Theia Station, 2185.
The asari in the clinic had a laceration across her cheek, another on her chin, and a security officer glowering nearby. The security officer, Phrixus, was one of many who’d escorted several participants of what amounted to a bar fight on the station to the medical clinic. Afterward, they’d all be escorted to the station’s small brig to, as Harry had put it more than once, think about what they’d done.
As Lexi approached, the first thing the new patient said was, “It’s not what it looks like.”
Lexi double checked the chart for the asari sitting on the exam table in front of her—Althaia Kallistrate—to make sure she’d heard correctly. Either Althaia had hit her head and it wasn’t entered on the chart, or she had the gall to lie while violet gashes from the fight were stark against her medium blue skin. “You didn’t get into a bar fight?”
“I didn’t start a bar fight.”
“Althaia, your statement isn’t as exonerating as you think it is.”
“Thaia. My mother called me Althaia when she was exasperated with me.” Thaia reconsidered. “Which was effectively all the time, but still. And you are? Because if you’re going to scold me—no, don’t give me that look like you aren’t because I know that ‘you’ve been a shit and I’m going to explain why you shouldn’t have been’ look anywhere—then I should at least know your name.”
“Dr. Lexi T’Perro. And I am willing to listen to your defense, paltry as it will likely be.”
Thaia motioned for Lexi to come closer and then lowered her voice. “The bad guys—”
Lexi straightened but it did nothing to cover her laugh. “The bad guys?”
Thaia’s frown pulled at the gash on her chin and she went to touch it with her fingers. Lexi batted the hand away before Thaia could further contaminate the wound. Instead of another frown at the physical intervention, Thaia flashed a small smile at Lexi. Then she replaced her hand on the exam table and continued her defense. “Yes, the bad guys. As in, the other people involved who weren’t me or my uncle. So those bad guys, they said that the Destiny Ascension was ugly. I showed remarkable restraint and didn’t hit anyone. Then they said that mass relays are aesthetically unappealing and that’s just plain wrong.”
“Then you hit one of them?”
Thaia looked at Lexi like Lexi was the one who’d gotten herself into a bar fight. “My uncle dared the guy to say it again. Guy said it again. My uncle headbutted him and, well. Bar fight.”
“You didn’t headbutt anyone, did you?” Because a brain injury still wasn’t out of the question.
“No. Not a fan of concussions, personally. Not that I wasn’t tempted.”
Lexi gestured toward Thaia’s face. “How did that happen?”
“Bottles of some sort. One had to be ryncol because the fumes alone made my throat sting. Not sure what the other one was, but I am impressed that they managed to smuggle ryncol onto the station. Sloane’s usually really good at catching contraband.”
As Lexi noted the mechanism of injury, she began to wonder how the fight had gotten far enough for so many people, including Thaia, to end up with minor injuries. Especially when one of the participants had a pattern of white tattoos on her brows and around her eyes commonly found on commandos. With Thaia being a commando, the fight could’ve been stopped nearly as soon as it’d begun. “Did you not use your biotics?”
Thaia held a hand to her chest in mock offense. “Dr. T’Perro, if you put everyone in a lift or stasis right away, there’s no fight. Or if you don’t go the boring peacekeeper route and have a real fight with biotics, it wouldn’t be remotely fair. It would also be over quickly and messily and Anan would never let me in her bar ever again, here or Andromeda. Frankly, that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”
Ninety percent certain that the uncle Thaia had mentioned was krogan and, given some of the traits Thaia had expressed, Lexi was similarly certain Thaia’s father might be as well, and Lexi hadn’t been this intrigued by a person in decades. Which meant of course she’d run across a person like Thaia a month before the Initiative launched, and mere years into her own break in relationships. Despite Thaia being a temporary patient, it somewhat helped to remind herself that she was a professional and she shouldn’t be thinking anywhere near the direction her mind wanted to go. At most, once Thaia wasn’t her patient, they could be friends.
Lexi held in a sigh and addressed Thaia again, because her behavior did need to be addressed because Thaia wasn’t, krogan ancestry or no, physiologically krogan. “You say ‘there’s no fight’ like it’s the worst of the three outcomes.”
“They insulted the aesthetic value of mass relays. If anything, I’m the aggrieved party.”
“You’re still going to lockup,” said Phrixus. “But I’ll be nice and put you in the same holding cell as your uncle, since I assume it’ll be your dad signing you both out again?”
A small amount of dread crept into Thaia’s dark blue eyes as she looked at Phrixus. “If she comes by to do that, just leave me in there.”
The dread was mildly concerning. “Will your father be angry?” asked Lexi. While Thaia was in either late maidenhood or early matronhood, the families who’d joined the Initiative tended to be closer and wield more influence over each other. It could mean there was truth in Thaia’s dread despite how little there was, and Lexi would be a poor physician if she didn’t ask.
Thaia gave her a half smile so full of delighted mischief that Lexi momentarily lost her ability to speak. “Yes, but not in the way you might think.”
Lexi recovered, but just barely. At least there was no longer cause for concern about Thaia’s father’s reaction. “What do you mean?”
“She’ll be pissed that she wasn’t there for the fight.”
Up went the probability that Thaia’s father was krogan.
Phrixus chuckled and activated his omni. “Maybe I’ll just call her now.”
“Really? Come the fuck on, I’m three hundred, not thirty.”
“Maybe I won’t. Not yet, anyway.” His omni’s screen projection disappeared. “But everyone in security thinks your dad’s visits are the only thing that makes these bar fights worth refereeing.”
Thaia turned a somewhat panicked look on Lexi. “She signs out my uncle. Or my sisters. Sometimes both. I’ve only been party to any bar fights anywhere four times. Including tonight, which is genuinely disappointing to my dad.” She paused and indicated the two lacerations. “Maybe I should let one of these scar. That might work.”
“You’d go that far for your father’s approval?”
Gesturing vaguely at her eyes, Thaia shrugged. “The tattoos were a bust. After getting the first round of mine and then not being able to touch my face for three days, I decided I wasn’t getting another one ever.” Before Lexi could inquire again about Thaia’s father, Thaia pointed at Lexi’s chin. “What’d you get your tattoo for? The traditional oratorical reason? Or the ‘this looks cool’ reason?”
Caught off guard yet again, Lexi found herself answering. “University debate championship.”
Thaia grinned and Lexi was done for and considered having Harry treat this patient.
“That’s adorably nerdy,” said Thaia.
Or not. “Are you calling the person who’s going to examine and mend the lacerations on your face a nerd?”
Thaia glanced between herself and Phrixus, and then motioned for Lexi to lean in again.
Knowing better, yet still highly curious, Lexi did.
“I have a PhD in mathematics,” Thaia whispered. “Also other ones involving space and physics and engineering shit to fly through space using those physics. And I wrote a dissertation on building our own mass relays. Way more nerdy than debate and, you know, medicine.”
Having wrongfully assumed Thaia to be a commando and not an engineer, Lexi stepped back to reassess. “You build ships?”
“Ships like the Leusinia and hopefully someday other modes of transport, like a mass relay. Why do you think I was so offended about them insulting the Destiny Ascension? I’d love to build a ship that aesthetically pleasing and functionally brilliant someday.” Thaia stated it with such confidence that one couldn’t help but believe she would.
“I take it you feel the same about mass relays?”
The grin from earlier returned. “Have you ever taken a really good look at one? They’re the apex of the fine balance of form and function—they’re amazing at what they do, but they’ve got these curves that are insanely pleasing to the eye at the same time.”
Because Thaia’s eyes had followed the lines of Lexi’s body as she’d spoken, Lexi wasn’t entirely certain if Thaia was talking about the mass relays or her. Possibly both.
She ignored the knowing look Harry sent in her direction because of course he’d witnessed the entire exchange. It wasn’t like he didn’t know she was on her self-imposed relationship moratorium, but he was an enabler. A dear friend and colleague, yet nonetheless an incorrigible enabler. Try as Harry might to change her mind, Lexi was on a break from relationships and they were rapidly approaching the Initiative’s departure date. Lexi was the only asari on the human ark, the Hyperion, which meant the asari in front of her was assigned to either the Nexus or the Leusinia. Goddess knew if they’d ever catch up again with each other in Andromeda. Maybe if they’d met in Andromeda, after Lexi was able to prevent her profession from intruding on every aspect of her life, but they’d met now. Now, at a particularly problematic time for Lexi to be this intrigued by a person.
Lexi held in a sigh. Thaia was her patient. Maybe afterwards they could be friends. That wasn’t out of the question and Lexi knew she needed more friends. Friends other than me, Harry would say. First, however, she needed to mend Thaia’s lacerations.
Pretending she hadn’t caught the subtext in Thaia’s response, Lexi initiated the medical active scanning protocol on her omni. “Were you serious about wanting scars? Because if you are, you’ll have to find another physician. Namely, one who doesn’t take pride in her work.”
Thaia’s shoulders fell the slightest amount, small enough that if Lexi hadn’t been observing her, she wouldn’t have caught it. “No. The disappointment from my dad is the feigned kind, not real. Well, not where it counts.”
“Spirits,” said Phrixus, “how long are we going to be stuck here?”
“Did you know,” Thaia said quietly between herself and Lexi, “that there’s a jail on this station?”
“Yes, I did.”
Thaia leaned forward and studied Lexi closely. “You don’t look like you’re the ‘get into bar fights’ type.”
“Because I’m not. I’m the ‘mending people who’ve stupidly gotten themselves into bar fights and will go straight from this clinic to the security lockup after I’m done’ type.”
“Just because you’re a doctor doesn’t mean you can’t be the ‘gets into bar fights’ type.”
“What about my hands?” Harming their hands would be of concern to any doctor. No matter what advances in medicine had been made, no one would want to take such a risk over something as trivial as a bar fight.
Thaia stared at her in disbelief. “Dr. T’Perro, I can think of fifty different replies to your question and none of them are appropriate except for: you have a good point.”
Lexi quickly shifted her attention to the results of the calibration scan displayed on her omni’s screen before she asked what the other replies were. “Are you certain you aren’t drunk?”
“If I hadn’t been sure before, I would be now. Drunk me would’ve used at least three of the other replies.”
It was reflex that made Lexi look over at Thaia. Reflex from her training as a physician to reassure her patient that they were her major focus. That was all. “Three?”
“At least. Depending on how you responded, more than three.”
Lexi schooled her expression to appear as neutral as possible. She could not indulge in her curiosity over what those other replies were. Could not. “Let’s see if you’ve done any long-lasting damage to your face.”
A faint yet immeasurably pleased smile briefly quirked the corner of Thaia’s mouth. Thankfully, she didn’t mention Lexi’s clearly not well-schooled enough reaction. “I didn’t damage my own face. That was one of the bad guys and his bottle of ryncol.”
“You did manage to insinuate your face between the bottle and what he was aiming for.” Lexi concentrated on the lacerations as the scanner attempted to measure their depth.
“He was aiming for my face.”
“You’re certain? You said you don’t remember what the second bottle was.” If Thaia kept moving, Lexi would never get an accurate measurement and the anesthetic on Thaia’s cuts would only last for so long. “I need you to hold still for this part of the scan.”
“Yes, I’m sure. There wasn’t anything behind me. I was the target.”
Lexi frowned and grasped Thaia by the chin, careful to avoid the laceration there. “Hold still.”
Thaia met Lexi’s frown with unwavering eye contact. “I’m not even fidgeting.”
Elongating their eye contact while this close would be a mistake and Lexi corrected it by letting go of Thaia’s chin and stepping back, which required looking away. “Not talking is key to holding still.”
“But you keep asking questions and I can’t not answer them. That’s rude.”
Exasperating as it was, Lexi conceded Thaia’s point and held off on further conversation while the scan completed. In return, Thaia unabashedly studied Lexi’s face throughout the process.
When Lexi straightened to study the scan results on her omni, she experienced a strange twinge somewhere between relief and regret. Then she focused fully on the information that would aid her in treating her patient. “Healing your lacerations won’t require methods more involved than we have here. However, before we can start, I’ll need to use a more sophisticated scanner to confirm you haven’t any underlying facial fractures, and run a lab to verify your answer regarding your blood alcohol level.”
“I’m sober.” Thaia folded her arms over her chest and scowled when Phrixus rolled his eyes and Lexi shot her a dubious look. “I am. Swore off getting drunk except for the most compelling of reasons after the last time when I came up with this great fucking mathematical theorem for how mass relay connections work, scribbled it on a napkin, carefully placed it in my pocket, and then an hour later found myself on a waterslide, holding a stuffed pyjak and a paper-bound copy of Armali Children’s Almanac—don’t ask—and by the time I realized the napkin and my theorem were a smeary, soggy mess, I couldn’t remember it. Gone forever. I cried.”
“Did you really?” asked Lexi.
“Yes, but,” Thaia said, her smile returning, “I might’ve still been a little drunk.”
“Goddess, are you always this impossible?” Lexi would’ve rolled her eyes but she could maintain that much professional decorum, other issues aside. She queued up the nearby scanner she’d need, instead.
“Yes,” Phrixus said.
As it turned out, Phrixus had not exaggerated. It was—mostly—an entertaining kind of impossible that kept things lighthearted and engaging without grating. No awkward silences fell between them, yet for Lexi, periods of eye contact remained a struggle. The scan showing no facial fractures, Lexi healed the lacerations with ease, did not leave scars, and made one unasked for concession to Thaia by telling her that she could call her Lexi. Said concession may have had something to do with how Lexi reacted whenever Thaia used her title.
After Phrixus escorted Thaia from the clinic, the strange twinge from earlier surfaced long enough for Lexi to reconsider her decision. Then the accusations of her exes unkindly reminded her why she couldn’t. She allowed herself a quiet sigh as she sat down and entered the rest of her notes for Thaia’s visit.
When Harry asked, “Who was that?” Lexi nearly jumped out of her seat.
She studied the datapad in her hand because looking at Harry would’ve worsened the situation. “A miscreant.”
“Just a miscreant, hm?”
“A miscreant whose questionable life choices culminated in a bar fight.”
“There are plenty of those to go around. What about that miscreant in particular got your attention?”
“The lacerations on her chin and cheek in need of treatment.”
Harry leaned against the counter and waited until Lexi looked over at him before he said anything else. “That miscreant had her eyes on you the entire time she was here. If she doesn’t find some way to to contact you, I’ll move to Sur’Kesh.”
The clinic’s doors opened, admitting two members of the construction crew, one of whom limped along as his coworker propped him up. Harry straightened, but before he met the new patient, he quietly said, “Let yourself live a little, Lexi. You can’t exist solely for your work.”
After placing the datapad on the stack of datapads to be wiped after they synced, Lexi stood to follow Harry. “That’s the problem. I don’t know how to exist outside my work.”
“This could be the perfect time to get a little practice in before we leave.”
He held up his hands in surrender. “All right, all right. Letting it go.”
Thaia’s uncle didn’t bother rising from the bench along the wall of one of the two cells in the Initiative space station’s small holding facility. “Took you long enough. They interrogate you or something?” One of Khel’s legs extended outward into the middle of what would have been a cramped cell if Khel hadn’t been its lone occupant.
“Med clinic,” Phrixus said as he deactivated the force field that served as a door and motioned Thaia inside. “Had to get those cuts sealed so they didn’t scar.”
“The doctor I saw wouldn’t agree to letting them scar. Not even faint ones. And she was very disapproving of me getting into a bar fight in the first place. Her words on the entire matter were pointed. Barbs, really.” Thaia sat down on the same bench as Khel and leaned against the wall behind it, imitating Khel’s posture. “I want to see her again.”
Khel crossed his arms and peered at Thaia, puzzled. “Wasn’t it the human team’s turn to staff the med clinic tonight? Since when are you into humans?”
“We have an asari xenospecialist assigned to our ark. That’s probably who she saw tonight,” a human security officer said without looking up from his terminal.
For some reason, Khel became, for lack of a better word, inspired. “We could always get into another bar fight during her shift.” He scratched at his chin. “Easy enough to instigate, especially if we bring more people along.”
Thaia knew she had it bad when she actually considered it. Then considered it more. “Who’re you thinking? Wait, no. That’s a terrible idea. So terrible that you shouldn’t have thought of it in the first place.”
“Would it kill you to wait until I’m not standing right here to plan your next criminal offense?” asked Phrixus.
Khel didn’t look away from Thaia. “It’s a good idea. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She did know what she was talking about because she’d been a commando for over two hundred years and if you learned anything as a commando—aside from the obvious like infiltrate and sabotage and exploding biotics—it was the ability to know a terrible idea when you heard one. Khel’s idea was one of those. However, Khel was nearing a thousand years old and had no qualms against fully disagreeing with any of his nieces. So, when Thaia said, ‘that’s a terrible idea,’ Khel heard, ‘that’s a great idea and we should try it.’
But Thaia really had meant the terrible idea part, which was why she repeated it again days later. Days later and after her uncle started a bar fight with the help of one of his clanmates—Drack—two of Thaia’s three older sisters—Eirian and Meir—and their aunt, Jarah. Jarah also happened to be a matriarch which, according to Jarah’s bondmate Khel, made the plan even better.
It didn’t. Not that he listened. Not that anyone listened and yet again Thaia wasn’t sure why she loved her family.
“I said,” she repeated, shouting it this time because bar fights were fucking loud, “this is a terrible idea!”
Khel dodged some turian’s fist and then punched him in the head, sending the turian down and out. He chucked him into a corner and moved on. “Yeah, but you didn’t say we shouldn’t give it a go.”
“I did! And then I added something about sending her a message through the Initiative’s intranet like a grown-ass asari.”
“That’s boring, though,” said Meir. “Predictable. You want to go for memorable.”
“Not terrible idea memorable!”
“Kid doesn’t get hurt, the plan doesn’t work,” said Drack.
She almost threw a chair at him, but it was Drack and the chair hadn’t done anything to deserve its assured destruction if she did throw it. “I never agreed to this!”
“Thaia, behind you,” said Jarah.
Thaia turned just in time to get floored by a hit from her third sister, Safira. Instead of getting back up, Thaia clutched at her head and muttered invectives at her fucking family while wondering when the fuck Safira had even gotten there. Thaia’s vision was blurry—well, that was a bad fucking sign—so it took her a bit to locate Safira. “What the fuck did you hit me with?”
Safira brandished a blurred metallic blob that was four times the size of her fist. “Rain gauge.”
“A rain gauge?”
Eirian’s laugh carried over the din. “Who’d have thought the hydrologist would have the best weapon in the bar?”
As the person who’d gotten decked by it, Thaia did not laugh. “Why the fuck did you bring a rain gauge to the bar?”
Thaia’s clearing vision allowed her to see Safira casually threaten a salarian with said gauge. The salarian wisely backed away and found a less-capable victim. “Aunt Jarah messaged me when I was still at the lab. I didn’t feel like stopping by the apartment.”
“Your lab is indoors. Rain generally doesn’t fall inside unless environmental controls are catastrophically fucked.”
She shrugged. “Eventually we’ll need to deploy them to planets. We were pre-alpha testing their ability to withstand atmospheric entry.”
“How’d you go about it?” asked Khel, who was genuinely curious because he was an engineer. Everyone in Thaia’s family was an engineer or scientist of one or multiple specialties. Eirian, who’d recently become a primary school teacher, was the lone exception. The choice baffled, but Eirian was happy.
“Today we used biotics or brute strength to hurl them at walls. It weeded out half the models.” Safira tossed the gauge up and then caught it. “This is one of the finalists, especially since it survived running into my little sister’s thick skull.”
Like the instrument had done it all on its own. Thaia pushed herself up onto her elbows to glare. “You could’ve given me a concussion.”
“You could’ve broken my rain gauge.”
“You’re the one who used it to—”
“You’re supposed to be fighting other patrons, not each other,” said Jarah.
“She hit me,” said Thaia.
Jarah sighed and helped Thaia to her feet. “You aren’t thirty anymore, so you can’t whine to me or Sula about being picked on.”
“I didn’t do that when I was thirty.” Thaia wobbled a little when Jarah let go, which was another bad fucking sign, but she wasn’t going to stop defending herself, either. “I was merely pointing out that I didn’t start the argument. Safira did when she blindsided me with that gauge.”
“Gave you a nasty cut on your crest, too.” Drack clapped Safira on the back. “Good work, kid.” His attention briefly switched from Safira to a louder commotion at the doors before it was stolen entirely by another krogan charging at him.
Over the crack of Drack’s skull crashing into the other krogan’s came the exasperated voice of Sloane Kelly. “For fuck’s sake, you’re at it again?”
Thaia dodged an errant kick from a human male, nearly tipping over backward in the process. Eirian propped her up with a free arm and used the other to jab an elbow into the human’s midsection. He retaliated with another kick. As their scuffle continued, another security officer spoke nearly as loudly as Sloane had. “There’s no way my biotics will hold up against a single matriarch, much less a matriarch and three commandos.”
“Aw, Talini,” said Meir. “None of us are commandos anymore. Look, we aren’t even using biotics.” A turian slammed a fist onto her shoulder, making her stagger. She dropped under his guard, and then jumped up, flinging him over her shoulders. “I might soon, though. That almost hurt.”
Then a thin biotic stasis field materialized around everyone in the fight, the field just strong enough to stop everyone from throwing anymore punches or kicks. Thaia and her sisters had been on the receiving end of the field before—both Jarah and Sula had used it on them when they were younger.
“That’s enough,” Jarah said. “Security’s here, so playtime is over. No need for anyone to get seriously hurt.” Her directions clear, she dropped the stasis field.
“Anyone else,” said Thaia, the wave of grumbles hiding her own except for the person standing closest to her.
Eirian wrapped the arm that’d propped Thaia up around Thaia’s shoulders. “You’re still talking. You’re fine.”
Thaia thought about stealing Safira’s rain gauge and hitting Eirian with it so she’d understand that it wasn’t like being fucking tickled. Her head was even starting to hurt.
“Are you going to let us take you in?” asked Sloane.
Jarah looked at the Director of Security like she’d asked an absurd question. “Of course I am. Nobody’s above the law. Or, in this case, Initiative rules.” Which was good for both sides, because no one except a krogan battlemaster or another matriarch was going to take a matriarch anywhere she didn’t want to go if they didn’t get the jump on her.
Because matriarchs were inherently bossy, they tended to take charge even when they weren’t the ones appointed to be in charge. Jarah proved herself no exception as she directed the fight’s participants to exit the bar in a single-file line. Security officers waited on the other side, among whom were Sergeant Talini, Tiran Kandros—Sloane’s executive officer—and Phrixus. Sloane designated Talini the medical escort over Phrixus’ complaints. As each person walked past Jarah, she evaluated them for injury, but no one was sent to Sergeant Talini until she checked Meir.
“When did you cut your arm?”
“What?” Meir glanced down at the indicated arm, where a gash the shape of a semicircle oozed violet blood. “Oh, shit. I didn’t even notice.”
Jarah rolled her eyes. “Sometimes it’s like the four of you are more krogan than asari.” She sent Meir to Talini, Eirian and Safira out with the others, and then had Thaia by the shoulder and directed toward Talini before Thaia could register it. With Meir and Thaia being the only injured parties, they found themselves led to the medical clinic almost immediately. Talini contacted the clinic as they walked, speaking with the doctor in charge. If Thaia wasn’t mistaken, the doctor over the comm sounded like Dr. Carlyle, who also sounded like he’d been expecting them before Talini had called.
As per the suspicious arrangement, Dr. Carlyle was waiting for them when they stepped through the clinic’s doors. He greeted them and informed Meir that he’d be treating her. When Lexi finished walking over, she frowned at Dr. Carlyle and then protested with a lone, “Harry.”
“No arguments,” said Dr. Carlyle. “If you really wanted a say, you would’ve been the first one at the door.”
Lexi sighed as she motioned for Thaia to follow her to an exam bed within earshot of Meir. Which, Thaia decided, was a good thing because she had plans to complain about Meir more, as much as she could, because everything that’d happened had been a terrible idea that really might not pan out because it’d been a terrible idea.
Then she got a glimmer of hope after she’d hauled herself onto the exam bed and Lexi looked up from the datapad, still frowning but not quite. Something behind the frown liked seeing Thaia. Either that or Thaia was completely wrong and would go down in flames, but considering what her family had subjected her to, it was worth another try. Continued try? Didn’t matter. She wasn’t giving up yet.
Lexi indicated for Thaia to lean forward a bit, and then she visually inspected Thaia’s wound. “Does it hurt?”
“A little. My headache is worse than the cut.”
“I’m not surprised. You’ve got a good-sized lump on your crest from—what hit you this time? It doesn’t look like a wound caused by broken glass.”
“My hydrologist sister clocked me with a deadly weapon.”
“Rain gauge. Safira hit you with a rain gauge,” Meir said, and then chuckled. “Who knew hydrology could be dangerous outside drowning?”
Lexi crossed her arms and sent a glare Meir’s way. “Given the surprising severity of the wound it inflicted, this isn’t a laughing matter.”
“See?” Thaia said to Meir. “Deadly weapon.”
“If you could please hold still instead of continuing to antagonize your younger sister, it would make my job a lot easier,” Dr. Carlyle said to Meir.
“Mine as well.” Lexi put two fingers underneath Thaia’s chin and used them to guide Thaia’s attention back to her. “The scar on the forward part your crest, is it from another head injury?”
Oh, fuck. “Not quite.”
“Feel like telling me how you acquired it?”
“You don’t, I will,” said Meir.
“I headbutted someone.”
Lexi took a step back to look Thaia in the eye. “You headbutted someone?”
“Like no one here hasn’t been tempted to headbutt someone.”
“No,” said Dr. Carlyle.
“Not me,” said the med tech on the other end of the room.
“Nor have I,” said Lexi.
“You,” said Meir.
If Meir hadn’t given that reply, Thaia would’ve called her out as a liar. She did, however, believe the others weren’t being entirely truthful, maybe not to themselves. One couldn’t live for decades—much less centuries—and not have been tempted, at least once, to headbutt someone for being irritating. Thaia resorted to glaring at them.
Dr. Carlyle didn’t look up from where he was washing out the laceration on Meir’s forearm. “Was it a krogan?”
Since it probably wasn’t the greatest of ideas to recount the story of when little Althaia Kallistrate had headbutted a bully, she opted for vague. “Not that time.”
“Not that time?” Lexi withdrew and… it was a glare. It was definitely a glare.
This was turning out worse than Thaia had thought because she didn’t want Lexi to glare, at least not like that when there wasn’t any amusement behind it at all. “I’m going to get lectured, aren’t I?”
Lexi’s glare did not relent. “If you’ve been headbutting krogan, you deserve a lecture.”
“It was one time and it wasn’t on purpose. Afterward, matter how many times my father insisted it didn’t hurt if you used the right technique, I didn’t believe her. I didn’t believe her because it did hurt. She offered to help me refine my technique. I decided it’d be better for me to be lighter on my feet so I could dodge future headbutts.”
“I almost believe you.”
The way Lexi said ‘almost’ should’ve been illegal.
Despite earlier exasperation, Lexi’s fingers were still deft and her touch light as she examined Thaia’s crest and Thaia struggled for words.
“I’ve seen worse,” Lexi said after a few minutes. “It’ll still need sealing up instead of a dressing, but nothing more.” She took a step back and looked Thaia in the eye.
Thaia recovered her confident self she’d been during her first trip to the clinic. Barely. “You don’t suppose we could make the scars match, do you?”
One corner of Lexi’s mouth twitched in amusement. “I don’t suppose you’d not want a scar, would you?”
“When the answer for ‘how’d you get that scar’ involves my sister hitting me with a deadly weapon, and eventually it’ll come out that it was a fucking rain gauge, no. I’d have to make up a story and I’m a shit liar.”
“She is,” said Meir.
Lexi placed a wide, shallow container next to Thaia and then showed Thaia the bottle of medigel wash in her other hand. “First we need to get your laceration cleaned out. The wash should provide an anesthetic effect on contact, but please tell me if you experience any pain.” She tilted Thaia’s head so the wash she used to irrigate the wound would drain into the container, and after Thaia nodded, started rinsing the cut. “Who started the fight this time?”
The wash’s initial touch was cool, but the anesthetic effect took hold and Thaia didn’t feel much after. “Everyone. My uncle came up with the idea and then everyone else went along with it.”
“Who’s everyone else?”
“Aunt, sisters, and a clanmate of Khel’s.” If the final answer waiting at the end of Lexi’s line of questioning hadn’t been damning, Thaia would’ve gladly answered all of Lexi’s questions just to hear the warm calm of her voice.
“Why did everyone else believe a bar fight to be a good idea?”
“You know what, I don’t think the reason is important.”
Meir helped again. “You don’t tell her, I will.”
Had Lexi not drawn back enough to hold Thaia in place with eyes daring her to move, Thaia would’ve scowled at Meir. Instead, Thaia held still and partially confessed. “Because they all have a fucked up sense of how to help people, they thought it would be a good idea to get me hurt in a bar fight on a certain night of the week because Khel told them it was a good idea.”
“And what would have given him that idea?”
Goddess. “He might’ve gotten the impression that I wanted to see a specific someone at the clinic because while we were waiting for Aunt Jarah to fetch us from the lockup, I might’ve told him about the doctor who fixed me up and I might also have told him I wanted to see her again.”
“These lengths weren’t necessary. You could’ve simply sent me a message through the Initiative.”
Thaia chanced it and glared at Meir across the exam table separating them. “See? I told you. And you were all ‘no, you need to go for memorable!’ So, thank you, because you’re the worst.”
Then Lexi’s fingers were on her chin again, but awaiting her was Lexi’s frown. “You need to hold still. Moving your head means a greater chance that you’ll get the wash in your eye.”
“That can’t be a huge deal. It isn’t like it’d hurt.”
“It wouldn’t, but I imagine having your eye go numb for two hours would be disconcerting at best.”
“How do you have so many good points?”
“Because I know what I’m doing.”
“For future reference,” said Dr. Carlyle, “I would also pass along messages.”
For once, it wasn’t Thaia or Meir receiving Lexi’s ire. “Harry!” Yet even as she scolded her colleague, Lexi’s intense focus remained on her task. The stream of antiseptic wash didn’t deviate. Lexi really did know what she was doing and was good at it. And she cared, her dedication showing in each agile movement—even her admonishment to Thaia regarding the numbing effects the wash would have on her eye spoke to it.
In her peripheral vision, Thaia saw Dr. Carlyle shrug, unrepentant.
Lexi flexed her jaw and said nothing. Then when Thaia made eye contact, Lexi’s irritation faded. “If we don’t talk in some way after this, will you find yourself injured a third time while the Hyperion’s medical team has the clinic shift?”
“I’ll have you know, I was actively protesting the idea when I got hit with the rain gauge.”
Lexi straightened Thaia’s head, set the container on the other side of the exam bed to lessen the risk of knocking it over, and then stood right in front of Thaia. She pursed her lips as she examined the cut before tilting Thaia’s head a little forward to get a better angle. “Don’t move.” Then she gathered new sterile packs of instruments and supplies she’d need to close Thaia’s cut. “Had you insulted her rain gauge?” she asked as she opened the packs. “Because I recall you having taken offense to someone disparaging things associated with your own line of work. The Destiny Ascension and mass relays, I believe.”
“No, I didn’t insult my sister’s rain gauge.” Thaia hadn’t thought Lexi would’ve remembered that detail. Most people wouldn’t have, the bar fight itself being what would stick. But Lexi, as it was rapidly becoming apparent, wasn’t most people. “I couldn’t have because I didn’t even see it until after she’d hit me with it.”
Talini laughed from somewhere behind Thaia, likely near the doors. “Never thought I’d see the fallout of one commando hitting another commando with a rain gauge.”
“So you are a commando,” said Lexi as she went about sealing the laceration.
Now it seemed Thaia’s other line of work was being slighted and it was a good thing whatever Lexi had done had already taken care of her headache or she’d be surly about it. “Why’s that sound like an accusation? Just because I got into a bar fight—”
“Two bar fights in as many weeks and at least two additional ones previous to your most recent.”
Thaia scowled. “Fine. Five bar fights, one of which I protested the entire time, and you assumed I had to be a commando. That’s prejudiced, Dr. T’Perro.”
“Correct is the word you’re looking for.”
Shit. Thaia had earned that remark but damn had it come out fast.
“If you want,” said Dr. Carlyle, “after Lexi’s done with that head wound of yours, I can patch you up from that burn.”
While Lexi didn’t add anything, Thaia could feel the self-satisfied air about her as she placed the last of her instruments down and picked up the sterile gauze to finish up.
Meir laughed and so did Talini and Thaia was fairly certain the med tech did, too. But Thaia didn’t much care about their laughter. What she did care about was getting to know someone with wit like that because it may or may not have been something she was attracted to in a person.
It was and Lexi’s was well-fucking-honed.
Yet, the fingers on Thaia’s crest were gentle as Lexi wiped away the last of the antiseptic.
“You’re all set,” Lexi said as she surveyed her work. “The swelling should finish reducing overnight. No scarring this time, either.”
Before Thaia could ask for at least Lexi’s omni number, Talini was loudly informing her and Meir it was time for their asses to leave the clinic so they could go sit in the lockup and think about the errors of their ways. Talini’s efficiency was such that Thaia didn’t even manage a protest until they were in the corridor and several steps away from the clinic.
“You couldn’t even let me get her number?” Thaia asked.
“And reward you for the shit you pulled?”
“I’m not sure you can call it a reward,” said Meir. “You heard the doctor cut her off at the knees.”
They both laughed again.
Where normally Thaia would give a shit about her sister being a shit and someone teaming up with her, she didn’t. Not when she wasn’t allowed to use her omni to figure out when the Hyperion team’s shift was over, or if she couldn’t look it up, ask Vetra or Kesh. Only the cramped confines of the holding area prevented her from pacing—she was forced to give up after Eirian tripped her for the third time—and she never fucking paced.
When Sloane appeared again, Thaia jumped to her feet.
“All right, here’s the deal,” Sloane said as she stood before the second of the two holding cells, hands behind her back. “You’re out on your own recognizance. But if any of you get up to shit again, your positions in the Initiative may no longer be guaranteed. Before you ask, I’ve spoken with Jien Garson about it and she’s in agreement. Have I made myself clear?”
They all readily agreed, having invested too much time and effort on each of their parts to get booted from the Initiative this close to launch.
Sloane had left by the time Thaia shoved her way through her sisters, grumbling at them about how they’d tried to be helpful but now were blocking her get the fuck out of the way, but Kandros was still there. “Is the med team still on shift? The Hyperion’s team, specifically. Very specifically.”
He glanced down at his terminal, typed something, then looked back up. “For about ten more minutes.”
If she didn’t run into any problems, she could make it there in eight. Thaia sprinted from the security office.
Lexi reached to her right to fetch a fresh datapad only to catch sight of a person who had not been there ten seconds ago, she would swear to the Goddess, standing next the counter a meter from where she sat. That Lexi did not shout in surprise was testament to her medical training. Then she recognized Thaia and feigned a glare at her. Mostly feigned. There was some truth to it—no one’s blood pressure enjoyed jump scares. “It would help any cause of yours if you didn’t sneak up on people.”
“I didn’t sneak.” Thaia used her chin to indicate somewhere behind Lexi. “Dr. Carlyle saw me.”
Commandos, Lexi had learned over the years, walked far too quietly for comfort. Her mother had once explained to her that you didn’t hear commandos approaching you unless they wanted to be heard. Sometimes, her father had added, those commandos will forget that they’re walking normally and scare the ever-loving shit out of you by accident.
It also didn’t help matters that Harry was fully complicit in whatever was or was not going on.
“You can call me Harry,” said Harry.
Thaia nodded at him and then looked at Lexi. “Harry saw me.”
Lexi sighed, dropped her stylus on the countertop, and rubbed at her temple. “Why are you here?”
“I wanted to ask you a question.” Thaia appeared entirely at ease, leaning against the counter as she was, arms loosely crossed over her chest, her Initiative-issued clothing still rumpled and torn in one place from the bar fight earlier.
Though it wasn’t like either of them didn’t know what the question was, Lexi played along. “Which is?”
“Why did the hanar win the fight with the turian?”
That was not in the plan. That wasn’t anywhere near the plan. The joke had caught Lexi so off-guard that she wanted to hear the punchline. “Why?”
“Because this one was well-armed.” Thaia’s smile was small and ephemeral, but her dark blue eyes shined brightly with mirth. She damn well knew she’d put Lexi off balance.
Harry’s loud guffaw echoed through the empty clinic.
“That,” Lexi said as she spun her chair to fully face Thaia, “was terrible.”
“Admit it, you thought it was funny. I saw you smile.”
“I did.” She had. She still was.
“Want to go to dinner sometime? No bar fights, I promise.” Thaia briefly tilted her head to the side. “Unless you want to get into a bar fight, but you said you didn’t want to hurt your hands. Also, if you aren’t interested, tell me to drop it and I will, no hard feelings.”
That Thaia had said the last part with all sincerity both helped—in that Lexi didn’t have to worry about someone in unwanted pursuit—and hindered. It hindered because a person who would say something like that and mean it was someone she would want to get to know better and likely as more than just friends. But that didn’t change the reality of both her own personal issues and the Initiative’s approaching departure. “I am, but… the timing isn’t ideal.” The regrets refused to be dislodged from her chest. “Given the monumental events occurring shortly, I’m not sure when it will be. It’s probably for the best if we keep it platonic. Neither of us can afford to be distracted. Maybe we could explore more in Andromeda, but that’s a long way off.”
Thaia’s eyes dimmed slightly in understandable disappointment, but when she spoke, it was still with sincerity. “That works for me. As in, real friends, not ‘maybe one day she’ll change her mind and bang me so I’ll just be nice’ friends. Right now, the closest asari friends I have are my sisters and I love them but they’re mean.”
“Perhaps abnormally so. One of them hit you with a piece of lab equipment.”
The smile returned to Thaia’s lips, reflected in her eyes. “Oh, no. Perfectly normal sibling interaction.”
“I find that difficult to believe.” Then again, if Thaia’s family had a significant krogan influence, which seemed to be the case, perhaps it was typical sibling interaction.
Thaia raised a brow. “You’re an only child, aren’t you?”
Lexi crossed her legs and folded her hands together before placing them on her knee. “I’m not sorry that I don’t have a sister who would hit me with a piece of lab equipment.”
“I doubt you’d do anything that’d goad a sister into hitting you. Me? I might’ve had it coming. When I was younger, I once stole Safira’s favorite pair of shoes and buried them in a park.”
“While irritating, I don’t see how it warrants a hit like that centuries later.”
Thaia’s smile widened. “I forgot which park. At the time of the incident, I was only twenty-five. Safira was one hundred and thirty. So they were expensive shoes.” Then she lifted herself up to sit on the counter and Lexi began to come around to Safira’s point of view.
Lexi immediately shooed her off as she explained to her bewildered new friend, “We have chairs and stools. Feel free to make use of them.”
Thaia, appearing mildly offended at having to sit on a piece of furniture meant for sitting, returned to leaning against the counter.
“Did you have a reason to be a terror?” Lexi asked. She’d almost asked ‘do you have a reason for being a terror,’ because that didn’t seem too far off the mark.
“Being the youngest of four.” As if that was a real answer to the question.
Maybe it was. It wasn’t like Lexi had close family for comparison. Her parents had died two centuries ago, she’d never met anyone from her father’s side, and if her mother had family outside of her only daughter, she’d never mentioned them. The closest person Lexi had to family was Harry, which she knew had played a part in her agreeing to join the Initiative. “I’m still failing to see why my being an only child necessitated an apology.”
“You know what? Me, too.” Thaia shifted her hands as if to try sitting on the counter again, but caught herself in time. “All right, if we’re still on for dinner as friends, where do you want to go?”
“Off-station,” said Harry, who had unashamedly been eavesdropping. “Take a day. Go to the Citadel. There’s that fusion place you liked on the Presidium, Lexi. Could be the last time you eat there.”
Lexi’s exasperation didn’t quite hide her amusement and she knew it. “All right.” After she gave Harry a token frown reduced to nothing due to her good mood, she looked at Thaia. “How do you fancy a trip to the Citadel?”
Thaia grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Never in her life had Lexi been struck into inarticulacy by something as simple as a smile, and yet that goddess-damned smile had. As Lexi grappled with thoughts that were going places they should not have, Thaia remained unaware of the devastation that her single smile had left in its wake.
Sol System, 2185.
“If my mother hadn’t taught me manners,” Thaia said as she removed her legs from the transport’s aisle, “my legs would be a lot more comfortable.”
Lexi could no longer let Thaia’s complaints pass without comment because they were ridiculous. Their two turian companions, Initiative friends of Thaia’s who were also traveling to the Citadel, hadn’t once complained. This was despite their—at minimum—fifteen additional centimeters of height. Lexi took the opportunity to speak up. “Would you like me to shorten them? I’m qualified for the surgery.”
Both Vetra and Sid poorly stifled laughter. “She’s got you there,” said Vetra.
Thaia grumbled good-naturedly and ceased complaining.
As the transport continued its journey toward the Charon Relay, each of them settled in with work they’d brought: Vetra consulting her omni, Sid trying to convince Vetra that she’d already checked the list ten times and could she please stop being boring it’s embarrassing, and Lexi catching up on articles from the Citadel Journal of Medicine. At first, Thaia simply read from a datapad, but she soon dug a stylus from the satchel she’d brought with her and began writing out a monster of an equation.
Thaia’s dive into mathematics was the first exhibit of Thaia being an aerospace engineer that Lexi had witnessed. Before, talk of her engineering career was overridden by traits universal to commandos—silent steps paired with the unshakeable self-confidence that they were among the deadliest people in any room. Sitting next to Lexi and involved in her equation-solving as she was, Thaia didn’t exude any of those traits. It was fascinating to see someone so capable of separating herself from what should have been her entire being, inside her work or out.
It wasn’t until they’d passed Neptune that Lexi noticed that Thaia had switched from mathematics to scrolling through Republics Skyball Union schedules on her omni.
“Did you play?” asked Lexi.
After choosing the Armali versus Serrice game slated for that day, Thaia looked over at her. “As a kid and then extramural at university. Did you?”
“University, but intramural.” Lexi had considered extramural, but her studies had taken precedent. “Where did you go?”
“Armali. What about you?” Thaia’s gaze stayed on her this time, the details of the Thessian game still displayed over her forearm. “Please don’t say Serrice, unless it was for a graduate degree. Then it’s like no matter how many graduate degrees anyone gets from Serrice, if they went to any other university with an RSU team beforehand, they’re destined to hate Serrice’s team forever.”
“Hate’s too strong of a word. I’d qualify it as a fierce dislike of Serrice.”
“You’re equivocating. Where’d you go?”
“Suneiden.” Lexi braced herself for the inevitable commentary. While Suneiden had excellent academics, they were infamous for their legitimately less-than-stellar sports teams.
“Oh.” Thaia set her elbow on the armrest between herself and Lexi, and then perched her chin on her hand as she searched for a polite thing to say.
Lexi waved off the impending attempt at thoughtfulness. “You don’t have to come up with something nice. Everyone knows how terrible Suneiden’s skyball team is.”
Without moving her chin from her hand, Thaia looked up at her. “Suneiden does have a really strong fanbase. Consistently at the bottom of the league or not, the enthusiasm of their fans is inspiring.”
When Thaia had looked up at her like that, Lexi had returned to warring within herself. It was her eyes, she decided—a blue so dark you wanted to find out what hid within them.
Lost in thought as she was, Vetra’s observation aimed at Thaia startled Lexi.
“That was almost believable,” said Vetra. “But your flattery skills need work.”
“I thought it was honest,” said Sid.
Thaia acknowledged Sid’s support with a nod. “Because it was. Playing against Suneiden was fun. Games played against Serrice were more warzone than athletic competition, especially when it was Armali against Serrice.”
“You’re exaggerating, right?” asked Vetra.
“Unfortunately not,” said Lexi. “Games between Serrice and Armali required multiple medical teams on standby. Some have compared those games with kowla—the krogan sport so violent that it nearly chased the raloi from the galactic community after its introduction to them. Those comparisons are more accurate than I’d like.”
Sid leaned past Vetra, ignoring the glare she earned from her. “Really?”
“The last game we played against Serrice,” said Thaia, “five people were forced from the game due to injuries and three people should’ve left the game but pretended they were fine. Those people were on the injured list for the next two weeks.”
“That doesn’t seem bad,” said Vetra.
“That was just my team.”
“Now I can see why it’s compared to kowla.” Vetra indicated Thaia’s dimming omni display. “Why are you checking skyball schedules, anyway? Isn’t this supposed to be a date for you two?”
“As friends,” Thaia said.
“Purely platonic,” Lexi said at the same time.
The look Vetra gave them was one of the finest examples of dubious Lexi had ever seen.
“And,” Thaia said before Vetra could put voice to her doubts, “there’s a playoff game between Armali and Serrice today. Next game they play, we’ll be on our way to Andromeda. Since this is a friends lunch, it’s entirely acceptable for me to want to see Serrice getting their asses beat by Armali one last time.”
“If Armali is ahead, I wouldn’t mind watching what we can.” Lexi certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to see Serrice defeated, because Thaia hadn’t been wrong about everyone else in the RSU disliking Serrice. “In fact, we could catch a decent portion. At the restaurant we’re going to, I recall there being a rather large vidscreen carrying skyball or biotiball streams.”
Thaia grinned. “See? Friends lunch because if Lexi’s a skyball fan, we’re already on our way to becoming best friends.” Then something past Vetra caught her eye. “Hold on, we’re about to go through the relay.” Thaia’s omni switched off as she turned to look out the window to her left.
Sid leaned even farther across Vetra to catch a glimpse as they approached the spinning blue rings of the mass relay. With the exception of Thaia and Sid, the ship’s transition from the Charon Relay to the Citadel Relay gained minimal attention from her passengers, with Lexi and Vetra only looking because of Thaia and Sid’s interest.
An hour into the notoriously crowded Citadel approach, Thaia whispered, “Oh, shit, it’s the Destiny Ascension.” Then she touched Lexi’s shoulder, drawing her attention to it. “See? Aesthetically pleasing and functionally brilliant. Entirely worth a throw-down in a bar.”
“What happens if I disagree?”
Thaia turned so quickly she had to brace herself with one of her hands on the back of Lexi’s seat to keep from toppling forward. It took a moment for Thaia to speak through her not entirely feigned betrayal. “With my appraisal of the Destiny Ascension or the fighting?”
“The ship is lovely, but not so much the fighting.”
Ignoring laughter from Vetra and Sid, Thaia returned to observing the dreadnaught, her nose practically pressing against the window. She changed the angle of her head every so often, but she didn’t look away until the transport completed its docking sequence.
“When you were a commando,” Lexi said as they stood and gathered their belongings, “did you ever get to go aboard?”
“Once.” Thaia ducked her head and peeked out another window as they slowly progressed toward the airlock. “A tragically short ten-hour trip from Thessia to the Citadel before my squad transferred to the Cybaen. I ran around the ship the whole time, trying to see as much as I could before we had to leave. Around hour five, I ran straight into Matriarch Lidanya hard enough to bowl her over.”
“And Matriarch Lidanya is?”
Thaia stretched out horizontally across the top of an empty seat row to see out the nearest window, her crest mere centimeters from the ceiling. “The commanding officer of the Destiny Ascension.”
Lexi didn’t bother hiding her laugh. “How’d she take it?”
“Commended me on my enthusiasm, told me to better watch where I was going, and then asked if I wanted to see the drive core.”
“Did she mean the ship’s actual drive core or was it some sort of euphemism?” Vetra asked over her shoulder.
A strangled sound emerged from Thaia’s mouth as she jerked up in horror. She hit her head on the ceiling and cursed under her breath. “Goddess, no. Not a euphemism. Matriarch Lidanya’s the same age as my mother would’ve been. That’s just… no.” Thaia extricated herself from the seat row and rubbed the sore spot on her crest as she glared at an unrepentant Vetra. “What is wrong with you? The actual drive core, which was amazing. And I’m never going to get the other image out of my head, so thank you except not.”
It still didn’t discourage Thaia from peeking through every window she could to see the dreadnaught.
Brightly lit advertisement columns dotted the open space in the transition area between the docks and the C-Sec checkpoint. A group of young children—two turians, a human, and an asari—clustered in front a column advertising a new waterpark in the Bachjret Ward. Entranced, the children didn’t move as other Citadel visitors, including Lexi’s group, walked by them. Due to the long wait times, C-Sec gave them the option of standing in line or waiting on one of several provided benches until summoned.
“Bench,” said Thaia.
Vetra chuckled. “It won’t work.”
“Whatever. I’m willing to try.”
“You realize,” Lexi said as they followed Vetra to the nearest bench, “that benches are pieces of furniture meant for sitting?”
“Yes.” Then not only did Thaia sit down on the bench, but maintained impeccable posture as she did.
Lexi studied Thaia for a long moment before she sat down next to her. When Thaia still didn’t offer an explanation for her sudden interest in proper manners or her odd exchange with Vetra, Lexi said, “I wasn’t aware you know how to sit properly.”
The look Thaia sent her way was both amused and annoyed. “I can do this only because I imagine my mother’s sitting right behind me, ready with a sharp ‘Althaia’ if I so much as think about slouching. And if I did slouch, what waited were the creative disciplinary measures to be meted out at home. Those were usually having to study a historical event applicable to whatever misbehavior I’d engaged in, whether it was slouching or hiding all my stepfather’s left shoes. After reading, I’d have to analyze it for another hour and then my mother would quiz me on it.”
“I can see why you—did you really hide every single left shoe of your stepfather’s?”
Thaia couldn’t hold back a quiet laugh. “I did. That’s when I learned that instead of immediately attacking the city-state of Serrice over a broken trade agreement during the Formation Age, Armali’s general directed her huntresses to slip into Serrice in the dead of night and take every right shoe they could find. Then her entire army surrounded the city and waited. When the dawn came, Serrice’s general and the head of Serrice’s trade guild, both shoeless, exited the city through the main gates to meet with the waiting General Anahera. She told them they could negotiate recompense for their wrongs and their missing shoes would be returned, or they could decline to negotiate, and then Armali would burn all their shoes followed by attacking their city. Sarnai didn’t want to negotiate because she didn’t think Anahera would follow through, but General Tanais overrode her. In the end, Serrice got their shoes back and never broke another trade agreement. Not with Armali, anyway.”
The short tale illustrated where Lexi’s education had matched the education a child would have received in the Asari Republics. Lexi remembered her own mother recounting that very incident when she’d taught Lexi about the Formation Age. “How did you apply that as a lesson for what you’d done?”
“First, Mother had me analyze it for the purpose of General Anahera’s tactics.”
“Odd is one word for them,” said Vetra.
“Not for asari. History’s chock full of talking shit out. So, I explained to my mother that stealing those shoes was the general’s way of opening negotiations to avoid fighting, while at the same time showing Serrice that if it came to war, Armali would win. Both because Armali was able to infiltrate and exit Serrice undetected, followed by surrounding the city, and because none of Serrice’s huntresses would be wearing shoes. At least not right ones.” Centuries later, the pride a younger Thaia had taken in coming up with the answer was still present.
While an acceptable interpretation of events, it didn’t seem like it would’ve discouraged what Thaia had done. “Then what did she have you do? Because I don’t see how that could’ve prevented you from becoming a shoe thief in the future. If anything, it would have encouraged it. In fact, you did steal Safira’s favorite pair of shoes.”
“My mother informed me that I was Serrice, in this case. And that my stepfather, while not an asari commando, was turian Blackwatch. I told her I’d return all of Aulus’s shoes as soon as possible.” Thaia smiled at her. “I could be a shit, but I wasn’t stupid.”
“The second part,” Lexi said as she crossed her legs, “remains to be seen.”
Thaia didn’t stop smiling, but it changed to reflect the lighthearted mischievousness Lexi had come to associate with her. “You’re lucky I have to act like I’m a capable, responsible adult right now.”
“You are a capable, responsible adult.”
Thaia’s hand went to her chest. “That’s the meanest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
“Then you should listen better.”
“Do you practice this?”
Lexi rested her hands on her knee. “I don’t need to. You present the opportunities and I take them.”
“I wish we’d met you a lot sooner,” said Vetra. “You’re the only person outside her family who gives as good as you get from her. Better, now that I think about it.”
“Can you be reassigned to the Nexus? Please?” asked Sid.
“I think I should be offended.” Thaia folded her arms across her chest, but maintained her posture.
“Why are you sitting properly?” Lexi asked her.
Vetra’s mandibles flared in amusement. “She’s trying to appear well-behaved enough to avoid extra security measures.”
“Extra security measures?”
After cursing under her breath, Thaia began to explain. “Remember when I mentioned the other two bar fights? One of them was here. And it was epic. And it’d been after two squads of commandos, myself included, had helped C-Sec chase down a suspected terrorist. Emphasis on down because the guy jumped from ten levels up on the Presidium and into the Presidium Lake.”
“Tell me you didn’t jump after them,” said Lexi.
“Goddess.” It was a wonder Thaia was still alive.
“That’s awesome,” said Sid.
Thaia shrugged. “Yeah, well. I managed to land wrong and dislocate my shoulder. The painkillers I’d been given at the hospital didn’t mix well with drinking in celebration at the bar at the request of my squad. So—”
A salarian C-Sec officer stopped in front of their bench. “Your turn.” They hadn’t finished getting to their feet before he was rushing them to the checkpoint. “No time to waste.” He looked at their IDs and then directed them through the secure corridor located between the docks and the ward. Inside, they were scanned, questioned if problems arose, and then allowed to walk freely into the Citadel. For Lexi, Vetra, and Sid, all three were done in less than five minutes.
Thaia was delayed.
“You need to watch this,” Vetra said as she led them to seats that would allow them to hear and see what happened in the corridor, along with the open-air temporary detainment area next to it. “This’ll be good. It was last time.”
“The last time I was here,” Thaia was telling the salarian officer, “I helped you chase down a terrorist.”
“And we’re grateful that you and the eleven other commandos you were with did. Now please step through the scanner.”
“You aren’t grateful.” Thaia did walk through the scanner, but not without scowling at it. “If you were grateful, you wouldn’t put me and those other eleven through extra security every time one of us visits.”
The salarian briefly narrowed his eyes at her before consulting his omni. When he looked at her again, it was an annoyed glare. “You want me to read you your rap sheet?”
Thaia returned the glare from the opposite side of the scanner. “Want me to tell you how far up your cloaca that rap sheet will be before you’re done?”
The turian officer at the end of the corridor chuckled at the salarian’s aghast look. “All right, Kallistrate. At the end of the hall, step to the left. We’ll search your bag and then Officer Sciron will run you through the questions you could probably run us through by now.”
Thaia followed the turian’s instructions without additional comment, cooperating quietly as one officer looked through her satchel and then another pointed her to the desk where Officer Sciron waited.
“Are you in the company of any krogan?” Sciron asked before Thaia sat down in the chair on the other side of the desk.
“Do you see any krogan?” Thaia asked.
Once Thaia was seated, Sciron actively looked around for krogan.
Next to Lexi, Sid smothered a laugh.
“No,” said Sciron. “Are you or are you not?”
Thaia abandoned her surly glare and leaned forward. “I’ll tell you a secret: they aren’t good at hiding.”
“Answer the question, please.” Sciron sounded especially beleaguered.
“Because it isn’t like I could fit one in my pocket or something, not unless it was an action figure. Would that count as being in the company of a krogan?”
“Please,” said the fantastically put-upon Sciron, “just answer the question.”
“No, I’m not in the company of any krogan.”
Sciron checked his list. “And you acknowledge that you aren’t to touch any statues?”
“And, despite it being a functional mass relay, you are not to be within twenty meters of the Relay Monument, which is now also known as the Conduit?”
The questioning continued for another ten minutes until the C-Sec captain intervened, telling Sciron to cut Thaia loose because “she obviously isn’t geth and we have better things to do.”
Thaia collected her bag from the officer’s desk, threw it over her shoulder, and stalked out. The surliness revealed itself an act when Thaia smiled as soon as she saw her friends, greeting the three of them cheerfully. “That wasn’t so bad. Shorter than last time.”
“By at least ten questions,” said Vetra, who led them toward the banks of elevators leading to other areas of the ward or up to the Presidium.
Lexi refrained from asking Thaia if she had to antagonize them because the obvious answer was yes. However, Lexi wasn’t ready to believe C-Sec entirely wrong. “Why aren’t you allowed within twenty meters of the Relay Monument?”
A loud hanar proselytizer prevented Thaia from explaining until they stood in the clump of people awaiting elevators. “Sometime before the bar fight—or during, I’m honestly not sure—I tried to fly a toy ship through the Relay Monument. Apparently, it’s illegal. Might be when I got the idea about figuring out how to build our own.”
The elevator doors opened and their group stepped inside. “So you want to build mass relays out of spite?”
“Presidium?” Vetra asked.
Lexi nodded. “Please.”
“Not out of spite,” Thaia said after the elevator started moving. “I really like mass relays and how they function and the math and physics behind how they work. I’m highly susceptible to math-based pickup lines, that’s how much I like math.”
“I’ll remember that,” Lexi said without forethought, and then pretended she didn’t see Vetra elbow Sid.
Thaia kindly redirected the conversation. “I still have that toy ship.”
“You’re bringing it to Andromeda, aren’t you?”
If anything, Thaia beamed with pride. “It’s in my stasis locker already.”
“Is it the Destiny Ascension?”
The grin Thaia sent her way was answer enough.
“Seven. Seven reversals already.” Thaia swept her arm toward the vidscreen projected across the restaurant’s back wall. Serrice currently led Armali by three, displeasing roughly half of the restaurant’s occupants. Meanwhile, other half didn’t bother hiding their approval of the score. Thaia seemed exceptionally displeased, both with the gameplay and the Serrice fans, meeting several of their smug expressions with disgruntled ones of her own. “See? Seven. Athame wept.”
Lexi suppressed a smile at hearing such an old curse. “I don’t think I’ve heard that expletive in decades.”
“My mother used it after a difficult fellow professor of literature left meetings.” Thaia’s eyes brightened. “As the door closed, she’d say, ‘Matriarch Salvatrice, Athame wept.’ I figured out when I was older that Matriarch Salvatrice was particularly exasperating.”
“And not once did she use the expression in reference to you?”
“You say that like I might’ve been a difficult child. I feel like I should be offended.”
“Not at all.” Thaia left it alone while they placed their orders at the counter. Then they claimed a table with a decent view of the vidscreen and seated themselves, the corners of Thaia’s lips never losing their slight upward curl. “She did. On multiple occasions.”
Lexi relaxed into her chair. “You seem very pleased with yourself.”
“I am. Back then, my mother was incredibly difficult to exasperate.” Then Thaia’s playfulness waned at an unspoken memory. While she shed the transient melancholy quickly, her mood fell shy of the vivacity from before.
There was something there. Lexi wanted to know about it, help her with it, but it wasn’t her place.
Thaia brought them back to their previous topic. “What about you, Dr. T’Perro? Did you exasperate your mother?”
Lexi really did need to stop her from referring to her by her title ever again in the future, near or far. Thaia’s voice did things to her that shouldn’t have been possible. “One,” Lexi said, too nicely to present a real challenge, but what she could manage was what she could manage, “if you call me Doctor or Dr. T’Perro again, you might not like what I’ll do to you. Two, yes. I had a habit of collecting vorcha teeth.” She hadn’t meant for it to sound like an outrageous flirt, but she couldn’t take it back without drawing more attention to it.
Thankfully, Thaia had broken eye contact to look over at the vidscreen right after Lexi’s first statement. There was a small chance it hadn’t fully registered.
It did not pass unnoticed. Impish smile visible before Thaia turned, she focused eyes alight with mischief on Lexi. “Don’t be so sure I won’t like what you’ll do, Doc—”
Their volus server appearing with their food spared Lexi from hearing the rest of the dangerous sentence. In a transparent yet effective change of subject, Lexi took the opportunity to ask Thaia for more details about why she’d joined the Initiative.
“I’ve wanted to build a mass relay, which you know, and the Initiative wants to be able to look at the Milky Way from Andromeda.” Thaia piled chunks of grilled whitefish into a traditional flatbread. “Looking at a contemporary Milky Way from Andromeda requires a mass relay telescope. Those are the first relays I’m building.” With some self-deprecation, she looked across the table at Lexi. “Well, me and a whole team because there’s no way anyone can do that on their own. That’s my first reason out of two.”
“What’s the second?” As she waited, Lexi studied the colorful assortment of roasted vegetables on her plate, unsure which she wanted to try first.
“Since I was on the team that designed the basics of all the arks, and then moved over to the team that designed and built the Leusinia, I want to be there to see how well the arks did during their journey through dark space.”
Thaia glanced up at the vidscreen to find that Serrice still held the lead. She briefly scowled before resuming their chat. “That’s the basis for my assignment to the Nexus. Engineers from each ark’s design and construction teams will be there to help facilitate their integration when they arrive at the Nexus.” She took a sip of her water before she asked, “So why are you on the Hyperion? That seems way more an unlikely assignment than mine.”
“That’s it? Harry insisted?”
“Specialist in alien anatomy. It was my thesis on krogan virility and aggression that got me into the Initiative in the first place,” Lexi said mildly, knowing full well it would get a reaction from Thaia.
It did. Thaia stopped eating, bread halfway to her mouth, and stared at Lexi. “Thesis on krogan vir—”
Cheers went up from the Armali fans in the restaurant. Both Lexi and Thaia looked to the vidscreen for the explanation—Armali had taken a five point lead. However, Serrice pressed on and soon flipped the score to their favor. Then it became difficult to look away from the fast-paced gameplay for more than a few seconds to take another bite of their meal. Lexi tracked the number of injuries, including the ones a few players attempted to hide in order to stay in the game.
As the competition sped through the half, Armali took a two point advantage and the Serrice fans in the restaurant became restless. The restlessness advanced into intemperance and they started to heckle the Armali fans. Serrice’s antagonization was returned wholeheartedly by Armali, with calls from the more vocal fans for the less vocal to participate. To Lexi’s relief, Thaia silently declined and divided her attention between Lexi and the vidscreen.
However, Thaia did shoot occasional glares at the Serrice fans, and the frequency of the glares increased after she finished eating.
Lexi set aside her plate and deposited her napkin on it. “You aren’t going to join in, are you?”
“I’m not planning on it,” said Thaia.
“That was rather circumspect.”
“I can’t exclude the possibility entirely. What if they said something completely unforgivable that couldn’t be ignored in civilized society?”
“Which would be?”
Glass near her chin, Thaia swirled the water around before answering. “I’ll know it when I hear it.”
The half-smile Thaia gave her did nothing to help Lexi’s predicament. Purely out of survival, she did her best to ignore it and returned her attention to the game.
At five minutes remaining and Serrice within one point of tying the score, Thaia placed her elbow on the table and leaned closer to Lexi. “Did you actually collect vorcha teeth?”
“I really did.” Goddess, she hadn’t thought about her unconventional collection in over a century. “A few times, I dropped the box I kept them in, scattering them on the carpet. Inevitably, I missed some when picking them up because they were so narrow that they’d get lost lengthwise in the carpet fibers. Equally as inevitably, my mother would find them when they stabbed her bare feet as she innocently walked through her own apartment.”
“And you call me the miscreant.”
“Unlike you, I didn’t exasperate my mother merely for the challenge.”
“I didn’t stab my mother with vorcha teeth, accidentally or not.”
She had a point, one that Lexi didn’t wish to acknowledge, and so she returned to the game. Thaia laughed anyway. Warm, friendly laughter, but it was still laughter.
Three minutes from the game’s end, Serrice tied the score. Almost as one, both sides stood, yelling encouragement for one team or invectives toward the other. Lexi was swept up by the excitement, Thaia pulling her to her feet while asking her to join in instead of just observing. Part of Lexi knew she wasn’t an outsider, that these were her people and this was a game they shared in common, but it was difficult to let go of her tendency to observe and analyze. Thaia’s enthusiasm went a long way to help her in doing so and they watched while on their feet, standing side by side.
Ten seconds before the game ended, Armali took a three point lead, drawing shouts of approval from Armali fans. The shouting carried through the expiration of regulation time. With the score final, Armali’s fans added jumping to their revelry, some with arms lifted into the air, others exchanging hugs of jubilation.
Lexi didn’t mind Thaia’s easy physicality. It never felt like an intrusion on her personal space, and she knew if she asked Thaia to stop, she would. So when Thaia pulled her into a quick celebratory hug, Lexi didn’t mind, and it felt the natural outcome from the feverish energy around them.
Serrice’s fans sat silent and dumbfounded.
Thaia flashed a grin their way.
“You don’t need to gloat,” said one of them, the formal styling of her long, high-necked dress marking her as a member of the Diplomatic Corps. “Nor do you need to be childish.”
“Yes, I do. Your asses lose so rarely that the rest of us have to maximize our time by being poor winners.”
“You asses?” asked another annoyed Serrice supporter.
“You heard me.”
Lexi jabbed an elbow into Thaia’s ribs, questioning Thaia’s claims of not having been the instigator of any five of the bar fights she’d participated in.
Thaia frowned at her. “I’m not wrong,” she said in a voice pitched for only Lexi to hear.
“I’m not disagreeing with you.” Lexi matched Thaia’s volume. “I was reminding you that you promised no bar fights. There is a bar right over there. A fight here would count as you breaking your promise.”
“I’m not a person to break a promise.” Thaia exhaled and took stock of the situation. “Which means we might need to leave right after I tell Eirian the score.” Thaia activated her omni and began scrolling through her contact list.
“You’re calling your sister right now?” Lexi knew Thaia had read the crowd and reached the same conclusion she had.
“Why not?” Thaia selected a contact and pressed connect. “They stopped focusing on me and now they’re arguing with the other Armali people. We’ve got at least ten minutes.”
“You instigated it. If it turns raucous enough, you may have incited a riot.”
“Serrice did for being Serrice. Also, the time for unplanned, go team, we just fucking won hugs has passed, meaning more would be awkward even though that would keep us out of the fight in case we need a delay. So—”
The omni showed a green connection, and then projected the visage of an asari matron, eyes narrowed in irritation, golden light from a small bedside lamp casting shadows of crankiness over skin the same hue of blue as Thaia’s.
Thaia abandoned tormenting Lexi in favor of blithely greeting the matron. “Hey, Eirian!”
One of Eirian’s eyes cracked open a little more. “The fu—I was taking a nap. For once.”
Now fully awake due to the insolence of her younger sister, Eirian groused about asshole little sisters and how her room was too fucking cold because the station was too fucking cold for sentient life, and propped herself up against her pillow. Only then did she directly speak to Thaia. “All right, you shit, what’s so important?”
Lexi saw, with stark clarity, their family resemblance beyond phenotypical traits.
“Give me a second and I’ll show you.” Thaia held her arm up and reversed the omni’s camera. She showed Eirian the score on the vidscreen first, and then panned over the restaurant’s crowd before she flipped it back to herself.
Eirian’s demeanor improved greatly. “How pissed are the Serrice fans?”
“Told me not to gloat, but I’d only smiled. No actual gloating.”
“If you gave them that shit-eating grin of yours, you were gloating.”
“It might’ve been.” Not that Thaia was even remotely repentant.
Eirian straightened from her relaxed posture and studied the other person with her sister. “Who’s that next to you?”
Apparently having just noticed that Lexi was only half in the frame, Thaia reached out, slung her arm across Lexi’s shoulders, and drew her back in. “This is my new best friend Lexi.”
“Friend?” Eirian glanced between Thaia and Lexi, their faces in close proximity in order for them to both remain within sight of the omni. “Weren’t you going on a date?”
“As friends,” said Thaia. “I told you this. Wait, no. Might’ve just been Meir.”
“And you took her to a place to watch the game?”
“Since I picked the restaurant, our ability to watch the game was incidental,” said Lexi. “To be honest, I didn’t mind. It’s always enjoyable to watch Serrice lose.”
A brilliant smile directed at Eirian, Thaia pulled a willing Lexi in a little closer. “See? New best friend!”
Eirian rolled her eyes. “Goddess, you’re in that state, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“What I mean is that you owe your new best friend one drink or several because you’re a charismatic shit when you’re like this. It’s confusing and requires alcohol to accept at face value.”
“I doubt it would be a good idea to indulge in a drink right now,” said Lexi. “If you need proof of the charisma you mentioned, Thaia appears to have managed to instigate a fight that’s moments from starting.”
Thaia’s eyes widened. “Already?” Then she followed Lexi’s gaze onto the room of asari still on their feet, the volume and number of exchanged insults rising rapidly. “Shit.” She returned to Eirian. “Gotta go.”
“Or,” said Eirian, “you could jump into the eventual fight. You know someone’s your real best friend when they’re the one next to you in the jail cell and not the one bailing you out.”
“I know, but Lexi’s a real doctor and real doctors don’t want to risk hurting their hands. Also I promised her no bar fights.”
“Then you’ll have to find another way to get arrested. Oh, you should visit the Relay Monument. Could be your last time, anyway.”
“I’d prefer not being arrested at all,” said Lexi.
Eirian smiled at her. It was reminiscent of Thaia’s, lacking only the undercurrent of attraction. “Then don’t get caught.” She turned to Thaia. “You know we’ll all need to meet her, right?”
“Goddess, no. If I intro—”
“I’d love to meet your family.” Lexi would. She could tell—from the first time she’d met Thaia in the clinic—that Thaia’s family played a large role in who Thaia was. With Thaia herself being fascinating, Lexi knew Thaia’s family had to be even more so. She wouldn’t turn down meeting the family of a friend, and certainly wouldn’t turn down the chance to meet one comprised of lovely, incorrigible people, both asari and krogan.
Thaia shrugged at Lexi. “You asked for it. Then again, if you survive an encounter with my family, our friendship is sealed.”
“You really should leave if you don’t want to get involved in that fight,” Eirian said, indicating the scene behind Thaia and Lexi.
“Oh, shit. Talk to you later.” Thaia cut the connection, grabbed her bag, grabbed Lexi’s hand, and then bolted for the door.
“That was abrupt,” Lexi said once they were outside.
Thaia let go of Lexi’s hand and then looked expectantly at the restaurant.
Sounds of fighting drifted through the open doorway. Within seconds, it was accompanied by the hum of biotics.
“Goddess,” said the server standing just inside the door. “All out asari fights are the worst.”
“You want help stopping it?” asked Thaia.
The server waved her off. “No need. Owner’s a matriarch. She’ll have it shut down in less than a minute.”
Thaia nodded and then looked over at Lexi, brow slightly furrowed in concern. “We didn’t forget to pay the bill, did we?”
“Settled it earlier. You buy next time.”
“Might be in Andromeda.”
“Another galaxy or not, I’ll hold you to it. And that drink, as well.”
Thaia grinned. “Deal. Now let’s go see the Relay Monument.”
“Remember when I said I didn’t want to get arrested? If you need a reminder, it was approximately two minutes ago.” Though Thaia’s shoulders drooping ever so slightly did make Lexi feel bad, it wasn’t quite enough to convince her to risk arrest. Alternatives, however, did exist. “If you don’t have one already,” she said slowly, “you could purchase a toy mass relay to accompany your toy model of the Destiny Ascension. I saw one in a shop window on the way here.”
“I’m three hundred and three. That’s ridiculous.” Thaia furtively looked behind them and then lowered her head close to Lexi’s so she could speak quietly. “Where did you say you saw it?”
“On the way here.” Lexi laughed and took Thaia’s hand. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
“You know it’s for my nieces, right?” Thaia asked after a few steps.
“I have two nieces. That means I’ll have to get at least two. Wouldn’t want them to fight over it.”
When their group departed the Citadel, Thaia carried three toy relay models—two stuffed into her overfull bag and one stuck under her arm. The path they took after passing through C-Sec’s minimally staffed exit checkpoint brought them within sight of the same entry checkpoint they’d used earlier.
The same beleaguered Officer Sciron stood the same post as before.
Thaia proudly waved one of the boxes at him. Then she said to her friends, “I should’ve bought one for him. Do we have time to go back?”
“No,” said Vetra.
“No, we don’t have time? Or no, I’m not letting you go back?”
“You have three,” said Sid. “You could give him the extra one.”
“There isn’t an extra.” Thaia cradled the box closer to her chest. “This one is mine and it’s coming with me to Andromeda.”
Theia Station, 2185.
When Lexi’s omni notified her that she had a real-time message and she immediately checked it, she heard Harry say, “Five credits says it’s Thaia.”
She rolled her eyes. “It isn’t always Thaia.”
“I suppose there was that one time when it was Vetra.”
“Three. And another two were Kesh.” The day after their visit to the Citadel, Thaia and Vetra both had insisted that Lexi meet Kesh because, as they also insisted, there was no possible way they wouldn’t get along. They’d been right, and Lexi considered herself fortunate to have made another friend outside of her work. The only disappointing aspect to finding these friends was that none would be on the Hyperion. Kesh, Vetra, and Vetra’s younger sister Sid were assigned to the Nexus. Lexi hadn’t been surprised at the postings since hers was the deviation from the norm, but having some socialization not involving her work had been positive thus far. Her disappointment derived from their looming departure soon cutting it short, with the possibility that they might not be able to resume their friendships with as much ease in Andromeda due to physical distance.
It really was unfortunate that she and Thaia hadn’t met years ago.
Harry chuckled. “Sorry, my mistake.” Then he looked up from his datapad and motioned toward Lexi’s omni. “Go on, answer it. I won’t even hold you to our wager.”
“Because I didn’t agree to your wager.” Lexi frowned at Harry one last time and then read the message sent from—as Harry had correctly surmised—Thaia.
> Your dissertation was on krogan biology, right? I’m not misremembering?
Thaia had this quirk, Lexi had learned, that was both endearing and frustrating. Some of Thaia’s messages began as if Lexi had been a participant in the conversation preceding the message, or she assumed Lexi would catch up on her own without requiring an explanation. Usually, Lexi managed to catch up via context clues, but there were times when she was left to guess. Unless it was part of the process of clinical diagnosis, Lexi did not appreciate having to guess. However, not viewing friends clinically was vital to retaining those friendships. Because it was worth it, she endured.
> Krogan virility and aggression, specifically.
> I’m going to pretend you said, ‘Yes, it was about krogan biology,’ and not think about what specifics you mentioned.
> Are you disparaging my work? The longer form was published in the Citadel Journal of Medicine. I’ll send it to you.
> No, I’m not disparaging your work or you, so you don’t have to send anything.
Lexi attached the document and sent the message off.
> Fourteen hundred pages? Seriously?
> Don’t take this personally, but I’m never opening that file again. However, I’m still not disparaging you or your work. Or krogan aggression because krogan are definitely aggressive. But I’ve got krogan in my family, so I’d rather not think about their virility at all. Ever.
> What happened to scientific interest?
> My ability for scientific interest only goes so far.
> It’s quite insightful.
> Krogan mating diagrams.
> For science.
> That’s it, I’m sending you one of my dissertations.
> Is this a competition?
> No. That would be juvenile and petty.
> …how many have you written? Asking for a friend.
> You sent me a dissertation that’s fifteen hundred pages long and you’re complaining about my fourteen hundred?
> Oh, diagrams take up more than half.
> Blueprints, Lexi. Blueprints. If you’re going to disparage my work, at least get the terminology correct.
> I’m convinced you messaged me purely to antagonize me.
> I would never. Look, I might’ve mentioned your dissertation to my sisters and they might not have believed me. They believed you, by the way. Apparently you’re more trustworthy than their own sister.
> Are they wrong?
> All the time.
> Are they wrong in this instance?
> No. Anyway, I also messaged you to see if you wanted to come over because Khel brought out this container full of old krogan stuff and some of it’s ancient and I thought you might want to look at it. He said something about some of it having been his mother’s. I think. I probably should’ve paid more attention to what he said, but he can ramble sometimes.
> Are there diagrams?
> That was cruel, Lexi. You have no idea how long it’ll take me to get the images out of my head. So are you in or not?
> I’d love to.
> Good, because I might have mentioned it to Khel, who might have then passed it along to Aunt Jarah that you’d be here for dinner, so it’d be awkward if you hadn’t agreed. Come over to the apartment whenever. And by whenever, I mean sooner rather than later, because Aunt Jarah said something about dinner being around six and if anyone’s late she’s scarier than Kalros. Last time I was late, she made me do all the prep work alone for three weeks straight.
Lexi was about to comment on how presumptuous Thaia had been when she received another message, and then several more in succession, before she could compose her reply.
> Also, my sisters want to meet you, so there’s that.
> Aunt Jarah also apologizes on my behalf for my presumptuous behavior and has offered to share a nice vintage of wine she brought home today.
> And I should warn you that she’s reading over my shoulder right now and is digging her fingernails into it, so if you’re going to inform me about some hot date and you’re actually turning down my proposition of a thrilling night featuring ancient krogan history, please let me down gently, for the sake of my ego.
> And the egos of all krogan everywhere.
> Shit, Aunt Jarah has sharp—
> This is Matriarch Jarah. Again, I apologize for my niece’s childish antics. We’d love to have you over for dinner, and if you wish to remain afterward and endure my niece’s presence, you’re welcome to it.
Lexi barely kept from laughing out loud.
> I’ll be there shortly.
“Well?” Harry asked as soon as Lexi had deactivated her display.
She couldn’t very well lie to Harry, even if it would’ve meant escaping his teasing. “I’ve been asked to dinner at her family’s apartment.”
Harry leaned back in his chair, fully extended his legs, crossed them at the ankles, and then gave her a smug look that rivaled the smug looks the Serrice fans had given Armali before their eventual defeat. Lexi couldn’t decide which was the more infuriating, so she left without addressing it.
At first, Lexi thought it odd that Meir greeted her with “I apologize in advance” instead of a typical greeting. Then she heard the ongoing argument from the next room.
“Just tell me what you taught them so I know what to expect in the future,” said an unfamiliar adult voice.
“I really didn’t have anything to do with it this time,” said Thaia.
“You did last time.”
“Last time was a soap boat. It didn’t involve anyone’s crest turning green.”
“You conducted the boat experiment in a siari temple!”
“Those are the best places to find long, still bodies of water. Where else were we supposed to try it?”
“My boat went really far,” said a child.
“Mine went farther,” said another child.
Lexi was somewhat concerned about ‘this time,’ and truly concerned about ‘crest turning green.’ A green crest was a potential symptom of a few obscure illnesses that posed a danger when left untreated. When she stepped in the room, she saw that one child, approximately age ten, had a crest colored green from her forehead all the way back. It would be irresponsible of her not to ask. “Does someone require medical attention?”
The consternation Thaia had been focusing on the unfamiliar adult in the room turned into a grin when she saw Lexi. Then she immediately went to introductions, likely to save herself from further remonstration. Thaia swept an arm toward Lexi. “This is Lexi. If you hadn’t figured it out already, she’s a medical doctor and those doctors fuss. Lexi’s a really good one, which is why she asked if anyone needed help.”
Then Thaia gestured to the child nearest to her, the bright green of her crest standing out against skin a darker blue than Thaia’s. “This is Auri and she’s fine, even with a green crest. The other one is Basya and she’s also fine though her crest is suspiciously its normal color instead of matching Auri’s like it usually does.”
“I’m seven!” Basya said, which was as typical of an asari child as it was a child of most other species. Asari birthdays didn’t descend into unimportance until after their fiftieth, when asari were considered legal adults and could begin participating in the e-democracy. After age fifty, only milestone ages were traditionally celebrated. Also age-typical of Basya’s behavior was her unprompted announcement, due to asari seven-year-olds learning that the universe did not revolve around them being a work-in-progress.
With a start, Lexi realized that she’d slipped into clinical analysis and stopped there. Both children were pleasant and possessed the air of happy children. Lexi smiled in greeting, but was denied an opportunity to respond verbally.
“Her birthday was last month,” Thaia said.
“So was yours,” said Auri. “It’s the same day as Basya’s.”
Basya pointed at Thaia and then looked at Lexi. “She’s three hundred and three. Did you know that?”
“I did, yes.”
Thaia rolled her eyes. Then she indicated the other adult, whose facial bone structure was similar to Thaia’s and the two sisters of hers Lexi had already met. “She’s Safira. My oldest sister and the mother of these two and the one blaming me for the green crest.”
Summoned by the shift in conversation, a large krogan lumbered out of a nearby room, golden eyes taking in the scene.
“He’s Uncle Khel.” Thaia turned an accusatory look on him. “Where were you during all this?”
“Staying out of it, same as I did when you and your sisters were kids. Only way to survive.”
“Of course.” Thaia gestured to Lexi. “She’s Lexi.”
“You’re Dr. Lexi!” Khel accompanied his greeting with a genuine smile.
Lexi, on being introduced to the primary instigator of the fights that had generated injuries she’d had to mend, frowned. “And you’re the uncle who started the second bar fight and possibly the first. You’re centuries older than them. You should know better.”
He blinked once and then broke into a laugh. “You’ve got a quad on you.” He turned to Thaia. “I like her. Last one who came around almost shit her pants every time she saw me. Only good thing about her was she lasted all of a week.”
It surprised Lexi that Thaia could be friends with someone that afraid of an obviously friendly krogan, much less anything beyond friendship with said person. When she raised a brow at Thaia for an explanation, Thaia shrugged.
“Right now,” Safira said as she settled a glare onto her youngest sister, “the important thing is to find out what supposed adult was involved in Auri’s crest currently being green.”
“If it’d been me, I would’ve admitted to it by now.”
“It’s true,” said Meir.
Safira waved her off. “Unless it was you, stay out of it.”
Then a matriarch strode in, dressed in everyday Initiative duty clothes like the others. She nodded once at Lexi before addressing Safira. “Did you forget who the biochemical engineer is in this family?”
Everyone gaped while Safira asked, “It was you?”
Khel laughed again. “How long were you going to let them go on for?”
“I was content to let them continue until I realized that our guest had arrived.” The matriarch addressed Lexi again. “And I’m pleased that you decided to visit for dinner despite the manner in which you were invited.”
“Come on, I was perfectly nice. Lexi knows me and how I am.” Thaia looked at Lexi and tipped her head toward the matriarch. “She’s Aunt Jarah.” Thaia frowned in confusion. “Matriarch Jarah.” Her frown didn’t dissipate and she turned to her aunt. “What should she call you?”
Matriarch Jarah inclined her head toward Lexi. “Aunt Jarah will do.”
“The Aunt Jarah whom Thaia warned me about?” asked Lexi.
The look of betrayal Thaia gave her was worth whatever the fallout would be. “Did you have to remind her?”
“I hadn’t forgotten in the first place,” said Jarah. “And, between Thaia’s impoliteness and the rest of you accusing the person in the wrong field for Auri’s crest—which, by the way, will be its normal color in a day or two so there was no need for your level of outrage—you’ll all be helping prepare dinner.”
The command was met with groans, but everyone began to file into the kitchen. By the time asari reached the ages of Thaia and her sisters, they rarely outright disobeyed a family matriarch. Thaia pulled Lexi in with the rest of them.
In a kitchen sizable enough to suit the number of people in Thaia’s family, Lexi found Eirian already present. Eirian—the only one of Thaia’s sisters without tattoos, despite Meir and Safira both possessing full sets—smiled and waved at Lexi. Then Jarah entered the kitchen and immediately began distributing jobs, Lexi included among the people put to work.
Lexi didn’t mind. Having been an only child with no extended family, she was fascinated by the interaction. She nearly cut a finger when paying too much attention to the goings-on and not enough attention to the vegetables she was supposed to be chopping. Standing at the counter of the island in the middle of the kitchen, Lexi did her best to concentrate on said chopping as Jarah continued doling out tasks.
“Here,” Jarah said to the next person, “shell these and then scoop out the insides.”
There was a silence, one long enough that Lexi and the others looked up from what they were doing to find out what the delay was.
Thaia stared at the bucket of shellfish like they would crawl out en masse and eat her alive. She slowly slid her gaze back to Jarah. “Isn’t there something else I can do?”
Hands forming fists and descending to rest on her hips, Jarah addressed the mild insubordination. “You’ll help like everyone else.”
“I’m not trying to get out of my share of the work. I’m just trying to get out of having to—did you have to say ‘scoop out the insides’ because that really didn’t help.”
After hearing Basya smother a laugh next to her, Lexi asked, “Althaia Kallistrate, are you squeamish?”
Her cheeks tinged slightly violet, Thaia gradually looked away from the bucket to where Lexi and Basya stood. “Possibly.”
“But you’re a commando,” said Lexi.
“We don’t fight scooped out insides.”
How could a commando who was squeamish be effective in combat? Thaia had done just that for over two centuries, yet her reaction to shelling was genuine.
“This could be the last time you ever have to shell them,” said Eirian.
Thaia scoffed. “Right, because there won’t be any shellfish in Andromeda.”
“Think of this as exposure therapy,” said Jarah.
“That’s what survival courses are for.”
One of Jarah’s brows raised—brows that also had the full set of commando tattoos, though long faded. “When was the last time you took a survival course?”
Thaia opened her mouth and then promptly closed it.
Jarah handed her the bucket. “Unless you want any scooped out insides on your jacket, I’d advise you to have it off while you’re prepping them.”
“I have to deal with those and be cold?”
“Hardship is good for commandos.”
“Whoever told you that should be shot,” Thaia said under her breath as she removed her jacket and hung it up on one of the hooks near the door.
Jarah looked up from the datapad in her hand. “What was that?”
“Nothing.” And then because Thaia had apparently chosen to be ridiculous that day, she hugged herself in a show of being cold.
“I doubt you’d be as cold if you’d bothered to wear a long-sleeved shirt,” said Safira.
Thaia halted her slow approach to the bucket in order to give her sister a withering look. “It’s laundry day for me and how the fuck was I supposed to know I’d have to scoop out something’s insides?” When Safira declined to comment further, Thaia put on the gloves Jarah had provided and then set to work. The faces she made as she proceeded to shell and scoop out the insides of the crustaceans was likely the most entertaining spectacle any of them had witnessed in a week.
“I should be taking a vid,” Eirian said as she squeezed into the space between Lexi and Basya.
“You know she’s not going to eat dinner,” said Safira.
“Not the main entree, anyway,” Meir said from the counter behind Lexi.
“I can hear you,” said Thaia. “I’m grossed out, not deaf. What is—goddess, that can’t be right.” She flung whatever offensive thing she’d come across back into the bucket.
Next to Lexi, Eirian’s laughter became entirely unrestrained.
“Is this…” Basya stopped mixing the batter in the bowl in front of her as she watched Thaia’s antics. “Is this what commandos are really like?”
Meir sighed. “Your aunt’s a special case.”
Thaia spared a glare for Meir then returned to the remaining shellfish. “You don’t have to be so judgmen—shit, I got some of whatever the fuck this is on my shirt. I’ll have to burn it.”
“Isn’t that a little extreme?” asked Lexi.
“No.” Thaia pitched her answer as if it was entirely obvious. “It’s a simple precaution. Who knows, it could congeal during the night, crawl out of the hamper, and then mutate everyone into—fuck, is that an eye? It’s an eye.”
Eirian leaned a little closer to Lexi. “Ask her how she deals with arachnids.”
“Judiciously,” said Thaia.
“With biotics,” said Meir.
“Like I said, judiciously.” Thaia went to toss a shell into the bucket, but it clung to her fingers and she shook them vigorously, her state of mild panic not abating until it fell and landed safely in the bucket. “Also, I might not eat for an entire week after this.”
Safira sighed. “Thaia, arachnids are critical when it comes to growing produce. They eat the pests that are harmful to plants. If anything, arachnid populations should be increased, not decreased.”
“Mother told me the same thing every time she found out I’d judiciously eliminated an arachnid from anywhere near my presence. I told her that if they didn’t want me to kill them, then they shouldn’t let me see them. It wasn’t like I went looking for them. Not then and not now. One time I accused her of loving her garden more than me because she cared more about her garden’s well being than her own daughter’s mental well being.”
“What did she say?” asked Lexi.
“That I was being ridiculous because of course she loved me more than plants. Then she called my bluff by offering to bring me to counseling for my fear of arachnids.”
“I suspect,” Jarah said through a laugh, “I suspect your mother never imagined she’d one day have to tell her daughter, ‘I love you more than plants.’”
Thaia, the prepped shellfish now resting in a bowl, began to use her foot to direct the bucket toward the trash bin. “Remember that incident with the arachnid-infested cave?”
“Who wouldn’t?” asked Eirian.
Jarah, who’d been watching Thaia methodically escort the bucket through the length of the kitchen using only her feet, looked at Lexi and then Eirian. “If you could please summarize for the person who doesn’t know, I’m sure she’d appreciate it.”
“Essentially,” said Eirian, “when Thaia was eleven, she used her biotics to conduct the massacre of an entire cave of arachnids.”
Thaia took Auri by the shoulders and guided her out of the way. “Mother was displeased.”
“Thaia,” Lexi said after no one continued the story, “please tell me you didn’t force your mother to tell you that she loved you more than caves.”
The bucket now successfully positioned next to the bin, Thaia gave it a rude gesture before she gave Lexi an amicable answer. “Rocks. She told me she loved me more than rocks.”
As Lexi stared at her, Jarah added to the explanation for Thaia’s childhood behavior. “Thaia as a child could best be described as a ‘little blue ball of energy.’ As you can see, not much has changed aside from replacing ‘little’ with ‘tall.’ Either way, still blue and still a ball of energy.”
The image of Thaia as a child was amusing, adorable, and exhausting all at once.
“When will I be tall?” asked Basya.
“Maybe we won’t be,” said Auri.
“Don’t worry, both of you will eventually catch up,” said Safira. “Hopefully it will be gradual like it was for myself and your aunts, except for—”
“No!” Thaia placed the bowl of shellfish next to Jarah. “You don’t need to get into that. Ever.”
Safira pretended she hadn’t heard her. “Except for Thaia, who shot up all at once. In the space of a year, she grew what, twelve centimeters?”
“Fifteen.” Thaia attempted to sit on the counter, but was quickly chased off it by Meir.
Meir then took her revenge. “Lexi, she was so clumsy that she became convinced that she wasn’t our sister.”
“It’d been a really humiliating day, all right?” Thaia gave Auri’s crest a fond rub. “Way more humiliating than having a green crest. I walked into a signpost on the way to school, I tripped up the stairs while I was at school, and I accidentally smacked a younger kid in the face with my hand because I’d forgotten that my arm was longer than it used to be. Then on three separate occasions during skyball practice that day, I face-planted while trying to jump. The embarrassment alone should’ve killed me.” She looked down at Auri. “You know, it’s appropriate that it’s Safira’s kid who ended up with a green crest.”
Safira slowly turned. “Why’s that?”
“Because you’re the agricultural engineer? No need for you to look at me like I’m making a joke at your expense, frowning like that.”
“Are you going to tell us that you did the soap boat experiment with my daughters because I’m also a hydrologist?”
“Not entirely, no.”
Safira went to punch Thaia in the arm, but Thaia dodged and then kept the island between herself and her eldest sister.
“Are you all engineers?” Lexi asked before anyone brought out a rain gauge.
Thaia skidded to a stop next to Lexi, answering before anyone else could. “Aunt Jarah’s a biochem engineer, Uncle Khel is a mechanical engineer, Meir’s still a commando, Safira’s a hydrologist and agricultural engineer who has no problems repurposing the tools of a supposedly peaceful trade to wage war, and I’m an astrophysicist and aerospace engineer. Eirian? Eirian’s the rebel. Art historian who became a primary school teacher.” Thaia leaned closer to Lexi and said in a horrified stage whisper, “She was never even a commando.”
“So what you’re saying is that Eirian’s the only civilized one out of four?”
“I don’t care what Thaia says about you,” said Eirian. “You’re my new favorite.”
Lexi set down her knife and crossed her arms. “What have you been telling them about me?”
Though she didn’t step away, Thaia did draw her head back. “Nothing bad! Really. I promise.”
“She’s said really nice things about you,” said Auri.
“Nicer than anything she’s said about Vetra or Kesh,” said Basya.
Thaia rounded them both up and herded them out of the room as she said, “I think it’s time to set the table because you need something to do other than talk too much.”
“Could you be more transparent?” Meir asked Thaia on her way by.
“Absolutely,” Thaia said as she exited with Auri and Basya.
The wine promised by Thaia’s aunt was, in Lexi’s opinion, of a vintage excellent enough that it was difficult not to overindulge. The artifacts Khel had brought out truly were artifacts: an ancestral helmet, a miniature painting on a textile so old it could crumble at any moment, a ceremonial knife etched with what looked like the clan markings of Shiagur, a kowla ball.
Thaia had immediately taken interest in the ball, and then Khel had offered some pointers. Thirty seconds later, the two of them had begun a small match that Meir, Eirian, Basya, and Auri had joined without prompting. Within minutes of the impromptu match’s start, the game turned rough enough to threaten the safety of furniture, everyone’s wineglasses, and possibly people—gentle as Khel was with the two children, he wasn’t so much with his nieces, nor were his nieces gentle with him.
Then Jarah, who’d been fetching a datapad with more historical records from the apartment’s shared office, entered the room and called an immediate end to the match.
Basya and Auri were sent to bed and the four so-called adults were threatened with having their drinking privileges taken away. Khel shrugged and walked to a bedroom, while Meir and Eirian remained until the subject turned to biology. Claiming no interest in something that far removed from their fields, Eirian headed to the VI lab to adjust her bot, and Meir, who had training the next day, responsibly went to bed. Though she didn’t engage in the conversation, Thaia stayed in the main living area, repurposing an end table as a desk. Her wineglass stood behind the terminal she’d placed on the makeshift desk, both under a holo blueprint of the Nexus projected over the table.
Though Lexi participated in the conversation with Jarah and Safira regarding the Nakmor clan’s developing resistance to the genophage, she also kept track of Thaia’s manipulation of the model in front of her. Once Thaia had added models of the five arks to the projection, her concentration on her work rendered her unaware of the room around her.
It’d been difficult for Lexi to visualize what Thaia did as she worked, even after she’d witnessed Thaia running through the mathematical equations on the transport to the Citadel. Equations were hard to translate into the blue lines of the 3D models over Thaia’s terminal. It occurred to Lexi that while Thaia had observed her in her element on several occasions, this was the first time she’d observed Thaia in hers. All traces of commando had vanished, masked by eyes shining with ideas following the movements of hands that spun, took apart, put together, and inspected the holomodels. Thaia didn’t even notice Jarah and Safira retiring for the night, leaving Lexi as the only other occupant of the room.
Lexi’s wait wasn’t overlong. Thaia surfaced after she’d tried to take a sip from her wineglass and discovered it empty. First she scowled at the glass and then looked up and scowled at Lexi by default.
“Don’t look at me like that,” said Lexi. “I wasn’t the one who drank your wine.”
Thaia’s scowl turned to confusion. “Where’d everyone—shit, I did it again.”
“You do this often?”
“Fill my head up with so many ideas and calculations that I stop paying attention to everything around me? More often than I’d like.” She frowned at the wineglass and sat back in her chair. “I hadn’t intended on it. I just wanted to not hear the three of you talking about krogan whatevers and wanted to tweak something in the docking sequence. Then the next thing I know, my glass is empty and so’s the room except you.” She considered her glass. “Is there any wine left?”
Lexi, having recently refilled her glass for the third time, gestured toward the kitchen. “Your aunt opened a second bottle. Or a third. She mentioned something about having only one bottle left after this.”
“Third bottle, then.” Thaia stood and took a step in that direction. “Wait, I have no idea how many glasses I’ve had. Three? Four?”
“Why are you looking at me as if I kept count?”
“I’d be more surprised if you hadn’t.”
“You’ve had four.”
In Lexi’s opinion, Thaia needn’t have looked so pleased about her correct guess. Fortunately, Thaia didn’t ask why Lexi had kept count. “I should probably not have another.” Her eyes flicked between her glass and the kitchen. “But it’s really good wine.”
“It is,” said Lexi.
“Being a responsible adult sucks.” Thaia abandoned her trip and practically threw herself onto the other end of the couch instead. When she checked to see if Jarah lurked in the doorway before she put one of her feet on the table, Lexi hid her laugh. Then she chose not to, not after seeing a grown asari furtively check for a matriarch before proceeding to break one of her rules.
“Laugh it up,” said Thaia, empty glass still in her left hand. “Just wait until you get a lecture from her. Then you’ll—oh, shit.” Thaia’s hand moved so quickly that Lexi hadn’t registered it before Thaia had caught the wineglass she’d knocked over with the foot that wasn’t supposed to be on the table in the first place. The glass was still at an angle, a drop of the red wine clinging precariously to the rim.
Lexi wondered how fast those commando reflexes could pin her to the wall.
No. No, she would not allow her mind to run with ideas such as those. Refraining from any comment regarding reflexes, Lexi reached out, took the glass, and righted it before the drop of wine spilled. “I think that was a sign that you should follow the rules,” she said mildly. Then as Thaia grumbled at her and put her feet back on the floor, Lexi calmly took a sip of her wine.
“I don’t know why Aunt Jarah’s so adamant about feet on the table or having to use coasters on this table or anything involving harming the table. It isn’t like we’re taking it with us.” Thaia paused. “I don’t think. I should probably ask. Not tomorrow, though. She wants to spar. Asking then would make it more painful than I already know it’ll be.” Thaia looked over at Lexi. “If a matriarch asks you to spar, say no. If said matriarch insists you should because you need to keep up your commando skills for whatever fucking reason even though you aren’t in the militia anymore, say no.”
“Why did you leave the militia? I’m not sure you heard since your head was literally in that Nexus projection of yours, but Meir mentioned that you were an exceptional commando.”
Thaia placed her empty wineglass on one of the coasters. “I was, but I was the kind of commando who’s exceptionally good at offensive techniques. You get tired of seeing the results from using your own explosively strong biotics on people. I decided I didn’t want to anymore unless it was a life or death situation, which meant leaving the militia. They weren’t thrilled about it and so we compromised, like proper asari. Switched me over to the reserves, had me be one of their biotics instructors in Armali, and I went to the university there at the same time. Since I got to be one of the lead design engineers for the Leusinia, I like to think that it worked out.”
“What about the mass relays?”
“I’ll also be working with the astrophysics team led by Dr. Aridana to locate the best place to build the relay telescope.” Thaia settled into the corner of her side of the sofa and oriented her body to face Lexi. “Here’s a question for you, specialist in alien anatomy. Will it be weird being the only asari on a ship with twenty thousand people on it? Not even a single matriarch to rebel against.”
The question required some contemplation since Lexi hadn’t given it much thought before. None at all, really. Like Thaia had pointed out, Lexi was a specialist in alien anatomy. Once Lexi had mastered knowledge enough to provide excellent medical care for asari should it be required, study of other species had superseded study of her own. Between her medical specialties and having grown up on Omega, her mindset had never defaulted to that of mainstream asari culture—such as always expecting a matriarch to be around somewhere. The closest she’d ever been to full immersion in typical asari culture had been when she’d gone to university on Thessia for little more than a decade. Otherwise, she was used to being around predominantly non-asari.
But that wasn’t to say she’d ever been in a situation where there hadn’t been a matriarch or several in assorted positions of power, influence, or both. In the Milky Way, asari matriarchs were ubiquitous. Most remained within the boundaries of the Asari Republics, but they were there. They guided the asari whether you paid attention or not, whether you wanted them to or not, because they existed as a constant. A rebellious maiden could rebel in part because of their security in knowing that the matriarchs would still be there when they decided to return home. Matriarchs would show them what stability was when those maidens became matrons. Matriarchs would be there to help them teach their daughters. Matriarchs would be there to ensure that asari civilization continued to thrive. They always had. They always would.
With several matriarchs counted among those traveling to Andromeda, the same was true for the Initiative. The asari pathfinder was Matriarch Ishara. Once they reached Andromeda, the Initiative Director would be Matriarch Nuara. There was comfort in that constant.
Perhaps it was somewhat strange that Lexi hadn’t dedicated much thought to being the only asari on her assigned ark. While it hadn’t stood out before, it did now after spending an evening with a family consisting entirely of asari save one krogan—though arguments could be made about how many krogan traits Thaia and her sisters expressed, their physicality being one of them.
“To be honest,” Lexi said, “I hadn’t thought about it as much as you might think. Being among a minority or a shared majority isn’t unfamiliar to me, not where I grew up and not in most places I went for schooling. None were as extreme as being the lone asari in a population, but the comparison is valid.”
Thaia eyed her warily. “Lexi, where did you grow up?”
“I am,” Thaia said slowly as she pushed herself to her feet using the back of the couch for leverage, “I am going to need another glass.” Now standing, Thaia looked between the wineglasses and Lexi. “You?”
“Yes, thank you.” She hadn’t noticed that she’d finished her current glass and a refill seemed like a good idea.
Thaia swooped down, grabbed both glasses, and headed into the kitchen with a reasonably steady gait. “Omega,” she said over her shoulder, leaving the door open after she disappeared through it. “You’re not just fucking with me, are you?”
“No, I really did grow up there.”
Full glasses in hand, Thaia strode back into the living area. “Please tell me your mother wasn’t a dancer.”
The refill became a really good idea because Lexi answered with far less evasion than she usually did. “Yes, but not exactly.”
“Not exactly?” Thaia carefully placed the wineglasses on coasters and then settled herself back down on the couch. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Lexi took a long drink from her wine. Her mother’s true occupation wasn’t one she spoke about often because it brought questions. Questions that Lexi could never hope to answer. “When I was younger, Mum always told me she was a dancer, but… there were signs. Dancers usually aren’t called for emergencies in the middle of the night. Dancers also don’t teach their daughters the self-defense techniques and biotics my mother taught me to survive on Omega. Dancers also, if they’re to remain employed, tend to be good at it. The few times my mother danced at home to songs she liked while reorganizing—”
“I asked my father the same. It calmed her and we just let her run with it. However, her dancing was awful. I remember asking my dad how someone so bad at dancing while in the privacy of her own home could be a dancer at Afterlife. He told me that there are different types of dancing and that my mother was good at another kind. I believed him. I still do because he was right to equate what my mother was actually doing with it.”
Thaia, who’d been listening raptly to Lexi’s explanation, scooted a little closer to hear the potential revelation before asking, “Which was?”
Lexi sighed and relaxed into the sofa. “She was…” She took another sip and used the half-full glass to gesture vaguely around them. “She was one of Aria’s commandos.”
Lexi wasn’t sure if it was good or bad that Thaia was so excited about it. “You sound like Sid.”
“Your mother was one of Aria’s commandos. My mother was a professor of literature. You win.”
“A professor of literature where you grew up on Thessia?”
Thaia smiled. “It’s a good thing this isn’t a drinking game because we’d be worse off than we already are. Anyway, no. Illium.”
“Swear to the goddess I’m not, but I suppose you’re somewhat right. I was born in Armali, but I spent the latter half of my childhood on Illium. In case you’ve been wondering, Illium is where my dad’s been lately, finalizing plans for control of her company after we’re gone.”
She’d been wrong again, but this time she could identify why her guess had been incorrect. “It isn’t common for a krogan to run a company on Illium, much less an engineering company.”
An unescaped laugh shook Thaia’s shoulders enough that she put her glass down. “You think my dad’s krogan?”
Oh, no. She’d been horribly wrong. Taken a misstep that placed them firmly inside delicate territory for any asari who’d grown up anywhere in the Asari Republics or with a majority asari population, such as Illium.
Lexi knew she should be more aware of it outside of clinical practice, but it was difficult to overcome the lack of bias she’d experienced in her childhood and young adulthood. Life on Omega was outside the norm for every species who lived there. For asari, it meant the societal stigma for preferring asari over the obligatory exogamy was a minute presence. Nor was the stigma of their children as heavy. Troubles encountered in normal asari culture for either of those issues eclipsed the comparatively non-reactions on Omega. Thaia had been born in Armali and raised on Illium as a child of two asari—a pureblood. The ground between them had become unsteady and it wasn’t due to excessive alcohol consumption.
Even medically, Lexi wasn’t bothered. The Initiative had broken through superstition to research and develop a preventative treatment for what was medically categorized as Ardat-Yakshi Syndrome. The research required for that cure had revealed interesting data regarding asari reproduction—it wasn’t exactly what they’d thought when two asari produced a child. From an objective viewpoint, an asari having two asari parents wasn’t problematic. Yet people weren’t always objective, and early socialization was highly resistant to change. She might have offended Thaia or made Thaia believe that Lexi held the strict view of exogamy or… she shouldn’t have had that last glass of wine.
The wine didn’t help with her verbal attempts to repair any damage she might have caused in a friendship she wanted to keep. “Goddess, with everything you and your sisters said and how you all behave, I had assumed—”
Thaia lost the battle to contain her laughs, but they were kind. “She’s not krogan,” Thaia said after calming. “Asari. Matriarch Sula. Don’t worry, when I tell her you thought she was krogan, she won’t be offended at all.”
“Not even a little. She likes to unnerve people like that. If you don’t believe me, you can ask Aunt Jarah. She’s the older sister who doesn’t embrace her krogan heritage as readily.”
Lexi struggled with having made such incorrect assumptions, the matriarch in question being unbothered or not. She struggled with having potentially damaged this friendship, though it appeared on the surface that it had weathered her mistake. She even struggled with having partaken of too much wine, despite it being very good, because it had clouded her thoughts too much.
The question Thaia posed next was so absurdly out of place that it jerked Lexi out of her catastrophizing. “How do you organize a space party?”
Then she realized she shouldn’t have been surprised, not with how Thaia had done this before. “How?”
Thaia took a sip of wine before she answered. “You planet.”
“How many awful jokes do you know?”
“I have an entire repertoire of shitty jokes and I might tell you why if you answer another question.”
Lexi thought it best she not consume more wine, but when she went to set it aside, it was already empty. “I have a feeling I’ll regret this but… what’s your question?”
“How many shitty jokes do you know?”
“One,” said Lexi.
Thaia placed her glass down and leaned forward, elbows on her knees. “You have to tell it. Please?”
She was far too eager for her request to stem from anything innocent. “Who are you going to repeat it to? Because no one wants to hear bad jokes for the sake of bad jokes.”
“I may or may not use bad jokes over comms during field situations when things get too tense. People get worked up, their brains get on too high of an alert, their muscles stiffen up, then their aim will be off and biotics primed too soon, so you tell a bad joke. It gets them to focus on how shitty the joke your squad leader told was.” She briefly held her hand toward Lexi. “So I can always use more.”
“That’s actually fairly clever.” The psychology behind it was solid, despite Thaia not having studied psychology as far as Lexi knew.
“Mm. Yes, I’ve been known to occasionally say or do something clever. C’mon, Lexi. Share with the class.”
Lexi sighed, feeling foolish that Thaia’s enthusiasm had convinced her. “How do you win a duel with a vorcha?”
Thaia stared for a long moment and then started laughing. It was a quiet, nascent laugh that quickly got away from her. Whether it was the joke or the laugh that’d been waiting to come out beforehand didn’t matter, because soon enough it was pure, infectious laughter. Lexi managed to constrain herself to a few chuckles, but then Thaia listed sideways before tumbling right off the couch.
Lexi stood to check on Thaia. “Are you all right?”
Despite her fall, Thaia hadn’t stopped laughing. “I’m not—I mean, I’m fine.” Thaia gamely tried to contain her laughs but largely failed. “But I don’t know if it’s because it’s you, the distinguished Dr. Lexi T’Perro, who told that horrid joke or if it’s one of the best worst jokes I’ve ever heard, but you’ve effectively killed me.”
Then it was Lexi who couldn’t, not even with a hand over her mouth, keep herself from laughing. Laughing at their ridiculous situation, at their ridiculous selves, at how Thaia had called her by her title again and even while laughing on the floor like she’d taken leave of her senses, hearing Thaia say it still did things to Lexi and her thoughts that shouldn’t be there. And yet. And yet she was fairly certain they were both venturing from willfully blind to stupidly so, but if it meant more times like this, she could deal with it. And it was truly ridiculous to see an asari commando on the floor and cackling at a silly joke.
Thaia grinned up at her from where she’d landed, the catches in her eyes like the crests of waves lit by Parnitha, and Lexi considered ending her self-imposed break, dispensing with the idea of just friends despite their impending departure to Andromeda.
She began to extend her hand to Thaia, ostensibly to help her stand up, but goddess knew where either of them would choose to go from there.
Then Safira walked briskly into the room with an air of curiosity. “What’s so funny?”
Thaia didn’t bother with sitting up. “How do you win a duel with a vorcha?”
“No, no, I don’t need to hear—”
Safira directed a plaintive look toward the ceiling before turning to Lexi. “I sincerely apologize for whatever you’ve endured, which is partially my fault for encouraging the others in their ill-thought-out plan.”
“You hit me with a rain gauge,” said Thaia.
“I still don’t regret it. Maybe I will once we’re in Andromeda, but not before.”
Theia Station, 2185.
Over the weeks left before their departure, Lexi had noticed Thaia would often stop by the clinic or the Hyperion, or message her with one plan or another with the intention of getting Lexi to take a break from work. While Lexi suspected Harry had provided the initial motivation for Thaia’s crusade, Thaia had taken off with it.
Lexi didn’t mind. In fact, she looked forward to those moments, which Harry had noticed and wasn’t shy about telling Lexi that he had.
However, Thaia’s latest plan was more outrageous than all the others combined. Outrageous enough that Lexi forgot about the view from the Leusinia’s observation deck Thaia had wanted to show her. In retrospect, maybe showing Lexi the view had been less about Thaia showing off her favorite area of the ship she’d designed and more about distracting Lexi from how outrageous her new plan was.
It had started innocuously, like it was a typical conversation. Thaia’s relaxed body language even aided it as she leaned casually against the vast forward window of the room, beyond which the arks Hyperion and Paarchero could be seen. It also gave the illusion that Thaia would fall into space at any given moment and Lexi fought mightily against her irrationally heightened anxiety.
The vacuum looming behind Thaia didn’t bother Thaia and that didn’t help. “Is there any last thing you wanted to do in the Milky Way? Maybe a nostalgic trip to Omega?”
“Goddess, no. Would you want to visit Illium?” Lexi crossed her arms in a last-ditch attempt to stifle her anxiety. It failed. “And could you not lean against the window?”
Thaia glanced at the window behind her. “It isn’t going to break. I did the calculations myself and then a shitload of other people checked them.” She raised a brow at Lexi. “Do you not trust my engineering skills?”
“Could you just…” Lexi sighed and gestured at the window with her right hand. “Please?”
“All right, since you asked so pitifully.” Thaia moved from the window to one of the nearby chairs. Technically three, because she sat down sideways and extended her legs over the adjacent chair. Her ankles and feet rested on the third chair in the row. “Also, no, I don’t want to visit Illium.”
“Is there anything you want to do here before you never have the chance to again?”
Eyes alight, Thaia looked at her with a dangerously enticing half-smile.
Lexi almost returned it. “You know that isn’t what I meant.”
Thaia laughed and somehow it was more effective than the smile from before. “I know, but the opening was there and—” Laughter bubbled out again. “Shit, I should stop and answer your question seriously before I get us into trouble.” As she mulled over her answer, she gazed out the window at Earth hanging above the ark. “And yes, I do.”
Lexi honestly wasn’t sure what she’d expected for an answer, but Earth hadn’t been involved in any of them. “You want to visit Earth?”
“Earth? No.” Thaia activated her omni and opened a few applications. “Excellent, seats are still available. Want to come with me?” She looked at Lexi through the amber light of her omni’s display. “You should come with me. This will help you fix your lack of ‘living in the moment’ adventures that you told me you wanted to have.”
“You haven’t even said where we’re going.”
If Thaia noticed Lexi’s slip, she didn’t acknowledge it. “Thessia. Armali, specifically.”
“What for?” Because it could be any number of things and Lexi had to ask despite her subconscious having answered for her already.
“There’s this long reflection pool in the park nearest the Guildhall. There’s something I wanted to try with it when I was a kid.”
“Wade in it?”
Thaia gave her a flat look. “You ask like I haven’t done that before. No. This’ll be way better.” She checked her omni’s display again before returning to convincing Lexi. “So are you coming with me or not? If you really don’t want to, I won’t pressure you into it since that’s a shit thing to do. But if you want to and do go, I promise it’ll be fun.”
It wasn’t like Lexi hadn’t been convinced the instant she’d seen the glee in Thaia’s eyes and the enthusiasm behind her request. And she had told Thaia that she wanted to do more things ‘in the moment.’ This would more than qualify. “All right, yes.”
Thaia’s happiness alone solidified Lexi’s decision. “This really will be fun. There’s a fast transport leaving in a couple hours. I’ll reserve seats.”
The plan had gone from sudden to outrageous. “You mean to leave today? Not only today, but by mid-morning? You can’t be serious.”
“I am.” Thaia entered another command and then shut off her omni. “Seats booked.”
Lexi gaped at Thaia’s audacity. “How presumptuous are you? I’d assumed—anyone who isn’t out of their mind would assume—you’d include a lead time of a day at the very least. Even that would be considered short. Yet you went ahead and reserved those seats without so much as telling me you meant today. What if I have too much work to visit Thessia on a whim?”
Thaia broke eye contact and the energy she’d exuded moments ago evaporated. “I hadn’t—” She folded her arms across her chest and took a steadying breath. “I had Vetra check with Harry about the workload for the Hyperion’s medical team. I asked Vetra to because she’d be able to tell if Harry was being Harry when it comes to you, or if he was giving an honest answer. He was honest and said the workload would be light today and tomorrow and if anyone on the team wanted one last visit anywhere, today and the next two days were when to do it. And I’d asked him in case you had wanted to visit Omega to, I don’t know, pick up some vorcha teeth or something.”
Another breath, and then Thaia looked at her. “But you’re right. There’s last minute plans and there’s last minute plans and I should’ve given you the heads-up for exactly how last minute I meant. I’m sorry.” Her eyes widened. “Goddess, that was a one-hundred-year-old maiden level of impulsivity.”
Lexi’s anger faded as Thaia’s energy had in response to its appearance. “You’d asked Harry?”
“Through Vetra, yeah. I wouldn’t have asked the question about visiting anywhere if you were going to be busy. I wouldn’t have booked seats, either. My explanation is that I got overexcited, but it isn’t an excuse. So if you don’t want to go, I understand.”
“You put a lot more planning into this than I’d thought.”
Thaia offered her a rueful smile. “I really do try not to be an asshole.”
“Well, I apologize for overreacting to an assumption I made about you. And,” she said after she returned Thaia’s smile, “I do still want to go. I never visited Armali while I attended university on Thessia.”
“Clearly a mistake that needs correcting.” Thaia checked her omni for the time. “If you’re still game for going, we should get moving because we’ve got less than two hours until the transport leaves.”
In the corridor, Thaia’s lingering discomfort was palpable and, in Lexi’s opinion, unnecessary. They’d sorted out the disagreement like reasonable adults and Lexi certainly held nothing against her, not after finding out Thaia had taken Lexi’s workload and choices into consideration. Lexi took a cue from Thaia and threaded her arm through the crook of Thaia’s elbow. “We’re fine, you know. You needn’t fret.”
“Rationally, I know. But I’ve been too spontaneous before, forgetting that other people might not be as excited about the idea as me. Then there’s trying to balance spontaneity and pre-planning while also trying not to be creepy when asking about someone else’s schedule. And then I thought I’d fucked it up anyway and you were definitely not the hot kind of pissed. You were the I might’ve ruined our friendship kind of pissed and that was the last thing I wanted.”
“It was a misunderstanding. You didn’t ruin it.”
“Well.” Thaia waited to finish her sentence until they were in the shuttle and headed for the station. “In the interest of full disclosure, my dad’s going to be on Thessia, too. She’s in Armali dealing with family property stuff and doesn’t know we’ll be there. Not that she won’t eventually know because if my sisters don’t find out and tell her, another matriarch will after someone recognizes me because matriarchs are the worst fucking gossips in the history of the universe. Before you ask, my sisters talked to her about you. Khel did too. He told her about you calling him out. I’ve no idea what my sisters said, though.”
Lexi genuinely did want to meet Thaia’s father, though whether or not she’d regret it remained to be seen. However, Thaia had omitted some information despite claiming full disclosure. “Did you talk to her about me?”
“Maybe.” When Thaia suddenly became highly interested in the flight control panel locked into autopilot, Lexi grew suspicious and took another look at her.
Thaia’s cheeks were violet.
Lexi never thought she’d ever witness such a thing. “Are you blushing?”
“Commandos don’t blush.” Thaia hadn’t pressed a single haptic button on the panel.
“Do aerospace engineers blush? Or perhaps astrophysicists?”
Thaia ran a hand over her face but it did nothing to mitigate the color on her cheeks. “Can you just pretend I didn’t?”
“Blush. Pretend I didn’t blush.”
Lexi might never have another opportunity like this and she didn’t intend to waste it. “Was what you said to her about me that bad?”
“No! It was the opposite. Why do you think I’m fucking blushing?”
“You should see you. And to think I might never have witnessed a commando adorably blush.”
Thaia straightened and took a step toward the back of the shuttle. “I can’t take it anymore. I’m airlocking myself.”
“You can’t because you already reserved seats on the transport to Thessia. And,” Lexi said as she stopped Thaia with a hand on her arm, “we’re even.”
“Now I can easily believe you’re from Omega. You’re ruthless.” But Thaia did laugh and she stayed in the forward half of the shuttle the rest of the way to the station. The blush lingered, faint traces of it still visible after they’d each fetched what they’d need for an overnight stay and met up to board the transport.
When Thaia didn’t perk up for the Charon to Citadel relay transition, Lexi voiced what she’d observed over the past hour. “You look tired.”
“Why yes, Lexi, you look lovely as well,” said Thaia.
The defense was so paltry that Thaia shouldn’t have bothered. Lexi ignored it. “Did you not sleep well last night?” By all accounts, Thaia should’ve been pleased with their seats, being in the most forward part of the passenger transport’s cabin, with far more available legroom than the one they’d taken to the Citadel. Because the trip would take several hours, there was even a small galley accessible to the passengers. Yet Thaia had remained slumped in her seat, occasionally tripping fellow passengers with her feet stuck out in the aisle.
“No, I didn’t.” Thaia straightened. “Actually, if you could help keep me awake, I’d appreciate it.”
“If you’d like to nap, I promise I won’t do anything untoward.”
Tiredness stole most of the life from Thaia’s laugh. “I trust you. It’s more that I’m not wanting to risk a replay of what kept waking me up last night while on a public transport. Meaning, I should stay awake.”
One didn’t need to be a psychologist to recognize there was more, nor did one need to be a psychologist to recognize it wasn’t the time or place to ask. “Then I’ll help keep you awake on this transport until you say otherwise. On one condition.”
“You take a nap as soon as you can.”
Thaia searched Lexi’s face, seeking the confirmation of something she didn’t say out loud. Whatever it was, she found it. “All right.”
In the beginning, Lexi’s task wasn’t difficult because Thaia got up to walk every ten minutes. She’d complete one round of the cramped forward area of the cabin, realize other passengers were actively glaring at her, and then sit back down in her assigned seat, bundled up in her crankiness.
“It’s cold in here,” Thaia said after she threw herself in her seat and then huddled inside her jacket.
The cabin was a reasonable temperature and Thaia’s growing grumpy attitude had thinned Lexi’s patience. She kept her eyes on her datapad. “You feel cold because your basal body temperature keeps lowering to encourage you to sleep.”
“If that’s true, I think some areas of my brain need to communicate better with the others. Also, I hate being cold, but if I got a blanket, I’d fall asleep.”
“The dilemmas you face.” Lexi glanced over long enough to catch Thaia’s scowl at Lexi’s lack of sympathy.
The patently false allegation merited no comment.
Thaia resorted to reading, yet her body’s need for sleep swiftly resumed its attack. She began incrementally sliding down her seat and listing to the side whenever she started to drift off. The number of times she did so increased at a steady rate until she was perilously close to passing out on Lexi herself. Which Lexi wouldn’t have minded in other circumstances, perhaps in Andromeda, but not here.
“If you think I’ll let you sleep on my lap,” Lexi said as she answered a message from Harry, “think again.”
“That isn’t very nice.” Thaia scarcely moved, as if daring Lexi to follow through with her declaration.
“On the contrary, it is very nice since you requested I keep you awake. And if you’ve changed your mind and have decided to sleep, you’ll have to find another place to rest your head.”
Thaia’s eyes darted to Lexi’s chest. Then she caught herself, sat up very quickly, whispered fuck when her datapad clattered to the floor, scrambled to pick it up, and then took a sudden and remarkable interest in its contents. More than a hint of the blush from earlier had returned to her cheeks.
Lexi almost laughed out loud. It wasn’t that she disagreed with the concept in general—a pair of breasts was rather nice to rest one’s head on—but Thaia’s reaction to her own accidental ogling had been reminiscent of a first century maiden with a crush rather than a commando nearing matronhood. That Thaia had been caught said much about her dire need for sleep, and Lexi chose mercy because of it. Though it wasn’t possible Thaia didn’t know Lexi had noticed, it was better for both of them if Lexi pretended she hadn’t.
After a quarter hour of silence where Lexi exercised a considerable amount of restraint, she said, “Throwing you in a body of cold water might wake you up.”
Her blush faint on her cheeks, Thaia gave Lexi a lopsided smile. “My mother did that once. Well, a body of water, but it wasn’t cold since it was in the middle of the summer. I was maybe nine or so and I really was being a shit. I don’t even remember what it was about, but none of my mother’s go-to methods worked. After an attempt at confining me to my room ended in my escape—”
“Please tell me you had a ground floor bedroom.”
“Yes. I did. Because that hadn’t been my first escape attempt.”
With no small amount of trepidation, Lexi said, “When was—”
“I was three. The house had a clerestory roof and my window was right above it. I somehow got the window open—to this day, I have no idea how—and I climbed out onto it. That’s as far as I got because Mother walked into my room to ask me if I’d rather have a story read to me than take the nap I’d protested. Yanked me right back in with her biotics, had me sleep in her room that night, and I was moved to a first floor room the next morning.”
Goddess, Thaia as a child could’ve given her mother a heart condition. She could’ve given anyone a heart condition. “And the second?”
“Took off running after my escape. I’d just reached one of the ponds when Mother found me. I shouted something defiant and, out of options, she picked my ass up with biotics and tossed me into the pond. I was pissed and then I wasn’t because being in the water was a lot better than being on dry land and mad for a reason I couldn’t even remember. Problem was, I kept swimming underwater for a few minutes. On the shore, Mother was slowly descending into a panic that she’d done something terrible to her inexplicably angry child. Worrying about it even though I’d been able to swim since before I could walk.”
“Since before you could walk? Were you raised in the ocean?” Given the close proximity of Thessia’s major population centers to the ocean, it wasn’t that farfetched a question.
Thaia smiled. “Close enough. We had a family property on an obscure bay on the Tyrrhenian Ocean that we usually lived in for half the year.” A shadow drifted through her eyes, causing her speech to hitch. She recovered fast enough that one could pretend it hadn’t happened. In private, Lexi would’ve addressed it. In public, she left it alone and Thaia moved on. “It was my favorite place in the whole galaxy and I’d be grumpy for hours after we left for the city.”
“Adorable. Exactly what I was going for.” A roll of her eyes and Thaia resumed her previous story. “Right as my mother’s about to jump in after me, I surfaced. She apologized for how she reacted, and I told her she should’ve thrown me in sooner. Then Mother realized that we hadn’t gone to the bay yet that summer, so she arranged to visit within the next few days. I suppose other parents might’ve seen it as a reward for misbehavior.”
If Thaia’s mother had known her child well, and it appeared she had since she’d quickly identified the root of Thaia’s behavioral issue, refusing to take that trip would’ve exacerbated the problem for them both. “If your remarkable attachment to water was taken into account, it wouldn’t have been.”
Thaia grinned, its ebullience banishing any lurking shadows. “You get it! No matter what mischief I got up to, I was never not allowed to go swimming. Good thing the surveys of Andromeda say there’ll be oceans waiting.” She peered closely at Lexi. “Do you have anything like that? Something you’ve always been intrinsically connected to? Or has it always been the care for others and wanting to help and heal them thing?”
Lexi had considered the question before, but she’d never come up with anything in the past, nor did she in the present. “There wasn’t anything about Omega that I was especially attached to.” She sighed, wishing she did have something. “Maybe it is healing. Maybe that’s why I have such difficulty with separating who I am from my work.”
“Or,” Thaia said as she avoided eye contact until the last second, “maybe you’re just doomed to be boring.”
“I’m not boring! I don’t always work.” Lexi regretted her earlier choice of mercy.
“Since you’re mortal, I do concede that you have to sleep sometimes.”
Lexi wanted a pond available right then so she could chuck Thaia into it. She more than deserved it, and judging by the smirk fighting to show on Thaia’s face, she knew it, too. “I read.”
Thaia drummed her fingers on the arm of her seat as she considered the validity of reading as not boring. “That doesn’t count. Every time I’ve seen you reading, it’s one medical journal or another.” Thaia moved closer. “A couple times, they were textbooks. Can you imagine?”
After swatting Thaia on the shoulder, Lexi took her in-progress novel from her bag and then handed the datapad to Thaia. Lexi had a point to prove. She wasn’t boring and she wasn’t going to let Thaia sit there and accuse her of it.
Eyes bright with playfulness, Thaia asked, “You read tawdry romance novels?”
Of course she would think of them that way. Of course. “They aren’t ro—they’re historical novels in an epic series that takes place during the Formation Age.” Since Thaia seemed intent on disparaging her reading choices, she reached over to liberate her datapad from the ingrate’s hand.
The ingrate decided to act like a twenty-year-old and held it out of Lexi’s reach. “So… tawdry romance novels about ancient asari.”
Having had enough, Lexi resorted to using her biotics to reclaim her book. “I was going to let you borrow them, but now I’m not.”
Undaunted, Thaia’s sly smile returned. “You should use your biotics more often.”
“Oh, no. We’re not getting into that. Nowhere near it.”
“All right, I concede that you are, in fact, not entirely boring.”
Lexi put her datapad away, concealing it from unappreciative commandos to whom she would never lend her books.
On her part, Thaia was content to stay silent and read until after the mid-transport meal was consumed. Then, in an off-handed, speculative tone tailored to provoke, Thaia asked, “Since you grew up on Omega, do you even know how to swim?”
“Do I even—? Of course I do.” The question offended Lexi on an instinctual level. She was asari. Asari couldn’t not swim. “I had to take lessons for beyond the basics, but—”
“Where’d you take them?”
Had Lexi not known about Thaia’s attachment to water, she would’ve been taken aback by the strength of Thaia’s curiosity. She perked up from the lazy teasing from before, sitting up straighter and focusing solely on Lexi as she awaited an answer.
“On Omega when I was small. Then when I was an adult, I took lessons again because it felt right.” Goddess, she hadn’t thought about her lessons in more than a century. She’d been so fond of them, too. How could she have ever forgotten?
“In pools,” said Thaia.
“Yes, in pools.” Lexi looked at Thaia like she was daft. “Where else would I have gone? On space stations, it was pools or nothing.”
Thaia brought both her legs up into her seat and managed to cross them, though her knees stuck up too high because her legs were too long to even be trying it. Then she moved further forward. “Have you ever gone swimming in anything other than a pool?”
Ever since the first time Lexi’s mother had brought her for swimming lessons, Lexi had wanted to become good enough to swim in an ocean. Whenever her mother told her stories about where she’d grown up along the Kitoron Sea, Lexi had desperately wished they could’ve visited. She’d taken to looking at holos of Thessia’s oceans, wanting to visit them all. Her mother had promised to take her one day, but the opportunity had never arisen. Then Lexi had forgotten her childish wish, not remembering even when she’d resumed lessons during her first clinical internship on the Citadel. Eventually, she became skilled enough to earn an invite from a league-based team. Her enjoyment of the sport and the competition influenced her ultimate decision to join.
“No,” Lexi said out loud. “I never had the chance.”
Thaia looked at her in utter disbelief. “Never?”
“I’d forgotten I’d wanted to. This is literally the first time I’ve thought about it since I was a child. I know it’s a foreign concept to you, but we all weren’t practically surrounded by oceans during early childhood.”
Chastened, Thaia sat back and adjusted her legs again, folding one underneath herself and letting the other dangle over the side of her seat with the front of her foot touching the floor. “I’m sorry. If I sounded judgmental, that wasn’t how I meant it.” She stopped and thought it over before trying again. “My point was that if you’d really wanted to, you could’ve gone sometime in the past couple hundred years. But you didn’t even though you’d wanted to as a kid. I was wondering why.”
Lexi’s defensiveness evaporated at Thaia’s sincerity. Forgetting something as important as the sea was truly incomprehensible to Thaia, and this was Thaia’s way of trying to understand. “I became immersed in my work and I forgot. I truly only remembered just now.”
“Lexi, when we get to Thessia, you’re going swimming.”
The urgency might have been a little much, even with Lexi’s newfound understanding. “Didn’t you say there would be oceans in Andromeda?”
“They won’t be Thessian oceans.”
She had a point, but Lexi didn’t want to acknowledge it easily. “And if I don’t want to swim, what are you going to do? Throw me in?”
Thaia’s ready grin belied her intent of likely throwing Lexi into the water either way. “If need be. But you said you wanted to and didn’t claim otherwise.” She paused. “Wait, are you a good swimmer? Not just middling. Or just this side of not drowning. Your dad was turian, so don’t give me that look like it isn’t a possibility.”
Lexi sighed. “I was on a team.”
“In a league on the Citadel.”
“The Citadel’s league? Now you’re getting way less boring.”
“I’m so very relieved to be passing muster.”
“I’m looking you up.” Expressing no shame whatsoever, Thaia fired up her omni and began searching the extranet.
“Knock yourself out.” Lexi would not rise to the bait. She would not. Instead, she traded the medical journal for the novel, and proceeded to ignore Thaia and her research.
However, even with Thaia’s genuine interest in the topic, her exhaustion began winning out again. She began to drift off, slumping sideways like before, enough that Lexi had to reach over and nudge Thaia upright lest she fall asleep on her one way or another. After the fourth time, Thaia shook herself, considered Lexi for a moment, and then asked, “Did your dad ever take you to lessons or just your mom?”
“He didn’t in the beginning. Then my mother got called into work right before a lesson, and he brought me so I wouldn’t have to miss it. After he’d watched me a couple times, he volunteered to take me more. He’d only stand in the shallow end, the water barely reaching his waist. Which was good, because whenever it went higher, such as when he’d forget where he was standing and took a step back on the slope toward the deep end, he’d become a panicky mess.”
He’d looked so absurd, this turian standing in the middle of a pool, bewildered at how these small blue creatures surrounding him could be so happy in an environment so treacherous, and the memory brought a warm smile to Lexi’s face. It’d been a long time since she’d thought of her father during those lessons. He’d been more frightened of the water than any number of malcontents he’d had to toss from Afterlife, and Lexi’s mother had teased him about it constantly.
“But he told me he wouldn’t give up going because he knew I wouldn’t have much time with him compared to the length of the rest of my life. Even had he not been killed during a turf war, he would’ve been gone before I was a century old. So he wanted to be there while he could, even if it meant enduring time spent with a turian’s worst enemy.”
“Your dad sounds like he was pretty awesome,” said Thaia.
“He was.” Lexi couldn’t imagine her childhood without him or her mother, without how they related to each other and with her. It felt good to remember them.
It was Thaia’s first thought, her first feeling, each time she stepped foot on Thessia. Whether it was the familiar spires of asari architecture, the faint tang of salty air from the Tyrrhenian Ocean, or the occasional tingle of eezo on her skin, she couldn’t say. With it being so innate, maybe the source didn’t really matter. But whether or not Lexi had agreed to come with her, Thaia would’ve visited Thessia before she left the Milky Way. Depending on how long it took to build the Andromeda relays, it could be centuries before she could hope to see home again.
But she could. She would construct the relay and connect it properly and then anyone who wanted to could go home, whether they called home Andromeda or the Milky Way, Thessia or one of the seven worlds identified for colonization.
However, the dream hinged on the dark future the geth relay telescope had revealed not coming to pass. Holding onto the hope that the Reapers would be defeated if they did return was punishing to the point of unbearable. For five members of the team of eight that’d been sent to capture and study the relay telescope, holding onto that hope had proved impossible. Within days of discovering the truth about the Reapers, those five had disappeared. Jien Garson had gone so far as to contract the Shadow Broker to find them, but even that hadn’t yielded results. They were never heard from again.
The remaining three who’d managed to hold onto hope—whether it was believing the Milky Way would get its act together and prevail, or that maybe the Reapers wouldn’t come back, or that Andromeda would be a new home for the Milky Way species—were sworn to secrecy. It was an understandable precaution, given the dire prediction. Others in the Initiative knew, but only those who needed to: Jien Garson, the pathfinders, Matriarch Nuara, and whoever the fuck the Benefactor was. Then it was the three left from the relay mission: Dr. Leynomi Aridana, the Astrophysics Lead; Dr. Priene Varist, astrophysicist and theoretical astronomer; and Dr. Althaia Kallistrate, astrophysicist and aerospace engineer.
Thaia’s hope rested in the constancy of the world that was her home. She simply couldn’t force herself to believe that Thessia could ever be gone. Like matriarchs, it was and always would be there. The Reapers would be repelled or wouldn’t show up at all, and in seven or eight hundred years, Thaia would have her relay telescope finished. Then they could see Thessia waiting for her daughters to come home.
Today, Thaia would be going all the way home. If the house on the bay wasn’t shuttered yet, they could stay there. “Were you counting on staying at a hotel?” she asked Lexi as they continued their walk to the skycar lot in the shade of a row of trees.
“Have you so quickly forgotten that I hadn’t counted on a single thing involving Thessia today?”
A nice reminder of Thaia’s huge fuckup from early this morning. She’d let her excitement about sharing get the best of her and hadn’t merely stepped out of bounds but leapt right the fuck over them and barreled onward. She could’ve wrecked their friendship and only have herself to blame.
Lexi touched her arm. “I was teasing you. I meant it when I said we were fine. And I more than got even.”
Goddess, Thaia couldn’t decide which completely embarrassing thing had been worse: when Lexi had asked what Thaia had said about her to Thaia’s father or when Lexi had caught her mistakenly yet blatantly checking out her breasts. She’d blushed both times and commandos didn’t fucking blush. They didn’t. It wasn’t a thing. She hoped maybe she was just coming down with an illness of some sort. That was a far better explanation for her reactions than anything else.
“What I was leading to was that there’s a possibility we can avoid a hotel. If the house on the bay isn’t closed up, we can stay there. It’s an hour-long trip by skycar, but I can nap on the way there and back. And it’s better we go there first in case things go sideways here in the city.”
Lexi halted and turned to face her. “In case things go sideways? That’s not very reassuring.”
“Because it was meant to be pragmatic. Here, I can try reassuring.” Thaia placed her hands on Lexi’s cheeks and bent down so that she was at eye level. “Don’t worry, Lexi. Things might not go sideways.”
After putting her hands over Thaia’s, Lexi said, “You aren’t very good at being reassuring.” However, amusement softened her skepticism.
Thaia smiled and took her hands back before her thoughts went elsewhere. “I am when I know something for sure. But I don’t make promises I don’t intend to keep. How about this? I promise that if things go tits-up, I’ll be right there by your side.”
“Better, but your phrasing could use some work.”
She pretended to mull over it. “Even if we end up getting ourselves arrested.”
“Worse. You’re terrible at this.” Lexi’s repressed smile broke through, weakening the admonishment.
“I am. Can you imagine me as a medical doctor? I feel bad for my hypothetical patients already.”
“You would be the worst—” Lexi crossed her arms and her skepticism returned in full force. “Did you say something about getting arrested?”
Thaia employed her best smile. “We’ll be fine.” Then she activated her omni. “And I need to message my dad to find out about the house in case we do need to get a hotel room.”
Lexi waved her off, choosing to look at the array of buildings and walkways of Armali’s newest quarter, only a few thousand years old compared to the ten thousand or more of the city center.
Thaia’s father replied to the real-time message almost instantly, which meant she was probably in Armali, too.
> House is still supplied and stocked. Will be for another few weeks in case anyone changes their mind. Why, you bringing someone there?
> It’s Lexi, isn’t it? I’m in town but if you’re going to be the best kind of busy with her, don’t feel obligated to meet up with my old ass.
> It isn’t like that. Lexi’s never been swimming in an ocean before. I thought she should swim in a Thessian ocean before she’ll never get the chance.
> That’s a good reason to bring her but damn if it doesn’t sound like you’re angling for some action.
> Yeah, a swim race. She swam in the Citadel’s league when she lived there.
> You aren’t going to do anything else out there? Really?
> Cliff diving before it. Well, dive from the cliffs then race to the other side of the bay.
> You’ll have to use all the charisma on the fucking planet to convince her rational ass to jump off a cliff. You staying the night?
> Might as well one last time.
> Well, if you two aren’t going to be fucking then you won’t mind having a matriarch around because I’d rather stay there than some hotel.
> We aren’t going to be fucking.
> I’d be more disappointed, but I hate hotels. Still, I’ll message before I get there. Just in case.
> See you then.
Thaia switched programs and reserved a skycar, muttering about her father believing her sisters over her as she did.
“What did your father say?” asked Lexi. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
“Something along the lines of taking you swimming looks a lot like a plot point from one of your tawdry romance novels.” Thaia confirmed the reservation and looked up, not wanting to miss the adorable scrunch of irritation Lexi would get between her eyes.
There it was. “Historical fiction. And your father’s right if one is talking about romance novels and not historical fiction.”
Thaia laughed. “That’s where the resemblance ends, though. No one wants to climb a cliff and jump off it without clothes on unless they like everything scraped up.”
Disbelief scrubbed away Lexi’s exasperation. “You didn’t mention anything about rock climbing. Nor did you mention anything about jumping off cliffs. Swimming is what you mentioned.”
“Jumping into the ocean. It’ll be fun.” Thaia indicated that they should resume their walk to the skycar lot.
They did, though Lexi didn’t abandon her outrage. “Famous last words uttered by hundreds of thousands right before they died.”
“It’s just cliff diving.”
“Are you even listening to yourself?”
“But asari are from the sea.” Sharks or the asari equivalent, Thaia recalled someone saying. Probably a human, but they hadn’t been wrong. Right on the fucking mark, actually.
“Your argument would hold more merit were our ancient ancestors birds, since wings would be the attribute you’re looking for when hurling oneself off the edge of a cliff.”
Goddess, but Lexi’s words could bite. Thaia fought back with charm. It was all she had and how the fuck was her father always right? “What I’m hearing is a lot of ‘no, Thaia, I have no wish to go swimming in the ocean with you.’”
They stopped at the lot’s kiosk, where Thaia entered the reservation information. The risk of tripping removed, Lexi addressed Thaia directly. “It isn’t the swimming. I like swimming. My objection is with the diving off the cliff beforehand.”
Thaia’s ancestors had jumped off those cliffs and gone swimming for millennia without a single fatality or serious injury. “The cliff jumping is more fun and less dangerous than you think it is.”
Lexi rubbed at her temple and then sighed. “Try this, then. Pretend you’re me.”
This was turning out better than Thaia had thought. In a wretched imitation of Lexi’s accent, she said, “Thaia Kallistrate is the most amazing person in the universe, outshined only by myself, the most amazing and intelligent person in the entire history of the universe, and I recognize that my only fault is that I won’t believe Thaia when she says cliff jumping is fun when it is.” Having gotten Lexi to laugh, Thaia abandoned the fake accent. “How can someone who grew up on a lawless mining station in the Sahrabarik System have no sense of adventure?”
“No,” Lexi said as she pointed at Thaia, “don’t you turn this around on me like I’m being unreasonable for objecting to jumping off a cliff.”
“Into really deep water. That detail’s pretty important because it’s one reason why no one dies.” Thaia sighed, wishing she could prove how safe it was because Lexi deserved to have fun. “You already observe enough from the outside. There’s nothing wrong with living some of the moments, too.” She paused to reevaluate, wondering if Lexi’s objection stemmed from another source. “Are you afraid?”
Lexi crossed her arms again, informing Thaia that she’d misstepped. Again. “Do you really think calling me a coward will work?”
“What? No! I meant it as in are you afraid of heights, not as in trying to goad you into going. It’s supposed to be freeing, not the end of a forced march. Look, if you really don’t want to go, I’ll stop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re fussing because it’s what you do but you’re still up for it, or if you’re fussing because you aren’t going to do the thing and so should no other rational person ever.”
Lexi looked out at the city, at the graceful curves of the buildings, the pools of water glittering under Parnitha’s midday light, the organic patterns of the skycar traffic that followed what had once been streets below. In a nearby field, two matrons were teaching a small class of primary school children some of the basic biotic forms taught as soon as a child’s biotics manifested. “We do instinctively arrest falls with biotics once they emerge,” Lexi said.
One unfortunate child lost focus and her biotics discharged with enough force to knock over a row of her more unfortunate classmates. While the other kids in the class giggled, the three who’d been knocked down complained that they should be allowed to use their biotics like that, too.
“Once we learn proper control of them,” Lexi said, as amused as the teachers trying keep straight faces as they sorted out the heap of children.
Thaia watched the children with as much amusement; teaching little kids their biotics was as interesting as teaching advanced commandos. Both groups reacted with the same wonder when they managed a biotic technique they never thought could work, much less replicate on their own. “What’s really fun is trying out different biotic tricks as you hit the water. Wrap yourself in a stasis and you get a huge splash. Toss out a shockwave and you launch a really confused manta out of the water. I’m still not sure which of us was more surprised, the manta or me. My dad laughed her ass off, though.”
Lexi turned. “Was the manta harmed?”
Thaia resisted a smile. It was such a Lexi question. “The manta was fine. I grabbed it with a lift so it didn’t bellyflop, and then I gently set it back into the water.”
“Do you…” Lexi watched the children again, laughing quietly when a different child lost control of her biotics and knocked the others down again. “You’re set on a race, then?”
“Yes. And if you don’t agree to go, I win by default and that’s a boring way to win.”
“You truly believe you can out swim me?”
Thaia frowned. “I did before, but now some doubt’s creeping in because you sound really sure that I can’t. Still. We go and we’re racing. Thessia versus Omega, winner take all.”
“Take all of what?”
“Pride, dignity, giant ego, paying for the next meal, the transport back to the station, buys the other a souvenir of their choice, whatever.” Thaia shrugged, aiming for nonchalance. “Since the visit isn’t something out of your tawdry romance novels, other rewards aren’t in the running.” And she did her very best not to think of them because if she blushed in front of Lexi for a third time in the same fucking day she might die.
“Historical novels. Stop trying to bait me.” Lexi sighed. “All right. Because I trust you, I’ll go. I’ll even participate in the cliff diving followed by soundly thrashing you in a race.”
Thaia grinned and bounced on her feet like an excited kid. “I won’t betray your trust.” Then she took Lexi’s hand and led her to the reserved skycar. “Come on, then. You’ve got a childhood dream to fulfill and the ocean’s waiting.”
As the skycar took to the air, Thaia watched Armali fall away below, like she’d done as a child when she left with her mother for the house on the bay. Those had been the best days, even while being scolded for getting nose prints on the window. She’d always been too eager catch the first glimpse of the bay to remember not to press her face against the glass.
“This is where you grew up?” asked Lexi, who’d mirrored Thaia with taking in the aerial view of the city.
Thaia engaged the autopilot. “Until I was around twenty.”
“That’s when you moved to Illium, isn’t it?”
“It was.” Leaving Thessia, leaving everything behind, had been so much worse than simply leaving the bay behind.
“How did you handle it?” Lexi posed the question with a fine balance of compassion and curiosity that told Thaia that while she’d like to hear the answer, she wouldn’t take offense if Thaia declined.
It went a long way toward establishing a deeper faith that Lexi could be trusted with stories or memories that held the potential of vulnerability.
So Thaia answered with as much truth as she could bear to say out loud. “Poorly. But my dad did her best with what she had available on Illium. Eventually, she found this siari temple that had a huge saltwater pool on its lowest level. They’d imported eezo-veined stone from Thessia and built the pool right into it so that eezo leeched into the water over time, like at home. When they’d established the temple, a bunch of the priestesses’s daughters had difficulty with the transition from Thessia to the new colony of Illium, especially when it came to losing the ocean they’d grown used to being nearby. The pool had been their solution, and then they kept it open. They maintained contacts in the schools and whatever other channels matriarchs use to organize shit. When someone told them about a kid with transition issues, they sent along an invite. They did that for me.”
Illium, Thaia had been told on her way there, was an asari world. Like Thessia, most of the people she would see day-to-day would be asari. Unlike Thessia, she would see other species far more often. For someone raised on Thessia, it could be hard to get used to and she needed to be prepared for it. But when you were involuntarily leaving behind everything you’d ever known, preparing for what was ahead was impossible. Thaia hadn’t been bothered by the presence of non-asari. Learning how other species viewed the galaxy was interesting. But what she hadn’t expected was for Illium to feel like living on an alien world, not a different asari world.
Despite the open, welcoming nature of her father’s side of the family, something had been missing that she hadn’t been able to identify. If she could have told someone, she would have because she’d wanted to feel like this new place could be her home, too.
It’d felt like it should have. She’d felt safe in her father’s home, in the relationships she was forming with the other people who lived there, the steady energy of her father, the somewhat calmer nature of Aunt Jarah, the excitable gregariousness of Uncle Khel—krogan, she’d decided within days of meeting him, were awesome—and the ready acceptance from her next older sister, Eirian. Her other two older sisters had been much the same as Eirian, but because both Meir and Safira were active commandos, they weren’t around as much as everyone else. The combination had given Thaia the impression that she should have felt at home in her new one, and yet she hadn’t.
Then her father had brought her to the siari temple, led her down to its lowest level, quiet aside from reassuring her that no, we’re not here for religious services, I don’t like sitting through them either, followed by, trust me, all right? Because her father had yet to prove anything other than trustworthy, Thaia had. Then her father had opened the door to the room with the pool, letting it speak for itself.
The distinctive scent of salt and eezo had brought forth the latent memories of the missing constant she hadn’t been able to identify. Water, salt, and eezo woven together, the combination perpetually present on Thessia, a combination Thaia had never lived without being surrounded by until Illium. She’d jumped into the water and, for the first time in months, she’d felt at home. She’d felt like this new place where she lived with her father and sisters and extended family could be almost as much a home as Thessia had been.
Then Lexi spoke, jolting Thaia from her memories. “It wasn’t the same temple where you aided your nieces in racing soap boats, was it?”
Thaia hoped she hadn’t been out of it for that long. She’d had plenty of counseling for years after leaving Thessia, mostly sorted things out. But no matter how much you worked on it, the memories didn’t disappear. Sometimes they crept back out, forcing you to chase them off again. “I’ll tell you a secret,” she said, leaning closer to Lexi to signal a conspiracy. “It was. And we had permission to race the boats. The priestesses thought it was a great idea and it’s something kids would’ve done on any naturally occurring body of water on Thessia. I just never told Safira that I’d asked first.”
“Because the face Safira makes when she’s morally outraged is the best.”
“With every passing day, I understand more and more why Safira hit you with that rain gauge.”
“It’s insulting that she doesn’t even feel guilty about it.” Thaia settled back into her seat, contemplated putting her feet up on the instrument panel in front of her, and then decided to err on the side of safety. With her luck, she’d end up disengaging the autopilot, and the whole ‘not wanting to die in a fiery crash into the side of a mountain because she’d been stupid’ along with the whole ‘not wanting Lexi to die because Thaia had been stupid’ parts aside, she didn’t want to postpone going to the bay. If she died, it’d be postponed forever and that would suck.
“After you moved to Illium, did you get to come back when you were still a child?” asked Lexi.
“I did. My father said it wasn’t fair that my sisters got to grow up on Thessia and live here most of the time and I didn’t because of what happened with my mother, so she made sure we visited at least twice a year for a couple weeks or longer if she could manage it. My sisters would go too, if they got the time off. Other than the water, one thing I really liked about the bay was that Aulus was never there.”
Lexi’s brow furrowed. “Your stepfather?”
“That’s him. Aulus went from stereotypical turian hardass to total asshole within a few years and it had nothing to do with my shoe thievery. I’d never liked him. My mother tried to get me to come around a little. Told me that it was all right not to like him, but I needed to at least tolerate him while he was around, the usual lifespan talk.”
“How inappropriate was your answer?”
“It was a perfectly reasonable response, I’ll have you know.” Thaia maneuvered her body around so she could lean her head against the window and still face Lexi in the seat next to her. “I told her I could tolerate him going through an unexplored relay and never returning.” Thaia noticed Lexi desperately trying to keep a straight face. “I won’t be offended if you laugh. I was all of fourteen and we had the conversation in a restaurant, so while my mother looked properly scandalized, several people nearby laughed.”
But Lexi suddenly didn’t have a problem keeping a straight face because her rising concern took precedence. “What did your sisters think of him?”
Thaia gazed out the window behind Lexi, where the geography had transitioned from urban Armali to the suburban and rural areas of the encompassing Armali Republic. Then came the coastline, an undulating ribbon of forested headlands and bays, the shallow bays marked by the lightest of blues and the water in the deeper bays nearly as dark as the midnight blue water in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Ocean.
When Thaia had been little, her mother had once off-handedly commented that Thaia’s eyes were the same color as the depths of the ocean. Then her mother’s voice had faltered, the comment no longer so off-handed, and she’d said she’d met only one other person with eyes the same color. All of nine and full up on curiosity, Thaia had asked who. “No one,” Indah had said. “No one you know.”
“We’re about the travel up the coast.” Thaia indicated the window. “You’ll want to see this.”
Lexi’s focus, Lexi’s care, didn’t budge. “If you don’t want to answer, you can just say so. I won’t be hurt by it.”
“I don’t mind answering, but it can wait. I promise you’ll want to see this.”
After she searched for confirmation in Thaia’s eyes, Lexi turned and looked out the window. “Goddess,” she said. “I should have taken the time to visit ages ago.”
Thaia’s chest ached in a strange way as she watched Lexi appreciate something Thaia had loved for a long time. “Yes, you should have. But you’re seeing it now and soon you’ll get to swim in it. Not only will you get to swim in it, but you’ll get to swim in the best place in the entire Tyrrhenian Ocean.”
“With the strength of your conviction, I’m almost convinced without having seen it,” Lexi said without taking her eyes from the vista below. “Thank you for cajoling me into it.”
And the ache in Thaia’s chest vanished because she’d been reminded of her fuckup yet again. “It was nearly a kidnapping.” She almost kept the strain from her voice.
“It was not. I know you well enough to know that if anyone who wasn’t a criminal didn’t want to go somewhere or do something, you wouldn’t force them. Maybe your nieces if they refuse to go to bed.”
“Biotics usually solves that problem. Asari parenting technique number one: if your kid’s being a stubborn shit about getting into or out of bed, that’s what biotics are for.”
“That does seem to be a common childhood experience.”
“It is for everyone I’ve known.” Then while Lexi continued to watch the coast as they flew along it, Thaia answered her question. “My sisters never met Aulus. After two centuries of being bonded, my parents split up. Since Sula was my sisters’ mother and not their father, they went with her to Illium. I stayed on Thessia with my mother since that’s how it works in the Republics.” The old resentment returned, the one that sprang from a source other than the turmoil with Aulus. Thaia couldn’t imagine a life without her sisters, but she could imagine a life where she’d known them without skipping those first twenty years. She shoved the resentment back to where it lurked. “But my mother ended up dying before I turned twenty-one. The last time I saw her was before I left for Illium.”
“I’m sorry.” Lexi’s focus on Thaia was so intense that it was like she’d forgotten about the ocean’s existence.
Forgetting the ocean again was the opposite of what Thaia wanted for Lexi during her first—and likely last—visit. “She’d been ill for a long time. Maybe it was better. I don’t know.” The same as the resentment, her mother’s death had happened a long time ago and there wasn’t a need to talk about it. “What I do know is that I need a nap or you’ll win the race because I’ll fall asleep halfway through. Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be too awful because then you’d have to rescue me, which means you’d have to give me mouth-to—”
Lexi surfaced from the depths of her empathy and laughed. “Take your nap. When should I wake you?”
“I programmed the console to ping when we’re ten minutes out. That should wake me up.” By virtue of having been a commando for two centuries and having slept like shit the night before, Thaia was asleep within minutes.
The bay on the Tyrrhenian Ocean was nestled between two headlands the ocean had carved into sheer cliffs on both sides. Its shallows began only meters from the shore—a thin, light blue crescent cut from the cobalt of the impossibly deep bay. A sandbar at the bay’s mouth guarded the small strip of sandy beach from what otherwise would have been a constant assault of the powerful waves that normally would’ve been generated by that steep of a drop-off.
It really was Thaia’s favorite place in the galaxy.
After landing the skycar on the small pad hidden by trees, Thaia jumped out and called for Lexi to hurry up. The moment Thaia’s feet hit on the forest floor, the familiar hum of eezo tingled right under her skin and everything inside settled.
The old growth forest running down hillside slopes to the hidden ocean bay, the house that had been built millennia ago and still maintained, the eezo in the bedrock underneath it all, they were the welcoming arms of a long line of matriarchs reassuring Thessia’s daughters of the stable peace they would always find here. This was home.
“I have to ask,” Lexi said after she’d taken in their surroundings, “the tingling under my skin, is it eezo? I’d call it paresthesia, but it lacks the prickling sensation.”
“Eezo. Even for Thessia this area is eezo-rich. The stronger your biotics are, the more you’ll feel it, but eventually it becomes background noise.”
“While it isn’t uncomfortable, it’s odd. It feels like it’s calling for me to use my biotics in some form or fashion. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.”
As Lexi allowed her biotics to form a corona around her body, Thaia fetched their belongings from the skycar. “It’s part of the reason why everyone who lives here climbs up the cliffs biotically and then jumps into the bay. Lets you get some of that energy out and not have to worry about anyone getting seriously hurt.” When Lexi gave her a dubious look, Thaia rolled her eyes. “Don’t start again. We’re already here. And I’m serious when I say that my family’s been playing on those cliffs and in that water for thousands of years.”
“How strong are the biotics in your family? Because if your ancestors lived this close to this much eezo generation after generation, your family is essentially a biological longitudinal study about the role and influence of environmental eezo in the strengthening and development of biotics in conjunction with the asari nervous system.”
“That might be the longest title of a journal article I’ve ever heard,” said Thaia. The skycar blocked her from Lexi’s view, which meant Lexi didn’t see her trying not to laugh because it was such a Lexi thing to think when told about the asari who’d lived here for millennia.
“Goddess, that isn’t how—I didn’t mean to categorize your family as a potential experiment. I apologize.”
Confused as to why Lexi sounded horrified because she’d only talked about what would be obvious to any scientist on hearing about Thaia’s family and the bay, Thaia popped out from behind the skycar. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, so I’m not sure why you’re apologizing. You’re actually so right about the study that there’s already been a few done here. The last one was maybe a couple centuries back. If you want, I can find the articles for you to read because I think you’d find them interesting. Their titles are shorter than yours would’ve been though.”
“Still, I shouldn’t have immediately thought of anyone as experiments and not people.”
Both hands occupied with holding luggage, Thaia used an elbow and a foot to maneuver the skycar’s rear hatch closed. “Pretty sure I didn’t hear you call anyone a ‘thing’ and you’re far from the first person to think about my family’s biotics the instant you felt the eezo. Anyway.” Thaia walked up to stand beside her. “To answer your question—incredibly strong. The militia wanted to hold onto Safira the same way they did me, and Meir had hard time separating from her own militia to join the Leusinia’s unit until Matriarch Ishara stepped in. The only reason my dad and Aunt Jarah are more powerful than any of us is because they’re matriarchs. But we’re all good at different kinds of biotics. Mine are particularly explody.”
“Explody? That isn’t even a word.” Lexi accepted Thaia’s offer of the handle of her suitcase.
“Yes, it is. If you have a problem with it, take it up with Eirian.” Thaia gave her a self-deprecating smile. “When my biotics detonate, they detonate. Anything within range goes with them and I’ve managed to blow up some rather large objects. Meir’s good with precision. She can pack the energy of a detonation from mine into a pinpoint biotic lance that has a sniper’s accuracy. Safira’s best strength is holding people where she wants them. She sticks someone in a stasis or lifts them up or sucks them into a singularity’s orbit and they aren’t going anywhere until she says so. If I remember right from when I read the articles forever ago, it’s something to do with our nervous systems having to adjust to being around and then taking advantage of this much eezo.”
Then Thaia started for the house because while she didn’t mind talking about biotics, they also had a lot to do. “Come on. We’ve got a race to swim.” When Lexi didn’t move, Thaia tried again because she knew Lexi’s curiosity about the studies hadn’t waned. “Do you still want to read the articles?”
Lexi took a step toward the house, stopped, and then sighed. “Would it make me a terrible person if I said yes?”
“It would make you Lexi and you aren’t a terrible person so… no. It wouldn’t.” Thaia couldn’t help but smile when the shroud of self-doubt lifted from Lexi’s eyes. “After you lose our race, I’ll find them so you can read them on the way back to Armali.”
“Your introduction to the concept of hubris will likely be painful.”
No, Thaia wouldn’t be frightened by Lexi’s warnings. She wouldn’t let herself be intimidated by them, either. She continued telling herself that as they walked the rest of the way to the two-story house. Thaia unlocked the side door and bounded inside, the lights flicking on at the motion. “Keep your panties on, T’Perro, because that introduction isn’t going to be today.”
“You,” Lexi said as she walked through the doorway, “are the absolute worst. I’m beginning to believe that all of the stories your sisters told me about your commando days are true. The story about a line of statues, a prothean dig site, and an archeometrist from Port Lerama Tech was excellent, yet suspiciously lacked in detail. Would you care to fill in the gaps?”
“No! That’s just—who told you that story?” What Thaia really meant was which of my sisters needs maiming, but maybe Lexi wouldn’t pick up on the subtext because she was an only child.
“I’m not risking you harming any of your sisters right before we leave for Andromeda.”
Lexi was too fucking smart, that’s all there was to it. “Fine, no more delays. It’s pretty much all guest rooms here now, so let’s go upstairs and you can take your pick. Then meet me back here in fifteen because you are going do—”
Lexi set her suitcase on the floor and then waited. Expectantly.
Expectantly because Thaia had almost made her plight worse again and how the fuck had Lexi turned the tables that fast? “To race. You are going to race and lose.”
However, when Lexi went upstairs without saying a word, Thaia got the feeling that she’d already lost a contest of some kind. Or had fallen way behind because she hadn’t realized soon enough that Lexi had no qualms against competing in a contest of who can make the other person blush more with a commando. It just wasn’t done unless the other competitor was a commando, and yet.
And yet Lexi was winning. The fuck.
Thaia took the steps two at a time because she wasn’t going to lose the damn race, too. She heard Lexi in the first room on the left so Thaia chose the one across from it because it was closest to the stairs. Then she tossed her suitcase onto the bed, opened it, grabbed the rash guard top and bottom that were highly necessary components for a fun day climbing and diving, and then the pair of lightweight, quick-drying climbing shoes. Thaia had needed only a single time falling during a climb and not arresting her fall fast enough to avoid scraping up her skin and fuck had it hurt when she landed in the water. Never again had she not used proper gear.
So, before she and Lexi had left Armali, Thaia had made it a point to stop at a sporting goods store to get Lexi the necessary gear. If Lexi had fun that day—Thaia honestly didn’t think she wouldn’t, especially after she’d found out that Lexi had done a decent amount of climbing and knew her shit—Lexi declared she would keep the gear in her stasis locker. That way, if they found a place in Andromeda where they could climb and dive, they’d be equipped.
Dressed, Thaia bolted from the room, grabbed a dry bag from a closet, and set to gathering the supplies they’d need. Lexi joined her within minutes, and then Thaia brought her down to the attached boathouse that stood directly over the water. The damp, salt-laden air wrapped around them as they worked to untie the small, flat-bottomed boat. When they were down to one line left to be untied, Thaia opened the boathouse’s doors and smiled a little when the open bay greeted them.
“You look content,” said Lexi.
“I am. I’ve always been when I’m here.” Thaia rested her hand on a wooden piling. It was smooth to the point of soft, which meant it needed replacing.
Then she remembered it wouldn’t be her responsibility to replace it anymore because she was leaving this behind. “When I had to move to Illium, I’m still not sure if it was harder leaving the bay or leaving my mother.”
“Is this the last place you saw her?”
“No. It…” Thaia fell silent as she thought about the last time she’d seen her mother. It’d been when Indah had brought her in for her first AYS test. Too early, she’d heard someone say, you can safely give it another five years before you start. Indah had told them it was just in case. Just in case she hits adolescence early. I didn’t, but my mother did. Thaia hadn’t thought to doubt her reasoning, but now she wondered if it’d been something else. Indah had been well into her transformation from her mother to a stranger by then. Yet she’d made it a point to arrange Thaia’s testing and be with her while she waited for the results.
For a single day, she’d had her mother back. Not some stranger who went by the same name as Thaia’s mother, but her actual mother. The mother she remembered from before Aulus. The mother she missed. Indah had been confident, each word she spoke believed by Thaia with absolute certainty. No matter the results of this test, know that you will always be my daughter and I will always love you.
She’d sat with her mother in the waiting room’s industrial chairs, their padding worn down by years of mothers and daughters existing in that eternal moment to discover if every dream they’d ever had would be replaced with desolation. Thaia hadn’t been able to let go of her chair’s arm, not until her mother gently pried her fingers from it and held Thaia’s hand in hers, her grip strong and reassuring. The anxiety flooding her mind had drowned out sound and thought except for one question repeated over and over.
What happens to me if it’s positive?
As if she’d known, Indah softly reminded her to breathe. Thaia had. A floral scent greeted her, the residue of the receptionist’s perfume on the datapad Indah held in her other hand. Commenting on how terrible the smell was. Her mother’s laugh, quiet but genuine.
Then it ended. Results negative. Her mother gone by evening. Thaia hadn’t known it then, but it was the last time she’d see her mother in person. And despite the dread of an unknown future that had pervaded that small eternity, the grown child, a veteran commando, an aerospace engineer who would one day build a mass relay, missed her mother enough to want to reach back and hold that moment with the surety that had been her mother’s conviction as they waited. To—
Lexi’s voice broke through the memory’s grip. “Thaia?”
Fuck. It’d happened again. Using the solid feel of the piling under her fingers to anchor herself to the present, Thaia wrested herself from the past, grasping what calm she could because it was fucking embarrassing when that happened. “I’m fine.”
Not that Lexi believed her. She wouldn’t have, either.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried.”
“No, it isn’t your fault. The last time I saw her was when she took me for AYS testing.”
Lexi frowned. “Twenty would have been far too early for the old test.”
There was something strangely comforting in the constancy of Lexi’s healer mindset. While still projecting care, Lexi had commented on the potential inaccuracy of a mistimed test and she wouldn’t have been Lexi if she hadn’t.
“That’s what the staff at the testing facility told her, but she insisted. Convinced them it was necessary because her own mother had entered adolescence early. Either way, it wasn’t any less nerve-wracking for me.” Thaia’s voice became subdued. “She’d been a stranger for a long time by then, but I was still grateful she was there. Weird, right? My dad took me for the other tests at the usual ages. She was just as reassuring—more than, once I got to know her.”
“You didn’t know her at all before age twenty?”
Thaia swung herself around the piling and then bent to untie the last line. “I was less than a year old when my parents broke their bond. Safira was almost a hundred, Meir around seventy-five, and Eirian was only forty. My mother cut off all contact, said it was better for everyone. It took legal intervention for me to see my dad because Mother wouldn’t allow it. In the end, despite my mother being a matriarch and my father still a matron back then, the same day I met my dad for the first time was the same day Thessian courts transferred me from my mother’s custody to hers.”
“Even having grown up on Omega, I know that’s an incredibly rare occurrence,” said Lexi.
While Thaia trusted Lexi enough to tell her all of what’d happened, she didn’t want to right then because it was heavy shit. This visit was supposed to be fucking fun, not maudlin. But she didn’t want to be dishonest either, so she went with vague. “The courts had hard enough evidence to render a judgement. The case was over practically before it started.” Loose line in hand, Thaia looked up as she stood.
Lexi was studying her, grey eyes moving back and forth across Thaia’s face as if measuring both Thaia’s mood and what she would say. “You’ve had a lot happen to you,” she said after another moment.
Thaia meant to say something along the lines of yeah, but it’s better for now if we pretend none of it came up, but she looked out at the sea and her words got lost along the way. They were swept into a current of memories, as if those memories knew this was the last time Thaia would stand where they’d formed.
She tried not to remember her mother bringing her here when she was little, the time she put Thaia in a stasis bubble and let her roll around the surface of the water, or her mother softly laughing at Thaia’s protests after being plucked from the water because you can’t live in the ocean no matter how much you wish you could, and no, you cannot actually become a shark, then falling asleep on her mother’s shoulder mid-protest.
Maybe it was better she left this behind.
Thaia coiled the line in her hands as she took a breath and released it. Then she turned to Lexi, who’d stayed there, willing to listen had Thaia chosen to share because that was the kind of person Lexi was. The care in her eyes wasn’t something that could be faked.
“Let’s talk about it another time.” Thaia tossed the coil into the bow of the boat, wishing she could muster a smile to put Lexi at ease because this memory shit was awkward when it barged in. “Memories keep, but Parnitha will set within hours and we have a lot to do. After the thing I want to try with the reflecting pool in Armali, I want to get back here in time for one last sunset.”
Lexi searched her eyes again and then nodded. “I’m willing to listen, if you should ever need me to. And if you ever want avoid talking about it in favor of drinking wine while watching a horrendous vid, I’ll gladly do so with you. Especially if it’s your aunt providing the wine.”
The warm humor was enough to draw a smile from Thaia when she hadn’t been able to force one before. “It really was good, wasn’t it?” She stepped into the boat, planting her feet on the deck and shifting with it as it tipped back and forth, and then gestured to Lexi. “Hop in. We’re driving out to that really narrow strip of sand directly underneath the south-side cliffs.”
As Thaia steered the boat out into the bay, tendrils of memories twined their way around her wish to stay in the present, her wish to not think about the past. What—whom, specifically—she did want to about was Lexi. There was so much about her she didn’t know and wanted to and the suffocating memories in the way could get fucked.
Lexi stopped watching the cliffs off the port side of the boat and gave Thaia a quizzical look.
Before Lexi could follow it up with a question, Thaia asked her own. “Feel like telling me another story about your dad?”
A tiny smiled curled at the corners of Lexi’s mouth, the affection she held for her father a comfort even centuries later. “I remember once being out near the edges of Omega with him. He was so excited about a surprise he had for me that you could practically see his mandibles vibrating.”
“Was he usually hard to read?”
“No, not really. He always said it made him a bad turian for him not being so stoic like those who advanced high in the meritocracy.” Her smile widened, the fondness for both her parents and what they’d shared carrying through. “Then my mother would tell him she loved him the way he was, that she liked not having to always look for the minute movement of a mandible or how slightly he moved his eyes to figure out what his mood was.”
Thaia wished she could’ve met him, the turian who’d provided so much love in Lexi’s childhood. The primary emotion Aulus had possessed was cold, controlling anger. The secondary emotion had been anger of every type. If he’d ever felt anything else, Thaia had never seen evidence of it. The sole positive for her had been that Aulus wasn’t her father. “So what was his surprise?”
“He brought me as close to the mass effect field repulse generators as he dared, which gave us a clear view of the space around the station. I kept asking if this was his surprise. He wouldn’t answer except to tell me to be patient.”
Thaia did her best to picture Lexi as anything but the attentive and patient person she was. It couldn’t be reconciled. “I’m having a hard time imagining you being impatient.”
“I was a child. Children have an excuse to be impatient, being children. Grown adults, especially grown asari, have no excuse.”
“Come on, I never make excuses when I’m impatient. I own it.” Whether Thaia’s impatience required lighthearted jokes or sincere apologies, she did own it.
Lexi hummed. “You don’t own it so much as you embrace it.”
If Lexi ever made that sound again, Thaia would have to strongly and firmly remind herself that anything more was not now and maybe not ever possible. And this, whatever this was, she didn’t want to fuck up. “What was the surprise?”
Lexi’s look said case in point. “He sat us down right there and the view itself was breathtaking. Empty of the perpetual haze, you could see everything. The view alone could’ve been his surprise and I would have cherished it. But then he told me to look to our left, and there was the brightest object I’d ever seen in my life. It was the comet Corope, which orbits Sahrabarik every eighty-seven years. He’d calculated when it would pass by Omega and made sure I saw it.”
“That’s… that’s pretty awesome, actually.”
“They’re things I’ll never forget—his thoughtfulness and that comet.” Then Lexi laughed. “When I told my mother about it, she’d gotten annoyed with my father. Told him she would’ve liked to have seen it too, and now it was too late. That night, when my mother was at work, we did the calculations together for when Corope would fly by again. Barring sudden immortality, my father would be dead when it did, but he wanted to make sure my mother got to see it.”
The love in Lexi’s voice as she thought about her father got Thaia smiling. Then her smile broadened. “Lexi, I’m not sure if anyone’s told you this, but your dad was a nerd.”
“Did the math give it away? Because you—”
“We’re not talking about me. We’re talking about your dad, who was an awesome nerd dad, who somehow ended up with your mom, who was one of Aria’s fucking commandos. How’d they meet?”
Thaia groaned in disappointment. “Come on.”
“They really did, but in an atypical way. While breaking up a bar fight, my father made a throwaway comment referencing an applicable historical event. It got my mother’s attention because, as a general rule, bouncers weren’t the most clever. So why would one drop a casual history reference? As it turned out, my father had a degree in Comparative History from the University of Taetrus.”
“For real? How’d he end up on Omega?”
“He was a biotic. He got tired of dealing with the meritocracy and left after telling off a superior officer. Ended up on Omega.”
Thaia changed the heading of the boat to line up for beaching it on the narrow sandbar below the cliffs. “How’d your mother end up there?”
“Mum was a commando with a militia for a few centuries, and then left and pursued a degree in Republics history. After finishing her studies, a childhood friend of hers asked for her help. She had to join a mercenary company in order to do so, and then the company was sent to Omega. Then she decided to jump ship to the person who looked to be the more stable employer.”
“And then the two well-disguised history nerds met and fell in love on Omega. It’s a good story. Even better because it’s true.”
“It could do with less of the overthrowing of regimes. Otherwise, yes.” The boat slid to a stop on the sand and Lexi warily eyed the cliffs towering over them. “How many dives are you planning?”
“One or two. We have to give ourselves enough time for the race you’re going to lose.”
Lexi let loose a sigh of exasperation as she stepped from the boat to the sand and began evaluating the route for their climb.
After Thaia dragged the boat high enough that it wouldn’t float away, she followed Lexi’s example. Their biotics would take the place of traditional safety ropes. If one of them fell and didn’t arrest their own fall, then the other person would use their biotics to catch them. One hard rule about cliff diving at the bay had always been that you never went alone. “Ready?” asked Thaia.
“I believe so.” Lexi ran a finger along one of several eezo veins that ran up the cliffs. “That hum is even stronger here. It makes you feel like you could bound up the rocks.”
“While I wouldn’t call it bounding, we climb it way fucking faster than we could without using biotics.” Thaia reached for the first handhold. “I’ll lead since I’ve climbed this route enough times that I’ve lost count.”
“I have no objections,” Lexi said after Thaia had already started up.
Thaia’s excitement about getting to the top of the cliff and then the dive slowed her ability to catch onto what Lexi’s words implied. She paused and looked down. “You’re checking out my ass, aren’t you? It’s all right, you can say it.”
“You,” Lexi said as she hauled herself up, “are an ass.”
Thaia laughed as she resumed her climb. “You didn’t deny it.”
“No, I didn’t.”
The way Lexi had said it made Thaia blush and she had no idea how and it was a damn good thing she would reach the top first.
Reach the top first and fuck her imagination because now it was really becoming distracting and there was no way she wouldn’t be blushing when she finished the climb—finished the climb—and obviously there was nothing she could think right then that wouldn’t be a fantastic double entendre and she should just stop thinking. Forever.
Thaia concentrated on the rocks. And her biotics. And reaching the top of the cliff and not anything else to do with the word top and what it could mean in other contexts.
When Lexi flung herself onto the stunted grass at the top of the cliff, the expression she had as she looked at Thaia was far too pleased. Like she knew.
She probably did, but Thaia wasn’t going to acknowledge it. Instead, she gestured for Lexi to follow as they went on an easy stroll to the jump point. Then they stood together at the edge of the cliff, Thaia quiet as she let Lexi take in the view.
Below them, element zero painted glowing streaks of lighter blue from the seabed to the surface, providing a better picture of the bay’s truth depth.
“How deep is it?” Lexi asked after a few minutes filled with only the distant crash of waves on the seaward side the headland.
“Really deep. Deeper than this cliff is tall, but not so deep that asari can’t free dive to the seafloor. I may or may not know this from personal experience.”
Lexi slowly turned her head from the bay to look at Thaia with honestly an unfair amount of trepidation. “Do I want to know?”
On second thought, the trepidation was exceptionally fair.
“I stole all of Aulus’s left shoes when he was off-planet on some sort of Blackwatch maneuver and my mother and I hadn’t left the Armali house yet. Then when my mother and I came out here, I sealed the shoes in a waterproof container and then dropped it in the middle of the bay, which is the deepest part.” Thaia pointed at the darkest water. “Right about there. Coincidentally, that’s the coldest spot in the bay. Depending on the season, it can get pretty fucking cold. After I’d come back in, Mother asked me what I’d been up to and I told her.”
“You confessed right then and there?”
“I never hid that I didn’t like him, so I didn’t see a point in lying. Especially when my point was to continue pointing out that I didn’t like him. Then I told my mother that if Aulus wanted them back, he could go get them himself.”
Lexi looked at her in askance. “Even if this area’s geological features didn’t contain an exceptional amount of element zero to be a danger for non-asari, for a turian to dive that far down would have required a submersible.”
“I really didn’t like him.”
“You did an excellent job of making that abundantly clear. I assume that’s when your mother took you out to lunch and tried to convince you to tolerate him?”
“Tried. Anyway, in order for me to return them, I had to dive down and get them. It was also in the middle of autumn, so I had to wear a wetsuit.” Thaia looked down at the water, remembering how the dive itself had been the best part of the entire thing and she’d have done it again just for that experience, even with it being cold and she hated the cold. But she didn’t want to think about Aulus. “Let’s not get mired in the past again. He’s dead and I’m not and we’ve got lots to do. Such as dive down there and swim back to the boat. Then you lose our race across the bay and back.”
“Biotics?” asked Lexi.
The lack of reaction from Lexi about the losing comment was mildly alarming, but Thaia left it alone. “During the dive, yes. You’ll need to flare before you hit the water to make sure you don’t die or get hurt when you hit the water. For the swim? No biotics unless either of us is in danger of drowning.”
Lexi took measure of the drop again. “Which of us is jumping first?”
“No, now. Go!”
A third of the way down, Thaia looked over at Lexi and saw her smiling. Then she said something the wind caught and Thaia slowed to hear it again. All Thaia saw was Lexi smirk before a biotic push sent her out to the middle of the bay, Lexi’s laughter trailing behind her. Thaia reacted with a pull, ensuring that if she was going to end up in the potentially cold water, she wasn’t going alone. A couple meters from the water’s surface, Thaia used a shallow stasis to adjust her mass. Then she landed gently enough in the water to stay in the warmest layer.
Lexi flared enough to ensure safe entry, but plunged fairly far down. When she surfaced, her annoyance about being the one in the colder water wasn’t enough to counter the smile in her eyes. “You were right,” she said as she started for the boat. “That was fun.”
Thaia followed. “I think I should get that in writing and have you sign it.”
“Don’t push it.”
“You pushed me, thank you very much.”
Lexi responded with a hum of a laugh that Thaia had to pretend she didn’t hear because she couldn’t think of a single response that didn’t cross several lines. Her imagination yet again did her no favors. Her mind could get fucked, really. Except not. Shit.
What quickly wiped away those thoughts was Lexi being a better swimmer than Thaia had anticipated. Way better. Way better as in she pulled four full body-lengths ahead of Thaia halfway through their first traverse of the bay—how the fuck was this Lexi’s first time swimming in an ocean—and Thaia spent the rest of the race desperately trying to catch up. She closed the gap to three body-lengths.
Thaia climbed over the transom and flopped onto her back on the boat’s deck. She concentrated on breathing as every muscle shouted at her for the excessive amount of energy she’d put into her humiliating defeat.
Lexi had already seated herself, a towel wrapped around her, looking every bit as smug as she deserved to when she asked, “How’s that hubris?”
“Your research into my swimming career didn’t inform you that my team won the league twelve years running?”
Thaia lifted her head. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Instead, Lexi had let her go on and on about winning, meanwhile the probability that a salarian would escape a room full of hungry krogan alive was higher than Thaia’s probability of winning. But Lexi had warned her with the hubris thing so really Thaia only had herself to blame.
“Unlike some people, I don’t feel compelled to boast. Did you really not read about it?”
She hadn’t gotten that far. For reasons. And those reasons were why she’d stopped researching. “I was distracted.”
Thaia covered her eyes with her forearm, because she’d be made if she didn’t because looking up at Lexi from her current position meant looking directly at what’d detoured her research. “What distracted me isn’t the important part. What’s important is that I’m dying.”
“Having your ego reduced to the size of a single-celled microscopic organism isn’t the same as dying.”
“You’d think a doctor would have more respect for the dead or dying.”
“I do, but you are neither dead nor dying.”
Thaia heaved a mighty sigh worthy of a put-upon adolescent and then sat up. Then she avoided Lexi’s knowing look as she wrapped herself in two towels and then hunted for water and an energy gel or five. At least she wouldn’t have to replenish eezo, not after swimming in the bay’s water. After Thaia grumpily downed water then a gel and then another, she hopped out onto the sand—her leg muscles protesting for daring to use them—then shoved the boat into the water and jumped back in.
“Has your unforeseen loss changed our plans?” asked Lexi.
“How long are you going to give me shit about this?” Despite herself, Thaia couldn’t not smile. Not when Lexi looked as relaxed and pleased as she did, even though it was at Thaia’s expense.
“After the amount of boasting you did? Our entire lives or when you manage to defeat me, whichever comes first.”
“Whoever—” No, no she would not make that comment because there were jokes you couldn’t take back and if they’d been in Andromeda she’d have cracked it but now it was tantamount to torture. Thaia wrapped the towel closer around herself. “I was a shit, so that’s fair.”
“That’s a decent start on acknowledging your weaknesses.”
Thaia decided it was in her best interest to not reply. So she stayed quiet as she piloted the boat into its slip and then began the process of securing it. As Thaia tied the lines to the pilings, Lexi gathered up the supplies they’d brought with them. Finished with the boat, Thaia went to close the boathouse’s door but stopped with one hand on the panel. Her eyes went to the cliff she’d dived from hundreds of times, the cliff she’d jumped from one last time. She took a breath and tapped the panel. The door closed.
Not until they’d changed and were heading out the door for the skycar did Lexi comment. “I’m surprised you’re able to leave this behind.”
“I want to build a mass relay and Andromeda is my only chance. The rest of my family is going to Andromeda, too. I don’t want to be left behind, only me and not them. I do wish I could take this with me, though.”
The humor in Lexi’s voice betrayed her. “So I could outswim you again?”
“Yes, that’s exactly why.” Thaia looked over her shoulder at the horizon, Parnitha still a couple hours from setting. She’d gladly endure more losses to Lexi if it meant spending more time with her. This all felt too short, like she hadn’t met Lexi soon enough. “I have another thing to show you, but it’s best viewed when it’s dark, so it’ll have to be when we get back from the city.”
“I have to admit, I’m still apprehensive about whatever it is you have planned.”
Thaia threw her arm around Lexi’s shoulders. “We’ll be fine.”
They were not fine.
“You want to do what?” Lexi asked. The thrill of her earlier victory had waned and then plummeted into nonexistence as Thaia had outlined her plan. The plan that was even more outrageous than her last-second trip to Thessia plan had been, stated as if it would be a perfectly normal thing to do as they stood there in Guildhall Park chatting like two perfectly normal people.
“Generate a giant wave down the entire length of the pool.” Thaia gave her a puzzled look. “What did you think I wanted to do?”
Lexi swept her arm toward the pool. “Swim the length of it?”
Thaia’s puzzlement turned directly into a frown. “That’s boring. Stop being boring.”
“I’m—” Goddess but Thaia could be trying and Lexi still wasn’t sure how she’d ended up agreeing to any of this. She’d jumped off a cliff today. And she’d liked it and had been safe, but that was beside the point. She—Lexi T’Perro, MD, PhD—had jumped off a cliff today and somehow the friend standing next to her had talked her into it. She couldn’t even claim coercion. If there had been coercion, Thaia wouldn’t be her friend and Lexi wouldn’t be here with her. Lexi was no longer, by any definition of the word, boring. “I’m out here with you, which is downright reckless and likely to place me in peril within the next hour. Hardly boring.”
The frown vanished. “You going to be boring and watch or are you going to be recklessly awesome and help?”
“You mean recklessly irresponsible.”
“Whichever.” Thaia shrugged. “In case there’s any confusion, the not boring choice would be helping me.”
While the plan was audacious, it wouldn’t harm anyone, yet it could qualify as vandalism or criminal mischief. But she could be wrong given that she was a physician and not an attorney. “Do you think it would be illegal?”
Thaia crossed her arms and assessed the pool and the surrounding area. “Eh. We’ll find out for sure soon enough.” She looked over at Lexi again. “Totally unrelated, but how fast can you run?”
Lexi should have walked away after that question. She shouldn’t have wondered how fast she could run because she should never have considered participating in a stunt that held the slightest possibility that she might have to run from law enforcement. Yet, the scientist part of her had its interest piqued at whether or not a wave could be generated. If said wave could be generated, would it last the entire length of the reflecting pool? If it did last the entire length, what maximum height would it reach? Then the indignant part of her protested being unjustly labeled as boring.
“I’ll help,” Lexi said.
Thaia grinned and then immediately launched into the mechanics of how they’d pull off the wave generation. Then she said, “Fuck it. We can wing it from here.”
“What happened to proper experimental design?”
“It isn’t an experiment. It’s an—”
“If you end that sentence with ‘experience,’ I’m walking away.”
“It’s fun. It’ll be fun.” Thaia headed over to the end of the pool. “If we’re getting back to the bay by sunset, we’re on Parnitha’s schedule. Let’s get this thing going.”
They did. They did get the wave up and going and the scientist part of Lexi was truly amazed and the indignant part of Lexi became less indignant because boring people did not participate in activities with these sorts of results and the rational part of her wondered a little louder if this was illegal.
She and Thaia ran on opposite sides of the three-meter-wide pool, chasing the wave that steadily gained height as it sped down the pool. At the far end of the pool stood two matriarchs staring at the towering wave. The staring was understandable given the wave’s immense height, but what wasn’t understandable was how they didn’t move. Everyone else in the immediate area had moved away from the end of the reflection pool because that was what people of sound mind did when they saw a wave that large.
The matriarchs stared.
The wave crashed over the end of the pool.
Both Thaia and Lexi frantically used their biotics to slow the wave as much as they could, saving the two unmoving matriarchs from physical harm except for being drenched by the water.
“This has officially gone tits-up,” Thaia said as the two matriarchs emerged from their stupor and began to shout at them. “We might need to run.”
However, they weren’t presented the opportunity to run because, somewhere in the middle of their escort of the wave, an onlooker had notified park officials. In turn, the park officials had summoned the police.
“Aw, fuck,” Thaia said as four uniformed officers approached. “Not even a merry chase.”
“There is something wrong with you,” said Lexi.
“You’ve met my family,” Thaia said as if it explained everything.
To be fair, it did cover the majority of it.
On the walk to the precinct—a walk, because the Guildhall was only a few blocks from the nearest police station—Lexi’s rational self began to rationally descend into a panic. Boring was better than being a criminal and she knew better and she’d never acted the stereotypical maiden and two hundred and seventy-five was too late to start. Not until they’d been processed like criminals, imaged like criminals, and then locked up in a cell like criminals did Thaia comment on Lexi’s resumption of utter seriousness.
“You don’t look like you’re having fun,” Thaia said as she strode over to the cell’s back wall, which was predominantly a window.
A window that had a lovely view of Roa Point, where the Tyrrhenian Ocean met the Kitoron Sea. Had Lexi not been standing in a locked cell located within a building with a heavy police presence, she could have enjoyed the view. But Lexi was standing in a locked cell located within a building with a heavy police presence, and so she did not enjoy the view.
She also did not become less infuriated.
“Being arrested might be a pastime for you, but some of us don’t find it fun. I’ve never been arrested, not once. Nor have I even been in a position in which to be arrested, not in my entire life.”
Thaia, infuriatingly indifferent to their dilemma, tested the cushioned bench set below the back window and then sat down. “You grew up on Omega. You didn’t have cops to have run-ins with.”
“I still wouldn’t have been arrested because I’m not a miscreant.”
“She says while standing in a jail cell.”
Lexi almost threw a shoe at her. She had to settle for glaring, which affected Thaia as much as their arrest had, which was to say not at all. It irritated Lexi all the more.
“At most, it’s a misdemeanor. Also,” Thaia said she gestured around them, “we’re in jail together. We’re officially best friends.”
Lexi refused to acknowledge that she liked hearing the confirmation of their friendship out loud. She refused to acknowledge it because she shouldn’t have liked it, much less liked the comfort of its certainty. She broke eye contact in favor of looking out the window. Then she wondered if all Thessian jails had breathtaking views like this one. One could think they were in a hotel room and not a jail cell.
“You didn’t deny it,” said Thaia.
“How are we going to get out? Because if you say we’re going to attempt a jailbreak, we’re no longer friends, much less best friends.”
“Oh, I called my dad while you were still in processing. She should be here soon.”
Lexi finally looked at Thaia, who was grinning and Lexi knew exactly why because she’d agreed with Thaia’s evaluation of the status of their friendship when she shouldn’t have. “Because this is exactly how I wanted to meet your father. Straight after she’s bailed us out of jail.”
“Remember that time I got arrested on the Citadel for being under the influence and attempting to fly the model ship through the Relay Monument?”
“What about it?”
“She was proud when I told her about it.”
“Easily one of her top five proudest moments of being my parent.”
There was something simultaneously wrong and wonderful about Thaia’s entire family. Thaia’s statement really could be closer to the truth than fiction. “I’m not convinced.”
“You’ll see.” Thaia patted the bench. “This is surprisingly comfortable. Give it a try instead of standing there fuming. You can sit all the way on the other side. I won’t be offended.”
Lexi did not sit. “How can you be so calm? We’ve been arrested and charged with a crime. The comfort of the furnishings shouldn’t even register through the anxiety of having been arrested in a sovereign republic and not an Initiative station.”
Thaia stilled and then studied Lexi again, as if trying to discern what she’d missed. Then she leaned forward, her concern lending her the gravity she’d lacked before. “You really are worried.”
“Of course I’m worried.”
A moment passed before Thaia made her next observation. “You’re worried to the point of catastrophizing.”
“Because this is a catastrophe.” Lexi wasn’t certain about the exact repercussions of arrests or convictions for engineers, but they were serious for physicians. If she couldn’t practice, she had no idea what she would do with herself. She couldn’t imagine not being a doctor.
Thaia opened her mouth, and then closed it. Her eyes searched Lexi’s again, even as her own reflected her continued bafflement at Lexi’s reaction to their circumstances. “I don’t think it is,” she said, mildly enough that it didn’t discount Lexi’s interpretation of their situation.
Lexi responded with less confrontation than before. “What makes you think it isn’t?”
“The worst that can happen isn’t the same anymore. If you let yourself think beyond the initial—well, perpetual for you—panic, you can see it.”
But Lexi couldn’t let go of the panic because the worst that could happen would be to lose who she believed she was. “I can’t.” Lexi looked out the window, toward where two of Thessia’s great oceans collided. The water’s surface appeared no different from the water farther from the boundary—regular waves, the same color blue, no hint of the change happening beneath.
She looked at Thaia again, who hadn’t moved as she waited for the rest of Lexi’s response. “Please tell me what you see.”
“All right.” Thaia stood, giving herself some time to figure out how to say it. “It’s a matter of truthfully answering the questions that have you panicking. What’s the first question that pops into your head?”
“Losing my job and my licensing.”
“But you won’t. Not in the Initiative. The licensing standards here in the Milky Way helped get you your job, helped you maintain your standard of care, but until the Initiative establishes its own licensing, there isn’t one for them to pull even if they wanted to. As for losing your job? They aren’t going to toss you out for something like this. Take it from someone who’s been in a bar fight on the Initiative’s station.”
“Two,” said Lexi.
Thaia’s little smile was fond and exasperated all at once. “Well, if you’re going to be like that, I’ll try to predict more of your worries instead of giving you more openings to use against me. Will your colleagues respect you any less? Not the ones I’ve met. Shit, I think Harry’ll be proud of you. Will any of your friends think less of you? Not at all. Will any of your friends think you’re more awesome? You’re damn right they would. I think you’re the fucking best.” She went on before Lexi could react. “You’re acting like this is the end of the world when in your actual world, the one that consists of people who are important to you, this isn’t anywhere near the end.” Thaia’s smile turned mischievous. “Unless you’re mourning the loss of being uptight.”
“I am not uptight.” Nor was she overwhelmingly anxious any longer, not after realizing how their imminent departure to Andromeda had already changed things here.
Thaia took in their surroundings. If anything, her smile broadened. “Not anymore, you’re not.”
“You’re the most vexing person I have ever known.”
“Sounds about right,” said someone from outside the cell.
Thaia’s face lit up. “Dad!”
Lexi spun to see two people standing there. The first was one of the police officers who’d escorted them in. The second was a tall matriarch who had eyes the same color as Thaia’s, and said eyes shined with what was most definitely not disappointment.
“Well,” said Matriarch Sula, “you sure did a good job of pissing off those two Guildhall directors.” She gestured over her shoulder toward the hub of desks with police officers clustered around them. “The sergeant over there let me watch the surveillance footage. Might need to get a copy of it and work out the wave mechanics that produced a wave that high. Fair to say this stunt’s pretty far up there in the list of impressive shit you’ve pulled.”
Having joined Lexi near the door of the cell, Thaia raised her brows at her. “Told you.” Then she turned to Sula. “I didn’t think it’d get that high either, but I’d only sketched out the mechanics in my head. The whole thing turned out better than I thought and that’s with whole getting arrested part.” Then she briefly put her arm around Lexi’s shoulders. “Also, this is my new best friend Lexi.”
A faint smile appeared on Sula’s lips. “Are you the one my other daughters keep telling me about?”
The past few minutes had gone a long way to explain how Thaia was the way she was. If the research for the AYS preventive cure hadn’t revealed previously unknown minutiae of asari reproduction, and Lexi hadn’t known Sula was Thaia’s father, she would’ve assumed Sula to be her mother. “It would depend on what they said.”
“They’ll definitely be surprised when they find out you ended up in jail alongside their sister.”
Lexi sighed. Whether it was still because of the arrest—though her anxiety over it had decreased—or because of the certain teasing she’d have to endure from Thaia’s family, she wasn’t sure.
“Yeah, they’ll give you an epic amount of shit, too,” Thaia said to her.
“Cheer up!” said Sula. “They dropped the charges. Those old biddies had plenty of time to move and you’re leaving the galaxy soon anyway. Didn’t even make me post bail.”
The officer synced the cell’s control panel with her omni and the generated field dissipated. “You can go. Just no more reflection pool tsunami.”
“You two hungry?” Sula asked after she’d herded them into the elevator and selected the ground floor. “We should get dinner while we’re here. I know a place.”
Thaia checked the time as the doors closed. “We’ve only got a couple hours until sunset. Maybe if we eat on the way back to the house.”
“You want to visit the inlet, don’t you?” asked Sula.
“I want to show Lexi the inlet.” Thaia deactivated her omni and frowned at the elevator for not moving fast enough. “I think she’ll like it.”
Lexi looked between the two of them. “Are you talking about a narrow, often long indentation on a shoreline or is it a euphemism? Because without even a stretch it sounds like you’re using it as a euphemism.”
Thaia gaped at her and then quickly looked away.
When the elevator stopped and the doors opened and Thaia still hadn’t replied, Sula did for her. “The one involving the shoreline, but that’s a pretty good idea for a euphemism. I’ll have to use it.” Then she elbowed her daughter once they reached the sidewalk. “What’s with you?”
The jab to Thaia’s side didn’t get her to stop studying the crowd, the buildings, and anything else nearby that wasn’t them. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
Sula rolled her eyes at Lexi and then nudged Thaia again. “You keep acting weird and people are going to think you have a crush on your best friend.”
“We’re wasting time.”
Thaia made a show of concentrating on her omni and nothing else. “Are we going to have to reserve another skycar or do you still have a current rental?”
“In the parking garage a few blocks over. We’ll hit the restaurant on our way out of the city. Then you can get straight to showing Lexi your inlet when we get to the house.”
“Finally.” Sula chuckled and motioned for them to follow. As they weaved through Armali’s considerable foot traffic, their conversation switched to mundane topics. Then when they passed the scene of the crime, the topic changed to Thaia and Sula puzzling over the mechanics for how the wave had reached the height it had, throwing calculations and conjectures between each other. Lexi wasn’t a slouch in physics, but they quickly went beyond the extent of her knowledge on the subject.
Several children had climbed into the emptied pool, splashing in the shallow puddles left in the wave’s wake. Lexi wondered if any of them would become commandos who then became engineers and then went on to perplex the people they met. She hoped so. Though she did empathize for the friends of those adults who would end up roped into adventures they’d never expected. Goddess help her, Harry would never let her live this down.
“How’d your race go?” Sula asked once they’d all settled into the skycar.
“Lexi introduced me to hubris,” said Thaia.
“Got your ass kicked, did you?”
Thaia dragged a hand over her face and then spoke through her fingers. “It was a rough introduction.”
“When I was a maiden bordering on matron, we called a comeuppance like that ‘a valuable learning experience.’”
Thaia glared at her.
“I know, I know.” Sula piloted them into traffic, weaving the skycar around the others much like they’d walked around the pedestrians on the ground. “At times it’s hard to imagine that matriarchs were once maidens, too.”
“Sometimes it’s better that we don’t,” said Thaia. “And that wasn’t why I glared at you either and you know it.”
“I’d address that other problem of yours, but if you want to make your deadline, we need to get the food and go. Then while the autopilot’s in charge, I want to look over the vid of your stunt with hard data.”
After they’d picked up their meals, Thaia and Sula resumed their physics discussion with the addition of visual aids. While Lexi didn’t participate—she’d never studied fluid dynamics in great detail—she listened from where she sat across from them. Some of the time it sounded like they weren’t saying half of what they needed to out loud, but the other person understood despite it. Suddenly, Thaia’s propensity for sending messages that read like they were partway into a conversation made perfect sense.
Sula paused the vid and pointed at the end of the pool, right before the wave had crashed over the end. “No hydraulic jump.”
“Those two matriarchs should’ve jumped,” said Thaia.
“Was the velocity constant or did you ramp it up or down?”
“Ramped it down.” Thaia advanced the vid a few frames. “Starting here because those fucking matriarchs didn’t move. How have they lived this long with nonexistent self-preservation instincts?”
“An excessive amount of dumb luck.” Sula moved the vid to the midpoint. “Was there drawback? Because if more water was coming in and there was drawback, the extra water wouldn’t have been visible. What volume does the pool hold? What’s the volume of constant inflow? What’s the total available volume?”
Thaia searched the extranet and then frowned. “I can’t find the data for how many cubic meters of water are in it or flows into it.”
Sula raised a skeptical brow. “You didn’t do your research ahead of time? What kind of shit experimental modeling is that?”
“This trip was spontaneous.”
“What about all that time you had on the transport here?”
“I got distracted.” Then Thaia quickly found something of interest outside the window. “An information broker could get that data.”
Lexi laughed, nearly spilling her drink. Vindication, one could call this, accompanied by some disbelief. “An information broker?”
“You don’t want to know how we got the wave that high?”
“I do, but I’m also hesitant to condone contracting an information broker in your quest to find the answer.”
Thaia finally lost interest in the landscape below and turned to Lexi. “And you scolded me for not having enough scientific interest.”
“Why would you say that?” asked Sula. “That’s one of the last things I’d expect from my kid. The only thing less believable would be her suddenly blushing and walking into shit at the slightest mention of sex like she did when she was a post-adolescent.”
If asked to, Lexi would testify that she heard Thaia mutter fuck under her breath when she looked up at the ceiling. Without bothering to hide her amusement, Lexi said, “She refuses to open my dissertation.”
“I opened it once.” Thaia stopped with her study of the ceiling in order to defend herself. “Then I closed the file so fast that I almost sprained my finger.”
“You talking about the one on krogan virility and aggression?” asked Sula.
“Yes,” said Thaia.
“I meant to ask for you to send me a copy,” Sula said to Lexi. “Sounded interesting.”
Thaia made a face like she’d tasted something vile. “So am I contacting an information broker or not?”
Sula opened another application window next to the display of the wave vid. “You won’t need to. Benefit of being a matriarch is you can ask other matriarchs for shit you kids wouldn’t dare ask. Let me say this—asking someone for the volume of water in a reflection pool is nothing.”
“I’m still trying to comprehend that Thaia considered hiring an information broker,” said Lexi.
“She’s been like that since she was little.” Sula continued typing in her message as she talked. “Always wanted empirical answers and none of that philosophical shit.” She looked at Thaia. “How old were you when you insisted on learning about planetary mechanics?”
Thaia sighed. “Seven.”
“How would the subject even come up in everyday conversation with a seven-year-old?” asked Lexi.
“I was standing on the beach,” Thaia said, relaxing into her seat, “shivering my little blue ass off, lips purple, insisting to my mother—who’d just physically carried me out of the water over my loud protests—that I was perfectly fine to keep swimming.”
“You were likely minutes away from life-threatening hypothermia.”
Thaia gave Lexi a look.
She met it without flinching. “No, no matter how much you claim it is, retroactive fussing isn’t a thing.”
“It is now,” said Sula, who sounded far too amused.
Lexi chose to ignore it. “Obviously your mother didn’t let you stay in the water.”
“Of course not, but she didn’t want to carry me kicking and screaming back to the house again. So she tried to reassure me. Tells me that while I’m not going back in that day because Parnitha had already set, the ocean would still be there in the morning. So I say, ‘What if it’s not?’ She immediately assures me that both the ocean and Parnitha would be there when I woke up. So I ask, ‘But what if it’s not?’ She said to me, ‘If the sea is missing in the morning, we’ll have more pressing concerns.’ Which means I asked what specific concerns we’d have.”
“You’re kidding,” said Lexi.
“Her mother probably wished she was,” said Sula. “Only advantage was that Thaia didn’t complain when Indah bundled her up in a towel and brought her inside. Then Indah gave her seven-year-old a two-hour lesson on planetary mechanics, including the math behind it. Thaia only went to bed after the math convinced her that the ocean, Parnitha, and Thessia would be there in the morning.”
Thaia’s lightheartedness waned, but an amount so small that only people who knew her well would notice. “I would’ve had nightmares that they were gone, otherwise.”
“I can’t remember,” Sula said to Thaia. “Were you still in that phase where you’d cry the whole way back to the city after every trip there?”
“You cried the entire way home?” asked Lexi.
“Yes. And yes. And I didn’t outgrow that phase until I was twelve. Maybe thirteen.” Thaia’s melancholy slowly retreated as she looked at Sula. “Mother told you about those things?”
“She sent me updates when you were little. Out of the four of you, you were the one most attached to the water. You’d think your mother gave birth to a baby shark instead of an asari.”
The shadow of sadness passed as Thaia chose to act indignant. “I don’t have fins.”
“I’m just saying that if you’d woken up one morning to find out you’d grown fins overnight, no one would’ve been surprised.”
Thaia rolled her eyes and Sula laughed.
The three of them stood in the middle of the house’s large, comfortable common room. A hardwood floor stretched out beneath their feet, the planks under the polish golden with age. The lighting mirrored the same soft golden hue, falling softly upon sofas and armchairs scattered between bookshelf-lined walls. Like earlier that day, Lexi wanted the opportunity to enjoy the interior of Thaia’s home, the cozy, welcoming design vastly different from the various stations Lexi had lived on for the majority of her life.
Sula and Thaia had other ideas.
“Go.” Sula had a hand on Thaia’s shoulder and pointed her in the direction of the door they’d walked through not even five minutes ago. “Go or you’ll miss it.”
Thaia removed Sula’s hand and turned around. “Don’t you want to go?”
“I’ll take a walk out there later.”
From what little Thaia had revealed about the inlet, Lexi knew only that it was rocky and the seawater would make the rocks slick. “In the dark?”
“Won’t be as dark as you think,” said Sula.
“You could still lose your footing.”
Sula crossed her arms. Right outside Sula’s peripheral vision, Thaia fought a smile that showed in her eyes, which informed Lexi that she’d picked a fight with a matriarch.
However, if Lexi were to choose a hill to die upon, that hill would be the safety and well being of everyone she knew, up to and including matriarchs.
“How fucking old do you think I am?” asked Sula.
“I’m not referring to your age. I’m referring to the common phenomenon of rocks being slippery when wet, which is especially treacherous in the dark.”
“Grippy shoes.” Sula briefly held up her foot to illustrate. “And I’ll have a flashlight just like anyone else with an omni always has a flashlight on them.”
Lexi didn’t relent. The last thing anyone needed was Sula being injured or worse in a preventable accident. Traversing a rocky, slippery area alone at night was a situation that invited an accident with open arms.
Thaia surrendered to her smile as she asked Lexi, “Would it be harder for you to stop breathing or to stop fussing?”
Of all the questions. “Don’t be absurd. Breathing is an autonomic response.”
“Fussing it is,” said Sula, who’d dropped her defensive posture. “Lexi, think of it this way. I’m nine hundred years old, I didn’t get here through dumb luck, and I’m still a fan of being alive. If I didn’t think I’d be safe taking one last nighttime look at that inlet, I wouldn’t risk it.”
“You really can just come with us,” said Thaia.
Sula fixed Thaia with a serious look. “There’s no fucking way I’m accompanying a couple of asari who are closer to matronhood than they think to that inlet at sunset.”
“I told you that we—”
“Yeah, yeah.” Sula waved off Thaia’s next attempt at protest. “But hope springs eternal and all that shit. Now quit arguing and get out there or you’ll miss it. If you’re worried about the arachnids, I cleared them out a few days ago. Didn’t want to scare any potential buyers. I’ll stick that information in the disclosure part of any contract.”
“Including the bit about them being biotic?”
“The arachnids are biotic?” asked Lexi.
“Welcome to Thessia.” Sula physically herded them toward the door. “But it’s nothing to worry about. Like I said, I chased them off a few days ago. They won’t be back for another week. Now go catch that sunset.”
“We’re only cooperating because we don’t have time to argue,” Thaia said over her shoulder as she followed Lexi out the door.
“You don’t think I know that? I won’t hesitate to use whatever advantages I have.” Sula stepped back, allowing the door to shut.
“So.” Thaia scowled at the closed door and then started south. “Now you’ve met my dad. And fussed at her. Is that a record for you? Because you’ve known her for all of two hours and you looked about ready to fight over her going for a walk at night.”
“A walk in a potentially hazardous area, not a walk along a footpath. Had it been you announcing the same intention, I would have made the same objection.”
“But you’ve known me for longer than two hours.”
“Yet, despite the temptation, I still wouldn’t advocate for you to take that walk.”
The trees gave way to a cliff face and they walked parallel to it. “I’m not that bad.”
“Need I compose a list of what trouble you’ve gotten me into in the past twenty hours?”
“You’re confusing trouble with fun.” Thaia stopped outside a dark cave entrance, activated her omni, and then cautiously peeked inside. “She really did clear out the arachnids.” Then Thaia flared her biotics, which seemed excessive for a stroll through a cave absent of biotic arachnids.
Lexi slowed to a halt and looked between Thaia and the cave’s entrance. “If the arachnids are gone, is there another reason you’re readying your biotics before you step inside?”
“Not that I know of. But it’s a dark cave and it can be hard to see sometimes.”
“Boring. Also not as tactically sound because what if my dad missed one?” Thaia’s steps were slow and steady as she advanced into the cave. “Come on. If there’s any in here, I’ll need backup.”
Lexi followed, obliging her by flaring her own biotics, which she believed excessive, but she hadn’t been the person who’d grown up here. “So when you conducted your massacre, did you use your ‘explody’ biotics? Because that would have resulted in a mess and with your squeamishness—”
“It was gross and thinking about it is gross and if I see an arachnid in here I’m hiding behind you. Fair warning.” Thaia’s smile was evident when she turned to walk backwards so she could see Lexi. “So come up here with me. We’ll be there in a minute. This is way less anxiety-inducing without those fucking arachnids.”
On the other side of the cave, they stepped onto a spit of land that marked the start of the inlet Thaia had named worthy of an evening visit.
She hadn’t been wrong.
Lexi gawked without self-consciousness. The wash of the sea against vertical walls of grey stone stretched toward the patches of sky above commanded attention. The top edges of the walls crept so close together that the mosses on each side crawled across to the other, secreting away the inlet below a patchwork of maroon and green. Boulders provided solid footing, welcoming Lexi down an incline to smaller rocks to pebbles to sand that slipped into shallow water illuminated with the ethereal blue of eezo.
Thaia tapped her shoulder, and Lexi was startled to find she’d walked down to the tiny beach without realizing it. As Thaia tugged on Lexi’s wrist, she wore a smile that rivaled the water’s luminescence, her presence there as natural as the environment around them. “It gets better.”
Speculating at how it could possibly get better, Lexi allowed Thaia to guide her with loosely held fingers onto a narrow stone ledge mere centimeters above the water. Twin ledges arced along the bottom of each wall, stretching toward a keyhole carved through the rock by time and weather. Water swirled into an underground passage, leaving the stone above it dry. The rising curved paths met at the keyhole, where light from the opposite side painted the way through.
Thaia had to duck a few centimeters so her head wouldn’t hit the roof, but the tunnel was wide enough for them to walk through single-file.
The third incident of Thaia’s shoulders scraping an irregularity in the rock garnered a grumbled, “Fuck you, rocks,” from Thaia.
“Your broad shoulders aren’t the fault of the rocks. Instead, you should complain to your father when we return to the house.”
“These rocks have it out for me.”
“Funny story,” said Thaia. “This is a really terrible make out spot.”
“You’ve tested it?”
“Once and only once, when I was around a hundred. In less than a minute, I ended up with a cut on my crest that had to be dermabond sealed and she had a knee that was more bruise than knee. Never tried again.”
“I imagine it also thoroughly killed the mood.”
“Murdered it, more like. Never saw her again after that and I don’t blame her in the least.” They both squinted as Parnitha’s light streamed into the exit in front of them. “Here we go.” The tunnel widened and Thaia pulled Lexi forward. “You first. I’m taking off my shoes.”
“Be careful,”Lexi said as she walked out onto the promontory extending a couple meters beyond the keyhole exit. While ignoring Thaia’s soft comment about fussing, Lexi stayed close to the sheer wall of the cliff.
The path toward the sea was a gradual descent from boulders to rocks to sand. Then the sand gave way to the vast Tyrrhenian Ocean, the last crescent of Parnitha sinking below the horizon, framed by the headlands to either side of the mouth of the inlet. The waning light winked through jagged rock columns descending from the headland, the slowly crumbling teeth of giants. The left was absent of teeth, but the waves smashed into an angled stone arch that framed the coastline beyond.
The roars from the waves went unnoticed with twilight’s reveal—the blue luster of eezo spiraled in the waves as they assaulted the rocks, rushing upward until they broke over the tops, the spray shimmering as it rained onto the calmer water of the inlet, each ripple radiating over the surface.
Then Lexi understood Thaia’s attachment to this place. She understood why Thaia’s ancestors had made their home here. She understood how this was home. Here, in the the sea and the eezo and their integral role in the formation of the asari, was the distillation of Thessia’s beauty.
And a child’s tears at having to depart suddenly insisted on significantly more empathy than she’d previously believed. Lexi wouldn’t have wanted to leave, either.
She voiced as much.
Unable to discern Lexi’s words over the crashing waves and the space between them, Thaia gave her a puzzled look before closing the distance. “What?”
“I said,” Lexi said as she leaned toward Thaia, who began nudging a clump of seaweed aside with her foot, “that I wouldn’t have wanted to leave, either.”
Thaia’s eyes flicked upward and she smiled.
Lexi wanted to—
Then Thaia yelped and biotically jumped backward. “Something crawled over my fucking foot!”
That explained the dramatics.
Lexi followed Thaia’s line of sight and spotted a blue-striped crab skittering underneath another pile of seaweed. “It was a crab. You terrorized it by upending its home.”
“Well, it should’ve chosen a better one. It—” She yawned. “And why the fuck am I so tired?”
“It’s taken a lot of energy for your ego to recover from your crushing defeat earlier.” Lexi’s victory had been immensely satisfying and she felt zero compulsion to hide her satisfaction.
“That’s it, we’re having a rematch.”
“Right now?” To support her largely unspoken point that now would be entirely unsafe, she looked directly at the crashing waves before looking at Thaia.
She rolled her eyes. “No, not now. Andromeda, as soon as it’s settled and safe. Habitat Six or Habitat Seven are our best bets. You can pick which one.”
“I’m underwhelmed by your generosity.”
Thaia pulled on her left shoe. “I’m a sore loser.”
“At least you’ve advanced to the step of admitting that you are the loser.”
“Kicking me while I’m down? That’s low, T’Perro.”
“I merely affirmed what you stated.”
Thaia went to put on her right shoe, but stopped and shook it. A pebble dropped out and bounced into the water. Satisfied that no sea creatures lurked in her right shoe, Thaia pulled it on. Then she said, “You’re the worst.”
“If you’re referring to me and not an inanimate object, I believe you mean best.”
“I do.” Thaia took in the sights one final time. “Let’s go inside before that fucking crab crawls out to enact its revenge.”
“That would be for the best.” For the best, before any other opportunities like just moments ago arose and they weren’t saved from a mistake by an unwary crab.
When Thaia skirted around the crab’s hiding spot by walking as close to the cliff wall as possible, Lexi asked, “Do you need me to protect you?”
“Very funny.” Then Thaia glanced over where the crab had gone. “You know what? Yes. What if it ran back into the water when we weren’t looking and told its friends? If enough of them came out and attacked us, we’d be pretty fucked.” She kept up her stream of chatter as they walked through the keyhole passage. “They could just suffocate us under their mass and then pick our bones clean like in that murder mystery vid Meir made me watch last week. Would our skeletons stay right here on the rocks? Like a warning or something to not fuck with the crabs.”
“One,” Lexi said as they emerged from the tunnel, “don’t drag me into this twisted plot of revenge you’ve thought up for the crab because I wasn’t the person who scared it. Two, I think you’re in dire need of sleep.”
“I’m fine.” However, Thaia hadn’t said it until they were at the midpoint of the ledge.
“So your reflexes haven’t been dulled?”
“My reflexes are just fine, thank you.”
In the middle of Thaia’s next step, Lexi reached out and lightly pushed her, sending Thaia toppling into the water. Thaia shouted in mock outrage, and then a biotic field surrounded Lexi, pulling her into the water, too. They landed with a terrific splash, the shimmering water falling around them
If circumstances weren’t what they were, Lexi had other ideas she could have followed through with.
If only they’d met years before.
“I admit,” Thaia said as they floated there and studied the patchwork of night sky above, “very grudgingly, that my reflexes might not be what they usually are because I might be more tired than I usually am.”
“Thaia, you were nearly bested by a doctor who was never even a commando.”
“Don’t discount your abilities. You saved me from a marauding crab.”
“I’m regretting it right now,” Lexi said as she stood and walked onto the scrap of beach in front of the cave.
“No, you aren’t. You’d be sad without me around.”
“I might.” She would. They hadn’t much time left together before their assigned entry to cryo in the run up to the Initiative’s departure. With Lexi on the first tier team in the Hyperion’s wakeup order and Thaia on the second-tier for the Nexus, Thaia would entering cryo before Lexi. It was less than a week away and Lexi realized it would be far more difficult than she’d fathomed it would be.
“I would be sad,” said Thaia.
“Would you?” Lexi offered her hand to help Thaia stand up from the water.
Thaia accepted the help. “I’d definitely be sad if I wasn’t around.”
Lexi let go of Thaia’s hand, sending her right back into the water. “You’re terrible.”
“I am.” Thaia got to the shore on her own, tracks of eezo-laced water sliding down her crest onto her face. After she wiped the water from her eyes, she studied Lexi for a moment that was too short and too painfully long all at once. She opened her mouth and then closed it. Her chest rose and fell with the settling breath she took before she looked away, toward the cave. “We should get back.” She flared her biotics and started for the cave, but stopped and held her hand out to Lexi. “Come on, we’ll run the gauntlet together.”
She grasped Thaia’s outstretched hand and they immediately began their jog through the cave. When they reached the other side, they didn’t let go.
Aimed for a Carrie Fisher-equse parenting vibe with Sula while also trying to avoid having Sula sound/be too much like Aethyta. I'm now convinced that BioWare aimed for Carrie Fisher with Aethyta because damn it's hard to avoid it. I say it's the socialization from growing up with/living with krogan.