Chapter Fifty-One

Shepard waited until a whistle from below told her that the ashaad had finished his descent safely.

What I wouldn't give for the Kodiak right now…

Had a day gone by without her wishing for some part of her missing life? She'd been without things before - no pistol, no thermal clips, no medi-gel, no omni-tool, no armor - but usually she was only lacking a single item; she'd left it behind, lost it, broken it, run out of it… She'd always sworn that with an omni-tool and her old Mantis, she could manage anything.

So? She was managing, wasn't she?

I just never realized how much I relied on a network of supplies, of people, of information, of technology.

She snorted softly. What had Hawke said the other day? If wishes were fishes, no-one would starve? Yeah.

Shepard was a hands-on leader. She preferred to know her crew personally and deal with personnel issues herself, rather than letting her XO handle it. She kept herself well-apprised of her ship's status, from helm to drive core, despite having complete faith in the skill of her crew. If she needed to send a team groundside without her at point, she generally tried to stay in comm contact - just listening, not interfering - so that she knew what the ground team knew and could make any split-second command decisions without requiring a sitrep first.

To say that she was torn between two needs was an understatement. Back ho—

Back on the Normandy, Shepard could at least have Chakwas update her frequently (or until Karin lost her patience and used her mom voice on Shepard, saying, I will update you when there is something to update, Commander) while she went about her other duties, or led a fireteam. Or, she could pace around the med bay (until Karin lost her patience and kicked her out, saying, I'll let you know when anything changes, Commander) and listen in on a ground op, or have EDI update her on status reports, mission reports, or question her about the significance of Jeff's new insistence on calling her babe.

Here, all she could do was fret.

Logically, Shepard knew she'd made the smart decision. Anders' healing abilities came from within himself; there was little Shepard could do to help that Fenris could not, though probably with better grace than the broody elf. Whereas Hawke and Merrill had little chance of getting through the barrier without Garrus, and even if they used the rifle themselves (Shepard cringed inwardly at the thought), they weren't really prepared to deal with anything that might be on the other side. Returning to the prothean base was the better use of her skills, even if the primary mission objectives had already been fulfilled.

She didn't have to like it, though.

Having a top rope made her ascent faster, though it did the broken hand and cracked collarbone no favors. Hawke was grinning when Shepard finished the climb, her head cocked at a familiar angle, indicating a quip was forthcoming.

"I hadn't realized you were serious about throwing the qunari off the cliff," she said lightly. "Next time, you might not want to go with him, however."

Shepard scowled as she caught her breath. "It was a landslide," she corrected sharply.

"Did you forget your shirt, or did you mean to leave it behind?" asked Merrill. The elf's eyes widened. "Oh! Were you playing panty ante?"

Shepard laid a hand over her eyes. "No, Merrill. There was no panty ante invovled."

Hawke's eyes narrowed evilly. "From the sound of it, I'd say she was flirting with the ashaad."

"Hawke…"

"Oh," blinked Merrill. "Are you and Ashaad… I mean, is he… do you…" She floundered for a moment. "He's very attractive, isn't he?" she finished lamely.

"No," Shepard said crisply, looking around for her rifle. It had been a difficult day, and was promising to be a difficult night. She wouldn't know how the ashaad had fared until they were all back at base camp, and it was odds-on that Hawke was going to tease her unmercifully about the events leading up to the landslide. Shepard was already chiding herself for her actions - she didn't need the rogue's input as well.

The rifle was where she left it, cradled gently in the contours of a rock. Shepard scooped it up, examined it automatically, and started to reach over her shoulder to clip it to her backplate before she remembered her armor was still at base camp.

Sleep, Shepard. You know, that thing you've been short of the past few days? You need to be ready for whatever's behind that damn barrier.

-ooo-

Shepard's sole contribution to camp that night was getting the fire laid and lit. After that, Hawke shooed her away to her bedroll and sent Merrill over to look at the red-and-purple bruising on Shepard's hands, while Hawke dug into the fresh stores or food for dinner.

Merrill's healing was nothing like Anders'. Being on the receiving end of Anders' healing energy was like the soft, slow burn of a snifter of Serrice Ice Brandy. Merrill's was more like the blazing heat of a shot of rynol. Shepard grit her teeth and endured, though the flare of energy - like a shot of ryncol - was over quickly. When it was done, she flexed her fingers to ease any residual stiffness, and thanked the elf for her help. She did not, however, mention the collarbone.

Hawke also insisted that Shepard take the first watch of the evening. When pressed about it, Hawke gave the Spectre an incredulous look. "Which one of us fell off the Maker-be-damned cliff?" she asked. "I can't believe you weren't badly injured."

Shepard shrugged. "N-fucking-7," she answered, using a bit of leftover bandage as a rag to sponge some of the dried blood away. "Also, I landed on a qunari. They're softer than they look."

This earned her the leer she'd expected and had been aiming for. But Hawke wasn't finished. "So what exactly were you and he doing that caused a landslide, anyway?"

Shepard gave her a stern look. "You admitted to eavesdropping earlier, you know."

Hawke sniffed. "Of course I was eavesdropping." Her expression grew sly. "It sounded like you were cheating on the A—"

"HAWKE!" It was a roar worthy of a DI, and Shepard paired it with a steely gaze. "We aren't going to talk about that. Ever. Again."

"You were, weren't you?" Hawke pressed with a grin. "Merrill thought so too."

"You told Merrill about the Arishok?!"

Merrill looked up from the last of her supper. "Told me what about the Arishok?" she asked brightly, her face full of innocence.

Shepard squinted at the elf for a moment, trying to gauge the sincerity of Merrill's childlike puzzlement. "He's… really tall."

"Oh," said Merrill, off-handedly. "I already knew that. I have seen him before, you know. Does he ever smile, do you know?"

Shepard remembered the faintest tug at the corners of the giant's mouth; hints, ghosts of smiles, but no more. "I don't think he does."

"What about Ashaad?" Merrill continued curiously. "He's not as scary as the Arishok, is he? He seems like he could smile, if he tried."

The Spectre shook her head. "It's against the qun, or something," she said wryly. "So what did you agree with Hawke about?"

Merrill lifted her slight shoulders. "Oh, that," she said. "Hawke thought you were fighting with Ashaad. I thought you were having, well, you know. And then Hawke said that it was the same thing to the qunari." The huge green eyes grew wider as something occurred to the elf. "Elgar'non! Wouldn't that mean that for the qunari a war would be like… like… Isabela's tab at the Blooming Rose?"

Shepard was certain that Hawke hadn't laughed as long or as hard since before her mother's death. Trails of tears ran down the rogue's face as peal after peal of laughter shook her. "Oh, Merrill," she gasped. "Never change."

"Ooh… Did I make a funny joke?" Merrill asked eagerly. "I'm not very good at it." She paused, lips slightly pursed in thought.

"Could one of you tell me what it was?"

-ooo-

Lystheni.

It was a name Shepard had heard now and again, a name spoken with derision and the faintest of embarrassment, like that of a family member in prison for a crime best not mentioned in polite company. They were said to be an "offshoot" of the salarians, exiled from Council space. Beyond that, Shepard knew little. Both Garrus and Zaeed had mentioned them in less than glowing terms as part of the general detritus that could be found on Omega.

But they hadn't always been scavengers.

As Shepard delved back into the mass of data she'd downloaded, she found a name to put to those who came before her yet after the protheans: Lystheni.

The outpost here was a Lystheni research base; the last encrypted message sent to another Lystheni clan. The former prothean ruin had been well-stocked and outfitted with what had been cutting-edge tech at the time. Not to mention the expense needed to abduct whole villages of humans and their livestock and transport them hundreds of light years away to this remote planet at the edge of the , at one time the Lystheni must have been at least on par with the Salarian Union, at least economically, if not a part of the Union. She wondered what the Lystheni could have done to earn their exile. Given what she knew the salarians were capable of doing - of what they had done; the krogan and the genophage being an excellent case in point - Shepard couldn't imagine that even what the disgraced salarians had done here on Thedas could warrant more than moderate censure. And that probably only if they were caught, if the fragments of information she'd picked up while rescuing Eve - or Urdnot Bakara, rather - from the STG base on Sur'kesh were any indication of the scope of the salarians' covert R&D on other species.

Interesting though it was to learn the identity of the salarian tinkerers, what Shepard was really looking for was something - anything - about why the Lystheni had put up that barrier. There had to be a clue somewhere; perhaps a log entry, or a message to all researchers from security.

"Shepard." Hawke's tone was one of exasperation as she stood over the Spectre, hands on hips and a scowl on her face. "Stop poking at that thing and get some sleep."

Shepard returned the scowl, giving the rogue one of her Commander looks, but Hawke just leaned forward to wave her hand through the haptic interface of Shepard's omni-tool. "Hessarian's poxy arse," she muttered. "There's got to be some way for me to put this out."

"Nope," replied Shepard smugly at the same time the 'tool gave a muted chime to indicate the latest search was complete.

"I could yell at you, you know," Hawke warned. "I've been taking notes on how you do it."

This earned the rogue a derisive snort. "I've been yelled at by far worse than you, Hawke."

"I could beg?"

"Isn't that what you're doing now?"

Hawke laughed. "Oh, no. I'm far more shameless when I'm begging."

One corner of Shepard's mouth quirked upward. "Just let me check these results."

"Promise?"

With the huff of a sigh, Shepard indicated that Hawke would be more likely to see flying bacon than get such a promise out of her, and punched up the first result, a fragment of what looked like a journal entry.

the latest victim of the artifact. Have just finished designs for new kinetic barrier. With barrier in place, hope to keep rest of team sane and, importantly, alive…

"All right," Shepard said with satisfaction. "Finally."

However, the journal proved to have little else to say. It appeared to be a personal diary rather than official logs or notes, and as such tended to be more of an aide-memoire than a clear reporting of events. From it, Shepard gathered only that at least two of the Lystheni researchers had either died or been driven insane by contact with something in one of the rooms beyond the barrier. The barrier was erected to keep inquiring salarian minds away from harm.

It was starting to look like Shepard's fears of Reaper tech weren't as paranoid as she'd hoped.

Shepard shut down the 'tool. "Happy?" she grumbled, giving Hawke a pointed look.

"Not until you're snoring like a drunken dwarf," came the rogue's reply.

"I'd probably sleep better if I was a drunken dwarf," Shepard admitted, knowing the moment her eyes closed she'd be worrying about the ashaad's condition and what they might find tomorrow. Nevertheless, she settled into her bedroll, pulling the blanket close around her neck.

She was still for a few minutes before tossing angrily onto her opposite side. "I hate not knowing how my people are doing."

Hawke raised an eyebrow. "Your people? So you're admitting the qunari are yours now?"

Shepard gave her an unfriendly look from under the blanket. "Teammates," she clarified. "Crew. People I'm responsible for."

"Mmm-hmm. People you might be thinking about breaking your no-sex-with-qunari rule for?" Hawke suggested slyly.

"It's not a no-sex-with-qunari rule," Shepard growled.

"More of a guideline?" the rogue said lightly, but her eyes were sharp.

Shepard sat up and dragged a hand through her hair. "Why am I even arguing this with you?"

"Because I'm nosy?" offered Hawke, grinning. "And I'm wondering if maybe the reason you don't want to have sex with the Arishok hasn't been staring you in the face this whole trip."

"What?" Shepard was startled as much as angry. She'd assumed Hawke had been teasing her, before. "Hawke, are you completely nuts, or are you just trying to piss me off?"

"Are you telling me I'm wrong?" Hawke demanded.

Shepard looked the rogue in the eye. "Yes. You're wrong."

To the Spectre's further surprise, Hawke's face fell. "Maker's cock. I was sure that was it."

"Hawke, I told you why I'm not interested in the Arishok."

Hawke's eyes expressed her disbelief. "That can't be the only reason," she protested. "At first I thought it might be Fenris," Hawke paused thoughtfully, "He's warmed up to you considerably, you know."

"It isn't Fenris, either," Shepard said with exasperation. "Why does there have to be another reason? Why does there have to be another person?"

"Because he's the Arishok, Shepard," said Hawke, crouching down beside her. "He has magnetism. Huge… horns. A perfectly chiseled man-chest…"

"Does Varric know you ogle the Arishok's man-chest?" Shepard asked, trying to turn the conversation back on Hawke.

"Shepard, I've seen Varric ogle the Arishok's man-chest," the rogue replied. "Quit deflecting."

"I'm not deflecting," Shepard denied. "But I'm beginning to think you've got more than a passing interest in the great horned ass."

Hawke shrugged gamely. "I admit it. If I was in your position, the only thing stopping me from wanton acts of carnal indulgence in the streets would be Varric. And if the Arishok was into dwarves, I'd say not even that."

"I doubt that the qunari engage in wanton acts of carnal indulgence, Hawke. The Arishok would sneer and say there was no purpose in it."

"No purpose?" Hawke looked aghast. "How else was he expecting to have little qunari babies with you?"

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am?" she suggested.

Hawke gaped at her for a long moment. Then she shut her mouth and turned away with a sour glance at the Spectre. "Thank you for ruining my little fantasy, Shepard."

"You're welcome."

-ooo-

Sleep eluded Shepard for some time, but when it finally came to her it was deep and dreamless. She awoke the following morning to the smell of something burning, and found Merrill desperately trying to put out some flaming cloth by waving it madly in the air. Shepard snatched it from the elf, threw it on the ground and stomped on it until it died into a sullen smolder. Then she swore.

"God dammit, that hurts," she concluded, lifting up one foot to examine her bare sole.

"That doesn't smell like toast," mumbled Hawke, sitting up and rubbing at her sleep-filled eyes. "Where's the toast?"

"I think it's my foot," complained Shepard.

"No," said Merrill contritely. "Actually, I think it was your shirt."

Shepard was silent as the three women chewed their way through breakfast.

"I know that look," said Hawke with a shake of her head. "It's not a good look. What's wrong now?"

"I found out there's some kind of artifact behind the barrier," Shepard said flatly. "I'm wondering if we should abort, to be honest."

Hawke's jaw dropped. "You mean just walk away?" she exclaimed. "After all this?"

"It's highly likely it's some kind of Reaper tech."

Hawke shrugged. "So?"

Now Shepard's jaw sagged. "So? Hawke, the Reapers are the most dangerous thing I've ever faced. They've been destroying whole civilizations for millions of years!"

"Yes, but you're good at killing them," Hawke replied with a mad grin. "And I'm good at killing all kinds of things. And Merrill is good at setting things on fire."

Merrill looked wounded. "I did say I was sorry about the shirt, didn't I?"

Shepard shook her head mulishly. "It isn't as simple as just killing them. They can affect your mind," she warned.

"Like blood mages?" Hawke asked, darkness clouding her face.

"Probably worse," Shepard replied bleakly, remembering the look of relief in Saren's eyes just before the shot that ended his life, and the desperation in Benezia's as the matriarch struggled to keep one tiny corner of her mind free of Sovereign's control long enough to warn her only child.

Merrill frowned and said, "But I thought Varric said you killed them all?"

A brief image of the Normandy and her remaining crew continuing to fight a war they couldn't possibly win invaded Shepard's mind for a moment, but she banished it. No. She had to believe that the Crucible had worked, that the Reapers were dead. She had to. But if there was still working Reaper tech behind the barrier…

Her lips thinned grimly. "Even dead Reapers dream," she said enigmatically. "Your blood mages… You kill them, and their hold over someone ends, right?"

Both Merrill and Hawke nodded.

"I once had to board a derelict Reaper," Shepard told them. "A Reaper that had been dead for millions of years, though still partially intact. There had been a science team there before me, studying the corpse. They'd all been indoctrinated, and then turned into husks. Reapers are dangerous, even in death."

Hawke gave her a dubious look. "So why did you do it? At least with this, there's a reason to try. There still might be something to help you get home down there."

"There was a reason then, too. I needed something from it in order to get the Normandy through the Omega-4 relay."

"The what?"

Shepard shook her head. "Long story. But I was trying to save whole colonies of people, so the risk was worth it."

Merrill was chewing at her bottom lip, her eyes haunted and far away.

"How did you convince your people that you hadn't been," she flushed, "corrupted, or whatever you called it?"

"Indoctrinated?" Shepard remembered far too many times when she'd believed she must be. Nobody could have had as much contact with the Reapers as she had and come away from it unscathed. She shrugged. "It takes time. Longer than the hour or two we were exposed, anyway."

"How can you even think that, Shepard?" Garrus's voice, incredulous but amused as she confided her fears to him. "You're too stubborn for indoctrination. Not to mention bad-tempered."

"Then what could an hour or two hurt?" asked Hawke triumphantly. "We just sneak in, see what's there, and sneak out again. Simple."

-ooo-

With this less-than-auspicious start to the day behind them, the three women re-entered the prothean ruin, making for the lower floor where the centuries-old barrier still stood between the bowels of the ruin and the few floors that the salarians had occupied. Shepard stopped them at the first pair of holding cells.

"I want the two of you to wait here until I have a chance to check things out." Her eyes were focused on Hawke intently. "Understood?"

Hawke tipped her head and held up one hand. "I promise not to let Merrill set anything on fire."

Merrill's forehead creased. "Really," she promised, "I didn't mean to…"

The rogue and the Spectre eyeballed one another for a moment. Then Shepard turned away, raising Garrus to her shoulder and taking up a shooter's stance.

It took five shots to whittle the barrier down before it fell. After each shot, while Shepard waited for the Mantis to cool down, a portion of the barrier would regenerate, making Shepard long for her Locust, or even a crappy old M-8 Avenger.

In addition to the barrier, the salarians had added their own locking mechanism to the door. With a queasy sort of fluttering in her stomach, Shepard bypassed the lock and stepped through the open door before the barrier could come back on line.

The room beyond was empty. Any prothean equipment that had been in the room was gone, leaving only bare walls and floor. Another door was set into the wall opposite, also bearing a secondary lock mechanism of salarian design.

The faintest scuffle caused Shepard to turn her head. Hawke stood just inside the door, one arm wrapped around Merrill's slender shoulders and her hand covering the elf's mouth.

"Merrill!" exclaimed Hawke chidingly. "Didn't I tell you we weren't supposed to move up until Shepard said it was all right?"

Merrill's eyes took on an expression of betrayed offense and she mumbled something from behind the rogue's hand.

Hawke shook her head. "I know, I know. The barrier thing was flickering, and we could have been caught on opposite sides, with no way to help Shepard. But that's not the point. The point is, we were supposed to stay where we were until Shepard said it was all right."

There was more mumbling, somewhat indignant, from the elf.

"Hawke…" growled Shepard warningly.

"I'm sorry, Shepard. I couldn't stop her," the rogue said, feigned apologia in her voice. "But at least we all ended up on the same side, in case something does go wrong." She smiled brightly.

"Hawke!"

"Oh, look… another door!"

Shepard caught the rogue's arm before Hawke could saunter more than a step in that direction. "Stay. Here." Shepard punctuated the words with a firm squeeze of her fingers - probably firm enough to cause bruising. "I am not joking around."

"Fine," replied Hawke, jerking her arm away roughly.

"You said that before," Shepard pointed out angrily.

"This time I mean it," Hawke assured the Spectre placidly. "So long as you don't intend to lock us out, that is."

Once again the two women stared at each other. "You're not the only one who doesn't like not knowing what's happening to her people," Hawke said quietly. "Or have a burning desire not to lose any of them."

The redhead's eyes were serious and solemn. Shepard took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. "Of course," she said, half in apology. "I'm risking your friends on this mission."

"And you," Hawke reminded her, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. She let it grow into a wide grin when Shepard gave her a startled look. "Besides, do you have any idea how tiresome the Arishok can be when you're not around to distract him? I shudder to think what might happen to Kirkwall if we let you get killed."

Shepard opened her mouth to retort, and what would you have done if I'd never arrived in Kirkwall?, but shut it again. Whatever the Arishok had planned for Kirkwall before she arrived was moot. His behavior where Shepard was concerned was clearly irrational, and she couldn't be sure just what the giant would do if she got herself killed.

Great. Another thing to worry about.

She stalked away to the door, looking over her shoulder once to be sure the rogue hadn't moved, and began bypassing the lock. Shepard felt a few chords of portentous music wouldn't be amiss, but the door opened with a simple muted hiss.

There was a faint bluish glow in the dimness, one that flared to life as Shepard eased forward with Garrus in low ready. A familiar sensation gripped her, and Shepard managed to bite off a krogan expletive and an entirely human, "Oh, shit," before the beacon's energy engulfed her.