Hey all - I updated two chapters at once. If you've skipped to the last chapter posted, you'll be missing Fifty-Four.
The ping of her omni-tool woke Shepard immediately. She rolled out of her blankets and moved away from the camp as quietly as she could before opening the comm.
"Commander?" the voice was uncertain, but hopeful. "C'mon, Shepard, don't do this to us…"
"Commander! Wow! Didn't think we'd ever find you."
"Joker, where are you at?" Shepard hissed softly. "Where's the Normandy?"
"In orbit now, Commander," the pilot replied. "EDI's having a little trouble locating you."
"Not any longer, Jeff," came the synthetic's reply. "I have a lock on the commander's location."
"Don't bring the ship any closer. Send a shuttle down, quietly." Shepard ordered, pacing a little further from the camp. "I'll slip away now, while everyone is still asleep."
"Asleep? What are you talking about, Commander?"
Shepard glanced back over her shoulder, triggering her cloak and breaking into a jog to put as much distance between herself and the others as possible. "You know I've never been much of one for long goodbyes, Joker."
"Sneaking out without paying the bill, Shepard?" the pilot joked. "I thought you preferred to shoot the place up before you left suddenly. Through the floor." She could feel Joker's grin through the comm. "What do you have against fish, anyway?"
The pilot's snort of amusement was unrepentant and heart-achingly familiar.
"See you, Commander."
The inner door of the Normandy's port side airlock opened with a faint hiss of pressurized air and Shepard stepped aboard her ship just aft of the bridge.
She inhaled deeply. Recycled air filled her lungs, faintly metallic and oh-so-familiar.
Beneath her feet, the deck vibrated gently with the thrum of the drive core.
Shepard took another step forward, her head automatically swinging to the left. Joker's chair was swiveled around to face the CIC, his eyes partly shadowed by his ball cap but a shit-eating grin plastered on his face for all the world to see.
"Welcome back, Commander," he said.
"It's good to be back, Joker," she replied, matching his grin.
"The crew was pleased to learn that you were alive, Shepard," said EDI formally. "I was pleased." The AI paused briefly. "We missed you."
"I missed you guys too. You have no idea how much."
Shepard inhaled again, and turned toward the CIC, the sound of her boots clunking against the deck music to her ears.
"Gomez. Eardley. Michaelson." Shepard nodded to the crewmen as she passed their stations. As she passed, each of them rose to salute her.
Shepard stopped as she came abreast of the galaxy map. "Where's Nguyen?" she asked.
Traynor gave her a snappy salute. "Serviceman Nguyen is at a duty station in the war room, Commander."
"Ah." Shepard nodded and gave the specialist a smile and a nod. "Traynor."
"It's good to see you, Commander."
Warily, Shepard eyed the private terminal beside the galaxy map. She didn't like to think of the amount of messages she was going to have to wade through. She supposed that being officially MIA would have cut down on at least some of the more official ones, but it had been months.
Yeah, Shepard… months. You got off lucky this time. It wasn't years.
Messages could wait. There were other things that could not. Shepard headed for the elevator and the crew deck.
There was nothing in the universe that moved more slowly than the elevators on an Alliance ship, though some of the elevators on the Citadel came close. Shepard drummed her fingers against the wall impatiently. How many faces would be missing? Of those that were, how many would she never see again?
The elevator finally came to a stop, and the doors opened. As always, Shepard averted her eyes from the Normandy's memorial wall. Why the Alliance had seen fit to emblazon the name of every lost crewmember on a wall between crew quarters and the mess she would never, ever understand. Something like that belonged on a discreet plaque in the CIC, not floor to ceiling on the most frequently traveled corridor on the crew deck. There was a difference between honoring the fallen and depressing the shit out of the crew. And reminding the commander of every soul she'd failed.
Yeah. Great morale booster there, fellas. Only the fucking military…
She came around the corner into the mess and stopped dead as a handful of sparkly confetti was thrown in her face and a paper squeaker was blown in her ear.
"Ay!" came Vega's voice from somewhere behind her assailant. "It's a celebration, not an assault, amigo."
A deep krogan rumble answered, "You said to throw it."
"Yeah. Up in the air, not at her."
"What's the point of that?"
Shepard opened her eyes a chink and turned her head, causing a few flakes of confetti to fall from her hair.
Grunt spread his arms wide, his teeth bared in a huge krogan grin. "Battlemaster," he said expansively, "I knew you couldn't be dead."
"I just don't seem to have the knack," she agreed, bracing herself for the onslaught as the tank-bred krogan caught her arm and pounded her shoulder. "What are you doing here, Grunt?"
"A mission to recover the greatest battlemaster of all time? They couldn't leave me behind." He paused. "Besides, Wrex threatened your Admiral with a 'cultural exchange program'," Grunt grinned at the air quotes and laughed a krogan laugh, "if they did."
Now that Shepard was no longer under friendly fire, she could look around. It appeared everyone not currently on duty was packed into the mess.
"Garrus," she said, feeling relief hit her like a hammer when she spied her best friend lounging against the galley counter. "Still as ugly as ever, I see."
The turian pushed himself away from the counter and sauntered forward, all self-assured cockiness. "You're one to talk, Shepard," he replied, reaching out with his three-taloned hand to clasp her smaller, five-fingered one. The strength of his grip and the fire in his eyes belied his casual tone, just as Shepard's did. She tugged him closer and threw her free arm around his shoulder in a one-armed embrace.
"It's damn good to see you," she whispered. "I missed you, buddy."
"Same here, Shepard," he murmured, the dual-toned voice flanging a bit more than normal. "I was afraid you'd drink the bar dry before I got there."
Shepard grinned at him. "Nah," she assured him. "I would have saved you a beer."
"A beer? Just one?"
She rocked backward and folded her arms on her chest, shrugging with one shoulder. "What can I say? You're worth it."
He snorted with laughter, and Shepard let her eyes comb the rest of the crowd. "Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, get your ass over here!"
"Take the stupid ship name and suddenly the bosh'tet captain thinks she can order you around," muttered Tali loudly enough for Shepard to hear, pushing her way through a couple of servicemen.
"Liara, Kaidan, James…" Shepard began as she wrapped her arms around Tali and hugged her fiercely, "Hell, all of you. I'm going to be verklemmpt before I get through handing out the hugs."
But not before Tali breaks my ribs…
The quarian's embrace was amazingly strong. "We thought we'd lost you, Shepard," she murmured in Shepard's ear. "Hackett wanted to have a funeral. Again."
"Not often a girl gets to watch her own funeral… twice," Shepard joked.
"Don't do it again," Tali ordered sternly.
"Who's the commander of this vessel?" Shepard reminded her.
Tali cocked her head and dropped a hand to hip. "Admiral, remember?"
Her ship. Her crew. Home.
Feeling exhausted, Shepard took the elevator to the loft, thinking only of taking a long, hot shower and putting on some clean clothes and relaxing with the last of the bottle of wine she'd liberated from the welcome home party in the mess.
God, it's good to be home.
She was dragging her hand through her hair when the elevator opened, and didn't see the figure lurking beside her door until she ran into him.
Her face screwed up in confusion. "Ashaad? What the hell are you doing here?"
The orange eyes were steady. "My duty, kadan."
Shepard shook her head. "I'm no longer your concern, Ashaad." She paused and frowned deeply. "And how the hell did you get on my ship?"
The giant's lips thinned. "With respect, kadan, you do not command me."
"I don't know who you think will from now on," she snorted. "The Arishok is light years away now. That's really far, just so you know."
"No," replied the ashaad, folding his arms on his chest. "He is not."
Shepard's eyes widened. "You're shitting me."
The broad brow lifted, but the giant did not reply.
She reached past him to key open the door, feeling a kind of deep-seated cognitive dissonance as she did so.
The Arishok was within.
He sat on the edge of her bed, elbows resting against his thighs, watching the fish swimming lazily around the aquarium. He turned his head as Shepard stepped into the room, her lips trying to form words, and rose gracefully to his feet.
"Why?" she managed, after a long struggle.
He walked forward, mounting the steps to the upper part of the cabin and halting in front of her. "You cannot escape this, Shepard," he said calmly, though his eyes were intense. "You cannot escape me."
And then his fingers were tangled roughly in her hair and his lips were on hers and Shepard realized no, she couldn't.
Shepard awakened with a start, sitting up abruptly, her eyes scanning her surroundings wildly.
There was no hum of a drive core, no dappled glow of light from the fishtank. No ozone tang of recycled air.
The wagon rocked as it hit a bump.
Shepard put her head in her hands.
Light flashed into the wagon's interior as the door opened and Anders swung inside.
"Good. You're awake," he said.
Shepard didn't take her head out of her hands. "How long?" she asked, her voice muffled.
"About eleven hours," the healer replied, hunkering down beside the bench bunk. "When you kept on sleeping soundly, I decided to let you rest until you woke up on your own."
Part of her felt as though she should be angry with the mage, but she just couldn't summon the energy.
"Shepard?" Anders' voice was filled with concern. "Look at me."
Grudgingly, she lifted her head out of her hands and turned to him. His hands lit with magic as he reached forward to lay them on her temples.
After a moment, he sat back, shaking his head. "There's nothing wrong that I can fix," he admitted, his face more haggard than usual. "You slept well, but you look almost worse than you did yesterday."
"No, there isn't anything that you can fix," Shepard agreed. "All the strictly physical damage the implants will have been working on. The rest isn't something subject to healing or medicine."
Anders' look of concern deepened. "Shepard…"
"You know things are a mess when you'd rather be fighting Reapers," she replied obliquely.
"From what you've described, I wouldn't," Anders said, sitting gingerly beside her on the narrow bunk. "So why would you?"
"I was dreaming," Shepard said. "Dreaming that I'd been rescued by the Normandy." Her fingers plucked at the blanket that covered her. "Everyone was there, everyone was alive," she paused, and laughed hollowly. "Should've known it was a dream right away."
"Hard to wake up?" Anders asked softly.
"Yes, but not the way you think," she answered. "The dream didn't end well."
Anders made no reply, waiting for Shepard to elaborate on her own.
"I shouldn't be here." Shepard's words eerily echoed those of the Leviathans' thralls.
Anders shrugged. "Should any of us?" he asked. "Hawke said you found out that humans were brought here a long time ago."
"A very long time ago, yes," she said. "You've had time to become part of this world. I'm… I'm different. All I can do is interfere."
Anders' brows knit together in puzzlement. "What are you talking about, Shepard?"
Shepard sighed and swung her legs off the bunk. "You know about the Arishok." It wasn't really a question, but not quite a statement.
The corners of the mage's mouth quirked upward. "I don't know that I see the appeal, myself," he said lightly. "But, well, I'm a mage. And chains aren't exactly something I'm into."
Shepard shot him an unamused look. "It wasn't my choice, and nothing's happened," she said sternly. "Nothing physical, I mean." She let her head sag forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "Culturally, politically… I've made a hell of a mess."
"Isabela will have kittens when she finds out," Anders continued, as if she hadn't said anything. "Although I don't know who she'll be more jealous of, you or him."
The mage grinned widely. "And I finally understand why the Arishok looked like he wanted to turn Chantry boy into raspberry jam."
"He's one of the leaders of his people, Anders!" Shepard snapped. "I couldn't have fucked up worse if I'd slept with Sparatus." She huffed a mirthless laugh. "Not that I'd have had a chance. Sparatus and I disliked each other from the start," she muttered. "Victus, then. Although even that wouldn't have made as big a mess."
"You're doing it again, Shepard," Anders grasped her shoulder and gave her a little shake. "And you're babbling."
"Nihlus, maybe," Shepard went on, a wildness in her eyes. "Or Wrex, before I killed the thresher maw and ended the genophage. I mean, now, it'd just make him a bigger hero to his people."
"Shepard!" This time the shake was firmer.
Shepard blinked, and her focus returned to Anders. "This is… this isn't something I know how to fix, Anders. It's not just a question of yelling at people until they do what they're supposed to."
Anders tipped his head to one side. "What makes you think it's your responsibility to fix in the first place?" he asked.
"I involved myself when I shouldn't've," she replied. "All I could think about was finding a way to get home."
"And you thought the qunari could help," he said with a nod. "I still don't see the problem."
Shepard grabbed the mage's coat and pulled him nose-to-nose with her. "The Arishok wants to mate with me."
"He's not the only one."
Abruptly, Shepard released the mage's coat and skittered backward as if too close to venting plasma.
Anders blinked in consternation. "Not me!" he hastened to add. "Or, well, yes, of course, but no…" He took a deep breath and let it out. "Shepard, you may be the biggest— what was the word you used once?— badass?— I've ever seen. And remember, I was recruited into the Wardens by Edana, who killed an archdemon and ended the Fifth Blight. I know badasses. You? Not even the same league."
He shook his head. "Of course the Arishok wants you. You're probably the only woman he's ever met that could honestly challenge him in a fight."
Shepard groaned and put her head in her hands again. "That's the problem."
Anders made an impatient huffing sound. "What problem?"
Shepard lifted her head again to glare at him. "You sound like Hawke," she complained.
"So maybe Hawke is right," he snapped. Then he frowned. "How do I sound like Hawke?"
"She doesn't see why I'm not rolling around with the Arishok right now."
"I assume because you don't want to be," Anders said with a shrug. "According to you, you've saved the galaxy. As problems go, I don't see how this compares."
Shepard straightened up. "The Arishok is one of the leaders of his people," she repeated dully. "Of the qunari, the followers of the qun. And he wants to mate with me, a human who is pretty much the antithesis of the qun, when the qunari; A) don't have sex for anything other than procreation; B) said procreation is always in the form of selective breeding; and C) they never allow cross-species pairing," she ticked the points off on the fingers of one hand. "He's stuck in Kirkwall because his honor and sense of duty won't let him leave until he finds whatever it is that was stolen from the qunari; he feels nothing but contempt for the city's inhabitants, and in my estimation he could take the city in less than a day of fighting." Shepard shook her head. "He's already a powder keg, and now all he can think about is breaking his cultural norms to mate with someone he doesn't even respect."
She inhaled sharply through her nose and smiled grimly. "The situation is… problematic."
Anders was silent for a moment.
"Ah," he said. "If your ship does come for you, do you think there would be room for one more?"
"Kadan," said Ashaad with the closest thing a qunari could get to a pleased expression. "You are awake."
Shepard swung herself out of the wagon and onto the road. "Anders let me sleep too long," she said. "He should have woken me when you broke camp."
The healer, swinging down beside her, shrugged. "You needed the rest."
"The mage is right. There was little reason to wake you," Fenris agreed. "The road has been quiet."
"There's a bad word for people who disobey their commanding officer," Shepard warned.
"Ooh," exclaimed Merrill from her perch atop the wagon's roof. "Is it a naughty word? Can I guess?"
"It's mutineer," said Shepard, with a glance at the elven mage.
Merrill thrust out her lower lip. "Are you sure that's a bad word?" she asked. "I've never heard Varric use it at all."
Despite herself, Shepard bit back a smile. "Ask Isabela," she suggested. "She'll tell you."
She sent Fenris and Ashaad in to rest for a while, and had Merrill swap positions with Anders, as the elven girl appeared to be the least affected by fatigue. As soon as everyone had settled into their new positions, Hawke sidled over to Shepard, her expression guilty and sheepish.
"I, ah… There seems to be a teensy problem that's cropped up while you were asleep," the rogue began. "Anders and Fenris, well, they sort of…"
"Know about the Arishok," Shepard finished for her. "I've already heard their views on the subject."
"Oh," Hawke looked and sounded relieved. "They didn't hear it from me," she declared firmly. "You have my word."
Shepard nodded. "Odd eavesdropped on one of our conversations," she sighed.
Hawke was silent, but expectantly so. Shepard continued to trudge along, letting the silence stretch out like the road before them.
"So," said Hawke finally, with just a hint of exasperation, "what did they say?"
Shepard didn't take her eyes from the road. "Fenris pointed out just how stupid I'd been to involve myself with the qunari in the first place. Anders seemed to find it pretty amusing… at least until I spelled out the consequences of an irrational Arishok."
Hawke's brows drew downward and her expression turned wary. "Consequences?" she asked, guardedly.
Shepard looked the rogue in the eye. "If you thought the Arishok was on edge before, imagine how much worse I'm making things."
"I… hadn't thought of that," Hawke admitted.
"This really isn't his choice either," Shepard said, returning her gaze to the road and squinting against the glare. "He's just more… fatalistic… than I am."
"I'm not sure I'm following," Hawke said, her expression puzzled. "You said he isn't taking no for an answer."
"Because he believes it is inevitable, not because he wants it to happen." Shepard shifted her grip on Garrus to free up her left hand and scratched the back of her head. "He sees it like… like an avalanche, or a landslide. Once it's started, it isn't something you can stop or direct, and it will sweep away everything in its path. But I'm Commander Shepard," Shepard's voice turned slightly mocking and bitter at the words, "and you can bet I'll be the one standing in front of a force of nature with my hand raised and shouting for it to stop."
"I suppose it's worked for you so far," Hawke said sympathetically.
Shepard shrugged. "Someday, everyone's luck has to run out."
A/N: Two chapters for the price of one!
This was originally written as a single chapter, but I think it works better as two.