.
John looked up at his reflection. The light was brighter now, more visible in the half darkness of the room. What had Cerberus been thinking? Was this half-finished thing really worth billions of credits? They couldn’t find any other way to get what they wanted from the Collectors? And they were just going to let this thing wander away from them.
A tool. An agent with a singular purpose.
Gripping the edge of the counter, he tried to breathe. The Illusive Man might have a dozen reasons for wanting Commander Shepard back and in his debt, but he’d have no use for John. And either option was too valuable a resource to just let go. So why let John surrender to the Alliance? Why not have Miranda shoot him on the way out of the Collector base, crash the SR2 with a convenient lack of survivors?
The Alliance thought they had their hero back. This walking science project that talked and walked but wasn’t quite right. Anderson trusted him. Hackett put him in charge. The Illusive Man didn’t need to fight the Alliance, because at some point they’d realize they’d placed all their bets on some thing that couldn’t possibly be trusted. Couldn’t possibly be human.
Pushing himself back up, John studied the face in the mirror. He didn’t feel like a thing, he felt like himself. Not that Cerberus would program a replacement that thought it wasn’t Shepard, but how much could they really do? Could they fool Chakwas’ scans? Give him patience for Joker’s nonsense? Hide from Liara’s informants? Could Miranda keep up the lie for this long? Wouldn’t Mordin have noticed?
Whatever he was, he was all they had. He’d have to be enough. John rubbed at his shoulder, the old nervous habit a small comfort. As he tried to relax, he let his hand drift down, past the marks on his chest. Marks that would be hidden by his shirt, whatever they might mean.
Except when they weren’t. Except when he slept without a shirt because he only wore the sleep pants he’d requisitioned. Except when Kaidan came upstairs, tired but somehow always optimistic about the grand scheme. When the man he loved gave him that slow grin and reached out to touch –
John jerked, knocking his bag to the ground, the clacks and pings of items hitting the floor pulling his gaze downwards. He stared at, not really seeing anything. With an effort, he focused, gaze catching on his old pocketknife.
Obsolete in the Alliance, it had been a gift from Ryan. John had pulled his ass out of half a dozen messes before the kid decided he’d rather run for the Reds than try for thug status. It hadn’t saved him, in the end, and even if it had, John’s leaving had screwed over a lot of people.
Slowly, he bent over and picked it up. It wasn’t big, but it was sharp. The cloudy green handle looked black in the half-light, the grey metal casing standing out more than usual. A crack ran down one side of it, from when John had dropped the thing off the roof of a two-story building in an attempt to stop a fight from escalating. The manufacturer’s logo had long since worn off - too many nights running his thumb over the folded knife in his pocket. John pulled open the blade, remembering.
He’d been so damn happy when Kaidan kissed him. Crawled into his lap, ignoring John’s babbled attempts to explain why working together didn’t have to change just because Kaidan knew how he felt, and silenced him the best possible way. He’d loved everything since, all of it, even the missteps as they learned how to do this together.
He couldn’t face Kaidan again until he knew what Cerberus had brought back. If Kaidan had been fucking a monster, he had the right to know. To be disgusted. To leave –
Gripping his chin, John pulled on his cheek, forcing the scar open just a bit wider. The blade slid along the edge, not quite catching under the skin. Holding the point at his cheek bone, he took a deep breath, and shoved.
The pain was horrendous. He remembered now how much this had hurt the last time he’d tried, ripping away at his face with his bare hands. This was worse, because he wasn’t just scratching the surface.
But pain meant nothing. EDI had receptors that could simulate all sorts of things. He didn’t really know what his implants did - maybe nothing he felt was real.
Keeping the skin pulled tight, he wiggled the knife back and forth, trying to widen the opening he’d made. It didn’t seem to be doing much. With a gasp, he tilted the blade, pushing down to slide underneath the skin, prying it loose from the muscles below.
With a scream, he tore the blade out. John clutched at his cheek, gasping and whining at the sensations. This wasn’t going to work. This was stupid. Tali would be so angry when she found out he’d tried, again.
Because he’d worried about this before. And they’d talked him down. How had they talked him down?
Looking at the mirror, John watched the blood trailing down his cheek, a line of it following his hand to his wrist instead. Wide blue eyes looked over the arm, afraid. Under the arm, where the blood dripped, the scars looked worse than before. That horrid Y that meant they’d opened him and up done…what?
Nothing he had in his room would get through his chest muscles. He couldn’t risk damaging his hands, so it would have to be his face this time, too. If he wanted to be sure what was under all this effort to look human, he’d just have to jam it in there and pry the damn things open.
“They’re seams,” he whispered, eyes wide and watching. Taking hold of his face once more, John traced the scar. “Time to see what you’re made of.”
It was later than Kaidan wanted to think about. Things had been so hectic after Rannoch – the uptick in missions from Hackett, Cerberus pushing attacks on civilians, unnerving rumors about Sanctuary starting to gather weight. Everyone had been pulling longer shifts, trying to get a handle on things without losing their minds. Finally, Chakwas had all but ordered Shepard to find a way to return the shift schedule to normal. “War or not, people need rest, Commander.” Shepard had agreed, even as he continued to push himself harder still.
Not that Kaidan blamed him. John’s nightmares had been getting worse, keeping the man from even attempting sleep unless Kaidan was there. Wrapping himself around the biotic didn’t stop them, but John woke sooner and with less panic in his face with Kaidan in his arms. And it’s not like it was uncomfortable, being held like he mattered by the man he loved. Kaidan smiled to himself as the elevator doors opened to reveal the Cabin level.
He’d started on the uniform buckles before the cabin door had even opened. Catching the heel of one boot with the toe of the other, he wiggled his foot to loosen its grip. Kaidan huffed as he lost his balance, catching himself with a hand on the glass, spooking a bright yellow fish. He looked around, faintly embarrassed.
Kaidan’s smile dimmed at the silence. He stepped down the stairs and leaned down to pull the boot off entirely. The bed was empty.
The smile was gone now, replaced by confusion. Shepard was off duty; even staying up to work on the endless pile of reports, there was no way the man was still working. One hand caught at his collar, loosening the shirt further.
Kaidan paused. He’d heard something. Kaidan turned and walked back up the stairs, gait uneven with just one boot on. He huffed, pausing to yank the offending article off his foot, tossing it against the wall with the fish tank.
“Hey, you in there?”
Kaidan palmed the door open, revived grin dying as soon as it appeared.
Three steps had him at Shepard’s side. Kaidan dropped to his knees, hands fluttering like they hadn’t since medic training. John’s face was a mess. He was bleeding freely from where the skin had been…dislodged. He didn’t seem to have registered Kaidan’s arrival, staring blankly ahead. Running a hand over Shepard’s trembling arm, Kaidan’s eyes stopped on the small knife clutched in his fist.
Gently, Kaidan pried John’s hand open, the knife sliding through his fingers to clatter on the floor. Kaidan knocked it away before turning to John’s face. The younger man didn’t resist as Kaidan turned his head, eyes still unfocused. Kaidan tried to process the damage, to think about this like the triage situation it was. The blood had run down Shepard’s face, staining his neck and pooling at his collar bone. There was some on his hands and arms, but he didn’t see any accompanying cuts.
“John, what happened?” Looking back at the man, Kaidan tried again. “Hey, answer me.” His voice was starting to shake. “John!”
A slow blink, like he’d forgotten how. John pulled a deep breath, gaze trailing over Kaidan’s face until he found worried, brown eyes. Another slow blink. Another breath. “Kaidan.”
“What happened?” He couldn’t keep the pleading out of his voice. His chest felt tight as his focus left him, fear and panic crowding each other out as he tried to process the injuries. The medic in him was losing the fight to stay in control. “Talk to me.”
John lifted a hand, reaching to touch Kaidan’s face, then stopped short. Kaidan stared at the hand inches in front of him. It was covered in blood, dark red caked under John’s nails. Like he’d been scratching or digging. It took an effort of will to look back at John’s face. The gaze was still absent, but John recognized him now.
“You should go.”
Kaidan flinched, pulling his hands away. “Go?”
“I had to know.” John’s voice was soft, distracted. He looked down at his knees, hand dropping to his chest. The dimmed light in the bathroom deepened the shadows, highlighting the angry glowing lines that marked John’s skin. Slowly, almost soothingly, John smeared blood over one of the lines that bisected the skin near his elbow.
“Know what?” Kaidan’s voice was shaking now. “What could you possibly…how could you…did you do this?” It was a stupid question – he’d taken the knife from John himself.
“I needed to know what Cerberus built. If I’m really me.” John was absently running his hand over his chest now. “Had to know what Cerberus brought back.”
“They brought back you!” Kaidan stopped himself, forcing down the urge to raise his voice. Deep breaths through the mouth, don’t focus on the smell of iron. Keep the person talking, reassure them no matter the severity of the situation. “John, they saved you.”
John was shaking his head. “No.” His head lolled to one side, the ghost of a smile amidst the grisly features. As if he felt sorry for someone. “They didn’t. They tried, but they weren’t that good. The seams won’t stay closed.” His fingers trailed through the still wet blood collected at his collarbone, smearing it downward as John ran his hand back across his chest.
“What seams?” Reaching out, Kaidan felt his gorge rise as he prodded the flaps of skin folded back on John’s cheek. John’s hand was still moving, tracing one of the ugly glowing lines that had worsened with the stress of the war.
“Marks of the dead,” John murmured.
He dropped his hand to his lap and Kaidan focused on the shape of the scar. Reaching out to touch the glowing Y, Kaidan froze at the sight of his own hand, now red from his attempts to help. He rubbed his fingers together, smearing John’s blood further.
A dark hand caught his own by the wrist. John was looking at him with unfocused concern. “Kaidan, what’s wrong?”
Swallowing hard, Kaidan forced the words out as John folded his hands around Kaidan’s shaking one. “EDI, get Chakwas up here.” The sob escaped, masquerading as a hiccup, and John looked at him with wide, worried blue eyes. “Now.”