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Tessellation

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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.”

“Harry.”

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.”

“Harry.”

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?”

“Since never.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry.”

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.

Chapter Text

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.

“Not alone.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

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.”

“Are you?”

“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.”

“Harry insisted.”

“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.”

“Too bad.”

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.

“Obviously.”

“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?”

“Both.”

“Damn.”

“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.”

Chapter Text

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.

> Sent.

> Fourteen hundred pages? Seriously?

> Diagrams.

> 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?”

“Omega.”

“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—”

“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.”

“That’s awesome.”

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.”

“You’re joking.”

“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.”

“Mercenary company?”

“Engineering firm.”

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.”

“She won’t?”

“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?”

“How?”

“Wait.”

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—”

“Wait.”

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.”

Chapter Text

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?”

“Didn’t what?”

“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.”

“Which is?” 

“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.

“You’re mean.”

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.”

“That’s adorable.”

“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.”

“What kind?”

“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.

Thessia, 2185.

Home.

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?

> Maybe.

> 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.”

Chapter Text

Thessia, 2185.

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.

It had. 

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.”

“Why not?”

“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?”

“Afterlife.”

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?”

“Together.”

“On three?”

“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. 

Three.

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?”

“I’m dying.”

“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.”

“By?”

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.”

Chapter Text

Thessia, 2185.

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.”

“You’re joking.”

“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.”

“I’ll say.”

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.”

“Dad!”

“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.”

“Flashlight?”

“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.”

“Really.”

“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.

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“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.

Chapter Text

Illium, 1902.

“You’re sure?” Sula asked.

Her mother, Matriarch Aysu, sighed from behind her.

Drack nodded over the face-to-face call. “Wouldn’t have contacted you if I wasn’t. I thought I recognized her, but did a DNA scan just in case. It’s her. I’ll arrange to have the body sent to Illium.”

“I’ll transfer the credits.”

He waved her off. “No need. Consider it a family thing.”

“Credits are credits,” said Matriarch Aysu. “Shipping bodies properly isn’t exactly cheap.”

“Then hire me next time one of your construction crews needs security.”

Sula pulled up the schedule. “Next month on Nevos.”

“Send me the details and I’ll be there. Right now I’ll get going on getting the package ready.”

Matriarch Aysu held up a hand. “Drack?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Wish I’d had better news, but we both know the galaxy doesn’t work like that.” 

The holodisplay over Matriarch Aysu’s desk went dark. As Sula and Jarah watched, Aysu placed both of her hands flat on the desktop and bowed her head. “Tell Thaia first,” she said after a few moments. “Tell her first, without her sisters there. It will hurt them too, but it will hurt Thaia more. She’s twenty. Not only has she lost her mother, but she’s now lost any hope of reconciliation.”

“Everything about this has been wrong,” said Jarah. “Wrong up one side and down the other and nothing’s felt right. Not when we brought Thaia home. Not when Aulus was deported to Palaven. Not—”

“Not even now,” said Sula, more a sigh of resignation than a statement.

Matriarch Aysu lifted her head, concern in her eyes as she regarded Sula. “Are you all right?”

“No, but I will be eventually. My mother’s still alive even though she’s older than dirt.” The humor was too forced to make Aysu crack a smile, and Sula looked out the window at Nos Astra’s major trade center below to avoid acknowledging it. But here she was, over six hundred years old, talking to her own mother—though with Aysu closer to eleven hundred than a thousand, they all knew she wouldn’t be alive for much longer—and her twenty-year-old kid had just lost hers. “I wish I had an explanation to give her. Instead, her mother’s dead and we’ve got nothing but more questions.”

Since right before she and Indah had broken their bond, nothing had made sense. For their oldest three, Indah had declined a turn at mothering, but she’d been a good father. Then when Indah had decided, matriarch or not, that she did want to mother a kid, Sula hadn’t objected. Indah had still been herself, neither of them opposed having a fourth daughter, so Sula hadn’t minded letting Indah have a turn. Then, somewhere right before Thaia reached her first birthday, shit with Indah had gotten weird and weirder and here they were.

“We’ll find one,” said Aysu. “I’ll arrange for an autopsy on Thessia after I’ve sent her body there. Either way, we’ll have to go back to make arrangements. The Republics will want to transfer Indah’s seized assets over to Thaia’s legal guardian. However, those legalities aren’t important right now.”

“The house will be.” Sula brought her gaze back inside the office so she could look at Jarah and their mother. “In this whole mess of not knowing shit, one thing I do know is that we’re bringing all those kids back to the house. They’ll need it and it’ll help them, especially Thaia.”

“You’ll find no disagreement from me,” said Aysu.

Sula checked the last message she’d gotten from Safira to confirm that all four of her daughters were at the pool below the siari temple. “We’ll sort it out later. I need to go talk to her.”

Aysu placed her hand on Sula’s arm, halting her. “She will be all right,” Aysu said quietly. “So will Safira, Meir, and Eirian. So will you. It will take time, but I promise you that it will be all right in the end.” Then she touched her forehead against Sula’s, a measure of reassurance from mother to daughter, from matriarch to matron.

Then Sula departed the offices of her family’s company and set out for the temple.

The murmur of eezo underneath Sula’s skin failed to settle her unlike it had done every other time she’d visited the saltwater pool. Under normal circumstances, by the time she reached the bottom of the stairs she would’ve felt as fucking calm and patient as a matriarch. Not this time. Expecting something didn’t mean you’d be ready when it happened, no matter how inevitable it was. 

It wasn’t like she hadn’t known where it would end. She’d known the moment Khel had told her and Jarah that one of his old merc buddies had seen Indah in the Terminus Systems, working as a merc herself and possibly tangled with Jona Sederis. Who heard of matriarchs turning merc? Indah had been a commando as a maiden, but she’d never done mercenary work. Shit, she’d left the militia after a century and went straight to university. Decided she liked academia so much that she never left.

Up until half a year ago. Indah had left Thessia, leaving their youngest kid there with Aulus. Then Aulus had his violent fucking temper tantrum in the park and got his ass deported. Indah didn’t return even then, and had last been seen in the Terminus Systems.

They’d all fucking known where it would end.

Sula walked down the corridor toward the pool, listening to her daughters’ voices echo from the cavernous room.

“We were trying to smash that on the wall,” said Eirian.

“So give it back!” said Thaia.

“You two were wasting a perfectly good kikama,” said Safira.

“They were trying to waste it and you stopped them,” said Meir.

“If they can get it out of my stasis, they can have it back.”

“Better than nothing,” said Eirian.

Then came the hum of a warp. Sula wasn’t especially concerned. It wasn’t like millions of asari kids hadn’t fucked around with their biotics in, on, and around water throughout history. That, and the only one of them who stood a chance at getting anything out of a stasis of Safira’s was Meir, and Meir would’ve preferred to watch her two younger sisters try rather than do it for them.

Which meant the detonation caught Sula as off guard as everyone else.

A mess of seeds and pulp went everywhere, spattering onto the surface of the pool the younger three had dived into and some sailing across the way to hit Safira’s arm. Then some headed for Sula, who’d finished rounding the corner. Despite her last second attempt at dodging, a significant amount of the exploded vegetable landed on Sula’s crest.

As Meir, Eirian, and Thaia swam to the side of the pool and Safira stood from where she’d taken cover behind a chair, they noticed Sula standing in the doorway. Their dread was almost palpable as they eyed Sula, wondering what sort of revenge would be visited upon them.

Motionless, Sula stared at them.

Eyes wide, they stared back.

Then Eirian fought a giggle. She pressed her lips together, but it burst out, and soon she was wracked by laughter. Eirian had an infectious laugh, and Thaia, being the closest, fell victim to it first. Towel in hand, Safira headed toward Sula, desperately not looking in the direction of her younger sisters, who at that point were laughing so hard they were gasping.

The laughter of Sula’s daughters finally got to her and she joined them.

Doing a shit job of keeping a straight face, Safira handed Sula a towel.

Sula immediately began wiping off the mess. Ten seconds in and she strongly considered giving up and jumping into the pool. Meanwhile, her eldest was trying to look indignant and failing because she looked ridiculous. “You have some on your crest, too,” Sula told her.

“Because I’m a victim.”

“You didn’t throw that warp?” That big of a detonation, she was fairly sure it’d been one of the older two. Eirian was good, but was only sixty and not a commando. Thaia hadn’t even turned twenty-one yet.

“No,” said Safira.

“Meir?”

Out of the pool and fetching a towel, Meir didn’t look up as she answered, “No.”

Sula tossed her towel onto one of the benches to pick up later. Then she put her hands on her hips. “All right, who did?”

None of them said a fucking word, the little shits. She rolled her eyes. “Goddess, you aren’t going to be tattling on anyone. That was a big detonation and if it wasn’t one of the commandos, then someone will have to train more than I thought.”

They all looked at their youngest sister.

“Oh, come on,” said Thaia.

“You’re not in trouble,” said Sula. “It just means you’ll be starting to practice fine control sooner than usual.”

“We all did, too,” Eirian told her from the pool deck, towel wrapped around her. “None of us were that explody, though. We should try that again.”

“I’m not opposed, but next time let’s give it a try under controlled conditions at the training gym,” said Sula.

“The rest of you do what you want,” said Safira. “Personally, I’m going to get a shower.” Then she walked from the room, Meir and Eirian close behind. Thaia launched herself out of the pool and started to follow, but then paused to grab a towel as an afterthought. 

Sula stopped her before she could resume chasing after her sisters. “I need to talk to you.”

Thaia wrapped the adult-sized towel around herself, covering her entire body from neck to ankles because she was still only a kid, unlike her older sisters. “Look, if this is about the joke last—”

“It isn’t.”

Somehow, Sula’s reassurance that her need to speak with Thaia wasn’t about the practical joke Thaia and Eirian had played on Safira when she’d come home the night before served to unsettle Thaia more. Her body went rigid and her eyes became wary, as if expecting an attack, like she’d been when Sula had first gone to get her on Thessia.

It was fucking disturbing to see that scared kid come back. After Thaia had found a home here, that scared kid had slowly retreated, allowing Thaia to regain her confidence in herself and the stability of the world around her.

Sula also knew there wasn’t a way to soften the blow. Learning that a parent had died wasn’t something that could be softened. No matter what age you were, it hit you hard.

She didn’t prevaricate. “Your mother was killed on Korlus.”

Nothing at first. Her eyes searched Sula’s face for some hint of a lie—not because she believed Sula would lie about something like this, but because that reality would be preferable. When she found no indication of the lie she both did and didn’t want to see, Thaia turned and took a few steps away.

“When?” Her voice was hollow, similar to her first few days on Illium.

“A few days ago.”

Silence crowded the room with unasked questions. Sula knew what each of them would be. She’d want to know how her mother had died, who had killed her, would there be a funeral, what did it mean for her, did her sisters know, what was she doing on Korlus. The stream of questions sought clarity for the picture of her mother’s last moments. Those questions could be answered. The picture could be painted. But they’d still struggle to answer the most important question.

Why?

Thaia didn’t ask. Went quiet. Sat down on the nearest bench.

Sula sat next to her. “I wish I knew why, too.”

Bundled up in her towel, Thaia said nothing. Eventually she leaned her head against Sula’s shoulder and Sula put her arm around her. Together, they sat there in the quiet, wondering why.

Thessia, 2185.

When Sula returned from her own last trip to the inlet, she found the door to the boathouse open, Thaia sitting on the end of the dock, feet dangling over the water, eyes on the night sky. Looked too serious. After the day she’d had, if she wasn’t passed out, she should be smiling and Lexi should be with her. 

‘Just friends,’ her blue ass.

“Where’s your friend?” Sula asked as she sat down next to her oblivious—in about a hundred different ways—adult child.

Thaia didn’t jump, but her blink and how quickly she jerked her head to look in Sula’s direction gave away how lost in thought she’d been. “In bed.”

“So what’s with you?”

“What’s with me, what?”

“If she’s in bed, why aren’t you in bed with her? You don’t see the way she looks at you?”

“With eyes, yes.”

“Don’t give me that shit, you know what I mean. And you’ve been looking at her the same way.”

“Because I also have eyes.”

Sula frowned. “Keep it up and over three hundred years old or not, I will find a way to ground you.”

“What are you getting at?”

“What I’m getting at is that you’re completely ignoring that she keeps looking at you like she’s about to throw you on a bed if she had the chance.” Sula let the statement settle between them. Then she asked, “Would you want her to?”

Thaia’s pause was criminally long. “No.”

“I bet if I asked if you’d let her, you’d pretend you didn’t even hear my question.”

The lack of answer spoke for itself.

Sula paused, lulling Thaia into believing the torture part of their chat to be over. Once Thaia visibly relaxed, Sula said, “I’ve never known you to be shy when someone’s caught your eye. Nobody’s known you to be shy about taking someone she likes to bed if they’re willing. Not with a history of highlights including behind a line of statues in some archeological ruins and inside a borrowed maintenance skiff at zero-G.”

Dawning horror rising to her face, Thaia stared at Sula. “How did you even—”

“Commandos gossip like they’re in secondary school. Why’re you acting embarrassed? That zero-G stunt? I’m proud of—”

“You’re my father!”

“I know! I feel like I should be telling everyone.”

“Goddess, stop. Please.”

Sula shrugged. “All right, but only because none of that was my actual point. Just me building up to it.”

“I’m not sure I want to know what you’re building up to.”

“You don’t let me tell you and I’ll start repeating more stories your old squaddies told me.”

Thaia grumbled before she said, “I’m listening.”

“It’s obvious you’d like to take her on any number of adventures I mentioned and probably add some new highlights, too. But unlike previous you, you haven’t done shit to make it happen.”

“We can’t.”

“Can’t, won’t. There’s more to it, isn’t there?”

“It doesn’t really matter. We’re friends.”

Sula elbowed Thaia good in the side to get her point across. “Quit dodging. It’s more than the simplicity of attraction, getting rocks off, and then going separate ways this time, isn’t it?”

“She’s a good—no, she’s my best friend. Talking is easy with her except when I lose my fucking words and the desert has nothing on how dry her sense of humor is. And it’s low-key, too. Her voice is so calm and gentle that you don’t see it coming until you’ve earned a droll comment and it’s sharp when it hits but not in a bad way.” 

Thaia kicked at the water, toes dragging beneath the surface. “The first time I saw her, she was finishing up with another patient. Every bit of her was dedicated their well being, the warmth in her words and her focus, how she oriented her body toward them, all of it an intensity saying she cares so much because that’s who she is, like she was meant to be a doctor. I wanted to get to know who else she was, too. And if we weren’t—the fuck?” Thaia yanked her foot out of the water and flung a strand of seaweed off it.

How her youngest was a fucking commando, Sula would never know.

Thaia sighed. “We’re leaving for Andromeda and who knows what’ll happen there. So we’re friends.”

“Athame’s tits, you have it bad.” To be fair, from what Sula had seen, the friendship they had now was solid. You couldn’t pull a stunt like they had earlier today and end up in jail together with anyone less than a best friend. “I can see your point, though. I can. But don’t assume that your genuine friendship means you’ll magically—swear to the goddess, humans have the best expression for this—stop wanting to bang her like a screen door in a hurricane.” 

“Dad!”

“It’ll get worse, is what I’m saying, because the ability to have the best of everything is right there. Especially when she’s thinking the same as you.”

“She isn’t—”

“Shit, when you combine a best friend and a lover, that’s when you get some of the best sex. There’s more out there than quick fucks behind statues.”

“Dad!”

“That’s one of my favorites, by the way. In the top three.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“You’re my daughter. I want you to be happy. Pretty simple, really.”

Thaia kicked at the water again. “The plan is to stick with friendship until the Initiative is settled in Andromeda, then maybe think about more than whatever this is, which is already more than I thought. This shit is confusing.”

“It’s only confusing because you two idiots are trying to delude yourselves but, all right, fine. Wait until Andromeda.”

“That’s the same tone you used with me when I procrastinated studying for that huge philosophy exam and you let me make that choice and then I failed. It’s the tone you use when you think I’m doing something stupid.”

“You get really good at using that tone after you’ve raised four daughters.” 

“We’ll sort it out soon, not counting time in cryo.” Then Thaia’s eyes went to the bay spread out before them in all its glowing-eezo glory that even Sula was a little apprehensive about leaving behind.

“You’ll be all right leaving this?” she asked, easing back from the caustic edge of teasing. This place was where Thaia had always found solid footing for knowing who she was. Sula needed to know that her daughter really was okay with leaving it, going where she wouldn’t be able to put her feet on her foundation again.

“It’s the only way I’ll be able to build a relay, you know that.”

There was something to be said about dreams and following them. You just never thought following them would require traveling literally millions of light-years from your home. “Yeah, but you had a hard time adjusting on Illium and this’ll be another galaxy. You won’t be able to come back and visit.”

“If I build the relays right, anyone who wants to will be able to come back and visit.”

“Can you?”

“If Andromeda’s like anything we’ve seen, yes.”

Sula wanted to caution her on putting too much hope in being able to build the relays and connect them from Andromeda to home. She wanted to caution her daughter not because she didn’t believe Thaia could—her daughter sounded so sure of herself that you couldn’t not believe in her ability—but because if shit went sideways, it could be a lot longer than she thought before she could visit home again. Might even be never. 

She wanted to caution her daughter because she knew what devastation waited in Thaia’s future if she believed she’d never get to go home again. But that want stemmed from something Sula needed—to not see her daughter as bereft as she’d been when she’d first met her, the child lost and adrift and alone. Caution wasn’t what her daughter needed. Support was. The knowledge that she wasn’t alone, she wasn’t adrift, and she wasn’t lost.

“And it won’t be ugly, right? Not sure I can handle a child of mine designing and building something ugly.”

Thaia bumped into her with her shoulder. “The night Uncle Khel and I got into a bar fight over the beauty of the Destiny Ascension and mass relays was the same night I met Lexi.” She pulled her feet out of the water. “Which reminds me, I need your help with something.”

“You want to go start a bar fight? I’m game, but we should probably pick a city other than Armali since your ass already got arrested there today.”

“No, no bar fights. I don’t pick them. What is wrong with the rest of you?”

“It’s the krogan in us and the same thing’s wrong with you and I’ve seen your ass pick fights, so don’t act like you’re nothing like the rest of your family.” Sula chuckled when Thaia had no reply. “So what’s your idea?”

After Thaia told her the plan she’d concocted over the span of the day, Sula realized her daughter had it worse than bad. If the two of them didn’t get together in Andromeda within a reasonable amount of time, she was going to matriarch the shit out of it. She was going to fucking meddle. Gleefully, too. It’s what a loving parent did and she’d learned from the very best—her own mother.

Might as well start now. “I’ll help.”

The Nexus, 2185.

“You’re sure my crest isn’t green?” asked Basya.

“I’m sure,” said Safira.

Sitting next to her sister on the cushioned bench in the cryo prep room, Basya still had to look convinced. “You’re sure Auri won’t turn it green while I’m asleep? Really sure?”

Thaia had to hide a laugh when Safira glared at Aunt Jarah for the hundredth time in ten minutes because Basya had yet to stop asking if Auri would get her revenge during cryo.

“You’ll both be in stasis at the same time,” Safira said from where she crouched in front of her daughters. “It would literally be impossible.”

“Maybe she’ll turn your crest yellow,” said Thaia.

Safira pointed at Thaia without looking in her direction. “Don’t you—

“No, that color wouldn’t work,” said Jarah. “Orange would, though. Personally, I like orange. I had a couple decades in my maidenhood where I sported some nice orange stripes on my crest.”

“Goddess, you’re an eldest sister!” said Safira. “You’d think you would have some solidarity with another. Instead, you’re as bad as my youngest sister.”

Meir elbowed Eirian. “You hear that?”

“What, you mean Safira saying we aren’t trying hard enough?” asked Eirian. “Because that’s what I heard.”

“I wish we were putting you two in cryo today,” said Safira.

“We’re tomorrow. With Thaia in, we’ll have some time to catch up on being shits without any competition,” said Meir. “Uncle Khel, want in?”

“Fuck no. Every time I’ve helped any of you shits be shits to each other, I’ve gotten in trouble.” He thought it over. “Except for the bar fights, being family events and all.”

Auri frowned and crossed her arms. “But they aren’t family events. We don’t get to be in them.”

“Not until you’re fifty,” said Safira. “Then we’ll talk.” 

“I was forty-five in my first one,” said Eirian.

Safira pointed at Eirian like she had Thaia. “Stop or I’ll be forced to be a bad example to my daughters.”

Eirian wisely shut up.

“There.” Safira looked between Basya and Auri, taking one of their hands with each of hers. “No one will be playing any tricks on anyone during cryo. I won’t be in your cryo bloc with you, but Thaia will. I know she’s not me—”

“Thank the goddess,” Thaia said, but not quietly enough because Safira glared at her and Sula smacked her on the arm.

Safira returned to reassuring her daughters. “She’s not me, but she loves you very much and she’ll help if anything goes wrong. But nothing should because there are too many safety protocols and all of us have seen and verified the designs. I’ll be waking up before you, and so will your grandmother, Aunt Jarah, and Uncle Khel. It will be like you lie down in your pod and then wake up right after. I’ll be the first person you see in Andromeda, all right?”

Both children nodded. Then the tech stuck his head out and summoned them inside the cryo pod room. Safira went with them, but walked back out less than ten minutes later, her lighthearted yet earnest demeanor from before gone, leaving her unsettled. Sula walked over and hugged her, Safira holding on for longer than anyone would’ve thought. Then again, it wasn’t like any of them had done this before, put family in cryo, or gone into cryo.

“I’m trying to convince myself that I’ve only tucked them in for the night,” Safira said.

“It’ll only be a couple more days for us,” said Sula. “Then we’ll be tucked in, too. You’ll make it. Shit, you’ll get a lot done without those two clowning around everywhere.”

“I’ll still miss them.”

“You will, but that’s fine.”

Safira stepped away and nodded. 

Another tech poked her head from the pod room door. “Thaia, you’ve got thirty minutes before you’re to go in.” 

“You want us to stay?” Sula asked after the tech had gone. 

“We all already said goodbye. For two hours.” As much as she’d miss her family, elongating their farewells would make it worse. It figured that she’d have this extra time she didn’t exactly need, meanwhile with how busy Lexi had been, their farewell had been a quick ‘goodbye’ in a half minute Lexi had between patients. Harry’s apology had been equally as rushed, but genuine. It was understandable. They’d been swamped through no fault of their own. “I’ve got my omni to keep myself occupied.”

“I’ll be helping wake your ass up in Andromeda, anyway,” said Sula. “Just like when you were a kid.”

“Or just like yesterday,” said Meir.

The rest of her family filed out of the cryo prep room, Jarah and Sula bringing up the rear of the line. Both of them gave Thaia’s shoulder a squeeze on their way past. Thaia was grateful it wasn’t a pat on the crest like her sisters had done. Then they were gone and it was Thaia sitting in the prep room with the furniture and the terminals her only company.

The door opened again, admitting Lexi.

Happy but entirely confused, Thaia jumped to her feet and said the wrong thing because that was apparently what she did half the time she talked to Lexi. “How did you get in?”

“If that’s how you feel about my being here, I can leave,” said Lexi.

Said the wrong thing, exactly like she’d just fucking done. 

Behind Lexi, framed by the doorway, Sula grinned. Then she stepped back and the door closed and it was just Thaia with Lexi and Thaia having to apologize because the wrong words had come out.

As nice as it was to see Lexi, maybe the quick not-really-a-farewell farewell earlier had been better. Because there, Thaia hadn’t had time to think of all the other things she wanted to say and do but couldn’t, and now she did have that time and couldn’t say anything. Just looked at her, Lexi looking back while crossing her arms like she didn’t know what to do with them, with everything awkward as fuck and Thaia hoped she’d see Lexi again in Andromeda. But she couldn’t see how she wouldn’t. Whatever it was between them, even if they only ever stayed friends, it was too important to give up. But could she say that? Of course not because her brain had forgotten how to make words go.

Then Lexi asked, “A human, a vorcha, and a krogan are in a skycar. Who’s driving?”

Thaia frowned in confusion. One, because she hadn’t heard this joke before and how had she not? Two, because Lexi was telling the fucking joke. “Who?”

“C-Sec.”

The laugh bubbled out, shitty joke or not. “Goddess, that was—wait, you said you only knew one bad joke.”

“One of the techs on the Hyperion told that one yesterday. When Harry laughed out loud, I knew I had to repeat it you.”

Then the awkward came back, roaring right in, not letting two people who were centuries old have a normal fucking conversation. But it was hard having one conversation when you wanted to have another, but that conversation couldn’t happen until you got to the place where you were… also it was complicated. 

Mostly, Thaia wanted to be able to—she wasn’t even sure. Hug her? Would that risk sending them over the line? Kissing her would. Definitely would even though she did want to. But even if that was a thing they were both willing to risk, they had at least twenty minutes and there were walls one person could pin the other to, plus other options for use like the benches or even the table. 

But Lexi was also her best friend. Setting all those other complications aside, she didn’t want to be separated that long from this person she’d gotten far closer to than she’d ever believed she could in such a relatively short amount of time. It just—the whole thing felt strange because she’d had friends and people she’d called best friends and she hadn’t felt like this about any of them.

She told her subconscious to fuck off when it tried to tell her other interpretations because those weren’t things she could think about when she couldn’t do shit about the thoughts she already had.

“Fuck.” There. She made a word go.

It got Lexi to smile and stop crossing her arms, so she’d take it. “Do you think that was your first word as a child?”

“The probability has to be non-zero.” More words, but they’d been nerdy math words. She ran a hand over her face. “This is harder than I thought.”

“It is.”

“Also, I’m not going to say I’ll be waiting for you in Andromeda because that would be awful.” Nearly as bad as using a human pick-up line. It probably was one in the Initiative.

“Were you to say that, I’d have to avoid you in Andromeda on principle alone.”

This was better. This was familiar and safe and not risky like most of those other things. “Since the Nexus will get there first, technically I’ll be waiting. And the Hyperion has to dock with the Nexus and I’m on the integration team, so I’ll literally be right there. But not waiting for you, specifically. The whole ark.”

“Does that mean if you see Harry first, you’ll be welcoming him to Andromeda the same as you would me?”

“He does have a nice voice.” Thaia pretended to mull over it even though there was no fucking way she’d welcome Harry like she wanted to welcome Lexi, were it an option. 

Lexi frowned.

Thaia didn’t resist smiling in return. “His voice really is comforting, to be honest. So’s yours, but yours does—you know what, I’m stopping there.” She tumbled right back into the awkward ‘I’m not saying anything because I can’t say those things’ silence again. Thaia reached out and took Lexi’s hands, a normal asari goodbye thing, perfectly acceptable. Then she felt Lexi lightly pulling her closer, so Thaia did the same and they met in the middle. Thaia wrapped her arms around Lexi before she could do anything else, and then decided this was all right. Better than all right. Lexi was tangible and there and she’d see her again. 

She couldn’t not see her again. She didn’t want Lexi to be gone.

Lexi rested her chin on Thaia’s shoulder but didn’t say anything. Held her closer though, which said a lot. Thaia’s chest ached, the good-not-bad ache she associated with Lexi and moments like this, which also said a lot.

“I would be sad,” Thaia said. 

“What?”

“If you weren’t around, I would be sad.”

Lexi exhaled, almost a sigh of… something. Regret, maybe, but not the bad kind. “I know.”

When Lexi pulled back far enough, Thaia bent down and pressed their foreheads together. “It won’t be that long. Then we’ll find each other again.”

“I know.” 

There wasn’t much to be said, after that. Everything else needed to wait until another galaxy. The technician stepped out and motioned for Thaia to go inside. 

Thaia stepped away, offering a half-smile and nothing else because there were too many words and not enough.

“I’ll see you on the other side,” said Lexi, who couldn’t muster any better of a smile than Thaia had.

***

Lexi stayed until the cryo room’s door had fully closed, and then a little longer. With Thaia gone, everything seemed a little less bright. Something felt missing, which was absurd because how could she possibly feel like something was missing from her life when she hadn’t known her for that long in comparison to the rest of her life? She’d never handled goodbyes well and this reaction was merely an extension of it, that was all.

When she returned to the Hyperion’s cryo deck and its medical facility, Harry handed her a cup of tea, which she soon discovered was her favorite. She didn’t like what it implied. “I’m fine,” she told Harry the next time he walked by.

He gave her a bewildered look. “I never said you weren’t. Why so defensive?”

She sighed and returned to her terminal. 

He didn’t leave. “So, where did you go this morning?”

“Harry.”

His laugh was the blend of kindness and teasing you heard only from good friends. “Let me know if you need a refill.”

With the many tasks left to do before the Hyperion’s first tier teams headed into cryo, responsibilities soon occupied Lexi’s mind, but the lights never entirely regained their former luminosity. 

Then there were the visits. 

That afternoon, Vetra and Sid popped in to say goodbye. The next morning, before the final rounds of the Leusinia’s cryo entries were slated to finish, both Eirian and Meir stopped by. It couldn’t have been a matter of visiting because they were passing through, not when they were on the wrong ark. But stop by they did, wishing Lexi farewell before they were off again. Then Khel and Kesh the next day, right before the Nakmor clan went into cryo. Jarah and Safira that afternoon. Lexi didn’t mind, not when she was fond of Thaia’s family, not when Kesh, Vetra, and Sid had become good friends, but her natural suspicion took hold and couldn’t be shaken. 

When she asked Harry if he knew anything about it, he said, “A conspiracy? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Maybe it’s your Omega upbringing coming through.”

“I didn’t say conspiracy.”

“Close enough. Since you’re tragically still not used to having friends outside your work, consider this: it’s something people who care about you do. If they hadn’t come here before they went into cryo, would you have sought them out?”

“If I had the opportunity, yes.” But she wasn’t sure she would have had the time with how much needed to be completed as the clock ran down. If she hadn’t seized on the lone break she’d gotten along with Sula telling her there was a free transport to the Nexus—both obvious prior arrangements—she might not have seen Thaia again before cryo. They only would have had that sorry excuse of a goodbye before Andromeda. 

“And I doubt you would’ve had one, or allowed yourself to set aside your responsibilities to see them. So they came to see you.”

There it was again. Setting people aside for her all-encompassing work. It was a wonder she had friends whom she didn’t see in her department daily.

“Lexi,” Harry said after he got her attention, “I know what you’re thinking and that isn’t what I meant. Your friends know you. They knew they had time when you didn’t, and so they came to see you. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

She nodded, doing her utmost to believe him, but her doubt remained entrenched. She’d lost too many friends, ruined too many relationships over the years to believe with her entire being that it wouldn’t happen again.

Her last visitor appeared that evening, right after the Hyperion’s second-tier team had finished entering cryo. Lexi’s turn would be in the morning, Harry’s in the afternoon.

Matriarch Sula held up a datapad before she set it down on the exam bed in front of Lexi. “Had to drop this off before you went into cryo.” 

Lexi’s eyes darted down to the datapad and then up at Sula. “What is it?”

“A small electronic device used for either storing and displaying data or throwing at people being exasperating.”

Lexi pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. 

Sula’s soft laugh was reminiscent of Harry’s from a few days ago. “Don’t forget to let yourself live a life. We’ll catch up in Andromeda.” Then she walked out the door before Lexi could ask what she meant.

Not until well into the night did Lexi have the opportunity to look at the datapad.

 

To: L. T’Perro

From: A. Kallistrate

Re: Astronomy

Lexi, 

It won’t reach its closest approach to Omega in another 53 years, but here it is. When I build that relay telescope array in another seven hundred years, we’ll be able to see it from Andromeda.

Thaia

[Attachment: Corope 2185 Sahrabarik]

Lexi opened the attached file. It was, as indicated, a clear shot of the comet Corope in its current orbital position. She synced it to her omni and projected it over the counter. How Thaia had managed it, Lexi didn’t know. 

Then she remembered her father and his excitement about showing her the comet. She remembered her mother and how happy she’d been when Lexi’s father had given her the new set of calculations for when the comet would come by again. It felt good to remember them.

She remembered Thaia and her bright enthusiasm.

It felt good to remember her and she didn’t know what to make of it.

“Are you all right?” asked Harry.

In explanation, Lexi switched the datapad back to the letter and then handed it to him.

After he read it, he looked up with a warm smile. “And you called her a miscreant. Would a miscreant do something like this?”

“A thoughtful miscreant would.”

Lexi hoped they’d find each other in Andromeda, the idea that they wouldn’t unimaginable.

Chapter Text

Andromeda

The Nexus, 2818.

Thaia tries not to remember.

In vids, family members usually get to have farewell conversations before someone dies. Except for when her grandmother died a week past the age of eleven hundred, Thaia hasn’t experienced the same. A whole lot of alive then dead and no in-between.

The cryo prep room was more a wreck than a room, broken furniture strewn everywhere, most of it on fire. As Thaia sits in Colonial Affairs with a smattering of other survivors, Security and civilians both, she tries not to remember everything else that was on fire. 

Everything else that was broken. 

Just everything.

“I’ve got Kallistrate down here, by the way,” she hears Kandros say.

“Send her up,” says Kesh’s voice over Kandros’s comms.

“Will do,” says Kandros.

Talini grabs her by the upper arms, hauls her up, and then makes sure Thaia can stand on her own two feet before she relinquishes her hold. “They need you to be an engineer.”

Better than sitting here, Thaia supposes. The more immediate things she can pack into her head, the less room for other things.

When Thaia gets to Life Support, Kesh greets her and then launches into explaining exactly how fucked everything is.

Very fucked, exceptionally fucked, catastrophically fucked, or hopelessly fucked seems to be the status of everything. Aside from the whole needing a breathable atmosphere thing, the last is the most dangerous.

“What’s Jien Garson have to say?” Thaia asks. “Or Matriarch Nuara. I can’t remember when Jien’s retiring and the matriarch’s taking the lead.”

“Jien Garson’s missing and Matriarch Nuara was killed during whatever fucked everything up,” says Sloane. “The whole senior first-tier leadership and most of the secondary leadership are dead. We were lucky that only half of the secondary had been woken up from cryo when this shit went down.”

“Who?”

“We’ve verified that your father’s cryo pod is intact,” says Kesh.

Thaia doesn’t get a chance to feel relief, much less get the chance to hope that maybe Andromeda’s done taking people she loves.

Because it isn’t.

“Matriarch Jarah was killed with the rest of the leadership,” says Sloane.

A third person gone. The lancing pain of loss twists inside her chest, cold and hot. She looks away. Remembers when she shouldn’t. Aunt Jarah was the first relative she met after her father, the elder sister to her father’s younger. Kind, yet not quite as good at hiding her anger at Thaia’s mother as Sula was. Thaia learned later that it’s how older sisters are. Often protective to the point where if their younger sister isn’t angry on her own behalf, the elder takes on that anger for her. 

Not anymore, though.

“Fuck.” It’s become the summation of everything.

“Could’ve used her,” says Sloane. “Could use your father, but Tann won’t authorize waking her up.”

Everyone else in the room—including the group of Life Support engineers who pretend they didn’t hear Sloane give Thaia the shit news or Thaia’s reaction—seems to know who Sloane’s talking about, but Thaia has no idea. “Who the fuck is Tann?”

“Number Eight,” says Kesh.

“Jarun Tann, Deputy Assistant for Revenue Management,” says Sloane. “He was eighth in line to take over the Initiative’s leadership.”

“An accountant?”

Sloane scowls. Well, more like her scowl deepens because Sloane was scowling when Thaia walked into the room. “Protocol listed him. No one fucking knows why, but we can’t do shit about it until we get the Nexus working.”

“Then let’s get it that way,” says Thaia.

The days fill with work, which is fine by her because it means her thoughts don’t drift into memory.

Eventually, Tann authorizes waking more critical people from cryo. Included on the list are Nakmor Khel and Safira Calfuray, but not Matriarch Sula. Thaia fights for a chance to talk to Tann because it would be really fucking helpful to have a matriarch who’s also a systems engineer awake and organizing shit.

“We’ll wake up Matriarch Sula when there are functioning systems to integrate,” Tann tells her.

Thaia can’t come up with anything to say that doesn’t involve ‘fuck’ and ‘you,’ so she stays silent. Then she has to walk away because Tann’s rocketing his way up to the top of her list of people she really doesn’t like.

When they go to cryo to get the people on the list, Kesh stays to wake the krogan while Thaia goes with Kandros and Sloane to wake up the rest. It falls to Kesh to tell Khel what happened. But it also means Thaia has to answer Safira’s questions.

“You have the harder job,” says Kesh.

Thaia wonders if headbutting every single Nakmor that Kesh has to wake up would hurt more or less. She stands next to Calix as he wakes up Safira. Then Thaia talks to Safira. Tells her sister. Tells her.

The headbutting would’ve hurt less.

Weeks of work go by, trying to salvage the Nexus and the Initiative and themselves. They avoid talking about who they want to remember because it hurts too much to remember them. 

They pester the fuck out of Tann to wake up Sula. 

Addison’s fucking assistant tries to smooth things over between Thaia and Tann. Thaia doesn’t react well. She does try. All she tells him at first is, “Go the fuck away,” which is polite, given the circumstances. In no just world should he be out of cryo when her father isn’t.

Spender doesn’t agree. He tells Thaia to respect her superiors. Thaia tells him, using fuck more frequently and creatively than she ever has in her life—which is no small feat for a former commando—where he can stick it. When he doesn’t immediately vacate the area, the Nakmors who were content to let Thaia handle her own shit slowly look up from their tasks and at Spender.

He gets the message and leaves.

“I think I’d rather a salarian than him,” says Arvex. “A salarian other than Number Eight.”

No one disagrees.

“Dumb fucker didn’t know who the most dangerous person in the room was,” says Kaje. “Yeah, we’re krogan. We can fight. But we’re a bunch of engineers and tech grunts and he doesn’t leave until he thinks we’ll rumble. Meanwhile, he’s standing a half-meter away from an asari commando who’s pissed at him and he hadn’t pissed his pants. Dumb shit.”

“He should be airlocked,” says Kesh.

No one disagrees.

Thaia willingly helps Safira in Hydroponics, even though plants are either boring or harboring arachnids. There aren’t any arachnids in space, but it turns out plants are still boring. What isn’t boring is annoying her older sister because she can. Sometimes, Sloane stops by to pace and think. She never really participates in the teasing, though. Probably an only child.

“Do you cheer them on?” Thaia asks as she peers down at the tiny green shoots. “Like, a special cheer?”

“What?” asks Safira.

Thaia points at the plants. “They’re kind of stunted, but obviously they’re well-watered because you’re also a hydrologist, so I’m trying to figure out how you’ll ag engineer them.”

“Are you insulting my plants?”

“I would never. Maybe you, though.”

Safira shoves her in the shoulder. “Stop being a shit.” She smiles as she says it, even laughs a little. “If you don’t, I’ll unpack a rain gauge.”

“You hear that, Sloane?” Thaia says over her shoulder. “Threatened me with a deadly weapon.”

“If I were inclined to intervene—which I’m not—and make an arrest, where would I even put her?” asks Sloane.

“Fair point.” Thaia gives Safira a pat on the back. “You’re good. Off on a technicality.”

Sloane joins them where they stand in front of the stunty seedlings. “Was she always like this?”

“Yes,” says Safira.

“And it took you that long to hit her with that rain gauge?”

“A testament to my patience.”

“Oh, fuck you,” says Thaia.

Safira smiles again, bends to study her plants, and activates her omni. “And I’m going to ag engineer the shit out of these.”

“You still haven’t said whether or not that involves cheering them on,” says Thaia.

“Security Director Kelly,” Safira says without looking away from her omni, “I’m sorry to report that there’s about to be a murder.”

Thaia sprints out of the room. Seems prudent. But in a stolen moment of normalcy where everything felt slightly less shitty, Safira smiled and laughed. 

The Scourge likes to break things. It also enjoys hobbies such as ripping ships apart, ripping people apart, ripping dreams apart, and changing things on a molecular level that’s undetectable until alpha-beam titanium alloy bends and twists and warps, leaving four engineers staring at the weird-ass structural damage and wondering how it happened. 

Kesh is there because without Kesh there isn’t a Nexus in the first place—also in the second, third, and fourth places because she’s saved the Nexus several times in Andromeda already—Khel’s there because he’s a mechanical engineer and this undoubtedly involves mechanical things, Calix is there because he can tell them right then if Life Support is fucked, Thaia because she’s an aerospace engineer and they’re on a ship in space, and Safira’s there because she can’t run anymore tests on her stunty seedlings until tomorrow. Thaia isn’t sure how applicable agricultural engineering is to figuring out and fixing the Scourge damage, but having another pair of eyes on it can’t hurt. Also maybe agricultural engineers fix tractors or some shit. Tractors have metal. Usually. Who the fuck knows, maybe the Scourge is the leftover particles of wronged, angry plants.

Thaia needs more sleep. 

But she doesn’t like what she sees when she closes her eyes, so she doesn’t close them much and closing them is an essential component to successfully sleeping. Lexi would scold her for not sleeping, but not mean scolding. The ‘I care about you and you’re being an idiot so please stop being an idiot’ kind of scolding. She remembers falling asleep on Lexi’s shoulder on the way back from Thessia. Her dad teased her after she woke up, made her panic when she said Thaia drooled on Lexi’s shoulder, which would be gross. There was no drool, thank the goddess. She misses her dad. She misses Lexi.

“Hey, can we start taking this apart so it can be fixed?” Wratch yells from down the corridor.

“Go ahead,” says Kesh.

Thaia scowls at the initial results from the scanner because they explain fuck all about what happened to the metal. The Scourge is fucked up and fascinating like that. She says so out loud.

“Do you know what it is yet?” asks Khel.

“Best we’ve got so far is it’s a cloud of dark energy that doesn’t behave like we’ve theorized dark energy works. Also, there’s eezo in it.”

“What does that mean?” asks Calix.

“It means we don’t know what the fuck it is, that’s what. All our theories about dark energy could be wrong, but some have to be right otherwise I couldn’t do this.” Thaia biotically lifts Safira into the air because apparently she likes tempting fate.

“You don’t put me down right now I’ll put your ass in a stasis for an hour,” says Safira.

Thaia sets Safira back on the deck immediately. Once, when she was younger, she called Safira’s bluff. Then she discovered the hard way that Safira wasn’t bluffing. Thaia can eliminate any stasis of Safira’s, but it requires detonating it and she doesn’t want to be inside it when she does because then she’d be in pieces. 

After Thaia’s biotics dissipate, Safira says, “If you get close enough to a tendril, it feels like when we’re getting closer to the bay. I think if you got really close, it would feel like being in the bay.”

Thaia frowns. “Then it would eat you.”

“You make it sound malevolent,” says Kesh.

“Look around us.” Thaia gestures toward the end of the corridor, where the Scourge took a bite out of the hull, where tendrils lie in wait beyond the emergency atmospheric shielding. “Maybe it isn’t inherently malevolent, but it isn’t a natural phenomenon and it destroys everything it touches in really fucked up ways.”

Then Thaia realizes she maybe shouldn’t insult the Scourge because Wratch shouts, “Watch out!” while the section of interior hull plating they’re inspecting screeches as it twists and heaves. A visible tremor shivers along it and everyone leaps away when they see fracturing follow it, which shouldn’t happen because twisting means the fracture toughness is too high and fractures mean the fracture toughness is too low and you don’t have both in one thing and it’s so incongruent to reality that Thaia tries to look. Then there’s a pop like a light bulb going out before it violently shatters. Shards of metal in every imaginable size fly outward, sending everyone diving to the floor while covering their heads and closing their eyes.

The krogan get up first, more inconvenienced than anything, and then they start helping everyone else to their feet. Khel flicks away a square shard clinging to his chest by a sharp tip. 

“That shit pinged when it hit your carapace,” Khel says to Calix as he pulls him up.

“It did,” says Calix. “How’s everyone?” 

“I’m good,” says Safira. 

“I don’t think any krogan were hurt,” says Kaje.

Thaia ended up on her side, facing the wall her head almost smacked into. But her biotics slowed her enough that she barely bumped it. Honestly, she’s hit her head harder walking into a door before. Her back feels like someone’s kicked her, though. “My back’s sore, but I’m all right otherwise.” She doesn’t like not being able to see everyone because it’s like having her back to the door, so she pushes away from the wall and starts to roll over.

Kesh’s hand on her shoulder stops her before her back makes full contact with the deck. “Don’t move.”

“Why not?”

“Look down.”

Thaia looks down. “Oh, fuck.” It explains why her back’s sore since anyone’s back would be sore if a metal spike went so far through it that it stuck out the other side. Then Thaia knows that Andromeda’s stealing back the happy moment when Safira smiled and then it’s going to steal every single single future moment because Andromeda doesn’t play well with others.

“It was an accident,” Wratch says. 

Safira headbutts him before he gets the last syllable out. It’s a good headbutt, knocking Wratch right to the deck. Thaia’s surprised—Safira’s always been on Thaia’s side of the asari headbutting krogan debate—and proud, because it really was a good headbutt.

“I don’t think it was his fault,” says Khel.

Wratch compliments Safira’s headbutt because krogan are like that and why Thaia still thinks krogan are, as a whole, awesome.

“Safira,” Khel says as he kneels next to Thaia and Kesh, “you need to hold her still. That spike comes out or goes all the way into her back, the bleeding will get worse.”

Silent, Safira does as their uncle asked and her stasis field instantly surrounds Thaia.

The spike hasn’t exited through her stomach, Thaia realizes as she looks at it again. It’s higher up, just under her ribs. And it doesn’t hurt as much as she thinks it should. “It isn’t bleeding that much right now,” she says.

“That’s because it’s internal bleeding,” says Khel.

“That’s where blood’s supposed to be.”

“Not if it’s outside your blood vessels and pooling into your lungs.”

Thaia grimaces. “Gross.”

“How,” says Kesh, “were you ever a commando?”

“Being squeamish means I’m motivated to keep insides in,” says Thaia. “Apparently even after I’ve been stabbed. Run through? Whichever. All the insides still in.”

“That isn’t much better in this case,” says Khel.

“I know.” Every commando has basic field medic training. Every commando also has a dark sense of humor. Gallows humor, Thaia’s heard humans call it. “But I’m trying not to think about the whole spike that shouldn’t be there thing, so work with me here.”

“Stop fucking joking,” says Safira.

“That’s like telling me not to breathe,” says Thaia. Which, to be fair, cuts a little too close for everyone involved.

“I never thought I’d say this,” says Khel, “but keep her talking. When she stops talking is when it’s time to be worried.”

Thaia’s pretty sure she should be offended.

But then Safira glares at Khel and says, “You stop fucking joking, too.” Which is truly funny because Safira’s usually the least likely of them to snap at Khel.

Then Thaia laughs a little and fuck that hurts. It hurts more than the time she scraped up her entire front side climbing the cliff without any clothes on because she planned on just swimming and then changed her mind and didn’t bother to fetch any clothes. Then she jumped into the bay anyway and all the salt got into all her scrapes and she cried from the pain. She was one hundred and forty and should’ve known better. Her dad asked her if she learned her fucking lesson while also handing her a tube of medigel salve because that’s how her dad is.

“Laughing counts as moving,” says Khel.

“No shit.”

Kesh and Calix finally get into contact with the two doctors who were woken up from cryo during that round of waking the thousand or so specialists, but it turns out neither of them are anywhere near qualified trauma surgeons, so they need to wake one up. 

“One of you, and I don’t care who,” says Calix, “meet me at cryo.” Then he’s off.

“Kesh, we should come down to where you are,” says one of the doctors. “The risk of dislodging the metal is too great if you move her.”

“Kesh won’t be moving her,” says Safira. “My biotics will and nothing will move unless I want it to.”

Safira’s convincing enough that the doctor stops arguing and says they’ll be ready for them when they get there.

At first, Thaia thinks everything’s fuzzy because she’s seeing the Nexus through a biotic haze which is kind of cool. Then she thinks everything’s fuzzy because Safira initially held her so tight that she wasn’t able to blink and her eyes are a little dry. But Thaia’s certain her eyes are fine when they get to the nearest equipped infirmary yet things are still fuzzy enough that she can’t really see the doctor well.

Then it’s like drowning from the inside. She can’t see Safira, but she hears Safira say that she isn’t allowed to die. And for maybe the fifth time in Thaia’s life, she doesn’t want to do the opposite of what her eldest sister tells her to. It hurts to be alive with Aunt Jarah and Auri and Basya not, with Sula in cryo, but Safira and Uncle Khel are alive and Meir and Eirian are on their way and Lexi is too. Thaia tries to say she won’t die but she can’t catch her breath and she hopes she doesn’t die after she’s too tired to stay awake.

Even with the nightmare that’s been Andromeda, Thaia’s glad she wakes up. Her body hurts, though. Goddess.

“You’ll be good as new in a couple more weeks,” says the doctor. Turian, nice lady. And, since Thaia’s alive, a good doctor. Not the doctor she really wants to wake up to, though. Not Lexi.

“I had to remove your spleen,” the doctor adds after she raises the head of the infirmary bed enough for Thaia to drink some water. “That piece of hull plating pulverized it on its way through.”

“Sounds messy.”

“It was.”

Thaia frowns and wishes she paid more attention in biology. “How important is a spleen, anyway?”

“Not important enough that you can’t live without it. A ruptured spleen bleeds a lot. That’s the real danger.”

Thaia decides that her spleen’s a good trade for hearing Safira laugh, also because it bled too much and tried to drown her. “Oh. Well. Good riddance.”

After two more weeks, Thaia feels more like herself but has a gnarly scar because they don’t have the energy to waste on cosmetic procedures, formerly routine procedures or not. The doctor apologizes, which is puzzling.

“No, I like it,” says Thaia. She does. It’s a ninety degree angled V on her back and then in the front, below her ribs. She’s still alive. Eat shit, Andromeda.

“Are you sure it’s just your grandfather who was krogan?” asks the doctor.

“Pretty sure. Dad would’ve bragged about more.”

“Isn’t one of the Nakmors your uncle? The one who’s visited several times?”

“Yeah, but he bonded into the family.” Doesn’t make him any less of an uncle. Just means he hasn’t influenced her genetics. But there’s also an element of nature versus nurture there since Khel’s been a significant part of her life since she was twenty.

When Thaia’s released from the infirmary, she shows Safira her scar first. Her sister visited every day, but today she’s still on shift and Thaia is free and full of energy because she’s not dead and she runs to Hydroponics.

She’s lifting up the hem of her shirt before the door closes. Sloane’s there too, but that’s unsurprising and Thaia doesn’t give a shit because it’s just Sloane. And Sloane’s all right with scars. Sloane’s pretty all right overall. “Look at my cool scar!”

“That’s almost impressive,” says Sloane.

Sometimes, it’s like Sloane should be krogan.

Safira pretends to be impressed. “It’s a good one.”

Thaia lets her shirt fall back into place. “You sounded more excited when you got socks for your four hundredth birthday.”

Safira’s gone back to her plants, which aren’t stunty anymore. “Things are different.”

No one can argue with the sadness in Safira’s tone, so Thaia doesn’t. She wonders if she’ll ever be able to get a smile from Safira again. 

Life goals.

“I bet Uncle Khel will be impressed,” Thaia says.

“So go show him.”

Life stretch goals.

“He’s up in Operations with Kesh right now,” says Sloane.

Thaia thanks her and goes to show him. He’s impressed. Uncle Khel’s the best uncle in two galaxies.

When Thaia and Khel go to one of the common areas to eat, they sit with Dr. Aridana, who’s alternately frowning at her datapad and her food.

“Glaring at it isn’t going to make it any better,” Khel says as he opens his drink.

Dr. Aridana looks up. “The reports or the food?”

“Either.”

Dr. Aridana laughs, yet it’s quiet, like it wants to be more enthusiastic but there’s nothing to inspire it. It falls flat and ends in a sigh. Then she looks over at Thaia. “You look much better.”

“Not bleeding out will do that to you,” says Khel.

Thaia hits him on the arm as she says to Dr. Aridana, “I’m not dead and I have an awesome scar. Things are looking up.” 

As up as they could in Andromeda anyway, which isn’t too far. 

Kaje lumbers over and sits down. Khel tells her to show him the scar and Thaia isn’t shy about it and shows him. Kaje approves. Eventually, Safira joins them and Thaia doesn’t talk about the scar anymore. Sloane comes in and Khel passes her a beer.

“Which reports are you reviewing?” Thaia asks Dr. Aridana.

“The current status of the external sensor array.” She slides the datapad over for Thaia to have a look. “We’ll need to do an EVA to fix it, but before we can debate over whether it’s too dangerous to attempt said EVA, we need the replacement parts. I’m afraid we might have to wait for the arks to get here to supply them.”

The solution to that problem is so easy it makes Thaia wonder if anyone’s getting enough sleep. “We don’t need the arks, but we do need their docking bays. All the bays have fabrication shops right next to them. We just have to get there.”

“How would you do that?” asks Sloane.

“Backbreaking work,” says Khel. “But we’d get to throw shit around and we’d be out of comms range so we wouldn’t have to listen to Tann.”

“Sign me up,” says Sloane.

The vidscreens light up and a recording of Jien Garson’s pre-departure speech plays. Then Tann’s on. Tells everyone Jien Garson’s dead. Then he calls for people to go back into cryo. No one volunteers and no one except Tann is surprised by this. 

They decide tomorrow will be an excellent day to get away from everyone and so they run it by Kesh. She approves and makes the executive decision to go with them. 

Khel’s right and it’s exhausting work and no one minds in the least. The shop’s where they left it and so are half the supplies—which is better than they could’ve hoped—and no one’s disappointed that they have to stick around and actually fabricate the parts. 

While the rest of them stay, Kesh and Sloane have to return to Operations. Khel’s in charge and Thaia’s there to show him the plans and it’s days before they finish up but they have the parts. A step closer to figuring out what the fuck is going on outside.

Things got weirder when they were gone. Sloane’s made entirely out of stress and exhaustion. Maybe some coffee. Definitely coffee.

It takes longer than is responsible to convince everyone to sign off on the EVA. Tann worries about something going wrong and how many people they’ll lose as a result. “Did you watch the omnicam footage from the last EVA?” he asks, like they wouldn’t have reviewed that footage a thousand times while planning the new EVA. “The Scourge took two of our people. If anything goes wrong, we could lose six more.”

Thaia does not make a snide remark about the accountant finally getting to do some accounting. That she refrains from saying it isn’t entirely due to the preemptive glare Dr. Aridana sends her way, but it’s most of it.

Addison’s the person who takes him down for that one, which is surprising. “Then you’ll have fewer mouths to feed, won’t you?” she asks in the way where everyone else is looking around for anti-venom for whoever was the target. Except the target’s Tann so no one’s looking around for shit. 

Tann says Kesh can’t go. Which is fair because if Kesh dies they’re all completely fucking fucked, no way around it. Since he’s made that stipulation, it means he’s decided they can go outside and fix shit.

Safira’s not a fan of the EVA. Thaia knows she isn’t because Safira asks fifty-five questions about Thaia’s preparation for it like Thaia hasn’t done hundreds of EVAs before. And she’s done that many EVAs—maybe it’s over a thousand by now—because it’s part of her job. If you’re building a spaceship, your ass is going out into space. It also means she follows every fucking safety rule because vacuum doesn’t fuck around and it’s a shit way to go. After Safira’s woken her up again with another question, Thaia reminds her that she’s done this before and Safira’s never been like this for any of those.

“Things are different,” Safira says.

She’s right. So when Safira asks Thaia to stop by Hydroponics on her way to the airlock for the EVA and then stop on the way back, Thaia agrees.

When Thaia drops by, already in her hardsuit but carrying her helmet, Safira asks, “If our situations were reversed, wouldn’t you be the same?”

Thaia would be worse and she knows this about herself. “I’d probably refuse to let you go unless you carried me on your back like a backpack. And I’d be a shit the whole time.”

Safira laughs. “You would.”

“I’ll be by after it’s done,” says Thaia.

“Just remember,” Safira says before Thaia leaves.

“Remember what?”

“You’re not allowed to die.”

Thaia adjusts the helmet she’s got tucked under her arm. “I promise that if the Scourge starts moving, my ass is in the airlock. Everyone’s asses, actually.” It’s the truth. There’s shit you don’t fuck around with and the Scourge is one of them, at least until they understand it.

“Good.”

Thaia’s halfway out the door when she says, “And you aren’t allowed to let your plants strangle you or anything.”

“The stems don’t have enough tensile strength.”

“I feel better already.” It’s amusing because it isn’t like Hydroponics is particularly fraught with danger. “Keep your rain gauge handy, though.”

Safira laughs again and Thaia likes hearing it.

It’s a long EVA. The external sensor array is massive and the damage the Scourge has done is massive and they’ve safety lines everywhere. It’s slow going but it’s going and the Scourge is behaving. Thaia knows it the whole time she’s out there because she can feel the faint hum under her skin. It isn’t nearly as powerful as when she stood in the house and assuredly not as powerful as it felt swimming in the bay, but it’s there. Stronger than she felt while standing in a Thessian city. But it’s steady and not getting stronger at the moment so she’ll take it.

Then Kesh is calling her over comms. “You need to get inside. All of you.”

“Is something wrong?” Thaia’s already giving the Scourge an accusatory look because if anything in Andromeda’s misbehaving, it’s the Scourge.

“Everything’s gone to shit again.”

“Fuck.”

“Talini and I will be waiting for you outside the airlock. The other techs can stay in the labs, but we need you to come with us. Keep your hardsuit on.”

It’s bad. It’s bad because everyone’s hardsuits double as combat armor. Thaia’s isn’t Initiative standard because hers is commando-grade and if Talini’s with Kesh then they need her to be a commando.

Thaia came to Andromeda to not be a commando.

Meir was going to be a commando here.

She misses Meir.

But they need Thaia to be one. There’s some sort of uprising going on because people have apparently lost their fucking minds. Kesh tells her what she knows as they’re rushing to the fabrication shop and ark docking bay they cleared what seems like forever ago. She doesn’t know much. Just that there are people who’ve obtained weapons and they’re holed up in the shop and the last report says Calix is leading them.

“Calix? You’re sure?” Because Calix is really fucking low on her list of people who would lose their goddess-damned mind and do some dumb shit like this.

“We’re sure,” says Talini.

“Also,” Kesh says as they’re lining up at the shop’s back door where they can hear shouting and fighting and some gunfire in the room beyond, “we woke up Morda and the rest of the Nakmor warriors.”

“What the fuck?” Because waking up Nakmor Morda in a situation like this is the shittiest idea in a universe filled with shitty ideas. But Thaia can’t ask for clarification because they need to go inside and convince the room filled with fighting idiots to stop fucking fighting before anyone else gets hurt.

They bust in. Kesh speaks very forcefully and everyone stops.

But they’re too late. Calix is dead and it’s Sloane leading the rebellion. It makes no sense whatsoever because Sloane’s been doing everything to keep everyone cooperating and alive. 

Nothing makes sense in Andromeda.

She walks by Sloane on her way out. Asks Sloane what the fuck.

Sloane shrugs. “I was forced to choose.”

That explains everything. Except it doesn’t, so Thaia goes down to the cells Security set up to get an actual explanation. 

Sloane’s tired and weary and sick of this shit and it’s obvious. 

“I was talking Calix down,” Sloane says. “Then the krogan came in and the fighting started and I was forced to choose between someone who’d unleashed krogan warriors on his own people or the side with the people fighting to be equals after being lied to.”

It’s a fair point.

Thaia wouldn’t want to make that choice. It’s a shit choice in a shit situation where everything’s gone to shit. “Well, shit.”

“You’ve got that right,” says Sloane.

Then Thaia nods and leaves. Heads to Hydroponics because she promised Safira she would stop by after her EVA. It’s after and it’s late, but she doesn’t break promises. There are people in the way, too many and why the fuck won’t they move the fuck out of her way she just wants to let her sister know that she’s alive and mostly well.

Then the people move and it’s Khel standing there. Khel standing right outside the charred, partially-opened door.

Then she knows.

Safira didn’t follow her own advice.

Something inside Thaia twists and turns brittle like the metal warped by the Scourge and it hurts. It doesn’t shatter; she’s still whole.

It’s quiet.

It’s just Khel there and Thaia has no idea where the others went but it doesn’t really matter.

Khel tells her. Safira ran inside to save some of the plants and she didn’t come back out. Safira smiled earlier. Laughed. Andromeda wasn’t satisfied with what it took before—losing her aunt and nieces wasn’t enough even when it was too much—so it took her sister, too. 

“Fuck this galaxy,” she says.

“Pretty much,” says Khel.

Later, there’s a decision from the winnowed-down leadership.

The rebels are going to be exiled.

Thaia asks Tann to wake her father from cryo. He says no. She has to leave the room before she says something she’ll regret.

It isn’t long before she finds out that the Nakmor clan is leaving. They’re leaving too and all Thaia has left alive and awake is Uncle Khel and he’s a Nakmor. He’s going too and she’s afraid of being alone again. More alone than when she was twenty and didn’t know what was going to happen to her. When she thought she had no one, and then her father introduced herself—tall, taller than her mother, but bending to speak with her at eye-level—and she didn’t feel alone anymore. But there are a finite number of people in her family and she’s running out of them.

Terror claws at her throat when she tries to imagine a future with all of them gone.

Thaia asks why they’re leaving. Or she tries to but all she gets out is: “Why?”

It’s Khel and Drack who explain because they know every question she’s trying to ask with that one word.

The whole situation is stupid. Not on the part of the krogan, but Spender and Tann. Spender promised Nakmor Morda a voice in the leadership and then he and Tann denied the Nakmor what they promised because why not repeat Milky Way history in new galaxy?

So now the Nakmor are leaving and they have damn good reasons why. Thaia agrees with them but now she doesn’t know what to do because they’re leaving and Khel is a Nakmor and Safira died in the fire and Basya and Auri and Aunt Jarah are gone and her dad’s in cryo and fear fills her lungs and it’s like she’s drowning from the inside.

“We’re still family,” says Khel. “If you want, you can come with us.”

“What about the Initiative?” It seems like the responsible thing to ask.

“Fuck ‘em,” says Khel.

It’s hard to argue against it. But her father’s still here even if she isn’t awake. “What about my dad?”

“Kesh is staying,” says Drack. “Nexus would die without her and our people need someone representing us here. And it’ll piss off Tann. She’ll make sure nothing happens to Sula.”

Kesh, Thaia knows, she can trust. While Thaia’s fairly certain Tann wouldn’t try to kill her dad, it won’t hurt to have someone here to make sure, especially when Spender is a weaselly little fuck who should be airlocked once and then three more times for good measure. 

“I’ll go with you,” she says. 

“Good,” says Khel, clapping her on the back, almost knocking her over but it’s always been like that.

Thaia tells Tann she’s leaving and he isn’t terribly put out about it, which isn’t a surprise. Kesh is rolling her eyes because there aren’t that many people from the ark integration team left alive, but Tann doesn’t seem to know. He’s smart but he’s not and it’s bewildering.

Addison knows. Thaia can’t figure out if Addison’s pissed at her or him or everything and then decides it’s everything and she honestly can’t blame her. Addison rounds on Tann and sharply informs him that Thaia’s needed. Explains why.

Tann asks Thaia to stay.

She tells him to eat her entire ass.

He’s still spluttering when she walks out.

It’s Dr. Aridana’s appeal that almost sways Thaia from her decision, because if Thaia leaves she’s leaving behind her research and possibly her dream and the reason why she came to Andromeda in the first place.

“What’s important is what we bring to the chaos of Andromeda,” Dr. Aridana says.

“The chaos of Andromeda keeps taking people away,” says Thaia. “Maybe we shouldn’t have left.”

“Is going back an option?”

It’s a rhetorical question because until they know what came of the Reapers in the Milky Way, going home will be just as if not more deadly than staying here. Thaia still answers. “Not now.”

Dr. Aridana looks at the blueprints of the relays that will be the basis of the telescope that’s still only a dream. “Andromeda will be home to some of our daughters. It’s also possible that Andromeda will be home to all of our daughters.”

Thaia doesn’t like it. It bothers her on a level she can’t describe that maybe she shouldn’t hope at all about seeing her home again.

But Dr. Aridana was her advisor through her doctorates so she knows her, knows what she’s thinking. “That doesn’t mean you have to give up hope,” she says. “It means that your hope cannot overshadow the reality of other possible outcomes.”

It makes sense. It does and Thaia recognizes it and maybe in the Milky Way she could accept it. But Thaia’s lost hope somewhere along the way, stifled by loss and smothered by anger and she knows it’s all driven by sorrow but angry is easier. Safer. She tells Dr. Aridana she’s still leaving. Dr. Aridana gives her that look, the sad and disappointed one, but there’s still encouragement of a sort. She’s not giving up on Thaia, but she isn’t going to infringe on her freedom, either. Asks her to stay in contact, if and when she can. And if she comes across any Scourge data, to please send that along, too. 

Thaia knows it’s Dr. Aridana’s way of telling her to remember why she came to Andromeda. She also knows that Dr. Aridana really does want any data she can get because Thaia would too because they’re both scientists who love what they do.

It’s a luxury now, being a scientist.

“You’re alive,” Khel tells her on the shuttle they’re assigned and the Nexus is a speck in the window. “I’m alive. That’s something.”

He’s lost a lot of people, too. He’s lost his bondmate and he’s remarkably clear-headed. “How long were you and Aunt Jarah bonded?”

“Somewhere around five centuries.” He shrugs. “You trying to ask why I seem okay with her dying?”

“Something like that.” The closest comparison Thaia has is Lexi and the idea of losing Lexi forever is frightening too. Thaia’s pretty sure she’d handle Lexi dying worse than Khel’s handled Jarah dying and Lexi’s just a best friend. The just seems wrong there and Thaia can’t figure out why.

Khel saves her from having to think about it more. “Answer’s easy. We were both old as shit. We had five hundred years, give or take. Fought side by side, went to school side by side, had a couple daughters, dealt with our daughters being stupid shithead maidens and getting their asses killed too young by going Traverse merc side by side, then stuck with your dad and all of you kids after that shit with your mother went down. After you hit a thousand, reality’s that you’re going out sooner rather than later and you come to terms with it. Yeah, it’s shitty that she’s dead and we could use her around, but even though she was my bondmate, her death’s easier than your sister and those two kids.”

Thaia looks away. “I don’t want to talk about them.” She can’t talk about them. She’ll remember.

“You don’t have to, but one day you’ll want to. Then we can go shoot stuff together and pretend we still don’t want to.”

One day they’ll have to talk about it because one day Sula will be out of cryo and someone will have to tell her what went wrong. They’ll have to tell her specifics, like names. “I don’t want to be the person who tells my dad.”

“I’ll do it,” Khel says. “Jarah being my bondmate for centuries means your dad’s still my sister the same you’re still my niece. Unlike you, I can at least say the words. You can’t even think them.”

He’s right. She can’t think them because she’ll remember and she’s trying not to because it hurts. She focuses on other things while they look for a place to live. She focuses on how she can feel that biotic hum under her skin whenever they skirt the Scourge. It’s fucking weird and useful and she wishes she had another biotic to talk to about it. But none of the krogan are battlemasters and the only krogan with biotics are battlemasters. 

It’s also why she’s not scared of Morda. She respects her, but she isn’t scared because unless Morda gets the drop on her, Thaia can always slow her down enough with her biotics to successfully run to a safe distance. Which would probably be another planet but whatever. She isn’t scared and that helps her with not having to prove herself to every non-engineer Nakmor or the krogan from other clans who also tagged along to Andromeda.

Elaaden is hot as fuck. 

So of course the krogan decide to stay. 

Elaaden is the most bullshit desert Thaia’s ever been in because most deserts have the courtesy to have a night and during that night the desert cools off. But not Elaaden. Elaaden’s tidally locked, so it’s daytime all the time. Thaia’s always hated being cold but Elaaden takes it too far in the other direction and she misses temperate environments.

They’re going to build a colony on the side of a sinkhole. It’s Urdnot Grot’s idea and mostly his plan, but he takes every engineer he can find, Thaia included, and puts them to work with designs and construction. It isn’t what Thaia wants to be building, but it’s building.

Whenever they’re outside, Thaia has to literally stand in Khel’s shadow multiple times a day to recharge her hardsuit’s overtaxed cooling system. One positive of having to wear a hardsuit most of the time is that she can headbutt mouthy krogan without worrying about a concussion. It’s freeing and now she understands why her dad recommended it and she’s glad she paid attention to the technique lessons. She misses her dad. Lexi would caution her not to make it a habit lest she forget and headbutt without a helmet. She misses Lexi.

She’s more than a little proud when she hears a krogan she knows only as an acquaintance tell a krogan she’s only seen in passing that he shouldn’t fuck with her because “she’ll feed you your own tail.”

Krogan tails are adorable and she’ll never let anyone tell her different. From the front, krogan are these hulking, scary, skilled warriors, but from the back? Adorable little tail. 

She mentions it to Uncle Khel. He teases her back about the adorable nubby crests asari children have until they’re around five. Then it isn’t funny anymore because they remember and they need something to do because they’re trying not to remember.

So Thaia and Khel volunteer to help Vorn and Hark look for a specific plant. Vorn’s narrowed the plant’s location to a peculiar complex of Remnant ruins. They’re peculiar because there’s something familiar about them. It isn’t the eezo because all the Remnant ruins have eezo. It’s a different familiarity and it escapes her.

Then it hits her when she’s scowling at the holo of the plant on her omni and then scowling at the plant near her foot that isn’t a match. She sighs and looks at the Remnant structure.

It’s a fucking ship. 

A derelict ship but it’s a big one, maybe a cruiser but depending on how much of the structure is buried, a dreadnaught isn’t out of the question. She passes Khel as she’s running over to get a better look.

“Where the fuck are you going?” he asks.

“It’s a ship!” she says, smiling because it’s a ship.

He straightens and looks at it. She’s so excited that she stops watching where she’s going and trips over a rock or maybe her own feet. She hits her face on another rock, catches it right on her jaw as she falls. 

Khel laughs so hard he almost keels over. He’s known her a long time and knows when she’s being a nerd, like just then. She misses being a nerd.

Vorn’s just staring. “Not a single person in the colony would believe me if I told them what I just saw.”

“Drack would,” says Khel.

He would. Drack’s like another uncle, knows her well enough to give her shit during those few moments when she gets to be who she wants to be.

Thaia prods at her jaw. She’s all right except the rock’s taken a nice little chunk out of her jawline. Not down to the bone, nothing medigel and a bandage can’t handle. She’s going inside that ship after they find Vorn’s fucking plant.

Hark’s found it on the other side of the hill. When he asks what happened to her, Vorn tells him. Vorn was right and Hark doesn’t believe the story, even with Thaia right there.

When they go inside the ship, they’re greeted by Remnant defense bots and turrets and Thaia decides they’ll explore it another day when they have more warriors. They’ve got Vorn with them and he’s too important to risk on Thaia’s curiosity. She’s grouchy about it, but at the Remnant, not Vorn. It isn’t his fault he’s brilliant and indispensable to his people.

There are scavengers outside. These scavengers tried to steal Khel’s vehicle and a pack of taurg got the jump on them so they’re fighting them off. The scavengers attack Thaia’s group and the taurg follow and it’s a fucking mess.

The scavengers have a sniper. The sniper gets away while Thaia and Vorn and Hark are dealing with the rest of the taurg because dealing with the scavengers was quicker, except they missed the sniper they didn’t know about.

The taurg are dead, scattered around them.

Khel’s dead, a few meters behind them.

Khel’s gone.

Khel’s gone and Thaia doesn’t have anyone left except her dad in cryo.

Inside, a fracture threads through what’s turned brittle. It hurts, but nothing shatters. She wonders if it will shatter. If it will hurt when it does.

Anger’s easier than those thoughts and so she’s angry. 

That sniper’s going to lead her to the scavenger base. She’ll do the recon alone, but she won’t hit the base alone. She’s not angry enough to die on purpose.

It’s a little revenge, a little vengeance, and a whole lot of she doesn’t want what happened to her and Khel—and her and everyone else Andromeda’s taken—to happen to anyone else. It won’t stop everyone’s losses, but it’ll put a dent in the rate of loss.

Conducting reconnaissance missions in the daytime is strange. There’s barely any cover in a desert without night and it’s probably the most challenging set of conditions she’s ever had on a mission. It’s a long way off from building ships and studying the stars, but this is something she’s trained for. This is something she’s been doing for a lot longer than she has anything else and she’s good at it.

Drack asks her what she’s up to. She doesn’t explain but she’s sure he knows after he tells her, “When you’re ready to move, I want in.”

It takes days, but she gets what she needs and tells Drack. 

Then Thaia walks down to the throne room because that’s where Morda is and Morda’s the one in charge of the clan. “I need volunteers,” she says to Morda.

“What for?” To most people who aren’t krogan, Morda sounds angry. But it’s how Morda sounds even when she’s as happy as a shit-slinging pyjak.

“I’m taking out their base tonight.” Thaia doesn’t have to say what base and it’s safe for her to say that she’ll be taking it out because she knows she’ll have no shortage of volunteers. They’re krogan and Khel was one of theirs.

Morda volunteers. “I’m a weapon. Point me where I need to go.” 

When Morda sees Thaia in combat, Morda’s violent glee grows. It’s a little disturbing. Thaia’s also a little proud, which is more disturbing.

Thaia hasn’t used her biotics like this against this many people in decades. She’s forgotten what it was like but it doesn’t register as they charge through the scavenger perimeter, as they charge through the scavenger base until the scavengers aren’t going to be a problem anymore. When the scavengers just aren’t anymore. 

Her nausea returns and Thaia remembers. She’s never liked this, but she’s good at it. The nausea reminds her that she wishes she wasn’t.

The krogan are elated. Celebrating. They did good today, avenged one of their own. Thaia’s not elated. She’d rather have her uncle back.

Morda claps her on the shoulder and goddess the friendly blow nearly dislocates it. She’s not, as Lexi once told her, physiologically krogan.

She misses Lexi.

“Thank you for reminding me why the krogan respect asari commandos,” says Morda. “You will always find refuge here in our colony.”

Thaia’s grateful. She communicates it with a nod and Morda accepts it because that’s all krogan need for these conversations.

Her jaw’s healed up, but it’s left a notch in her jawline. Khel would be impressed.

She tries not to remember.

Weeks later, the colony structure’s finished and Thaia doesn’t know what to do with herself. Part of her wants to investigate the water situation because Annea’s getting it from somewhere on the fucking planet and the krogan can’t just keep buying it from her. It’s unsustainable and if the krogan need anything, it’s sustainability.

Drack grabs her by the back of her collar and then tells her to come with him. Since he’s literally got her by the back of her actual collar, she can’t really argue even if she’s inclined to. She’s not, though. Drack’s seen some shit in his fourteen hundred years and you listen when he thinks you need to hear something.

He brings her to a catwalk over the bottomless sinkhole. “No one will think less of you if you go back to your research,” says Drack.

It means going back to the Nexus. It means having to apologize to Tann. She looks down into sinkhole because the light reflecting off the sand hurts her eyes. “It isn’t about pride.”

“No?”

“No.”

“So you’ll have no problem telling Tann you’re sorry about what you said?”

“Tann can get fucked if he thinks I’ll ever apologize to him.”

Drack waits.

“Fine, so it’s a little bit about pride. But mostly not.”

He joins her in looking into the sinkhole, his scarred hands loosely gripping the railing. “What’s it about?”

“I don’t know.” She wishes she did.

“Then you can help me kill some kett until you do,” he says. “Helps me clear my head. Maybe we can find some other work while we’re out there and it’ll beat staying here.”

It means more being a commando. But there isn’t anything left for her to build in Andromeda. “All right.”

His next attempt to cheer her up involves a new shotgun. It’s the thought that counts, she decides. And it’s a nice shotgun because Drack knows his way around weapons. She thanks him. Then she says out loud that she might actually kill for an Acolyte.

Drack takes her seriously. “If I find someone who has one, you want me to kill them and take it?”

“…no.”

He chuckles. “You had to think about it.”

“It’s an Acolyte.”

Drack’s got himself a decent shuttle. They’re checking it for flight readiness when Kesh messages her. During a rash of stasis locker break-ins, someone broke into Thaia’s locker and took what was in it. The only things in her locker are her model mass relay and her model Destiny Ascension, and that’s because she doesn’t want them out until she has a permanent place to live. Kesh explains that the people who did the stealing thought they were taking the belongings of exiles who didn’t want them anymore. Also, those people are now exiles themselves.

“I want my models back,” Thaia says.

“I thought you might. I think I know who took your mass relay, but I’m still trying to find out about the Destiny Ascension.” Kesh gives her the lead and tells her that Vetra’s coming to help and she’ll meet them at Kadara Port. 

Because Vetra has a special talent for locating shit, they’re going to hunt down that fucking thief.

Vetra meets them on the docks, but there’s a couple Outcasts there too. Thaia has to go talk to Sloane before she can wander freely, but that isn’t uncommon. It’s apparent during her stroll from the docks to the Outcast base that Sloane’s gone straight up tyrant over the past however many fucking months it’s been. What makes it confusing is that Sloane’s an honest tyrant. Sloane knows what she is and accepts it and doesn’t lie about it—not to herself or anyone else. If she’s going to stab you, it’ll be from the front. It’s something.

The honest tyrant you can confusingly trust not to fuck you over if you don’t fuck them over makes Thaia remember her shock that time when her father told her that her favorite client for the firm was Aria T’Loak. Dangerous as fuck as a person, but Aria never reneged on a deal. Which, according to Sula, made Aria more trustworthy than anyone on Illium, probably even the priestesses. 

One time, when Thaia was on leave from commando shit and visiting her family, she was in her dad’s office building when Aria came in for a consult on a new contract. She radiated so much power and charisma it was like she was the only person on the planet who mattered. The only other person Thaia’s met who exuded that much power and influence was Matriarch Benezia. 

Unlike Aria, Matriarch Benezia’s power was tempered by kindness.

Thaia remembers that Matriarch Benezia didn’t go out well. Remembers why. Why they can’t go back.

She tries not to remember.

Drack takes Thaia to Kralla’s Song while Vetra does some investigating. They get into a bar fight. Umi’s scowling at them. That night they break up a bar fight. The next day, between chasing leads, they break up two more. Umi stops scowling at them, which is good because you don’t want Umi mad at you.

They find the thief. It’s practically a sting and they get him while he’s actively trying to sell the toy to one of the vendors. Thaia takes it back. Doesn’t even hurt him. Puts his ass in a stasis and plucks it from his hands. Leaves him there. The stasis will dissipate in a couple hours and in those couple hours she might be able to stop remembering that there are two more mass relay models on the Nexus in lockers she hasn’t opened because she’ll remember. 

They never find the Destiny Ascension model.

Thaia needs to give the toy mass relay to Kesh for safekeeping, so she and Drack go with Vetra to the Nexus.

It’s nice to be able to talk to Dr. Aridana about the biotic hum and Dr. Aridana agrees that it’s something worth exploring with the Scourge, especially for navigation. But they don’t have as much time to talk as they want because Tiran Kandros is suddenly there in the room where Thaia and Dr. Aridana have been chatting and Kesh has been saving the Nexus like she’s been doing since they first got to Andromeda.

“Director Tann wants to see you,” says Kandros.

“I don’t want to see him,” says Thaia.

Kandros sighs. He doesn’t want to fight.

Thaia sighs back. She doesn’t want to fight, either. “Fine.”

Tann—Thaia isn’t going to call him Director Tann and she knows it’s petty but she doesn’t care—tells her that he’ll allow her to visit the Nexus. “But for no more than two hours per every twenty, and you must notify Tiran Kandros or myself when you arrive on the station and when you depart.”

Behind Tann, Thaia swears to the goddess that Kandros’s mandibles flare the tiniest bit in amusement. Kandros knows if Thaia tells either of them it’s a courtesy. Neither she nor Kandros remind Tann.

On the way out, Kandros tells her the current situation regarding her father. Tann, through Kandros, has security guards posted on Sula’s cryo bloc at all times. “I know that if you ever decide to, you could get her out,” he says.

She could, but she can’t guarantee that no one will get killed in the process, so she hasn’t because she doesn’t want what happened to her happen to anyone else. And she never wants to be the person responsible for it happening if it does. 

When it does. They’re in Andromeda. Things are different.

“Unless it’s an emergency, I won’t,” she says.

He nods. “I believe you, but if you tell Director Tann the same thing, he won’t.”

“I know.” Thaia could tell Tann that he has two feet and he’d doubt the existence of his own feet before he’d believe her.

“Are you going to tell me when you’re on the station?” Kandros asks.

It’s a fair question that deserves a fair answer. “If I plan on being here for under two hours, yes.”

He sighs. “Just don’t cause trouble.”

She almost smiles. “There isn’t a bar to fight in, so you’re fine.”

Drack’s gotten some reports about kett on Eos, so that’s where they go. The younger asari they run across there is exhausting, but friendly. Drack decides they’ll help her when the kett bother her Remnant research sites. He tells Thaia she’ll finally get to act the older sister. Thaia would rather have Safira back. Not that Drack’s wrong about the dynamic between Thaia and Peebee because it reminds Thaia a lot like it is between her and Eirian, so it’s all right. 

She misses Eirian.

They help on Eos for a while, and then Vetra tells them some rumors she’s heard about an ice planet. 

“We find that planet, we could make an ice run to Elaaden. Undercut Annea,” says Drack.

Thaia’s all about undercutting Annea. 

The angara have a Resistance base on the ice planet. Voeld, they call it. They’ll be allowed to take some ice but only if they prove themselves by helping with the kett. It’s understandable, so Thaia doesn’t mind. Drack’s always willing to kill kett, but he complains about the cold more than Thaia does, which she didn’t think was possible. 

“It’s my old bones,” he says. “And my prosthetics.”

“How many prosthetics do you have, anyway?”

A lot. The answer is a lot and there are stories that go with them and she has to stop counting before she vomits. Drack thinks it’s funny, her squeamishness.

They help. Get their ice and bring it to New Tuchanka. Morda’s elated. Annea’s pissed and threatens Thaia and Drack. They really don’t give a shit. They keep making occasional ice runs and it pisses Annea off more and they still don’t give a shit.

They’re in Kadara Port, getting geared up because Peebee sent them a message and she’s all ripshit about the kett having taken her best site and so they’re going to take it back. When they stop in Kralla’s Song because Drack wants a good drink before they go, Umi tells them she’s heard rumors about an ark having returned.

“Which one?” asks Drack.

“The Hyperion,” says Umi. “I think that’s the human one.”

“It’s the human one,” says Thaia.

“Isn’t that your friend’s ship?” Drack asks. “You and her were good together. If she’s here, you should do something about it.”

“We’re friends.”

He grunts. It’s the most skeptical grunt Thaia’s ever heard.

“Best friends.”

His grunt is even more skeptical.

But she doesn’t want to think about Lexi being alive, someone finally not gone, because hope just gets you hurt. Hope ends with twisting and splintering fractures and Thaia doesn’t want to shatter.

They ignore the rumors and go to Eos.

Thaia tries not to remember.

Chapter Text

The Tempest, 2819.

Lexi didn’t remember.

Not at first. The cascade of critical events hadn’t stopped since they’d awakened from cryo, denying Lexi time to concentrate on anything except work.

Scott Ryder in a coma. Alec Ryder’s death on Habitat Seven. Sara Ryder briefly dying as her body struggled to integrate SAM. Their arrival at the Nexus.

And then the rumors.

They circulated soon after Sara Ryder had gone to the Nexus with Liam and Cora. Rumors of an incomplete Nexus, a Nexus without personnel, a Nexus damaged to the point of disaster, a Nexus still asleep in a quiet dark. But they were rumors, nothing to be concerned about unless they were confirmed.

Lexi carried on with her work.

Then word came down that Ryder had been given a Pathfinder ship and it needed to be crewed. If the Nexus wasn’t functioning, then the ship wouldn’t have been given, thus disproving the rumors and proving her right.

When Harry hadn’t gathered his belongings, instead focusing on Scott’s status, Lexi reminded him of his new job.

“No,” said Harry, “it’s your job. Habitat Seven taught me that I’m too old to be in the field. But you’re ready for this. You deserve to be on a Pathfinder team, and a Pathfinder team deserves to have you on it.”

Her protests proved no match for his resolve, and she soon accepted her reassignment, packed her own belongings, and departed the Hyperion. The ship’s tram delivered her to the Hyperion’s docking bay on the Nexus, but the Nexus tram had yet to arrive. 

Lexi frowned at the empty tracks, and then occupied herself with tasks that needed to be completed. The bay’s lighting was too dim yet too bright to balance properly with her omni’s display, forcing her to squint at the sub-optimal projection. But she wouldn’t have to wait that long, so she risked the headache and read over the supply checklist for her new medbay. The clangs of dropped tools and several instances of unnecessary shouting from scurrying techs earned glares from her.

She checked the time. Ten minutes. Ten minutes wasted as she waited here.

Then she frowned at the impatience that had taken hold, yet she couldn’t place the source of it. She looked forward to the challenge awaiting her in providing medical care for the Pathfinder team, but it didn’t mean she was so eager that she couldn’t wait patiently for a tram.

Then Lexi remembered.

Thaia was on the ark integration team. The Hyperion was an ark and was currently being integrated with the Nexus. Thaia should have been waiting for her.

She wasn’t.

It wasn’t impatience; it was worry.

With the feeling named, it escalated into anxiety as Lexi boarded the tram to the docks. Through the window of the second tram, she watched as the scenery of what was missing passed by: the empty buildings, the devastated commons, the scorched areas that were supposed to be parks.

The rumors had carried more than a kernel of truth.

A chill ran along Lexi’s skin, a cold streak of realization that rushed to still her heart.

Thaia might not be alive.

Not merely unreachable, but killed by the calamity that had befallen the Nexus. Not only might Thaia be dead, but Lexi’s other friends—Kesh, Vetra, and Sid, along with Thaia’s family—may not have survived either.

Her worry churned inside, but she was denied the opportunity to investigate.

The tram arrived at her destination, where the false sky bathed the busy docks in daylight, and under that daylight a swarm of people readied the sleek ship below. This wasn’t the unsalvageable Nexus of rumor. 

Lexi felt slightly better at the sight, yet she wasn’t at ease. Thaia still wasn’t there.

Then the cascade resumed. The opportunity aboard the Tempest proved unparalleled in its challenge, but the reality of it left her with less time than before. She barely had time to be relieved at seeing both Vetra and Suvi alive, barely had time to be grateful that they would be staying on as members of the crew, barely had time to exchange nods of greeting with them before their work took them elsewhere.

In all that time, Lexi couldn’t forget that Thaia wasn’t there.

Lexi remembered.

Eos, 2819.

Sara Ryder had forgotten to check the window.

She’d expected kett to burst into the room, maybe through one of the doors. What she hadn’t expected was for a dead kett attack lizard to come flying through an indoor window, and for a huge, angry krogan to have thrown it.

The krogan jumped through the broken window, ignoring the shards of glass, then stepped over the wraith and got right in Ryder’s face.

“What’re you doing out here?” he asked, just short of a growl.

Ryder amended her impression of him from angry to forceful, at least for what was directed toward her. She gestured at the kett console. “Shutting down that shield generator.” When he only stared at her with his reptilian yellow eyes, she tried again. “My name’s Sara Ryder.”

“I’m Drack,” said the krogan. “Clan Nakmor.” He looked at her expectantly and krogan weren’t known for their vast reserves of patience.

Right, manners. Manners would help. She gestured toward the window this time. “We want to access the Remnant site over there.”

Drack peered outside the window at the dead kett bodies. “Decent job, humans or not. Took away some of my kett kills, though. Suppose I’ll have to find more.”

Their conversation was so civil that Ryder wondered if he was luring them into a false sense of security. He’d been so present when he’d made his admittedly impressive entrance and now he was legitimately the chillest krogan Ryder had ever met. “You’re so relaxed that I’m starting to worry about what you’re going to do to us.”

He laughed. The dangerous kind—amused, but at a target’s expense. “I’m not the one you should be worried about.”

Ryder assumed it meant they were in danger, but they hadn’t seen anyone except Drack and they’d cleared the area of kett, and if Drack was going to attack them, they had Cora. Cora’s biotics could probably hold him long enough for all of them to run away and climb into the Nomad and drive like bats out of hell and have Kallo scoop them up in the Tempest and flee the system.

Liam asked from next to her, “What do you mean by that?”

“He means me,” said a contralto voice from behind them.

Ryder jumped at least a foot into the air and probably more—she had a damn good vertical jump and it was what had her at forward when she played basketball as a kid. Liam jumped, too. Cora was the only one of them who reacted with discipline, but her reaction time for her biotics still wasn’t fast enough. By the time they turned their heads to see the newcomer who’d scared the shit out of them, they were wrapped up tight in a stasis field.

As they stood there, trapped because they’d let their guards down and how had none of them heard anything, the new person stepped around them. Once she stood next to Drack, she removed her helmet.

Unsurprisingly, she was asari, a fairly tall asari with what Ryder assumed were commando tattoos around her eyes. Ryder had never figured out if the color of the tattoos mattered and she hadn’t ever asked any of them because she’d been afraid it was impolite. This asari had white ones on skin a darker hue of blue than Peebee’s or Lexi’s, the most recent comparisons Ryder had.

Drack burst into uproarious laughter and slapped the asari on the back. “Did you see how high they jumped? I’d pay to see that again. Shit never gets old.”

The asari smiled, and were it not chased with some anger, Ryder would’ve been reassured. But when the asari spoke, it became clear they weren’t the people she was pissed at. It was the same kind of anger Drack had—anger that was present, yet held in reserve for whoever had pissed them off. “Peebee told me that you’ve been activating these Remnant sites?” she asked as she let the stasis field dissipate. “How are—”

“Why would she randomly tell you that?” asked Liam, accusatory enough that Ryder raised an eyebrow at him, which he ignored.

The asari gave him a withering look that Ryder never wanted directed at her. Then she pointedly lifted her arm and opened a comm through her omni. “Peebee, you know those humans you told us about?”

“Yeah?” came Peebee’s voice over the comm.

“Found them.”

“How high did they jump?”

“Damn high,” said Drack.

Immediate laughter. Then she asked, “You clear my best site yet?”

“Yeah,” said Drack. “Humans helped, said they wanted to get to your site. I’m guessing they’re going to do whatever it is they did to the other two?”

“Yup. You should watch because it’s pretty cool. Let me know when you’re done.” She cut the comm.

The asari lowered her arm and looked at Liam. “Peebee is a friend of mine and Drack’s. We watch her back as much as her exhausting maiden independence will tolerate. So.” She returned to Ryder. “You’ve really been activating sites like these?”

“That is correct,” said SAM, who apparently felt left out. “Only the unique combination of a Pathfinder and their AI can interface with Remnant technology.”

She frowned. “Pathfinder? So your connection to SAM is the full Pathfinder SAM and not just the implants everyone on a Pathfinder’s team has? What happened to Alec? He’s an asshole, but he’d be useful.”

Ryder still hadn’t gotten a decent handle on what’d happened to her father. She knew she was supposed to feel sad, yet she didn’t. She’d never really had a connection with him, but she’d never really been angry about it either, not like Scott. Just resigned to it. Her father was the way he was and she accepted it at face value, so she’d never put a lot of faith in him when it came to the whole parenting thing. She was worried about Scott, though. “He died on Habitat Seven.”

“Fuck.” The asari sighed, which softened the frustration of her initial reaction. When she spoke again, there was less of an edge to her tone. “I’m genuinely sorry about your father, even though I probably didn’t sound like it. And don’t sound like it.”

“Not even remotely,” Drack said from where he’d cut open the wraith and rooted around for god knew what.

The asari reached over and smacked him on the shoulder plate. Then she saw what he was doing and blanched. “That’s just fucking gross. Don’t you have enough of those fucking teeth?”

Ryder took small step to her right to get a better view and regretted it immediately. Drack wrenched a few teeth from the wraith’s jaw, selected the largest one, and then tossed the rest to the ground, the blood spattering on the wraith’s skin.

“Not yet.” He paused, bloody tooth in hand. “You hungry?”

“No. Stop trying to make me throw up.”

“You squeamish or something?” asked Liam.

Ryder felt like she might throw up from the smell wafting from the opened wraith. She also wished Liam could follow Cora’s example and not ask questions that could anger dangerous people.

“Yes.” The asari looked at Liam again, her expression daring him to make fun of her about it.

Wisely, Liam did not.

Which meant Cora took a cue from Liam’s behavior. “How did you pass your survival courses as a commando?”

With a tiny, amused smirk, the asari said, “Barely, that’s how.”

Drack stood up, stowed away the tooth, and then elbowed the asari. “Your manners are shittier than a krogan’s. At least I introduced myself. I’m starting to think you might be a vorcha in disguise.”

The asari’s laugh was wistful and Ryder really wanted to know why. She wasn’t attracted to vorcha, was she? Ryder didn’t think anyone could be except other vorcha, but the asari in the Milky Way had been mostly exogamous and Ryder had seen them with probably every species except vorcha. Maybe she hadn’t looked close enough, but she’d been fairly observant due to her curiosity.

“Thaia Kallistrate,” said the asari.

“Seriously?” said Liam, who now sounded like Thaia’s Number One Fan and Ryder couldn’t decide if that was better or worse than Mr. Critical from a minute ago. “Didn’t you get into a bunch of fights in Anan’s bar back in the Milky Way?”

Thaia’s smile was real this time. “Two fights and who the fuck are you?”

Ryder’s laugh came out of nowhere and she slapped a hand over her mouth. Too late, but she tried. Then she decided it would be for the best if she moved everyone along before they somehow actually managed to offend either of these deadly people. “He’s Liam Kosta, our security and crisis response specialist.” Ryder indicated Cora. “She’s Cora Harper, our operations specialist. And we should probably get to activating that monolith before more kett get here.”

“Probably got a couple hours. Maybe a little more. Get your asses moving,” said Drack.

They did. They had an audience for it, too. Thaia boosted herself up to sit on one of the deactivated power generators while Drack leaned against it.

Ryder had scrambled and jumped halfway up to one of the higher glyphs when Thaia shouted, “Why don’t you have your friend lift you up there with biotics? It’d be a lot faster.”

Why hadn’t Ryder thought of that? She looked down at Cora, who stood next to the console. “Can you do that?”

“Sure,” said Cora.

“Why didn’t you suggest it before?”

Cora usually stood or sat very still, pretty much the complete opposite of Liam’s constant movement that didn’t seem to stop even when he was supposedly sitting still. But this time she shifted her weight between her feet and then fidgeted with her hands before she realized what she was doing and stilled. “Most people aren’t comfortable with it. Humans, anyway. Besides, you’re a biotic, too. You aren’t using yours to jump very high, so I also assumed you liked climbing.”

“I hate rock climbing.” Scott and their father had tried to bring her along once. She hadn’t been enthusiastic about it in the first place and then the two supposed grown men had started competing with each other, leaving her in their proverbial dust. Between them both acting like assholes and her hands being beat to hell, she’d been done with rock climbing as a hobby. And, she thought as she evaluated the climb she had left, maybe forever. “How would I get myself up there easier with my own biotics?”

“Seriously?” Thaia said from her perch.

Drack pushed her, but not enough to knock her over. A push between friends, because anyone except another krogan would go flying off the platform from a full-force push. “They’re humans. They haven’t had biotics for that long.”

“It’s still a basic technique.”

“Your asari is showing. Your blue Thessian ass, hanging right out there. I’m not sure which is worse, the vorcha or—”

Thaia shoved him back and then hopped down. “Fine.”

Ryder honestly had no idea where this was going. “So should I come down there or what?” she asked once Thaia stood at the base of the shorter monolith.

“Stay there. No point in losing the progress you’ve already made.” Thaia ran a hand along the glowing blue lines in the stone and then looked up at Ryder. “Be right there.”

She hadn’t been kidding. Ryder blinked and then Thaia was right next to her, holding onto the monolith like it was the most natural thing in the galaxy, blue wisps of a biotic corona still glowing on her skin. “How?” asked Ryder.

“I’ve been climbing like this since I was a kid.” For the first time, Thaia sounded as friendly to Ryder as she’d been with Drack. “I’d rather teach you so you could get yourself up there easy on your own, but now I’m realizing that I don’t know how high you spike and we don’t exactly have a shitload of time.”

“I’d like to learn.” Ryder really did want to learn because it would make these things so much less annoying to deal with and even if she never had to touch another one again, a skill like that could be useful in a ton of situations.

Thaia’s eyes brightened a little. “If we run into each other again and we have the time, I’d be happy to teach you.”

“Really?”

“I’m a biotics instructor and I miss teaching. However, not enough time for a lesson or an in-depth conversation. So if you’re all right with it, I’ll just lift you up there and you can do whatever it is you do.”

“Yeah, sure. Anything to get this moving faster.”

Thaia nodded and Ryder quickly found herself on top of the monolith and scanning the glyph. Then she used her jump-jets to get back to the console and found that Drack had made his way down the ramp while she’d been scanning. “You a biotic, too?”

“No, not a battlemaster. But Peebee said this was cool, so I wanted to watch before I go find more kett to kill.”

Ryder looked up at the monolith again. “Could I charge up there?”

“Not unless you want to end up inside the rock since that’d be fatal,” said Thaia, who smiled a little again. Then she swept a hand toward the console. “Show us the cool thing, Pathfinder.”

Ryder obliged and showed them the cool thing, which she had to admit was cool. The monolith rumbled and then shot out a blue beam that converged with the other two at a point over the poisonous—everything in Heleus was poisonous—lake on the plain below. Then what looked like a roof rumbled from the ground on a tiny island.

“The fuck?” said Thaia.

“Peebee’s gonna want to go in there,” said Drack. “You know she will.”

As if on cue, Peebee said over everyone’s comms, “Meet you there!”

Ryder considered what mysteries were ahead that probably involved more fighting those machines and who knew what and tried for another advantage. She looked between Thaia and Drack. “We have to go inside and we could use your help.”

Drack scoffed. “Have fun with that.”

Thaia turned and considered the new structure. Then she looked at Ryder’s group and returned to Drack. “They do need help.”

“You want to go with them? Really?”

“We did kill all the kett in the area and I want to see what the fuck that is,” said Thaia. “So it’s either you go with us or you stay up here with your thumb up your ass.”

“I’m too old to be carrying humans through a fight.”

Thaia crossed her arms and glared up at him. “You’ll have a trained commando with you.”

“If having served with Nisira’s squad through the Valkyrie Program qualifies, you have two,” said Cora.

Thaia raised an eyebrow and then nodded. “It counts.” Then she laughed. “That explains why you almost heard me and that takes some serious situational awareness. Nice job.”

Cora’s eyes widened slightly at the unexpected praise, while Drack evaluated Cora again. “That’s pretty good,” he said after a moment.

“Are you a commando?” asked Liam. “A real one? Or were you just a merc?”

“Being a commando isn’t something you unlearn,” said Thaia. “I was active for over two centuries and then went reserve while I went to university. Learned how to build space stations and ships and theoretically mass relays.” She frowned. “Here I’ve mostly been a commando and definitely not building any relays. Tann is such a fucking cloaca.”

“That took a turn,” said Liam.

“Still not convinced,” said Drack.

Thaia sighed. “I won’t complain if you use your flamethrower.”

He grinned and if Ryder hadn’t known she wasn’t his enemy, she would’ve run the hell away. “Now you’re talking, kid!”

It still wasn’t clear if Drack was going and kett were probably on their way. “So are you coming with us or not?” Ryder asked Drack.

“Yeah, yeah.” He inspected the grip of his flamethrower. “I’m not letting my niece have all the fun.”

Liam stared. “She’s your niece?”

“What, you don’t see the family resemblance?” Thaia looked at Drack. “One of us should be insulted.”

“Me. I’m the pretty one.”

Ryder laughed and then tried to hide it when Drack grinned at her, like he knew what she was thinking. Thaia didn’t react either way, already having started to chat with Cora about preferred tactics and how they’d work together while Liam listened to them.

“Are you meeting me or what?” Peebee asked over their comms. “There’s a door I can’t open and I think it leads to an underground vault or something.”

“I believe opening the door will require the same unique Pathfinder interface capability as was required for the monoliths,” said SAM.

Eventually, Ryder herded them to the Nomad. But that was as far as their momentum carried because Thaia literally kicked the tires of the Nomad and then trotted around the vehicle as she excitedly inspected it. Before her change in behavior could be questioned, Thaia hopped in and looked expectantly at the rest of them. “What’s taking you so long?”

Ryder couldn’t comprehend how she’d met these people and how different they were from each other and how their first impressions were proving to be inaccurate. Maybe. But Thaia had scared the shit out of them by being a sneaky commando and now she’d just run a lap around the Nomad like an overexcited engineer.

Ryder,” said SAM, “Dr. Kallistrate is an engineer.”

Also, it was difficult comprehending that SAM referred to Thaia like that because Ryder couldn’t believe it. Lexi had multiple degrees. Suvi had multiple degrees. Neither of them were like this and if either of them were commandos, they were hiding it really well. She wondered if Peebee had doctorates, but Peebee acted younger than Thaia and Lexi. Except the asari who’d just hopped into the Nomad acted different enough from the commando they’d met earlier to be baffling. 

Ryder wished she was better at determining how old asari were.

It only took another few minutes for Thaia to confirm that she was definitely older than Peebee.

“Do you all hate safety or something?” Thaia asked when Ryder’s hand hovered over the drive command.

“No?” said Ryder.

“Then why isn’t anyone using their safety harnesses? Have you seen what this thing can do? It’ll survive a roll down a ninety degree incline, but if you aren’t strapped in, you won’t. Put those fucking things on. You don’t, you’re a danger to yourself and everyone else. There’s a reason why there are seven-point harnesses that can accommodate any bipedal from the Milky Way for every seat.”

Since Thaia looked like she wasn’t going to take shit from anyone on the issue, Ryder put on the safety harness. So did Cora and Drack.

“Why would I be a danger to others?” asked Liam.

“Physics.”

Liam still didn’t move.

Thaia didn’t look up from buckling her own safety harness when she added, “If you don’t voluntarily put it on, I will make you.”

He complained under his breath, but Liam took the threat seriously and put the damn thing on.

“We good to go now?” asked Ryder.

“You’re the driver,” said Thaia.

Ryder decided not to question it and drove. They needed to get there before Peebee ran out of patience and did something—actually, Ryder wasn’t sure what Peebee would do since she couldn’t open the doors herself, but her bet was on something impulsive.

When they finally got to what Peebee called the vault, they found kett and Remnant waiting for them and no sign of Peebee.

“Now this is what I like.” Drack clambered out of the Nomad, Thaia after him. “You go first, kid,” he said to her. “Need to prime my flamethrower.”

Thaia rolled her eyes, nodded at Cora, and then flung a singularity that popped into existence in the middle of the unsuspecting mob of kett. Then a writhing biotic corona encased Thaia before she charged straight into the singularity, detonations echoing off the Remnant structures as soon as she emerged from it. Cora and Drack joined the skirmish right after her.

Between the three of them, at least six kett went down within a minute.

By the time Ryder and Liam got there, Drack was already mopping up the last kett kill, Cora was reloading her weapon, and Thaia was… giving a hidden person shit?

“You couldn’t bring your ass down from that rock to help?” Thaia asked as she looked up at one of the shorter structures.

“Nah, I figured you had it under control. And you did.” Peebee jumped down from the structure and chucked a thumb at the vault. “You coming with?”

Thaia nodded as she slotted her shotgun at the small of her back. “Drack, too.”

Peebee’s hands went to her hips. “Flamethrower?”

“Yeah.”

Ryder walked down the short ramp to stand in front of the doors and everyone followed. However, Peebee and Thaia didn’t let up.

“You aren’t very good at negotiating,” said Peebee.

“You aren’t very good at tact,” said Thaia.

Ryder glanced between them. “Were you wanting to stay out here in the radiation and bicker or go inside?”

“We can bicker inside,” said Peebee.

“You’ll be too busy gawking at the tech to bother.” Thaia flicked something off her armor that landed on Drack.

Ryder was fairly certain it was a scrap of kett.

Gross.

Drack used the tip of his still hot flamethrower nozzle to burn it, crumpling in on itself before it fell onto the ground, a fading wisp of smoke rising from its ashes.

Ryder began to fear what she’d gotten herself into with these people. Her father wouldn’t have been afraid. Alec Ryder had never been afraid of anything. Even from what she could remember of his face when he put his helmet on her, his expression been calm. Calm, like he wasn’t going to die in minutes, like he wasn’t passing SAM onto her and not Cora.

Cora, who had trained for these things and was calm and collected as she stood nearby, unruffled by the behavior of their new companions. Cora was supposed to be Pathfinder and Ryder couldn’t even pass SAM along to her like the other Pathfinders could to their seconds because Alec had tweaked the human SAM.

Her father had put her on this stupid thrill ride whether she liked it or not. So far, it was mostly ‘or not.’ It was like being stuck at the top of a roller coaster she hadn’t wanted to ride in the first place and the only way off was to finish the ride.

Ryder didn’t even like roller coasters.

Thaia’s prediction about Peebee proved accurate, complete with Peebee snagging a piece of tech and running off as soon as they walked into the main area of the vault. “I do my best work solo!”

“At least stay on our comm frequency!” Ryder shouted after her.

Peebee was so far away already that her agreement came over the comms. “Will do!”

Ryder turned to get everyone’s opinions on how to handle Peebee—if Peebee could even be handled—and caught Thaia rolling her eyes.

“Goddess, could she be more of a stereotypical maiden? There’s no way she’s not doing this on purpose.”

“She seems like the living embodiment of the stereotype,” said Cora.

“And fucking revels in it,” said Thaia.

“How old is she, anyway?” asked Drack.

Thaia shrugged as she straightened from her study of the console. “Hundred and change, according to her.”

Drack patted her on the crest. “You’re both still babies.”

“Eat shit, old man.” She pushed past him and he laughed.

“Wait, how old are you?” Liam asked.

Three hundred and change.”

“And Drack?”

Drack gave Liam a friendly slap on the shoulder that made him stumble forward. “Fourteen hundred and still kicking.”

“Okay, is everyone on our frequency? If we aren’t, can we get everyone on the same one?” asked Ryder. God, this was like herding cats but a million times worse and she hated her father for putting her in this position. Cora had trained for it, not her, and it was blatantly obvious.

Thaia picked right up on it. She slowly turned and tilted her head to the side. “How new at this are you?”

“A few days,” said Cora.

Ryder was sure she heard some resentment. In Cora’s place, Ryder knew she would feel that way. Really, Ryder just wanted to do science. Her father had sold her on the Initiative with exobiology work. Then he’d followed up on that by dying and making her Pathfinder. She didn’t want to be a Pathfinder. She wanted to be someone tagging along and looking at everything from a scientific perspective, like Peebee or Suvi. Well, maybe not quite like Peebee because Liam was probably right about the pit of spikes he’d bet on when she’d run off.

Thaia nodded. “Well, I won’t countermand anything you say unless it’ll get our collective asses killed.”

“Why do you say it like that?” The anger wasn’t helping because now she came off as defensive when she didn’t even really feel defensive. Anyone else with leadership skills and experience should be leading this expedition and not her.

To Ryder’s relief, Thaia didn’t take the question personally. “Because I have more experience and wanted you to know I’ll do my best not to undermine you.”

Ryder packed up her frustration with her dead father because at this rate she was going to need therapy. No, she needed therapy and if she was ever going get it she needed to do whatever it was they were supposed to do in this vault.

She activated her omni. “Sending everyone the frequency again. The Tempest is on this comm, too.”

“Thanks for the heads-up,” Peebee said from wherever she’d gone.

Ryder sighed.

“Cheer up, kid,” said Drack. “You aren’t doing half-bad.”

As they continued through the Remnant vault that Ryder thought was too complicated for its own good, she hoped she never experienced what less than half-bad would be like. When they reached the areas with actual vegetation, it got worse. It got worse partly because Ryder forgot she was the Pathfinder and not a science specialist. She did blame the other part on the encouragement she got from the Tempest crew’s interaction with them over comms. Ryder transmitted the data, Suvi analyzed it as soon as it arrived, and then Suvi asked her to scan it from another angle and take holos of leaves.

Then Suvi continued her musings out loud. “Do you think they’re edible?”

Ryder leaned over and picked one of the leaves. “Want me to try one?”

“Go for it,” said Drack. “If it kills you, I won’t even make fun of you.”

“If I come across any plants, I can taste test, too,” said Peebee.

“Not unless we have the doc on the comms,” said Liam.

“Oh!” said Suvi. “I can go fetch—”

“No one’s eating any strange plants,” Thaia said as she plucked the leaf from Ryder’s hand. “And put that on the list of shit I’d never thought I’d say.”

“Just so you all know,” Peebee said, “whatever liquid is in those pools and streams isn’t for swimming. Or touching at all, really. Found that out the hard way.”

“Did you jump in?” Ryder asked, hoping Peebee hadn’t done exactly that.

“Possibly.”

Which meant she’d done exactly that. Ryder wondered how her father would’ve dealt with Peebee, and then realized that he probably would’ve reacted to Peebee’s enthusiastic tackle-hug of an introduction by perceiving it as an attack and responded accordingly, with him being an N7 and all.

Okay, so maybe the fact that she’d been stuck with the Pathfinder job wasn’t all bad because it meant Peebee was alive. For now, anyway. Who knew what other trouble she’d get into down here. And Liam’s pit of spikes wasn’t out of the question because the trunks of the trees had sizable thorns, and if someone fell into a hole with a bunch of them at the bottom, then they’d have fallen into a pit of spikes. Little ones, but spikes nonetheless.

Thaia swore under her breath. “Peebee, you have an omni and that omni has a scanner.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying that you’re making me sound like my mother and it’s pissing me off.”

“So what you’re saying is that you don’t want to sound like a reasonable adult,” said Drack.

Thaia threw the leaf at him, but it was too broad and fluttered to the ground between them. “Neither do you and you’ve got a thousand years on me.”

Drack looked her for a moment. “You’re over three hundred. Could be that you’re hitting your matron stage.”

Thaia hauled off and punched him in the arm, which didn’t even rock him back on his feet. “Take it back.”

“Is there something wrong with becoming a matron?” asked Cora. “Because I don’t remember anyone in my squad complaining either way.”

“No,” said Drack.

At the same time, Thaia said, “Yes.” Then she glared at him. “And you wouldn’t know anyway being krogan and not asari.”

“Whatever. Don’t care what species, you’re all kids until you’re at least seven hundred.”

“That’s like saying we’re kids until we’re matriarchs.”

“It is what I’m saying. Keep up, kid.”

“That means humans are never adults,” said Cora.

“That’s krogan ageism right there,” said Thaia. “Asari aren’t the only ones who practice it.”

“No, but your people perfected it,” said Drack.

Thaia shrugged.

“You’re really going to let him get away with that comment?” asked Cora.

“How long did you serve with Nisira’s squad?” Thaia asked her. “A few years?”

“About that.”

“So would you say he’s wrong?”

Cora paused and gave it genuine thought. “No.”

Drack laughed. “Humans. You learn pretty quick.”

Maybe, thought Ryder. But she’d had enough trouble comprehending that someone three centuries old could be considered a kid so there was no way she was keeping up once they got into other asari life stages. Or anything else, for that matter. But the banter between everyone was a nice distraction from how unnervingly massive this place was, in size and function and intricacies.

For as long as it lasted, anyway.

When they stood on the edge of another platform, presented with another view of the vast arrays of pyramidal structures spread out below them, their talking lessened in volume and amount. It was obeisance paid to those whose vast constructs rendered negligible even the scale of what the Initiative had accomplished. Ryder hadn’t felt so small in her entire life, not even the few times when she’d tried to measure herself against her father, and anyone felt pretty damn small compared to someone like him.

Then their conversation diminished into hushed whispers of curiosity and awe, whispers that ceased whenever they heard low groans from the depths below or crackles from broken conduits.

It reached the point where combat felt better because the noisier it was, the less they contemplated how entirely alien this vault was and how insignificant and inconsequential they were in comparison.

Their quiet company slipped through a side door and encountered a long room, its walls lined with inactive assemblers. Everyone went dead silent. Steps echoed from everyone not a commando. Ryder felt like the assemblers were staring at her, waiting to pounce, to make other bots with their burning beams. Her palms were sweaty in her gloves and—

“Hey, Peebee,” said Thaia.

Ryder almost jumped. No, she did jump.

“What?” asked Peebee.

“An elcor says, ‘False statement: this is a lie.’ Is the elcor lying?”

“Fuck you,” said Peebee, but she trailed it with a laugh.

“Is the elcor lying?” asked Ryder, because someone had to.

“How the fuck should I know?” said Thaia. “I’m not the elcor.”

“That was terrible,” said Liam.

“We should be concentrating on the mission,” said Cora.

Thaia turned around to face Cora. “We are. Everyone was getting nervous as fuck and now you’re all complaining about my joke.”

“We can talk weird asari strategies later,” said Ryder. “Let’s just find the controls and restart whatever this thing is and leave before I get nervous again.”

“Seconded,” said Liam.

They did manage it, but Ryder really could have done without having to flee a death cloud. Her blood pressure had to be sky high and she hoped her burgeoning headache wasn’t because of it. Ryder removed her helmet so she could breathe, wishing her lungs would stop burning as she sagged against the console.

“What a rush!” said Peebee.

Ryder, Cora, Thaia, and Drack glared at Peebee as one because there was there were rushes and there were rushes from death in cloud form.

Then Liam said, “I know, right?” Because Liam was apparently the human version of Peebee.

Ryder groaned.

“How’re you doing, old man?” Thaia asked.

“Just fine. It’ll take more than a death cloud to kill me,” said Drack.

“The atmospheric processor is online,” said SAM. Then the console lit up and Ryder backed away as it projected a holo of the Heleus Cluster above it.

Well, that was interesting and science-related and Ryder was pretty sure it was a network of dormant vaults. She told SAM as much and to download the whole thing.

“That’s awesome,” said Thaia. “It’s the whole fucking cluster and it includes systems we haven’t explored yet.”

Ryder stared at her.

Thaia raised her eyebrows. “What?”

“You’re confusing me,” said Ryder.

Thaia waved her hand toward the projection. “This is good shit.” She aimed a look at Drack. “Way better than killing kett.”

“I think you overrate the space shit and underrate killing kett,” he said.

Ryder sighed, resigning herself to never figuring out how people worked and if she really wanted to understand she’d have to study psychology or sociology in addition to exobiology. Except she couldn’t study them because she was stuck being Pathfinder. “I think that’s an active vault,” she said, pointing at the vault in the question and hoping everyone else would go along with it. “We should go there.”

Then she removed her hand from the console and started for the door as SAM coordinated with the Tempest to have them land at the outpost site with the drop pods. “But right now I want fresh air. Literally, but I’ll take figuratively.”

She got literally. They strode up the ramp from the vault doors to stand under a sky absent of the brown haze, now partly cloudy and a whole lot of clear blue.

“If these are the results you get, you should go demand fresh air on every planet,” said Drack. “I’ll even fly you around if you have to give that ship back to the Initiative.”

Ryder kept her eyes on the beautiful clear sky. “I get to keep the Tempest since I pathfound something.” The word pathfound was the only thing Ryder liked about Foster Addison so far. In fact, she was going to use it in her message to Addison about Eos. Look what I pathfound. Maybe she’d include a holo of the Tempest flying across the pretty blue sky like it was right then. “They’d only let me have it provisionally at first. Said I had to prove myself and I think I did.”

“I’d say you did,” said Peebee.

Ryder turned to look at her, and then Thaia and Drack. “If we’re going to be activating more of these vaults and fighting more kett, we could still use your help. The Tempest will be at the outpost site. If you want, you can join us.”

“You don’t have to ask me twice,” said Peebee.

“Wouldn’t mind killing more kett.” Drack looked at the kett facility next to the monolith site. “Your ship has to be better than my shuttle. And you’re not as squishy as you look.” He nodded. “Sure, I can help. See how it goes.”

The Tempest having disappeared behind the mountains, Thaia stopped paying attention to the ship and frowned at Drack.

There was the hard sell. Ryder had really thought it would’ve been Drack. “You’ll get to stay on the Tempest.”

Thaia’s smile was apologetic and her decline was genuinely kind, showing none of the bite her words had held during their first introduction. “I won’t stay, but I would like to see the Tempest, if you don’t mind.”

Two out of three wasn’t bad, though Ryder would’ve preferred all of them to join the crew. “No, I don’t mind.”

Then Drack asked Thaia, “Why not go with them?”

“I still have to make the ice run.”

“It’s my job to keep an eye on you, kid. I can’t do that if we’re on the move in different places.”

She said nothing immediately, a solemn countenance overtaking her. “I’ll think about it.”

Drack studied Thaia for a moment. Then, serious again, he nodded.

“What about working on a consultant basis?” asked Ryder, ignoring whatever unspoken exchange had just happened and hoping she had some sort of latent talent for sales. “If we think you’d be a good fit for a job, we pick you up for the duration?”

“Maybe.”

No sales talent at all.

“You’ll have better luck convincing her after you show her the ship,” Drack said to Ryder before he turned to Peebee. “Come on, give us a ride to my shuttle in yours. Then I can fly mine to that outpost site and the kid can take it off my hands after I’m on the Tempest.”

“I’ll send you the coordinates,” Ryder said as they walked away.

After Peebee’s shuttle skimmed over the plain, Liam and Cora moved to stand on either side of Ryder. For a few minutes, they all looked across the toxic lake contrasting with the clear horizon. Ryder sighed and tried to remember why she’d joined the Initiative. Then she remembered that her father had taken away her reason for joining and replaced it with his, which had also taken away Cora’s reason for joining and replaced hers with resentment. But the clear sky meant hope, and more hope waited in activating more vaults.

“That went well,” Ryder said out loud. “I think that went well. Do you think that went well?”

“It’s a start,” said Liam.

“You did good today, Ryder,” said Cora. “In all the mess, don’t forget that you’ve accomplished something great.” When Ryder only looked at her in disbelief, Cora gave her a warm smile. “Come on, let’s get to the outpost site.”

The Tempest, 2819.

Lexi walked into the cargo bay as the Nomad parked at the top of the loading ramp and Ryder climbed out, tired and not bleeding. Liam and Cora followed, both in the same condition. Then a young asari maiden whom Ryder introduced as Peebee ran up the loading ramp and into the Tempest as if she belonged there.

Then Drack lumbered up the loading ramp.

And Thaia walked next to him.

They spotted each other at exactly the same time. Thaia dropped the pack she was carrying and shoved Drack out of her way, followed by pushing aside anyone unfortunate enough to impede her progress.

Then Thaia wrapped Lexi up in her arms and said, cracked and barely audible, “You’re alive.”

Lexi shared the same sentiment, the solidity of her best friend’s body standing testament to the truth that she was here on the other side, alive. Alive, just as she’d been on the Nexus before entering cryo, though she wore combat armor instead of Initiative clothing, smelled of dust and iron instead of mild soap. There were other truths there, such as her reaction at merely seeing Lexi, exuberant even for Thaia, yet subdued at the end. Like she had been relieved to find that a dreaded outcome had proven false.

Then Lexi dreaded for who wasn’t alive for Thaia to react like this.

She stepped back to assess the state of Thaia’s health, her hands on Thaia’s upper arms to reassure herself with an unbroken connection.

Other than a scar on her face, she didn’t look physically different. How much the past fourteen months had aged her resided in her eyes, where the few shadows that had occasionally visited her in the Milky Way had become a plague. But Lexi wouldn’t ask questions here in public, not when the potential answers risked exposing vulnerabilities Thaia fiercely guarded.

An inquiry as to her physical well being, however, wasn’t outside the norm. Lexi let go of Thaia’s arms and then used a free hand to briefly touch the divot on Thaia’s jaw. “That scar wasn’t there before.”

Thaia’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I have a few of those now. Not a lot of medical professionals outside the Nexus.”

It wasn’t anywhere close to a reassuring answer. Her only reassurance was that now there were doctors whom Thaia could see for the full physical she’d have missed during the previous year.

Thaia placed her hands on Lexi’s shoulders. “Lexi, it’s fine. I’m fine.”

Lexi crossed her arms because it had never been more obvious that Thaia was emphatically not fine.

Thaia tried again. “I’m alive and that’s better than some.”

“None of what you’ve said is as reassuring as you seem to think.”

Thaia’s smile turned apologetic, aiming for lighter yet the shadows still chased. “It really isn’t for me, either. I’d hoped it would be for you.” She took a settling breath before she said, more cracked and quietly than before, “You’re alive and that makes everything hurt less.”

The supposed reassurance served to renew Lexi’s dread about what had happened before the Hyperion had arrived in Andromeda.

“Soooo,” Ryder said from nearby, “I take it you two know each other?”

It was an opening to set aside what couldn’t be discussed with an audience present. Catching onto the direction of Lexi’s thoughts, Thaia released her grip and then Lexi turned to Ryder. “I’m not in the habit of allowing perfect strangers to hug me. And if you are, we need to have a discussion regarding your personal safety.”

“Ryder,” said Liam, “did your parents never talk to you about stranger danger?”

“Of course they did.” Ryder scowled at him then gestured between Thaia and Lexi. “How do you know each other?”

“Bar fights,” said Vetra.

“Seriously?” asked Liam. “I knew Thaia’s been in a few, but I wouldn’t have thought—”

“The doc’s been in bar fights?” Gil asked from the catwalk.

“No,” Lexi said before things got out of hand because it would with this particular group of people who were the Tempest’s crew, “as in I mended someone else’s injuries, injuries that were incurred while participating in two bar fights on the Initiative’s station in the Milky Way.”

“You getting into bar fights like an exile? It’s almost disappointing that you didn’t,” Ryder said to Lexi before straightening to look at Thaia. “And you never said if you were an exile.”

“You didn’t ask,” said Thaia.

“Were you part of the uprising?” Ryder asked after a frustrated sigh. “Were you exiled?”

“Not exactly.”

“To which?”

“Both.”

Ryder put her hand over her face. Had their situation been different, Lexi would have laughed. Thaia could be remarkably exasperating and had embraced that aspect wholeheartedly for Ryder.

“Okay, here’s the thing,” said Ryder. “All we know about the uprising and the exiles and whatever happened is what Director Tann’s told us. He’s convinced he’s on the side of justice. Meanwhile, when we were on Eos, you referred to him as a cloaca. So could you please give me something to go on?”

“I was on an EVA repairing the sensor array when it started in earnest.” Lightheartedness no longer suffused Thaia’s tone, rendering it neutral, as if it wanted to slip into despondency, but she refused to let it. “Kesh recalled us. Sent my team to lay low in the labs, but took me with her to see what we could do. It wasn’t much. From what we managed to piece together, it had its own momentum.”

There was more there, plain in the fall of Thaia’s affect, and yet again Lexi couldn’t simply ask what had happened to her that made Andromeda so painful.

“So you weren’t exiled?” asked Ryder.

Drack chuckled. “When she found out what Tann and Spender did to the krogan, she said some choice words to Tann and left with us.”

“You weren’t exiled but you can’t go back?” asked Ryder.

Thaia walked to where she’d dropped her pack and hefted it over her shoulder. “Tann’s told me that if I apologize to him, I can go back to the Nexus. You can guess what my reply was.”

“Colorful,” said Lexi, who could guess all too well.

The small, self-satisfied smile Thaia shot in her direction briefly lifted the shadows from her eyes. Lexi could imagine just how colorful Thaia’s words must have been for her to be that pleased with them.

“I am surprised Director Tann did not make a more concerted effort to convince you to remain on the Nexus,” said SAM.

“I’m not,” said Thaia. “His first reaction was essentially ‘don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.’ Only after Addison told him I was part of astrophysics and ark integration did he even think about asking me to stay.”

Liam leaned against the Nomad. “Astrophysics? Like a rocket scientist?”

“Rockets? No. Ships and other methods of space transport.”

“But could you make a rocket? Like, a big one.” Liam accompanied his question with hand motions, first the size of the rocket and then what it would do. “One that could launch from a planet’s surface into space.”

“Technically, but that’d be a huge waste of resources.”

“But it would be cool.”

Thaia looked up at the ceiling as she considered it and then looked at Liam, her smile having returned. “It would. We should try it.”

“No,” said Lexi. “No rockets.” She’d seen and heard about the experiments Thaia had taught her nieces. Liam’s impulsivity and throwing himself into adventure—sometimes literally—was exactly the type of behavior Thaia would encourage. More likely than not, one or both of them would end up injured.

Lexi believed her caution validated by the brief, mischievous smile Thaia sent her way.

Cora set her weapon on the workbench. “It might’ve been safer for everyone if they’d stayed hostile toward each other.”

“Hostile?” asked Lexi, directing the question to Thaia because she was centuries older than Liam and should know better.

Thaia was unrepentant. “I snuck up on them and it wasn’t appreciated. They jumped pretty high. Then I called Ryder’s dad an asshole. Good first impressions all around.”

“Seriously,” said Ryder, “you’re confusing.”

The discussion seemed like it was gaining momentum. Normally, Lexi would have encouraged it as a bonding exercise amongst a crew so new to each other, but appearances of reasonable physical health aside, these people had run from a death cloud not long ago. They needed to be medically checked over to confirm that there weren’t any hidden ill effects.

“You can all tell me the rest of your introduction story after I’ve had a look at each of you,” Lexi said out loud.

Every single one of them asked why.

Lexi wondered if she’d need to examine their heads, as well. “You were on an irradiated planet for hours, and then you ran from something you all called a ‘death cloud.’ You’re all acting like you’ll have to report for hours of torture. It will take fifteen minutes per person at most and you must endure it because goddess knows what you may have inhaled or otherwise ingested from the death cloud.”

“We outran the death cloud,” said Ryder.

“How many times do I have to repeat the phrase ‘death cloud’ for it to sink in?” Lexi pointed at each of them. “Everyone who set foot on that planet today, medbay. Now.”

They complained, to her and to each other, but they complied. Or acted as if they would, because before they reached the medbay, they were all gone. Peebee bolted toward the bridge. Thaia darted inside the crew quarters. Cora pretended to be distracted by the research table and Liam followed her example. When Ryder looked like she wanted to hide behind a stack of yet to be unpacked cargo containers, Lexi resorted to taking her by the arm and physically leading her to the medbay.

True to her word, Lexi kept the exams to less than fifteen minutes, though she had to take time between each to hunt down her next patient. Peebee’s didn’t even last five minutes because she would only agree to a cursory scan. Liam and Cora cooperated as well as any soldier could be expected to cooperate—grudgingly—and were done in ten. Drack took a little longer, but that was due to his penchant for stories.

“Good,” Lexi said to him, “it doesn’t look like the death cloud will be killing you in your sleep.”

“I’m not letting some cloud take me down.” He straightened from where he’d been leaning against the exam bed. “You doing all right? Andromeda seems to give everyone a shit time.”

There it was again, a reference to Andromeda as a real force, one possessing a remarkable amount of hostility that it exercised on those who had arrived fourteen months ago. While Thaia had alluded to it in her comments in the cargo bay, what little conversation Peebee had engaged in during her exam had directly mentioned Andromeda’s perceived hostility. And now Drack, a krogan over fourteen hundred years of age, had done the same.

If one believed an entire galaxy to be malevolent, a death cloud would be nothing in comparison. Then again, it would be well within typical krogan behavior to scoff at the idea that a cloud could kill them.

Either way, Lexi’s own experience with Andromeda hadn’t been theirs.

“I’m nearing overwhelmed with the amount of work I have, but I’m otherwise fine. The Hyperion’s arrival wasn’t anywhere near as destructive as what the Nexus experienced.”

He nodded. “Good to hear. Want me to fetch your last victim? I think she overrode the water protocols and might’ve been showering this whole time. I can go yank her out.”

“You do that and she’ll whine about being cold for the better part of an hour.”

“Well, if you want to go in yourself, I’ll run interference for you. You’re both young, so you won’t need too long.”

Lexi swatted him lightly on the arm with her datapad. “Don’t start.”

“Be ready for her threats and shouts of outrage in about five minutes.” Drack stopped halfway to the medbay door. “I’m not going to say she’s fragile, but…”

“I know, Drack,” Lexi said gently.

“Figured you’d get it, but I had to make sure. I’ll send her your way.”

Five minutes passed without sounds of outrage of any kind. If Lexi hadn’t been looking directly at the door when Thaia strode into the medbay, she’d never have known from those silent footsteps. The shower Thaia had assuredly taken had left her looking refreshed, though not a whit of the tiredness had gone. Thaia needed several nights of good sleep in a row to make a dent in it and Lexi doubted the opportunity would arise anytime soon.

She pointed to the closest exam bed. When Thaia rolled her eyes, Lexi almost rolled her own. “This really won’t take long. A short scan and a blood test.”

Thaia hopped onto the bed, yet with the unnerving silence she generally avoided amongst friends. Andromeda had necessitated a change in habit, trading the wariness Thaia had rarely needed in the Milky Way for constant vigilance here. But there was solace to be taken in that Thaia’s expression was far less guarded than in the cargo bay.

Before Lexi could inquire about any of what she’d observed, Thaia asked, “Are you all right? Because you’re here and not on the Hyperion, which means Harry died and that can’t be easy to deal with and you’ve been focused on helping everyone else but you’re important too, so—”

“Harry’s fine,” said Lexi. “He decided he’s too old to be out in the field and gave the assignment to me. If this is your way of complaining that I’m here and not him, I’m sure I can arrange for you to see him, instead.”

The short, self-deprecating laugh was a partial return of the Thaia she’d known before. “Fine, I won’t be concerned. But I’m glad he’s all right. From what Ryder said, you and everyone else have had a rough time since you got here, and losing him would’ve made it a lot harder.” Thaia looked down at her hands gripping the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there in the docking bay. You know, coincidentally.”

“You’ve nothing to apologize for, not if your circumstances are as extenuating as I’ve heard.” Lexi activated her omni’s medical scanner as she approached. Thaia hadn’t looked up again, and at this rate Lexi feared she’d have to resort to a joke Harry had told her before they’d entered cryo. Thankfully, she had other options available. “And if you had been waiting, I would’ve been forced to avoid you.”

“I did say coincidentally.” Thaia looked at Lexi through the scanner’s golden field. “Otherwise, I’d have to see Harry. And I would’ve had to hug Harry, except I don’t know if he’s okay with hugs so I would’ve had to ask. Then he’d dodge my question and ask me why I’m not hugging you and I’d have to explain and it’s a good thing it’s coincidental because it’s better to avoid those complications.”

After another long look at Thaia, Lexi started her scan. To ward off the incipient quiet, she said, “Thank you for the holo.”

It took Thaia so long to reply that Lexi thought she wouldn’t at all. Then Thaia said, “It might take longer than my original estimate to build that telescope, but you’re welcome.”

There was a light blush on Thaia’s cheeks, but Lexi left it alone and turned off the scanner. “No residual radiation. But no running away yet. I still have to do the blood test.”

“I ran toward you, not away.”

“Yes, but that was before you knew I’d need a blood sample.”

Thaia drew her head back in vague offense. “I’m squeamish and afraid of arachnids, not needles.” She frowned slightly. “Not that I like shots or blood draws because that would be weird, but I don’t dislike them enough to chase me away from you.” Her frown deepened. “Goddess, that was worse than the waiting for you thing. Anyway, what I mean is that a little needle isn’t going to chase me away from my best friend.”

Lexi strode over to the counter and picked up the last lancet and section of medigel-infused gauze she’d prepared. “What if it isn’t little?”

“I might have to rethink my position, depending.”

She held up the lancet. “It’s small, so you’re safe.”

“All right,” Thaia said as she let go of the bed and extended her left arm. “Stab me.”

“The melodramatics aren’t necessary. It’s a single drop of blood from a fingertip.” After she drew the tiny amount of blood, she pressed the gauze over it. Without having to be asked, Thaia took over holding the gauze, freeing Lexi to complete the test with her omni. The results were tabulated in the moment it took Lexi to set aside the lancet. Like the others, they fell within normal ranges. “There doesn’t appear to be any ill effects from whatever you ran into today on Eos.”

“Don’t tell the death cloud,” Thaia said as Lexi took her hand and the gauze in order to make sure the skin had sealed properly after the stick.

“I’m not planning on going anywhere near a death cloud.” The skin had healed, though Lexi was hesitant to let go of Thaia’s hand. There was something reassuring in the act after the anxiety of not knowing if Thaia was alive or dead.

“For the record, I hadn’t planned on it either.”

Lexi relinquished her hold on Thaia’s hand. “And your self-preservation instinct is intact, as well.” Then the nick in Thaia’s jaw caught her eye again, and she placed her index finger on it. “How did you get this?”

“Ritual batarian knife fight.” The reason was provided with all due confidence and would have fooled most people.

“There,” Lexi said as she slowly withdrew her hand and loosely crossed her arms, “is no such thing.”

“Right, grew up on Omega. Just so you know, that story’s way cooler than the real one, at least on my end. You, you’ll laugh at the real reason.”

“Given that you were injured, I doubt it.”

The fond smile from Thaia did reassure, but not nearly enough. “While I’m happy to hear you’re still so very much you, I think this will get past even your epic levels of fussing. There’s a complex of Remnant ruins on Elaaden that took us forever to figure out what they were. I was out there with Uncle Khel when I realized it was a derelict Remnant ship.”

Her smile broadened, matched by some measure of happiness returning to her eyes, the resurgence of the engineer hidden by the commando. “And not only was it a ship but it would’ve needed navigation data, meaning charts and things and, well. I got overexcited and started running over while still looking at it and not where I was going, tripped over a rock—might’ve been my own feet, but don’t tell anyone about the clumsy commando—and hit my jaw on another rock. Khel laughed so hard he almost fell over.”

Thaia had stitched her story together with humor so fine that Lexi could have chosen to believe it was nothing more than a funny anecdote. She didn’t believe it was, not when she saw Thaia grip the exam table tighter, not when her focus went inward ever so briefly. The story would have been humorous if there hadn’t been a shroud draped over the end.

Here, without an audience, Lexi could ask and have that shroud lifted. “What happened?”

“Uncle Khel was killed in a crossfire a couple hours later.” Thaia stopped and shook her head. “I like the version without that ending better.”

Khel was dead. Khel, the rough yet gently playful uncle, was gone. Khel was gone and it hurt to think it. Then Lexi’s dread for who else was gone heightened.

The subject now too sensitive for either of them, Lexi addressed other concerns. “If you haven’t been on the Nexus, where have you been living? And what have you been doing, aside from frightening unwary new Pathfinders?”

“Keeping busy being a commando, mostly. The krogan have a colony on Elaaden and I lived there consistently for a while. Technically, I still do because it’s the only place where I know no one will mess with my shit or try to kill me in my sleep. I helped build the colony’s main structure and then Drack decided he could use me to help kill kett. We’ve also been doing ice runs from Voeld to Elaaden.”

Thaia shrugged and relaxed her fingers before turning to Lexi again. “Which reminds me, Kesh will want me to ask you to keep an eye on Drack. And I’d appreciate it, too.”

“So, what you’re asking is for me to do my job?”

“No, that—well, yes.” Thaia gave her a look of exasperated sheepishness. “He’s a cranky old man and doesn’t keep up with his prosthetics like he should because he has this shit impression that he isn’t needed.”

Lexi activated her omni to take notes. “How many does he have?”

“A lot.”

It wasn’t like Thaia to not recall a number. Lexi raised a brow at her.

Thaia caught on. “I asked him and he started explaining where and what and he was actively trying to make me vomit with his stories for each of them and I stopped counting.”

“Does he do that often?”

“Yes, and it’s fucking infuriating even though it hasn’t worked yet. So, no, I don’t know the exact number. But Kesh will send you the whole list. If he keeps neglecting them, it won’t help anyone. Kesh needs him. The krogan colony needs him. And don’t tell him I said so, but I need him alive, too.” A flare of fear passed through her eyes, leaving the fleeting impression of someone on the verge of being lost.

Lexi placed a gentle hand on Thaia’s shoulder. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“Thank you.”

After giving Thaia’s shoulder a squeeze, Lexi removed her hand, but she didn’t step away.

Then an interloper of a quiet pause came between them, leaving a clear path for the dread of what had happened.

It couldn’t be avoided, the intruder. “Thaia,” Lexi said, and then waited for Thaia to look up from where she’d been studying her hands. “Who else have you lost?”

Thaia looked away, eyes on the readouts on the wide display on the wall behind Lexi, but not seeing them, not seeing anything in the room they were in. “Everyone except my father.”

Goddess. The worst of what her dread had feared. Auri and Basya, who’d argued over who’d won the soap boat race organized by their aunt; Safira, who’d looked so existentially pained on hearing yet another joke from youngest sister; Aunt Jarah, who’d quietly instigated mischief amongst her nieces without letting on—all of them were gone.

Before Lexi could react beyond staring in shock, Thaia went on. “Everyone who was assigned to the Nexus—Aunt Jarah, Safira, Auri, Basya.” Another pause as her jaw flexed, the notch on her jawline moving with it, and then she moved past the struggle against emotions trying to rush outward. “Tann won’t let my dad out of cryo. And Meir and Eirian are on the Leusinia and all we know about the Leusinia is where it isn’t.” She broke away from her memories to look at Lexi again. “I’ve been trying not to remember. When I do, I get distracted. In Andromeda, if you get distracted at the wrong time, you end up dead.”

The fear surged in Thaia’s eyes again before she suppressed it, the almost frantic look she’d had when she’d knocked people aside to reach Lexi after she’d first caught sight of her. Drack was all Thaia had left, and now he was going to stay on the Tempest and Thaia wasn’t. Thaia would be alone and lost out there again and it had to be prevented. “If you want to stay close to Drack, you could accept Ryder’s offer.”

“I would, but…” Thaia grimaced and her jaw flexed again. “We both know I can’t.”

Had Lexi not been so invested in keeping Thaia from becoming lost, she would have realized it sooner. Her focus on the future of Thaia’s well being had distracted her too much.

It was a warning. It warned of what could happen were Thaia to join the crew, and in doing so become a regular patient of Lexi’s. “No, you can’t, because then you’d be my patient. It would be different from treating you after those bar fights, because that was urgent medicine. In this case, it wouldn’t be ethical—it wouldn’t be safe—to be best friends with a patient.”

Thaia managed a rueful smile. “And I can’t lose my best friend. I can keep in touch, though. When the Tempest is on the same planet or station I’m on, or if you’ve got shore leave or however it’ll work with the Initiative’s Pathfinder crews. With the Hyperion here, more comm buoys will be dropped, making comms reliable, along with the capability for messaging and emails restored.” She brightened. “And I am a reliable correspondent.”

“You are.” But Lexi couldn’t muster much enthusiasm.

It didn’t go unnoticed. “You don’t like it.”

“Of course I don’t and I know you don’t, either. You were out there with Drack and he’ll be staying here and you’ll be alone.”

“Not like before, when I didn’t think you were alive.” Thaia took a settling breath before she aimed for cheerful. “And if I’m not with Drack, it means fewer bar fights.”

Lexi played along. “How many more have you been in?”

“Three? Four? Drack would know better. Or Umi since all of them were at Kralla’s Song. Wait, no. There was the one in Tartarus, but that was more like a skirmish.” She shrugged. “Either way, Drack and I were breaking up the majority of them, not instigating and not participating in them as combatants.”

“I suppose that’s progress of a kind.” Lexi searched for a topic, something that would ward off the intrusive quiet. “You said Tann refuses to bring your father out of cryo? If I recall correctly, Sula was near the top of the priority list, as all the matriarchs in the Initiative are.”

“I couldn’t figure it out at first. But looking back, I’m pretty sure it’s because he sees her as a threat.”

It was a reasonable assumption. Any awake matriarch would be a threat to the leadership of someone who’d been eighth on the list and wasn’t a matriarch as well. But Matriarch Sula was also a systems engineer, a speciality highly applicable to the Initiative’s current situation, which any other matriarch would instantly see. Lexi also fought a rush of anger on Thaia’s behalf, that Tann would deny Thaia her father after Thaia had lost literally everyone else who’d been on the Nexus. One could believe he’d purposefully allowed Thaia to be cast adrift.

Because her anger would serve no one, Lexi pushed it back. However, it didn’t prevent her voice from taking on a slight edge. “I hope he isn’t under the mistaken impression that he’ll be able to continue his refusal when the Leusinia arrives. I can’t imagine Matriarch Ishara not wanting your father aiding in colonization efforts, nor can I imagine Matriarch Ishara allowing Tann to stonewall her.”

“I’d pay to see him try.” Thaia laughed, but it was weak and subdued to the point of somber.

Silence pushed its way into their conversation once more.

Then Thaia asked, “Did you hear about the new restaurant they opened on Lucen before we left the Milky Way?”

“I thought Lucen only had domed mining facilities. Why would they have a restaurant there?” Lexi frowned. “Why is this even important?”

“The food was great, but there’s just no atmosphere.”

Lexi groaned. “That might be the worst joke you’ve ever told.”

Thaia’s lips quirked in a half smile, a flicker of the mischievous friend Lexi had known before. But the shadows remained indelible.

“You are…” Lexi studied her again, wishing she could banish that plague. “You’re nowhere near all right, are you?”

“Not really, no.”

Silence rejoined them, but without the awkwardness, instead a natural part of the dialogue between them.

The medbay’s comm activated, startling them both.

Drack said, “Hey, you busy or you letting people in? Depending on what kind of busy, I can wait a few minutes. Maybe five, so hurry it up.”

Thaia rolled her eyes as Lexi unsecured the door.

“Got some news on a lead,” Drack said before he’d fully walked inside.

“Which lead?” asked Thaia.

“Spender.”

All vestiges of Thaia’s melancholy burned into her brief biotic flare, propelling her forward a few steps from the bed. “Where?”

Lexi barely kept herself from staring, having never witnessed anything from Thaia approaching a loss of temper. It was absurd to believe Thaia didn’t have one, not when everyone did, Lexi included. But Thaia’s dramatic shift from a person on the verge of being adrift in a new galaxy to every centimeter a person with a determined, all-encompassing anger rivaled Lexi’s shock about the fate of Thaia’s family.

“Kadara,” said Drack.

“We should go there right now.”

Drack gestured toward Thaia, bringing her biotic corona to her attention. “Might want to put that away for now. Save it for Spender when we find him.”

“Right.” Thaia’s biotics extinguished, and then she gave Lexi an apologetic look. “Sorry. It’s—”

“She’s had that kind of a year,” said Drack. “I’m surprised she hasn’t lost her temper more. I keep telling her she should and then she insists she has to have more control, not less.” He patted her on the crest and she batted his hand away. “It’s like you’re rejecting your krogan ancestors.”

Some of Thaia’s anger had gone with her biotics, returning her to the self she’d become in Andromeda, the self with a simmering anger that was controlled, not volatile. “I’ve lived with you assholes for the better part of a year. That’s not rejecting krogan ancestry.”

Drack slid a look over at Lexi. “She’s been headbutting more, too.”

Risking a concussion each time and Lexi glared at her for it. “You should know better. Asari skulls aren’t meant for—”

“With a helmet!” said Thaia. “Only if I had a helmet on. Drack conveniently left that fucking part out just to get you to scold me.” She took another step toward the door. “Come on, we should get our gear together. And I have to put my armor back on.”

Then she and Drack headed out the door. Lexi remained in the medbay, her gaze on the empty exam bed while she reassured herself that Thaia and Drack would both return because neither of them would be going alone. Her reassurance only went so far, and so she put together a fresh medkit with supplies for both krogan and asari in case they either didn’t have one or theirs was depleted. Once she was done, she tucked the kit under her arm and brought it to the cargo bay.

Everyone had gathered inside, Drack telling Ryder he’d message her once they were done tracking down Spender, and then promising he’d explain their issue with Spender afterward, when he rejoined the Tempest. “And,” he said, “it’ll be easier to contact you when you’re in range anyway, with that comm device Gil installed in my omni.”

“I’m glad you agreed to at least that,” said Ryder.

“I wasn’t getting an implant, but it’d be stupid to argue against better comms.” He looked over at Thaia, who’d been speaking with Cora. “You about ready?”

“Yeah. Cora doesn’t have an Acolyte, either.”

“I still don’t understand your obsession with that weapon.”

“It lets you strip shields with one or two shots,” said Cora. “That’s a lot faster than an entire clip of disruptor ammo.”

Thaia nodded at Drack. “See? She gets it.”

“Of course she does. She’s another commando and all you shits stick together.” He cracked his neck. “All right, let’s go hunt Spender down. He has an appointment with my shotgun that I don’t want him to miss.”

On her way to the ramp, Thaia walked past Lexi, who stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Wait,” Lexi said as she held out the kit, “take this with you.”

“What is—oh, a medkit.” She gave Lexi a puzzled look. “But I didn’t ask for one.”

“I assumed you might need one. It has full supplies for both krogan and asari.”

Thaia smiled at her, crooked and grateful. “You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t fuss. Thank you.”

“You can thank me by sending me regular messages while you’re out there doing whatever it is that you do. You can also thank me by agreeing to see Harry for a full medical exam after this particular trip. ”

“I’ll do both.” Thaia looked directly at her as she accepted the kit. “I promise.” Then she blinked and glanced down at the kit when her smile faltered. Breathed in and set her shoulders before she looked up again, appearing confident and unwavering to anyone except those who knew her well. She nodded at Lexi and then followed Drack down the ramp and off the ship.

Lexi wished she didn’t have to watch her go.

Chapter Text

The Tempest, 2819.

“Do I hear gunfire?” asked Ryder.

Many of the crew, Lexi included, had gathered on the bridge for the best view when they entered orbit over Elaaden for the first time. 

It also afforded them the opportunity to listen in on Ryder’s comm with Drack. 

After the Pathfinder team’s visit to Aya and then their stop on Havarl to meet with and find the angaran scientists, they’d returned to clear comms and received one message from Drack. The message had informed them that he and Thaia were going to head to Elaaden soon and to meet them there.

Lexi had received a few messages from Thaia with more information, including tidbits she would have rather not known, such as when Thaia wrote that she’d danced through a minefield and didn’t trigger a single mine and should have gotten a reward for the feat. Lexi’s reply had been succinct, yet not without fury: your reward is having not died. Thaia had been indignant, claiming that the not dying was a boring reward. Lexi’s second reply had also been succinct: because your life has been boring in the interim? Thaia had replied with a no, and accompanied the message with a holo of herself with a grin on her face and the minefield in the background. Because of course she had. Despite Thaia’s cavalier attitude regarding personal safety, it was heartening to see her returning to her usual self, lingering shadows aside.

“Yeah,” Drack said over the comm, where indeed there was gunfire in the background.

Because of course there was. Because of course Thaia couldn’t practice anything except insouciance with regard to her personal safety. And less than helpful was Drack’s own dismissive attitude toward danger, a poor example on display right at that very moment.

Ryder exchanged bewildered looks with everyone else on the bridge. “Should I contact you later?”

“Nah, go ahead. These guys aren’t a challenge.”

“But you’re in a firefight,” said Ryder, who understandably still looked bewildered.

“Hold on.” Drack’s voice faded a little, his next shout pitched to someone on his side of the comm. “Hey, save some for me!”

“They were grouped together!” It was Thaia, who sounded very much alive.

Lexi couldn’t decide between relief or irritation at Thaia’s apparent flippancy about her mortality. The next time they spoke, Lexi would need to amend Thaia’s promise of agreeing to write regularly with taking reasonable safety precautions, such as not going anywhere near a minefield or chatting over long-distance comms while engaged in a firefight.

“And now they’re in pieces together!” said Drack.

They couldn’t hear Thaia’s response, but Drack chuckled. “Almost got her that time.”

“Where are you?” asked Ryder.

“Chasing down a stolen shuttle that happened to have both the krogan seed vault and Vorn on it. We’re on one of Elaaden’s moons, whichever one has the mining stations, looking for that seed vault and also Vorn because he’s important or some shit.”

“He’s your fucking botanist,” said Thaia.

Ryder frowned. “Do you need help?”

“I wasn’t kidding when I said these guys aren’t a challenge,” said Drack. “Wouldn’t mind a lift, though. Our ride bailed as soon as the first shot was fired. We can talk more on your ship.”

“You’ve decided paying attention to the firefight is the safer choice?” asked Lexi, her tone crisp with the irritation beneath it.

“If I don’t jump back in, the kid’s going to rack up the kills. Contact me when you’re here because we’re almost done.” Drack cut the comm.

“They were in the middle of a firefight,” said Ryder. “I don’t understand. If I don’t understand, how will I explain them to Jaal? I think I can get the krogan thing across to him, but Thaia isn’t krogan. And you heard her.”

“Don’t bother trying,” said Suvi. “He’ll understand as much as the rest of us do after he meets them.”

A pang of sorrow passed through Lexi, that people like Ryder and Jaal would never meet some of the people who explained so much about who Thaia was. Jaal especially, because the discussions Jaal had engaged in during his time on the ship thus far had indicated that the angara were strongly family-centered. If they were, he would best understand Thaia’s own family and her connection to them. 

Lexi made a note to find a definitive answer for angara and the role of family in their society. The team’s rescue of the scientists on Havarl had softened the angaran prejudice toward Milky Way species, so further dialogue might not be rejected out of hand. Perhaps speaking with Jaal directly would be the best course, since what she’d observed thus far indicated that he and other angara preferred to be forthright. Then she would need to research how the angara mourned, because it was unlikely that the fate of Thaia’s family wouldn’t come up at some point if she helped with any of the Tempest’s missions.

As she slowly turned toward Lexi, Ryder got a contemplative look. It was the same look she’d gotten last week in the cargo bay, right before she’d asked Lexi, “So was she your type?” In order to escape another round of the ‘there’s no possible way you’re just best friends’ type of questioning she’d been subjected to after Ryder’s inquiry, Lexi absconded from the bridge in favor of the medbay. She did, however, leave on her connection to comms. 

Ten minutes later, she was thankful she had.

“How far away are you?” came Drack’s voice over reactivated comms.

“Fifteen minutes,” said Kallo.

“Drack, why are you asking?” said Ryder. “Do you need help now?”

“Sort of. Kid dislocated a shoulder. Hydra threw her against a wall and she tried to stop herself with her arm or something. Happened quick. Her shoulder looks pretty fucked up. I’ve seen this type of injury before, though. I bet I can pop it back in.”

Goddess, she had to stop Drack from causing Thaia so much pain. “No!” Lexi said with more force than the situation warranted. “Leave it alone. There isn’t a need for more pain and you risk complications if you reduce a dislocation when you aren’t trained. Do you have that medkit I gave you?”

“Somewhere around—” There was rustling, unintelligible complaining from Thaia, and then a crash before Drack said, “Found it.”

“Administer one of the analgesic doses in it—asari, Drack, not krogan. That should mitigate the pain from blinding to uncomfortable until I can reduce the dislocation.”

“All right. I’m sending you the coordinates for the landing pad now.”

“See you there,” said Ryder. “Wait, is it a combat zone still?”

“Nah. Kid still has a working arm and I’m krogan, so we mopped ‘em all up. Dealt with Aroane, got the seed vault back, and got Vorn too. You’re good to land in the clear.”

Lexi didn’t have to ask anyone for help. In fact, the majority of the crew who didn’t have other jobs involving landing the Tempest bolted for the cargo bay. It was a veritable audience waiting to see what kind of havoc Drack had wreaked on the mining station. During her own walk, Lexi drew on her training and settled into a physician’s clinical detachment as easily as she put her lab coat on in the morning.

When Lexi reached the cargo bay, Cora moved to stand next to her. “Do you want help?” Cora asked. “Her armor’s more commando than Initiative, and if she’s going to need help removing it, I know how. Better than someone else fumbling along and bumping her arm. I’ve heard it hurts like hell.”

“It does,” said Lexi. “Not that I’ve experienced the injured side of it, but every single person whose dislocation I’ve treated has said the pain is incredible.”

The ramp lowered and everyone strode down onto a landing pad. Several bodies of dead mercenaries were scattered across the massive landing platform, the hulks of two wrecked mechs among them. Smoke still rose from the crushed and dented mechs, accompanied by the occasional spark from torn wiring. On their left, toward the edge of the platform, was an Initiative-type shuttle that’d seen better days. Next to it stood Drack and a krogan whom Lexi assumed to be Vorn. She still hadn’t caught sight of Thaia. Trepidation crept in that Thaia’s medical condition could be worse than they’d been led to believe.

Drack waved to get their attention. “Over here!”

After tugging at the side seam of her lab coat to ensure it—and the composure of her clinical detachment—was securely in place, Lexi headed over with Cora. Ryder and Vetra followed them as they all picked their way through the considerable wreckage of bodies and cargo containers. 

As they approached, Drack moved to the side and then they could see Thaia seated on the ground, back against the shuttle, her complexion alarmingly pale. Her outer armor had already been removed from her upper body, the undersuit allowing Lexi to immediately see the deformation in Thaia’s left shoulder—the humeral head of her left arm bulging under the skin, forward of its usual position in the glenoid cavity. It was the perfect example of an anterior dislocation. Unsurprisingly, Thaia kept her left arm, held in a field sling, tucked against her chest.

“I think,” Thaia said after Lexi knelt beside her, “I might’ve dislocated my shoulder.”

“Either that or you’ve suddenly developed some very strange anatomy. But my bet’s on a classic anterior dislocation. You could put this in a textbook,” said Lexi.

“Just leave off the part where I dislocated it because it’s a bad idea to use an outstretched arm when you get flung backwards while you were already using biotics to move away. Fucking physics.”

“Is there any numbness?”

“I wish.”

“Where do you want me to stash your stuff?” asked Drack.

Thaia instinctively shrugged and inhaled sharply at the pain. Then she directed an astonishingly inventive string of curses at Drack.

“That really isn’t a secure place to keep it,” said Cora.

“Because it isn’t anatomically possible,” said Lexi. “And there’s no reason for you to stay in pain, either. Cora, could you help me get her to medbay?”

“I’ll secure her stuff in the armory off the cargo bay,” Vetra said as she gathered up the scattered pieces of armor. Drack went with her to the Tempest, carrying both his weapons and Thaia’s.

Cora squatted next to Thaia. “You going to cooperate? If I accidentally jar your shoulder, I don’t want to end up threatened with what you threatened Drack with.”

“He deserves it,” said Thaia. “He’s been giving me shit for the past thirty minutes and he knows I can’t do shit about it. You’re fine. Please just help me get to my feet.” Thaia kept talking as Cora supported her by the elbow of her uninjured arm. “Besides, it isn’t like I’m going to say ‘no, don’t help me get my dislocated shoulder reduced, I’ll just stay here like this forever—or until I pass out from the pain when the meds wear off, whichever comes first and it’ll be the second.’” 

Fully standing, Thaia seemed balanced, but as they walked toward the Tempest and up the loading ramp, Cora kept a hand on Thaia’s good arm and Lexi kept a hand at the small of Thaia’s back in case she began to wobble. Were it to happen, a fall would be spectacularly painful.

Thaia continued to talk, likely a diversionary tactic from her pain. “All right, I might’ve said it but I wouldn’t mean it. Goddess, I’d forgotten how much this hurts.”

“Having forgotten it is good, in that it’s been long enough since the last time that you were able to forget,” said Lexi. Then she and Cora aimed Thaia through the medbay’s open door. Once they were a few steps inside and Thaia had been guided to an exam table, the door closed automatically. 

Thaia looked at the table, then Lexi, then the table again, and then raised a brow at Lexi.

Lexi called her on it. “If you can’t get up on that table with one working arm, then you aren’t a commando.”

It got laughs from both Thaia and Cora, though Thaia’s was restricted by the additional pain moving her shoulder would’ve caused. Then Thaia used her good arm as leverage and hopped up without jostling her injury. 

“That would’ve been impressive if you hadn’t tried to get out of doing it first.” Lexi turned away as she said it, partially to gather necessary supplies, such as readying injectable anesthetic in case the medication wore off, as well as retrieving the medical shears designed to cut through anti-ballistic material. She also turned away to ensure that Thaia did not see that Lexi was genuinely impressed.

“Such a critic,” said Thaia. “Cora, can you please undo my sling and then my top’s back as far as it can go without putting pressure on my shoulder? Should be pretty far. You’ll have to get the outer plating from my legs, too.” She frowned. “And the belt.”

“On it.” Familiarity with asari manufactured armor specific to commandos allowed Cora to work quickly and efficiently, the plating and belt removed within minutes. “Everything’s off that can come off without moving her shoulder. I’ll go give these to Vetra to keep with the rest. Let me know if you need anything else.” The medbay door locked behind Cora. 

When Lexi approached the table, shears in hand, Thaia’s eyes grew wary. “What’s with those? Wait, if it involves cutting off my arm, I don’t want to know.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Lexi played along with Thaia’s reach for humor, even though she didn’t like how pale Thaia looked. “I’m going to have to cut off the top of your undersuit and the compression shirt underneath.”

“Oh, no.” Thaia drew out the no in her protest, placing it perilously close to a whine. “It’s my last one. That’s insult on top of literal injury.”

“I can’t access your shoulder properly any other way without causing excessive pain as well as risking further injury.” 

Unconvinced, Thaia looked down at her arm, which she still cradled against herself. “But then I won’t have a shirt. And don’t tell me I can just borrow someone else’s either, because I can’t fit into anyone else’s.”

Because of the implication and where Thaia had directed her focus, Lexi’s gaze briefly dropped to Thaia’s breasts, which were much more matronly than they were maiden.

Not briefly enough, because almost as soon as Lexi had reflexively looked, Thaia said, “My eyes are up here, T’Perro. I was talking about my shoulders.”

“Of course you were.” Six hundred years later and Lexi was regretting not giving Thaia a hard time about what’d happened on the transport to Thessia.

“Don’t even. You looked.”

“I didn’t.” Not in the way she was implying, anyway.

“You did. I saw it.”

“You are such a shit.”

If it hadn’t been for the discordant note of pain in Thaia’s laugh, it would’ve lifted spirits. “All right, yes. I set you up for that.”

A light appeared on Lexi’s omni, notifying her that Vetra was at the door. Since Thaia was fully clothed, Lexi let her in.

Vetra held up a rather large but clean Initiative shirt. “I asked Cora, but she said something about her shirt would be too tight in the shoulders?”

Thaia looked at Lexi and smiled.

“Not one word,” Lexi said.

Vetra looked between them. “Did I miss something?”

“No,” they both said.

“Uh-huh.” Vetra’s look was as dubious as the many she’d given them in the Milky Way. “Anyway, Cora said to ask Liam or Gil for a clean shirt. Liam was the first to find one, so here you go.”

“Thank you,” said Thaia. “And please tell Liam thanks, too.”

“I don’t know. He said something about never washing it again after he gets it back.”

Thaia rolled her eyes.

“I’ll get a fast-track requisition in and give him a replacement shirt,” Vetra said with a laugh. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” said Thaia.

Vetra inclined her head toward Lexi. “I meant her.” Then she left before Thaia could retaliate.

Thaia sighed in overdramatic fashion. “Fine. Cut it off.”

Deciding it was better not to acknowledge the dramatics, Lexi moved to stand behind Thaia. “I need you to keep holding your left arm against your chest with your good arm.”

She did as requested, but didn’t let the wording pass by. “There you go with chests again.”

“You realize that you’ll be held accountable for anything you say because you don’t have a head injury, right?”

“I need to distract myself somehow.”

There was enough truth in Thaia’s statement to prevent Lexi from ending the teasing before it got out of hand. They would be fine. It wasn’t like they hadn’t teased each other many times before. “Because antagonizing the medical professional who’s shortly going to aid in reducing your dislocation is a good idea?” She placed her hands on Thaia’s upper back and evaluated the best way to go about freeing Thaia’s shoulder. “I only need to be able to access your injured shoulder, so I’ll be cutting down from the collar of your compression shirt first.”

“My poor shirt. It’s getting cut off. Not torn off.” Thaia flinched at the temperature difference between the shears and her skin, but not enough to skew the line of cutting. “No comment?”

“No. Like I once told Ryder, you’re not nearly as distracting as you think you are.”

“You realize that was a challenge, right?”

“You realize that if I’m treating an actual injury of yours, the challenge will be exponentially more difficult for you?” Lexi finished snipping through the hem of the compression shirt and then reevaluated. If she cut horizontally along the waist of the undersuit, it would loosen the material enough to leave room for the shears without putting pressure on Thaia’s injured shoulder. 

“Exponentially? Already bringing out the math terms?”

Lexi ignored the comment so as not to encourage additional comments. “I’m going to cut your undersuit along your waist toward your left side.”

“That’s fine.”

Once Lexi cut as far as she dared from the dorsal aspect, she switched to the optimal positioning of an anterior approach. She stepped around to stand in front of Thaia, taking the opportunity to check her pallor again. No better, but no worse, either. When Lexi made eye contact, she said, “I’m going to finish cutting around your waist from both sides until I reach the midline from the left.”

Thaia nodded, and then Lexi finished the step. “Good. Now I’ll need to cut upward along the midline, so I’ll need you to look up at the ceiling by moving your entire head, not just your eyes.” Lexi continued once Thaia did as asked. “Now I’m going to carefully lift the part of your shirt over your clavicle and left shoulder while I cut perpendicular to your neck, going outward.” 

“All right. I’ll even not complain about the cold as much as I want to. Because it’s cold in here.”

“The ship maintains an optimal temperature.” The previous cuts to the undersuit had left the top loose and Lexi didn’t have to put any pressure on Thaia’s shoulder to cut the cloth there. 

“Optimal for ice cubes, maybe.” Thaia watched her closely as she worked but refrained from comment, likely due to the close proximity of the shears to her injury. Sudden movement would result in a great deal of pain for Thaia, even with the analgesic dose she’d had. The section of shirt and undersuit fell away from the top, but the sleeves of both wrapped around Thaia’s biceps and forearm still needed to be removed. This step posed the highest risk for increased pain. “I’ll go along the outside of your arm, down from your shoulder.”

Then Thaia held completely still as Lexi followed through, the cloth falling away after a little encouragement from her fingers. 

Her view of the dislocated shoulder now unobstructed, Lexi placed the shears on the counter before she did another evaluation. The dislocation was as classic as she’d surmised. After a quick scan to confirm it, Lexi decided that her preferred approach to reducing dislocations would work in this situation.

“How much will it hurt? Just so I’m ready,” Thaia said not half a minute after the scanner turned off.

Almost—no, she was offended, she was good at quick and gentle, and reductions were no exception—Lexi retreated to look Thaia in the eye. “It won’t hurt.”

“Really?” The shock in Thaia’s expression matched her tone. “Every other time it has right when it popped back in. More than it hurts when it’s dislocated, like right now. It can be done without hurting more?”

Lexi wondered what sort of providers had reduced Thaia’s prior dislocations—and how many she’d had—for her to be this surprised that it could be done painlessly. However, that could be addressed later. Right now, Lexi was disinclined to risk the pain medication wearing off prematurely. “The key is that you, your shoulder in particular, stay relaxed. It won’t work if you’re tense.” She reestablished eye contact and held it. “You have to trust me that I won’t hurt you.”

Thaia searched Lexi’s face for a moment, and then another until she found confirmation of what she was looking for. “I trust you.”

Hearing Thaia say it validated Lexi in a way she hadn’t known she lacked and she smiled. “The more relaxed you are, the less time this will take.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“I’ll need you to sit up as comfortably as you can, your back straight as you can make it without hurting.” As Thaia adjusted her posture, Lexi shifted to the right, so that her left shoulder was parallel to Thaia’s. “Good. Now pull your shoulder blades together like you would if your mother had just scolded you for slouching.”

“You remember that story?” Thaia asked, brows raised in disbelief.

“I remember everything you tell me.”

A subdued smile, one different from her usual ones, was there and then gone. Thaia gingerly changed her posture as requested. “Like this?”

“Yes.” Lexi moved forward so that she stood less than a forearm’s length from Thaia, close enough that could smell the occasional whiff of smoke, remnants from getting too close to Drack’s flamethrower during combat. “And here’s where you’ll have to trust me or it will hurt and won’t work. Then I’ll have to use one of the other methods that will also hurt and I’ll be cross that I had to resort to it.”

The smile appeared again, staying a tiny bit longer before it fled. “Wouldn’t want to make you cross. Who knows what creative revenge you’d come up with.”

“It’s in your best interest to never find out.” Lexi shifted her left arm so that her forearm was nearly parallel to the floor, and then put her right hand across her body until it was past her left. “Now I need your left wrist.”

Though she moved her arm carefully, Thaia’s body remained relaxed as she moved her wrist to Lexi’s hand.

“Good.” Lexi gently took Thaia’s wrist and equally as gently rotated Thaia’s arm so that her elbow pointed downward and tucked into her side. Then Lexi placed her left hand underneath Thaia’s elbow to support it before using her right hand to place Thaia’s left hand on Lexi’s shoulder. The weight of it was almost comforting to Lexi, and judging by the way Thaia relaxed further, Lexi wasn’t the only one who felt it.

Through each action, Thaia watched her intently. “How will this work? You don’t have any leverage. I might not know biology that well, but I know physics.”

“Because I don’t need leverage. With this technique, I simply coax it back into place.”

“Simply?” Thaia looked between Lexi and her shoulder before asking in complete puzzlement, “Are you going to sweet talk it back into place? Threaten it? Because while I know you could get me to do a lot of things using either of those methods, I’m not sure my shoulder would be quite so easily verbally manipulated.”

Lexi shot her a half-feigned glare. “Must you be impossible right now?”

Thaia returned a level look. “Yes.”

In order to prevent additional pain by accidentally bumping Thaia’s arm, and to not encourage this type of behavior, Lexi admirably maintained a straight face. While Thaia could likely detect the amusement in Lexi’s eyes, that was because Thaia knew her far better than a person who would only ever be her patient would. “No, I will not be threatening nor will I be sweet-talking your humeral head back to where it belongs. It’s akin to nudging it back in by loosening the muscles around it so they’re pliable enough for my thumb to gently push it into place.”

“Even if I wasn’t the patient I would have to see this.” Seriousness replaced most of Thaia’s teasing from before, once again revealing the intellectual curiosity so often shrouded by the demeanor of a commando. “All right, Doctor, work your magic.”

“You will be the death of me, Althaia Kallistrate.” Lexi used her right hand to begin working at Thaia’s biceps to relax the muscle more, the warmth of the skin under her fingers belying Thaia’s claims of being overly cold.

“I won’t, I promise. I could never do that because then you wouldn’t be around and I’d be sad.”

While Lexi couldn’t spare a glance as she concentrated on methodically loosening the muscles around Thaia’s shoulder joint, she heard a significant amount of vulnerable truth beneath the surface of Thaia’s declaration. “You wouldn’t be inconsolable.”

Thaia’s initial reply was almost inaudible. “I wouldn’t be so sure.” Then, as if to cover it up, she said at a regular volume, “You’re really just massaging it into place. While this couldn’t be done in the field while under fire, anywhere else this would be preferable. More medical providers should use it.”

The humeral head was nearly there, Thaia’s ability to stay relaxed not having wavered had thus far made the reduction one of the easiest Lexi had ever done. “I’m honestly surprised no one’s used this technique with you before, for exactly the reason you mentioned.”

“To be fair, one dislocation happened in combat, so that was understandable. Then when I dislocated it during a skyball game, a former commando who meant well thought the muscles and ligaments around it would freeze up before I got to the hospital, so she reduced it right there. Without warning. I might’ve punched her with my other arm. And—”

One last nudge and the humeral head slid back into place with an audible clunk.

“It fucking worked,” said Thaia.

Lexi replaced Thaia’s forearm against her chest and put Thaia’s free hand over it to keep it there while she got a sling. “You placed all that trust in me and you’re still surprised?”

“I trust you not to hurt me, but I wasn’t entirely convinced the technique itself would work.”

“I suppose one out of two isn’t bad.” She fetched a prepackaged sling from one of the marked bins, opened it, disposed of the packaging, and then began to assemble it.

Studying her left shoulder like she really wanted to prod at it, yet was unwilling to let go of her left arm, Thaia said, “Not that I don’t enjoy showing off my physique, but when can I put that other shirt on before I die of hypothermia?”

Lexi successfully resisted the impulse to look over at said physique now that Thaia had brought attention to it. She resisted because she should not be ogling while still providing medical treatment. She shouldn’t ogle in any situation, but Thaia, as facetiously as she’d made the comment, wasn’t wrong about her physique. However, like it’d been her intention before when she’d commented on the replacement shirt dilemma, she was assuredly baiting Lexi, and Lexi would not fall for it. 

“Before we get the sling on your arm. You won’t die of hypothermia in the interim, so you needn’t be so dramatic.” The sling ready, Lexi placed it on the exam table next to Thaia. The spare shirt went on top of it.

Thaia’s pallor had greatly improved, even as she studied the remains of her shirt and undersuit, determining the best way to finish removing them so she could put on the borrowed shirt. “I might need help. Wait, no, not might. In all seriousness, I do.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Lexi asked, “If I help, will you behave?”

Thaia considered Lexi for a moment. “No, probably not.”

Lexi leaned against the wall and did not move. 

After heaving a great sigh that didn’t cause a grimace of pain, Thaia said, “Fine, I will. Otherwise there’s no way I’m going to be able to get these the rest of the way off, much less get another one on. Then, hypothermia.”

“A tragedy, to be sure.” But Lexi did help, pulling the right half of the shirt inside out and down along Thaia’s right arm until it was free.

“I’m forced to behave and you decide to be mean.”

“It isn’t a conscious decision. It just happens with you.” Lexi needed the deflection, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to carry on like they were.

She rotated Thaia’s left forearm outward so she could remove the rest of the sleeve as she had the right. When the rest of the undersuit and compression shirt came off, it revealed an immature linear and possibly hypertrophic scar in the shape of a right angle on the right side of Thaia’s torso. There was also a matching one on her back. The angle and positioning of the injury likely meant splenic involvement, possibly a splenectomy—and Lexi really didn’t need to be diagnosing Thaia’s old injuries. 

However, she didn’t recall a note regarding an injury indicative of the level of trauma the scar implied on Thaia’s chart in the Milky Way. And if Thaia no longer possessed a spleen, there were potential immune issues that would need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Because this was post-emergency care for her friend and not for a regular patient, Lexi masked her lapse into complete clinician and turned to pick up the borrowed shirt. “And you were encouraged to behave, not forced.”

While Lexi’s focus was on the shirt, Thaia said, “I bet it took you less than ten seconds to figure out that whatever caused my scar also took my spleen with it and you didn’t even realize you’d done it until it was too late.”

Goddess, Lexi thought she’d caught it in time, but Thaia was observant enough to have noticed. Lexi had done it while she was already having to be more clinical than she’d like with a friend and it wasn’t as if she could take it back because she hadn’t said a word out loud.

Thaia took the shirt from her hand. “I was teasing you. And complimenting you in a roundabout way. I mean, not every doctor could look at a pair of scars, calculate the angle from one side to the other, and then correctly determine what significant internal damage it must’ve caused at the time of injury in less than ten seconds. Which you did, right?”

“I did, but it hadn’t been my intention.” Though Lexi’s confidence rallied when she saw that Thaia was smiling. So she hadn’t been misunderstood. Thaia knew that part of her, knew that sometimes it would look like she was being clinical even when she wasn’t, that Lexi would end up somehow diagnosing something in less time than it took her to realize what was happening. That it was a reflex, not her entire being. 

Because Thaia understood, it freed Lexi to ask, “So did it require a splenectomy?”

“Yes and good riddance since it tried to kill me. Also, to be fair,” Thaia said as she kept her arms below shoulder level and unfolded the shirt, “I’d also set you up twice in the recent past to get you to look where and in ways you’re avoiding for good reason, so it was either clinically look at my scars or—”

“If you end that sentence with something about admiration, physique, or your abdominal muscles, I’ll leave you to getting that shirt on by yourself.” Because Thaia had been right. Like most commandos, she had a marvelous physique with muscle definition that compelled admiration. Admiration Lexi wished to luxuriate in by tracing with the tips of her fingers the delineation between those muscles in a wholly non-clinical fashion. Which meant Thaia’s call to her physical appearance brought forth those non-clinical thoughts within Lexi and honestly Thaia was the most impossible person she’d ever befriended.

And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thaia shook out the shirt and put it on her lap. “I will now be the most boring person ever because otherwise I’ll look absurd trying to put this on by myself.” She looked at Lexi. “Help, please?”

Due to a partially misplaced sense of mercy because putting on a shirt would be hard for anyone when they couldn’t move one arm above their shoulder, Lexi sighed and agreed. “Left arm first. After this, we need to discuss your medical record and what else is in it that I don’t know and likely need to. That goes not only for your spleen, but exactly how many shoulder dislocations you’ve experienced, as well.”

As she helped Thaia get the new shirt on, sliding the affected arm through one sleeve, then her head through the top, and then finally the good arm, Thaia tumbled into silence. By the time Lexi had begun to wordlessly maneuver Thaia’s arm into the sling and gone around to stand at Thaia’s back to attach it, Thaia had withdrawn, ebullience gone.

The sudden onset of distance wasn’t a stranger, not since Armali. When one knew Thaia’s background, it was easy enough to discern why intrusive memories occasionally preyed upon her. In this instance, the proximal cause was obvious—her full medical record and what was in it, whether from the distant past or more recent, during the year between the Nexus’s arrival in Andromeda and the Hyperion’s. 

In the Milky Way, whenever these lost moments happened, Lexi didn’t push Thaia to talk, but she remained present and she did the same here. She wished there was more she could do, but it wasn’t about her. Though, given the more recent emotional trauma Thaia had experienced, the resurgence of the memories wasn’t a surprise, nor was the increase in frequency Thaia had mentioned in one of her messages. Along with that disclosure had been one about Thaia’s prolonged battle with insomnia and nightmares, and the combination of the two was worrisome.

When Lexi finished adjusting the sling to properly secure Thaia’s arm, she brushed a hand over Thaia’s good shoulder, and then gave it a brief, gentle squeeze to let her know she was there. Then Lexi put away the supplies she’d gotten out, conflicted over how and when to bring Thaia out of her introversion. Lexi needed to complete further scans, but she wasn’t going to conduct them without consent. After she stood across from Thaia, she said Thaia’s name a number of times, but she still didn’t respond, too lost.

Inwardly groaning at the option she had left, Lexi resorted to telling a joke she’d heard Peebee tell Ryder the day before. “What’s the most popular skycar for asari?”

Whether it was the inanity of the question or Thaia possessed a sense for detecting horrible jokes, she surfaced. “I don’t know.” Her voice was rough, like when she’d awakened from the long nap she’d taken on Lexi’s shoulder during their return trip from Thessia, but it was good to hear.

“Justi-car.”

The abruptness of Thaia’s laughter, along with the horror in Thaia’s eyes for having laughed at such a terrible joke in the first place, caused Lexi to laugh. Then when it became apparent that Thaia wasn’t going to fall back into rumination right away, Lexi asked, “Where did you go?” An offer to listen, if Thaia wanted to talk.

“Nowhere good.” Thaia released a breath. Inhaled and exhaled again as she looked away, the hand of her good arm gripping the exam table so hard that if she’d added even a wisp of biotics, it would’ve been crushed. She was struggling with something. Probably with the impulse to lie, Lexi realized. Not a malevolent impulse, but a kind one, meant to brush off concern and cover it with humor so others didn’t worry. It was a struggle Lexi was quite familiar with, having seen it in patients who weren’t even Thaia. And such patients often needed to be assured that, like telling her that they had a broken arm, admitting they were experiencing emotional pain would not hurt her.

“I want to ask you something,” Lexi said, Thaia’s predicament resonating strongly with the message about post-traumatic stress that Lexi had posted to the InfoBoard that morning. Then she didn’t say more until Thaia looked at her. “I want to ask because I’m concerned about you. Worried, as your friend.”

Thaia’s eyes lit with recognition. This wasn’t an unfamiliar conversation. “You’re wondering if I know what’s going on with me.”

Lexi sighed. “Which answers the question before I even asked.”

“It’s post-traumatic stress.” Thaia plucked at the sling holding her arm. “As classic a case for a condition as my dislocated shoulder was.”

“But it’s a complex condition that requires proper attention and care. Just as your shoulder took treatment and will need rest and physical therapy to properly heal, mental disorders are no different in requiring treatment, such as medication, therapy, and support.” Lexi wished Thaia would look up from her study of her sling, but Lexi couldn’t force her to, nor would she even if she could. She’d just have to make sure her care showed in her voice. “You’ve had none of that in Heleus.”

“You’re here now.” Thaia finally raised her eyes from fiddling with the sling to look at Lexi. “Not that it’s fair to you.”

“It’s my choice. I can’t not offer help no more than I could stand by and watch you drown.” Lexi knew that were their situations reversed, Thaia would do the same.

Thaia gave her that smile where she looked partway up and the smile only curved halfway.

It devastated Lexi in the same way it had when they’d been standing on the rocky ocean shore on Thessia, reminding her with another rush of warmth to her cheeks of what she’d wanted to do in response. Her breath hitched at the realization that she wanted do the same now, had they the freedom. 

“All right,” said Thaia.

“What about the rest?” Lexi asked as she regained her bearings. As long as Thaia was willing to discuss it, Lexi wanted to be sure each option was covered in case there was one either Thaia had forgotten or wanted to take.

“You know of any mental health professionals on Elaaden or in Kadara Port?”

It was a valid observation, and Lexi had known it before Thaia had spoken it. Yet, Lexi had hoped there would be a solution even so. “What’s most worrisome is your sleep. What little of it there is, from what you’ve told me.”

Thaia shrugged her good shoulder. “I can’t let you not have something to fuss over.”

Despite the gravity of the topic, Lexi smiled. “Thaia.”

“Maybe I went a little overboard with the dislocation.”

Lexi reached over and good-naturedly swatted the side of Thaia’s right shoulder. “Stop evading.”

Thaia smiled again. “There isn’t much I can do about it. Taking medication for sleep in the places I sleep is unadvised.”

As a clinician with a patient, Lexi would have then reviewed healthy sleep habits, such as only going to bed when sleepy, getting out of bed if you hadn’t fallen asleep after twenty minutes, or keeping consistent sleep/wake times. But those were things that Thaia would know, and they were also difficult to practice due to her current living and working arrangements. 

Other options existed—progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation, guided imagery—yet Thaia would be familiar with those, too. Well-practiced biotics meditated often. Very well-practiced biotics, such as Justicars, meditated daily, often for hours. And none of those things would address the root cause of Thaia’s lack of sleep: the nightmares and their effects on her nervous system and brain that disrupted said sleep.

“It wouldn’t be unadvised here,” said Lexi. “Taking a medication that’s an alpha-1 adrenergic receptor antagonist would increase your total sleep time, increase your REM sleep time, and would reduce the frequency of your nightmares. You could take that medication and sleep safely on the Tempest.”

“If I’m on this ship long enough at some point, I’ll consider it.” Thaia’s answer was honest, yet within its mildness was a subtle point—with the situation as it was, Thaia wouldn’t often get the opportunity to take advantage of the Tempest’s safety.

Barriers to treatment stood everywhere, and nothing they had available could break them, not unless either of them found a way past Lexi’s ethical conflict. She sighed. “For now, it leaves everything a stalemate.”

“Unfortunately.”

Unfortunately didn’t seem a hefty enough word to describe it, yet to continue searching for a solution that didn’t exist was a waste of energy. “One thing that can be fixed is finishing up with your shoulder, if you’ll let me. Reducing it was step one. You know as well as I do that even though most of the pain is gone, ligaments still could have been damaged. And I’d like to take a closer look at your wrist and arm. If the force of the impact was enough to dislocate your shoulder, a fracture elsewhere isn’t out of the question.”

Thaia gestured to her left arm. “Go for it.”

“I’ll have to compare the current scans with older scans,” she said, wanting to make it clear that she’d be reading Thaia’s full medical record.

“I figured you’d need to. It’s fine.”

As Lexi read the pertinent information, Thaia began to withdraw again. The more Lexi read in the list of dislocations of Thaia’s left shoulder, the more she understood why. 

At the age of two hundred and one, a fall into a lake from multiple stories above, properly treated. At the age of one hundred and sixty-four, a combat injury on Korlus, properly treated. At the age of twenty-five, a dislocation during a skyball game, properly treated. Another dislocation had occurred when Thaia was twenty, reduced by an adult turian male, and then she’d gone without follow-up care. A week after the untreated dislocation, another was recorded by a Dr. Kartikeya at Armali Medical, with the additional complication of a torn labrum and other injuries. It had been caused by the turian from before.

Thaia hadn’t made it a secret that she’d never liked her stepfather, but her lack of further explanation had led Lexi to believe it had stemmed from a conflict of personality, their relationship marked by tumultuous arguments, mutual dislike, and little else. It hadn’t. It had been far worse and affected her to this day, physically by her left shoulder’s tendency to dislocate easier than was typical. And almost certainly psychologically too, complicating the problems Thaia had endured in the past year.

Lexi didn’t have to fight against her clinical side at all, not when anger at how her friend had been treated as a child displaced what little clinical detachment remained. She could see why Thaia referred to Aulus as she did. That Thaia had escaped permanent nerve damage was more incidental than anything else.

She did her utmost not to show an outward reaction, though she knew some slipped through. Thaia being as withdrawn as she was while Lexi dealt with her own outrage at history while scanning Thaia’s shoulder hopefully meant she wouldn’t notice the depth of Lexi’s reaction.

Once Lexi finished with the scan, she leaned against the table next to where Thaia still sat, and then piled up the pieces of cloth that had once been her shirt and the upper half of her armor’s undersuit. To gain Thaia’s attention, she needed only two repetitions of her name and a careful nudge to her right side.

“And?” Thaia asked.

“You’ve escaped without further injury.” Lexi showed Thaia the scans on her omni’s display. “There are no ligament tears and your arm and wrist show no signs of fracture or sprain. After an an injection to your shoulder to promote internal healing and reduce inflammation, you’ll still need to take it easy with your shoulder for a couple days. Keep it in a sling for the rest of today and most of tomorrow. The day after, you can start range of motion followed by strengthening exercises. Provided you follow the recovery protocol, you should be able to return to full use in three days, maybe four.”

Thaia nodded, only nominally taking in the information. Then she studied Lexi again. “You’re upset.”

Disappointed in herself for not controlling her reaction enough, Lexi turned off her omni. “Not with you.”

“I know.” Thaia gave her a smile of consolation. “You’ve got that ‘pissed off about someone hurting someone I care about’ look on your face rather than the ‘someone I care about got hurt because they were reckless’ look on your face. I am, fortunately and unfortunately, over-familiar with both.”

Unwilling to address the meanings in Thaia’s words, Lexi carefully asked, “He really dislocated your shoulder twice within the span of a week?”

Thaia’s answer began as a recitation of facts, devoid of the emotion that usually carried the stories she told. “First time was his idea of ‘supplemental martial biotic training’ because ‘twenty was too late to be starting.’ So, in his view, I was already behind because turians were well on their way to properly conditioned by fifteen.”

“What gave him the idea that he was even remotely capable of biotically training an asari child?” Lexi said, hearing the edge of outrage in her own voice that she hadn’t heard in Thaia’s. “Or the idea that a twenty-year-old asari child, the developmental equivalent of a turian eight or nine-year-old, was in any way, shape, or form ready for training a turian fifteen-year-old would receive?”

“Arrogance. He was so fucking arrogant.” Tucked within Thaia’s tone of disbelief at Aulus’s egotism was an element of spite. Her loathing for him fully revealed itself when her free hand curled into a fist and pressed hard into the exam bed, every muscle in her arm rigid as she continued to speak. “The first time I can’t even remember how the dislocation happened and I’d thought it was an accident. And I didn’t know enough about dislocations to know that not taking me in to get it reduced by a medical professional was way outside the norm. The second time, though. He said we were going to meet my mother off-planet, Chalkhos or somewhere in the Terminus Systems. She’d already been gone for a couple weeks, so it’d been just me and him at the house, everything tense as fuck.” 

A moment to breathe, and then she went on. “So when told me we were going to travel to meet her, I wasn’t having it. And I let him know by running my mouth before I ran the fuck away from him. Not that I made it very far. He was a military-trained biotic and I was still a kid learning how to do what when. He caught up with me a few blocks near Guildhall Park, grabbed hold of me biotically, and threw me into a wall in an alley.” Thaia lapsed into silence as she stared across medbay.

Lexi watched her for a long moment, studying how the rigidity fell away from Thaia’s body, replaced by the laxity of astonishment, and in her far too expressive eyes, the heat of hatred had been doused by the resurgence of a child’s fear.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Lexi said gently. “Or can’t.”

Thaia shook herself. “The landing rattled me enough where I couldn’t get right back up and keep running. He got me by the arm, I tried to run again, and he yanked backward with biotics as I went forward with biotics. You could hear it pop right back out of the socket and he didn’t let go, just kept yanking it back.”

Lexi’s own fingers holding the scraps of shirt tightened when she visualized a twenty-year-old Thaia, her shoulder dislocated and an adult turian still pulling on it.

Thaia placed one of her hands over Lexi’s, a gentle reminder. “I’m fine now.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that it happened,” Lexi replied, a little too quickly. Because it didn’t. Not in the least. A child.

Thaia’s light chuckle didn’t help Lexi’s frustration. “Honestly, I don’t think my dad was too far off when she said you fuss like a matriarch.”

For that comment, Lexi flung Thaia’s hand back toward her. 

“I was all right in the end,” Thaia said after another moment. “Like it was for us with that stunt with the reflection pool because matriarchs love that park, matriarchs witnessed what happened and intervened. One of them caught me biotically when he finally let go and I went flying, and then a couple more dangled him in the air. I was in my dad’s custody within a few days, had years and fucking years of therapy, and it hadn’t been a problem for the last two centuries and more. Not until recently, anyway.”

“Did you ever find out what happened to cause your mother to change as much as she did?”

“My grandmother had a team of specialists do an autopsy, or whatever it is doctors do when they know what the primary cause of death is but want to find out whatever else was wrong. Took them months to piece it together. It was some weird kind of virus or amoeba or something or other that she picked up from contaminated water during an academic convention on Nevos.” Thaia smiled a bit. “Studying literature turned out to be dangerous, too.”

“Did the same illness affect Aulus?”

“Ha, no. He was just an asshole. But my mother not noticing that he was an asshole was a symptom of her affected judgment.”

The shadows crept up again. Lexi could feel them while merely standing next to her, and she didn’t know if they were more from Thaia’s childhood or more from what had happened on the Nexus. “None of it was your fault.”

Thaia made a noncommittal noise that failed to reassure. Then she fell quiet again, likely ruminating. Lexi didn’t want her to fall back into that pit if she could help it. “How about,” she said as she pushed herself away from the table and headed toward one of the supply cabinets, “you tell me another story about you and Eirian.”

A laugh laced Thaia’s hum as she selected a story. “There was the time I reprogrammed her new teaching assistant VI bot. A bot she’d been trying to get for years.”

Pre-filled syringe and sterile sanitizing gauze in hand, returned to where Thaia sat and set them on the table next to her left side. “I’ll need to unbutton both of the buttons on your collar so I can get to the top of your shoulder without you having to take off your shirt again. But please go on with the story.” 

“I tweaked the bot’s programming so it called her Dr. Nerd instead of Dr. Calfuray.” She paused, and her next words sounded nothing like regret and everything like delight. “Lexi, she was so pissed.”

“I can’t imagine why.” Lexi wiped the antiseptic over the injection site.

“Pissed enough that she tried to hit me with a singularity the moment she saw me. Naturally, I bolted.”

“This was on Illium?” She tested the muscle over Thaia’s shoulder to make sure it was relaxed enough to get the needle into the proper position for the injection.

Thaia didn’t flinch when the needle went in. “Not Illium. So Eirian’s chasing me around the apartment, using her biotics to try to maim me, and I’m dodging most of it. Meanwhile, Dad’s sitting at the dining table, going over colonial outpost integration plans with Matriarch Ishara, Matriarch Nuara, and Director Addison. Addison’s staring at us while questioning Dad along with Matriarchs Ishara and Nuara. She’s telling them, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? Do something before they kill each other,’ but they aren’t moving. Then Addison asks, ‘You aren’t worried that they’ll go too far and accidentally really hurt each other?’”

After placing a dab of medigel over the injection site, Lexi re-buttoned Thaia’s shirt. “Did any of them say anything?”

“Dad says, ‘I want to see how this plays out.’ Addison scolds her. Then Dad says, ‘What? There’s a reason why I had four of them and not one.’ Addison was so shocked she was speechless. Meanwhile, the other two matriarchs were laughing their asses off.” When Lexi laughed, Thaia smiled before she said, “Times like that are good to remember.”

Enlivened at seeing Thaia in good spirits, even if only for a while, Lexi fleetingly placed her hand alongside Thaia’s cheek. “I’m glad I could help.”

Thaia’s smile brightened. “Me, too.”

“So,” Lexi said as she stepped away and disposed of the syringe, “when did that incident take place?”

“Four months before we left the Milky Way.”

It was all Lexi could do not to roll her eyes. Then she remembered that one of the four daughters Sula had referred to was gone, and Lexi no longer felt the compulsion. 

The somber mood brought about another memory, this one needing to be addressed because it could be helped. While she could not and would not be Thaia’s regular medical care provider, it was now apparent she would be providing emergency care more often than either of them would like, which meant she would have to familiarize herself with Thaia’s entire medical record. “And now we need to have a serious chat about you not telling me that you now lack a spleen. Were you ever going to mention it?”

“The doctor who removed it said afterward that I’d be fine without it, so it didn’t seem important,” said Thaia.

“It is important. Your immune system is no longer as robust as the average asari’s because it’s missing a component. You should be getting an immune booster before going into unknown environments, such as every single planet, planetoid, asteroid, space station, mining station, and ship in this cluster.”

Thaia made a face.

Just for that, Lexi decided she would give Thaia plenty of academic journal articles regarding the importance of a spleen and its function—particularly for asari—to read while she rested her shoulder. She was even certain she could find several with interesting and detailed diagrams. “Have you had any illnesses since arriving in Andromeda?”

“A few, but it’s a new galaxy so I assumed it was normal. They always passed in a day or two.”

“Then you’ve been fortunate in that one aspect, everything else that’s happened here aside.” Worry brought Lexi to a pause, recollecting Thaia saying about the atrophic scar on her jaw resulting from a lack of medical providers outside the Nexus. Then Lexi assuaged her fear with logic. Abdominal trauma to that degree wouldn’t have been survivable without the care of a trauma surgeon, meaning Thaia’s internal damage would have been repaired competently and correctly and there was nothing to worry about. “How did it happen?”

“The Scourge tried to kill me. Well, first it warped the metal in the Nexus’s hull by changing the—” Thaia stopped. “I’m guessing you don’t need the technical details about the properties of the metal in the hull and how they changed. In short, the Scourge fucked with the Nexus’s hull. A metal beam exploded outward into the corridor I was in with some other engineers. Everyone else was all right, but I got a spike in my back and out my front and, according to the surgeon, it pulverized my spleen on its way through. She apologized for the scar, which I thought was ridiculous because it’s an awesome scar.”

“Of course you’d think that.”

“It is! Did you not get a good look before?” Thaia lifted her shirt just high enough to expose the scar. “See?”

Lexi did not look. “No, I’m not falling for that again.”

“Damn.” Thaia dropped the hem of her shirt and laughed. “I ran around the Nexus showing anyone who’d look. Everyone was impressed by it, even the krogan. Safira was the only exception. She said she didn’t like it because things were different.” Her high spirits visibly plummeted with the last word, pulling Thaia down with them as she turned somber. “She was right. It was.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Thaia’s fingers tightened on the edge of the bed, an anchor to the present. “Yes,” she said in a small voice, but made no further comment.

“Can you?” Lexi asked carefully, much as she had before.

“No. Not…” Thaia looked at the display, at the past. “No.”

Lexi took Thaia’s hand in her own, a comforting strength Thaia wouldn’t have known alone. “Whether you can or you can’t,” she said gently, “I’ll be here if you need me.”

Without looking, Thaia flipped her hand over and interlaced her fingers with Lexi’s. When Thaia spoke, her voice was little more than a whisper, yet somehow it wasn’t as small as before. “I know.”

Chapter Text

The Tempest, 2819.

Lexi had given her homework

Biology homework. And glad as Thaia was that she didn’t have to miss Lexi anymore, she was having a hard time not taking it personally because it hadn’t been her fault she didn’t know the full extent of the side effects from not having a spleen. The surgeon hadn’t told her about the repercussions of not having a fucking spleen other than, in her case, it was better it was gone otherwise it would have killed her. Still, Thaia thought it was bullshit and she’d told Lexi as much. Lexi had told her tough shit and no one would believe Thaia if she told them what Lexi had said because no one else got to experience that whole ‘I grew up on Omega’ side of Lexi. 

Not that Thaia minded that side. If anything, she liked that side probably a lot more than she should. Lexi’s voice only rarely took on that certain edge, but when it did, damn. It did things along Thaia’s spine that it probably shouldn’t. And the more she thought about it, the worse it got. So she should stop thinking about it.

Unlike the Omega side of Lexi, Thaia absolutely did mind the biology homework. And it wasn’t like Lexi had just given her an article or two. No, Lexi didn’t do anything by halves, so Thaia had twenty-plus articles to read by the end of the day. And then Lexi was going to quiz her on the subject because apparently Thaia needed to get it through her thick skull that not boosting her immune system was dangerous. The word stupid might also have been used in conjunction with dangerous after Thaia had protested the homework.

Thaia hadn’t protested again after that because she knew how much sharper Lexi’s words could get. And voice. Which she absolutely was not thinking about. Or wondering if her lack of half-measures translated into other areas.

It wasn’t until Thaia had spent over thirty minutes reading while slouched on one of the couches in the meeting room that she came across information she would’ve preferred to know sooner. A lot sooner. As in she might have to contact the surgeon who’d removed her spleen—and therefore saved her life but still—because asari spleens played a huge part in why they could hold their breath and free dive to the depths they could. So when an asari lost her spleen it meant she could no longer do those things. Thaia had lost her spleen and she could no longer do those things and someone should’ve fucking said something sooner.

If Aulus had still been alive, he might’ve been able to dive deeper in the ocean than Thaia and that was just wrong. So wrong that it was offensive.

“You have to be fucking kidding me,” Thaia said out loud, not caring if anyone else could hear, which they probably could because sound traveled really well on the Tempest. And since Kallo Jath had been one of the designers, and since Kallo Jath gossiped more than twenty commandos combined, Thaia would bet her life savings that Kallo had designed the ship that way on purpose. Maybe Lexi would hear and have mercy—

No, she’d used the word stupid. There was no mercy to be had there, not on this subject.

“What are you reading?” Ryder asked as she walked up the ramp from the research area.

Thaia held up the datapad containing the offensive information. “It’s homework.”

“Homework?” Ryder’s brows drew together in confusion as she leaned against the railing next to the ramp.

Thaia was pretty sure Ryder was a little bit intimidated by her, which was fair because she’d scared the ever-loving shit out of Ryder the very first time they’d met. But Thaia honestly liked Ryder—she was young and earnest, curious and clever, and had been through some shit and was still standing. She’d lost her father and her brother was in a coma and Thaia could empathize with those kinds of losses. Mostly, Ryder reminded Thaia of apprentices who wanted to learn everything and anything they could. “From Lexi. I have to read about spleens and their functions because missing one is apparently a big deal.”

“It isn’t for krogan,” Drack said from the research table below, where he and Suvi stood. Thaia also thought she’d heard Lexi exit the medbay, but hadn’t heard her climbing the ladder to join everyone else. Maybe she’d gone to the bridge.

“That’s because you have two or three of them and that’s cheating,” Thaia told Drack.

“The reading sounds interesting,” said Ryder.

Definitely reminded Thaia of the best kind of apprentice and she deployed her best smile. “Want do do my homework for me?”

“No, Ryder will not do your homework for you,” Lexi said.

Thaia peeked over the top of the couch and saw Lexi standing right next to Drack. Well, if she wasn’t going to get out of reading about biology because she hadn’t double-checked Lexi’s location before she tried to get Ryder to do it, she could exact some revenge. Thaia looked at Ryder again. “Do you like fiction?”

“Reading anything, really,” said Ryder. “Why?”

“Don’t you dare,” said Lexi.

“What?” asked Thaia. “I was only going to tell her to ask you to borrow—”

“Don’t even think about finishing that sentence.”

Thaia was going to fucking finish the sentence because she couldn’t not finish the fucking sentence after that. “—one of—”

“Althaia Kallistrate, you complete that sentence at your own peril.”

Not once in Thaia’s life had she liked someone saying her full name as Lexi had just done. It nearly robbed her of speech and that was probably Lexi’s plan. However it was plan-fucking-foiled because Thaia was going to finish that fucking sentence. “—your tawdry romance novels.”

There was no possible way Lexi wasn’t pissed because her answer was delivered in the most uptight voice Thaia had ever heard from her. “They are most certainly not ‘tawdry romance novels.’ They’re a series of historical novels that take place during the Thessian Formation Age.”

“That sounds intriguing,” said Suvi. “I’d love to borrow one.”

“So would I,” Cora said from the bio lab.

“I would be happy to share them with those who would appreciate them,” said Lexi, sounding all nice and friendly when speaking to everyone else. “I’ll go fetch them.” Then there was a pause and Thaia didn’t look over the top of the couch because she could already feel Lexi’s glare and that glare reflected in the shift in Lexi’s tone from nice right back to crisp. “Thaia, I’m going to send you more material regarding asari spleens. The new articles will include photographs and holos.”

“Fuck.”

“I thought you’d appreciate the new media,” said Lexi, crisp replaced with pleasant, but not the kind good for Thaia’s well being. Then there were footsteps heading away, feet going down a ladder, followed by a door opening and closing.

Thaia slowly looked over at Ryder. “Is she gone?” she asked in a whisper.

“Yes,” said Ryder, “but why are we whispering?”

“Just in case. I mean, you heard her,” Thaia said at a regular volume. “There’s no way I was risking eye contact. Probably would’ve burned mine right out of their sockets.”

“You’d only have yourself to blame,” said Suvi. “You could always not antagonize her. Instead, you antagonize her at every possible opportunity.”

“Not every opportunity,” said Thaia.

“Like a kid with a crush?” asked Ryder.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Thaia. “Has to be a human thing.”

“That phenomenon does not happen among angara,” said the deep voice of an angaran male from somewhere below. “We do not shy away from speaking of our true emotions.”

“Oh!” Ryder bounced on her feet. “Thaia, I forgot to introduce you to Jaal.”

“The name sounds familiar,” Thaia said as she looked over the back of the couch and down into the research room.

“And I have heard about the few allowed—what is the term?—ice runners on Voeld,” said the angaran male.

Ryder swept her arm toward Thaia. “Jaal, Thaia Kallistrate. She’s one of the engineers who helped design the Initiative’s arks. She’s also an asari commando.”

“In Andromeda, it’s mostly commando,” Thaia said as she nodded at Jaal.

Then Ryder swept her arm in the other direction. “Thaia, Jaal Ama Darav. He’s our liaison to the angara and an observer for the Resistance. He’s also a damn good sniper.”

Jaal nodded at Thaia. “Working together will be… interesting.”

“I agree,” said Thaia.

Needing a break from biology, Thaia stood and walked down the ramp, her datapad in her free hand. Fucking sling and having the wrong reaction at the spectacularly wrong time and dislocating her shoulder for the first time in a century. It hurt and it sucked to be stuck in a sling and then having to do the recovery shit, but the worst part was that she’d have a couple nights of those old nightmares again. She was in Andromeda, though. Things were different. Maybe the old nightmares would be better than the new ones.

What would’ve been best was not remembering overall, but she didn’t get much choice when she slept and she wasn’t looking forward to sleeping in a bunk in crew quarters surrounded by people who wouldn’t understand if a memory woke her up.

Better to find something to do. She went to grab the railing with her left hand and the sling reminded her that she couldn’t. It also reminded her that treating her shoulder had required cutting apart the last serviceable undersuit she had for her armor. That needed to be rectified as soon as fucking possible. She couldn’t go anywhere without combat armor. Not in Andromeda, which meant being stuck on the Tempest for a few days was good in more than just being closer to Lexi for a while. But getting commando-grade armor was difficult in Andromeda and unless she wanted to outstay her welcome, she needed to get on it.

Thaia politely greeted Jaal as she passed through the research room and then headed aft to speak with Vetra.

Quiet pervaded the empty cargo bay, a ship’s quiet marked by low sound of the engine and the occasional shuffling footsteps of an engineer. Gil, in this case, who deserved the Tempest assignment, his instincts for engineering phenomenal. Thaia grudgingly used the lift to reach the deck below, where the door to the armory and cargo room that Vetra had claimed for her living space was open. 

Thaia made her footsteps audible.

“I thought you’d be down here at some point,” Vetra said when she looked up from the terminal on her workbench. “How’s the shoulder?”

“Back where it belongs.”

“Looked painful. You have to be glad that Lexi was the one who fixed it and not Drack.”

“I am.”

“For more than one reason.” Friend or not, Vetra didn’t have to look that amused.

Thaia glared—uselessly, because no matter what her mood was, Vetra was immune to her glares because Vetra was an older sister and it didn’t matter that she wasn’t Thaia’s older sister because ‘older sister’ was the key part—and then held up the datapad. “Maybe not. She gave me homework.”

“Yeah, we all know.” Vetra motioned for Thaia to come inside and take a seat on the low stool. “Lexi sent a message out to everyone a few minutes ago telling us not to do your homework for you. I think she knows you too well.”

“That and I almost had Ryder convinced before she intervened.” Thaia looked around the room, impressed at what Vetra had managed to pack into it weapon, armor, and cargo-wise. Her own pack was there too, leaning against an open cargo container. “One, thanks for getting my pack. Two, does Lexi know you have an entire crate of Blast-O’s?”

Vetra closed the door. “No. And we’re going to keep it that way for as long as we can.” She activated her omni. “I take it you’re here because you need more of those undersuits?”

“Considering I don’t have any, yes please. I’ll be pretty screwed otherwise. And once my shoulder is better, I really need to do the ice run Drack and I were supposed to do last week. Also, fuck. I need a copilot. Or a pilot because if someone else does the flying, I can survey more of the Scourge.” Thaia brightened. While she wasn’t looking forward to doing jobs without Drack having her back, having someone else do the piloting for once would let her do the science stuff she rarely got to chance to do. 

“I think I can help you out with both. Might take a few days, though. I’ve already started asking around for the armor component and have had some replies, which is a good indication that there’s something floating around we can nab. Then Kesh told me the other day that with Prodromos—that’s the outpost on Eos—established, Addison’s been requesting more pilots awakened from cryo. I bet I can find one who can be contracted for the occasional ice run. Be good practice for new pilots, anyway.”

“Maybe someone can mention it to Addison as an official thing? Have the new pilots do a few runs to familiarize themselves with flying through the Scourge.”

Vetra nodded. “I think I know a Pathfinder who’d be happy to help with that, but you might want to wait until tomorrow. Give her a little more time to get used to you.”

“She’s still afraid of me?”

“A little. I thought she’d stop being intimidated by you once she saw how you are around Lexi, but not entirely.”

Thaia hadn’t blushed once while on the Tempest. Maybe Lexi had roasted her earlier, but Lexi did that to everyone after they earned it. Thaia just earned it more than most by inviting it. “I’ve been fine.”

“Sure you have. You’re in good company, though. Gil told me he’d overheard Ryder hit on Lexi and, according to him, she ‘crashed and burned.’” Vetra’s tone turned speculative as her mandibles flared in what was most definitely amusement. “I wonder why.”

“Lexi doesn’t date patients, that’s why. It isn’t whatever reason you’re insinuating.” Thaia got to her feet, stuffed her datapad in an outside pocket of her pack, and then began dragging the pack out by the handle. Then she used her biotics to carry her fucking pack. Fuck dragging it everywhere because she couldn’t carry it over her shoulder.

“So,” Vetra said as she followed Thaia, “what you’re saying is she’d date you if you weren’t her patient and that’s why you aren’t staying on as crew?”

“No,” Thaia said with some bite to get Vetra to let go of her current line of inquiry. Not that she had any real hope that Vetra would.

Really, she shouldn’t have hoped at all because Vetra didn’t even pause. “No, she won’t date you? No, that isn’t why you aren’t joining the crew?”

Thaia tried flat and disinterested instead. “No.”

Vetra wasn’t fooled and her voice remained light and teasing. “No, we should expect to see the ‘dates that aren’t dates but are’ phenomenon continue in Andromeda?”

“There aren’t really any places to go on dates in Andromeda.” And she didn’t need to think about it, anyway. Not even theoretically even though her mind jumped right to it and the fact that she’d have to get creative.

“That wasn’t a no.”

Thaia couldn’t decide if the shit Vetra gave her and reminded her so much of her sisters was a good thing or a bad thing, but it was definitely a frustrating thing. “It wasn’t a fucking yes, either.”

Vetra took three whole steps before she continued on the topic Thaia wanted to avoid. “Also, since some of the crew decided to sleep in cargo areas, our free bunks are permanently open. Thought you should know, in case you change your mind.”

That was it. “Goddess! How does Sid put up with you?”

Vetra laughed as she led Thaia out of the cargo bay. “Come on, I’ll show you which bunks are free.”

***

In the ship’s morning, Thaia discovered that some idiot had halfway field-stripped their rifle and then left the fucking thing out on the galley’s sorry excuse for a table. She wanted water and food and her blood sugar had reached the ‘don’t fucking talk to me,’ stage and managing breakfast with only one available hand was irritating, but it wasn’t like she could responsibly leave an unsecured weapon on the breakfast table.

While Thaia was a strong proponent of silence in the morning, she could make exceptions and this was one such occasion. So, summoning her powers as the youngest of four, she shouted: “Whose fucking weapon is this?”

The volume of the shout hurt her own hearing but she refused to feel guilty because weapon safety was a thing.

Over the comm, Kallo was the first to answer. “Are you talking about the one in the galley?”

“You say that like there are other unsecured weapons laying about the ship,” said Thaia.

“I haven’t seen any as of late, but it wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Of course it wouldn’t,” Thaia muttered, rolling her eyes. But that meant she could narrow it down some.

Drack didn’t leave weapons out and especially not in pieces because you didn’t live to fourteen hundred by doing dumb shit like that. Cora wouldn’t because Cora was probably the most responsible of any of them outside Lexi. If Vetra was going to work on a weapon she wouldn’t leave the armory because that would be dumb and Vetra was anything but dumb. Peebee wouldn’t because all her tech shit was in the escape pod. She didn’t know Jaal enough to say, but he had a tech lab to work in and didn’t use an Initiative-issue weapon anyway. It also wouldn’t be any of the non-combatant crew, which left Ryder and Liam.

She hoped it wasn’t Ryder because she and Vetra had both agreed that Ryder needed to not be intimidated by her. And, well, getting shouty at Ryder about the weapon went in the opposite direction of that goal.

Liam ran into the galley. “There it is!”

“I see it unsecured again while I’m on the ship, I’m sending it out the airlock,” Thaia said to him in the same grave tone she’d used with apprentices who also hadn’t given enough attention to safety. “And maybe you with it. That shit’s dangerous and there’s no way you don’t know it.”

“It isn’t loaded,” said Liam as he swiftly put the weapon back together.

She glared at him.

“All right, I won’t do it again.” To his credit, he sounded mostly chastened and only a little resentful.

“No, you won’t,” Cora said as she walked in. “When did you do this, anyway? That rifle wasn’t there last night.”

“Woke up early and decided to tweak it a little. Then I got hungry and went to see Vetra because she has—”

Cora practically launched herself across the table to cover his mouth with her hand. “Vetra has the better tasting rations.” It wasn’t even a lie because Vetra did have a supply of the preferable ration packs. “Now go secure your weapon.”

Liam secured said weapon and returned to the galley in record time. “There.”

Thaia hadn’t even opened the refrigerator yet.

“Was all that yelling necessary?” Drack asked as he wedged himself into the galley, Peebee right behind him.

“Yes,” said Thaia.

Thaia, not claustrophobic but getting annoyed at the delay in eating, opened the refrigerator and hit Peebee with the door. Peebee’s complaint was only a token one and she was like a relative at this point anyway, so Thaia didn’t care. 

However, Ryder coming in made it impossible for Thaia to reach the cabinets without resorting to biotics. Which was something she considered. And then considered it some more because she was hungry as fuck. She hadn’t eaten enough yesterday to fully compensate for all the biotics she’d expended on Aroane and his hapless mercenaries. They hadn’t been much a challenge, but there’d been a lot of them.

“I’m game if you are,” said Cora, following her gaze.

Thaia liked the way Cora thought. Cora had absorbed a lot while she’d served with Nisira’s squad, often defaulting to more asari ways of thinking, such as using biotics for any and all situations they could. Situations such as this one, where between her and Cora they’d have enough combined biotic power to lift everyone up and hold them in a stasis so they could go about getting their breakfasts without hassle. Thaia had learned that technique from her dad, who’d used it on all four of her daughters on more than one occasion.

Sula had never been a morning person.

“Thaia,” said Ryder, “want to help us out on Havarl?”

“No, I want to eat breakfast.” It’d resembled a growl but she didn’t have a lot of patience left, not according to her blood sugar.

Ryder’s hand shot into the air, and in her hand was a ration pack that was among the highest in demand because it was the only one that tasted like real food and not vaguely salty paper with a dash of regret. “How about I explain why you should come while you eat this?”

“Oh man,” Liam said. “I’ve been looking for that kind for a week.”

“Yeah? Well I’ve been looking for that kind for months,” said Peebee. “I call dibs.”

“You can’t call dibs,” said Thaia. “Ryder said she’s giving it to me.”

They silently glared at each other while Ryder watched in confusion.  

Then they readied themselves as they continued glaring, legs setting for lunges, eyes flicking back and forth between each other and the ration pack.

“If one of you doesn’t grab it, I’ll shoot it and then no one gets it,” said Drack.

All three of them made their moves for the pack.

Liam lunged. Peebee ducked under Drack’s arm and leapt up.

There was no fucking way Thaia was going to let either of them have it. She tucked her left arm in close, put her right hand on Drack’s shoulder and propelled herself forward. Ryder took a step backward as she tried to keep the ration pack from Liam’s grasp and Peebee’s greedy fingers. Then momentum took hold, Ryder falling backward as Liam, Peebee, and Thaia converged.

While Thaia’s biotics adjusted their masses in time to prevent anyone from hurting anyone else when they landed, they still ended up in a heap and Thaia bumped her shoulder a tiny bit in the process of landing and it only hurt a tiny bit when she did. The ration pack sailed out of Ryder’s hand, hit the wall on the other side of the corridor, and then slid down to the deck.

At Lexi’s feet.

Fuck.

“All I did was hold up the pack,” said Ryder.

Drack’s laugh rolled in from the galley.

No one got up.

Lexi glared. 

Well, Thaia was pretty sure Lexi glared because she could feel the glare boring into the back of her crest, but Thaia wasn’t going to turn around to confirm it. Still where she’d landed, on her stomach and sideways over Ryder, Thaia carefully turned her head so her cheek rested on the deck when she looked at Ryder. “I think we’re all in trouble,” she stage whispered.

“Probably,” Ryder whispered back at the same volume. “So how about Havarl?”

“Why do you want me to go to Havarl?”

“Because you can blow things up with biotics and so can Cora and Peebee and if you’re all there you blow up a lot of things with biotics.”

“It’s like watching fireworks,” whispered Liam.

They were all in on it, their conspiracy, because it wasn’t like Lexi totally couldn’t hear them. But Thaia was fine to continue the charade because it delayed being scolded. Not that they didn’t deserve it, because they did.

“So that’s why you want me to go to Havarl. But why do I want to go to Havarl?” asked Thaia.

“You like spaceships, right?” said Ryder. “Avela Kjar, the museum curator on Aya, says there’s an ancient angaran ship crash site in some place called the Chasm of the Builders on Havarl. She synced the area of its probable location to my omni and asked if we could recover it. She said something about it being pre-Scourge.”

“Ancient angaran ship? Pre-Scourge?” Thaia jumped up, biotics knocking both Peebee and Liam off her as she did. “When are we going? And why the fuck didn’t you start with that?”

“I told her to,” said Lexi, “but she didn’t believe me when I said you’d agree immediately. She thought food would work better.”

Thaia still didn’t look over. “Decent instincts,” she said to Ryder. “Food’s a close second. I do want one other thing, though.”

After Peebee helped her up, Ryder looked at Thaia, then behind her at Lexi, and then Thaia again. “I don’t think I can get you out of trouble because I don’t think I can get any of us out of trouble, so please don’t ask for that.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do the impossible. All four of us are fucked but not in a good way. I just want a meeting with Tann.”

“Why?”

“You can discuss it after I’ve taken a look at Thaia’s shoulder,” said Lexi as Thaia slowly turned to face her. “No matter how long it takes us to get to Havarl, you’ve got three days for negotiations regarding your aid because you aren’t stepping foot on that planet until your shoulder is fully healed.” She placed the ration pack in Thaia’s free hand. “You can eat while I scan.”

As it turned out, because Thaia didn’t care one way or another if she had an audience this time around, everyone either accompanied her into medbay or stood outside in the corridor to continue their conversation. While Lexi frowned at the number of people gathered in the medbay, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as the galley and everyone seemed determined to talk. 

Ryder leaned against the wall across from Thaia, closest to Lexi’s desk. “So why do you want a meeting with Director Tann?”

In between admonitions from Lexi to hold her shoulder still and eating the rations before Liam could steal them, Thaia explained. “I need to talk to him and I need you there when I do.”

“You say that like you mean kill instead of talk.”

Thaia gave Ryder a flat look. “One, why would I want a witness? Two, he’s a salarian creeping up on forty. If I wanted him dead, I’d just wait.” Then she realized what she’d said. “I think that’s the most stereotypically asari thing I’ve ever said. I’d be horrified if I didn’t hate him.”

“So you’re not going to kill him?” Liam asked from somewhere behind her.

“No, I’m just going to yell at him to let my dad out of cryo. With a Pathfinder there, maybe it’ll work.”

“So you want a jump in the line for a relative?” asked Ryder.

Fucking honestly. “No, my father was supposed to be awakened from cryo shortly after we got here. Tann refused. And he still refuses because he’s a cloaca.”

Ryder got that confused look on her face again, which she seemed to use often where Thaia was concerned. “But shouldn’t you get along with him? He’s an accountant.”

“What?”

“Accountant? Numbers? Suvi said you like math a lot.”

“Ryder, the only math I’ve ever hated was accounting.”

“Doomed from the start then?” said Peebee. Sounded like she was near wherever Liam was.

Thaia started to shrug, but Lexi’s hand on her shoulder stopped her from making that mistake. “He thinks my father is a threat,” Thaia said instead.

Ryder’s confused look didn’t abate. Deepened, really. “Why is Director Tann threatened this much by a krogan?”

“What?” Thaia began to think she might have the same constantly baffled expression on her own face when she talked to Ryder.

“I just don’t understand why he won’t let your dad out of cryo and then send her to Elaaden with the other krogan,” said Ryder.

Thaia stared at her.

“What?” asked Ryder.

‘What’ was becoming the new ‘fuck.’ “You think my dad’s krogan?” Then Thaia glanced around at everyone in the room. “Have you all been thinking my dad’s krogan?”

“Drack keeps talking about your krogan heritage,” Ryder said with an excessive amount of caution, “you lived with the krogan on Elaaden, you left with the krogan when they left the Nexus, and I’m pretty sure you’re too old for your dad to still be alive if she were any other species, so it all kind of lined up.”

Drack started laughing his ass off.

“Ryder,” Thaia said slowly, “Tann doesn’t want to wake up my dad because she’s an asari matriarch.”

Ryder straightened so quickly that one of her flailing arms knocked a cup and a datapad off Lexi’s desk. “Sorry!”

Lexi sighed. “At least it was empty.”

“I was sure she was krogan,” said Peebee.

“So are you actually related to Drack?” asked Liam.

“Close enough,” said Drack.

Ryder returned the cup and datapad to Lexi’s desk. “If your dad isn’t a physically terrifying krogan, why is Tann threatened by her?”

“Every single matriarch who’d been aboard the Nexus was killed when we hit the Scourge. The only survivor was my dad and that’s because she wasn’t awake yet. Now Tann won’t wake her up because she’d be an immediate threat to his authority merely by being awake.”

“How?”

“Due to asari biology and socialization.” Lexi deactivated her omni before she fully addressed Ryder. “Asari instinctively look toward matriarchs for guidance. Right now in Andromeda, there isn’t a single awake matriarch. There’s a vacuum. You wake one up and suddenly an overwhelming majority of asari in Andromeda will look to her as a leader. 

“Most would welcome it, either by virtue of the security of having a matriarch to follow, or finally having a matriarch against whom to rebel. Whether we like to admit it or not, for asari it’s unsettling without a single matriarch present. It’s like having a ship with an empty helm in the middle of a storm. Currently, Andromeda is the storm and the person who has the best chance of guiding us out of it is still in cryo.”

“Don’t get us wrong,” said Peebee, “a quarter of us would tell her to piss off afterward and I’m one of them. But it has been strange not having one around here.”

Ryder’s brow furrowed in thought as she returned to leaning against the wall. “Which would mean the previously individualistic yet bewilderingly communal asari population would be united.”

Thaia went to shrug and Lexi’s hand stopped her again. Lexi wasn’t fazed by Thaia’s scowl, so Thaia gave up and said to Ryder, “More or less.”

“Mostly,” said Peebee, “we’d rather a matriarch than Tann.”

“I think most people would at this point,” said Liam.

Ryder straightened, did not knock anything to the floor, and seemed proud about it when she noticed. “Then we’ll have a chat with Director Tann next time we’re on the Nexus for longer than a few hours. But we have to go to Havarl first.” She looked at Lexi. “How’s her shoulder?”

“Assuming her cooperation and adherence to the physical therapy guidelines, it should be back to full health in a little over two days. If she has, then she’ll be able to accompany you to Havarl without any restrictions. Which means,” Lexi said as she crossed her arms and looked pointedly at Thaia, “no more of that foolishness I witnessed in the corridor earlier.”

It wasn’t Thaia’s fault Liam had been irresponsible and she wasn’t going to take the blame for it when she’d been calling his ass out. “Liam was the one—”

“I’m aware.” Lexi glare settled on Liam. “If you ever again think to yourself that you’ll leave a weapon unattended, remember this—simple fractures are easier to mend than gunshot wounds and I can break bones just as well as I can mend them.”

Fuck. That harder, darker, just short of dangerous tone paired with that sentence and Thaia was amused and aroused and she couldn’t fucking look at Lexi because if she did she’d blush and then the Tempest’s crew would catch on more than they already had. 

Thaia jumped off the exam table. “If I’m going to Havarl then I need to go talk to Vetra about my armor situation because Lexi cut me out of mine and my undershirt.” Well, that was the wrong fucking thing to say and she couldn’t take it back. Escape was her only option.

“Did she now?” asked Liam. “Cut or tore?”

“That isn’t what I meant!” Thaia said over her shoulder as she walked out the door, climbed the ladder in one biotic leap, and then ran to the cargo bay before the fucking blush could finish reaching her cheeks because now her imagination was all about meaning exactly that and her imagination was going to kill her.

***

Thirty minutes before touchdown and deployment to Havarl, the groundside squad gathered in the cargo bay to go over any final plans and to check everyone’s gear and supplies. From where she sat on the roof of the Nomad, Thaia reminded everyone going on the mission—Ryder, Cora, Vetra, Peebee, and Jaal—to eat what they could before they couldn’t. Then she realized that there were only four biotics going, that she’d already eaten after raiding the galley with Peebee, that Ryder was demolishing a ration pack while she rummaged through a cargo container in the corner outside Liam’s storage room, and that Cora stood in front of a weapons bench examining her pistol.

“Cora, that means you,” said Thaia.

She didn’t look up. “I don’t understand how anyone can eat before a mission. I’m never hungry before one.”

“Then I’d better see your pockets or whatever pack you’re carrying filled with energy gel and bars,” said Thaia. “I’m not sharing mine.”

Cora shook a small, detachable armor stow pack in Thaia’s direction. “Right here.” Then she looked around the room. “Gear check.”

There were some grumbles, but everyone did, Thaia included. After she checked that her own supply pack, medkit, weapons, and ammo were in order, Thaia activated her omni and called up the data about the crash site and its surrounding area that Ryder had sent her a couple days ago.

A few minutes later, Cora said, “Thaia.”

It was Thaia’s turn to not look up from her task. “What?”

“Your armor good?”

“Yeah. Excellent fit. Vetra’s really good at the supply officer thing. She should get a raise.”

“I wouldn’t complain,” Vetra said from the armory.

“Thaia,” said Cora.

Goddess, Cora was acting like an XO. Though, to be fair, she was technically Ryder’s XO, so she was doing her job. Thaia still didn’t look up. “What?”

“Did you get your shots?”

“Yes, Mother.”

Gil’s laugh echoed from the engine room.

“Wait,” said Ryder, “should I have gotten shots?”

“Not unless you’ve misplaced your spleen recently,” said Thaia.

“You’re fine, Ryder,” Lexi said from the doorway between the cargo bay and the corridor. 

“Thaia, since you don’t have an Acolyte, are you carrying enough disruptor ammo?” asked Cora.

“Yes, Mother.” It would’ve been galling if Thaia hadn’t known that Cora was just incredibly conscientious.

“Did you bring a vomit bag?” asked Ryder. “We don’t want you to have to run behind a tree and throw up if someone squishes a shemrys near you, like that time Drack did.”

“One, I didn’t throw up. Two, no. Three, fuck you.” The past three days on the Tempest had gone a long way toward Ryder mostly no longer being intimidated by Thaia. Granted, it was hard to be completely intimidated by someone after you discovered they were also a model ship collecting nerd, especially after they excitedly promised to show you the mass relay model they had the next time they visited the Nexus.

Vetra tossed a small package through her door to Thaia, who caught it as Vetra explained what the fuck it was. “Got a nice supply of vomit bags while I was on the Nexus. Should fit in your medkit. Or, if you need it faster, an outside pocket.”

Thaia turned the slim package over in her hands to verify that it was what they said. It was. “Really?” 

“We’re just looking out for you,” said Lexi. 

A glare Thaia shot over her shoulder at Lexi did absolutely fuck all. In fact, Lexi looked so smug about it that Thaia knew the idea had originated with her, and then Ryder and Vetra had been recruited to obtain them.

“Now that we know Thaia’s outfitted properly, everyone check their gear,” said Cora.

“We just did,” said Ryder. “You saw us. You were here. And we’ve been in this same room and standing almost in the same places the whole time.”

Cora met Ryder’s protest with steadfastness. “Any maiden who would be a matriarch checks her gear.”

Thaia rolled her eyes.

It wasn’t that Cora was wrong. She wasn’t. She was very much right, but she really could do with the less quoting of aphorisms. And now that Thaia was thinking about it, everything Cora quoted that wasn’t common to all commandos in every militia came from just one school of thought: Sarissa Theris’s. Yet, like there were many militias, there were many schools of thought. Theris’s stuff was good, but hers wasn’t the only philosophical discipline. However, Cora seemed like a good commando, human or not, and a good XO, so Thaia did not comment nor did she throw books of other commando disciplines at Cora. 

Also, they were going out to find an ancient ship that would have star charts of the Heleus Cluster from before the Scourge. Between a ship that fucking old and charts that could aid them in determining what the fuck was going on with the Scourge, Thaia wasn’t going to let a few aphorisms ruin her mood. Not yet.

“Landing in five,” said Kallo.

True to his word, Kallo had the Tempest down in five minutes, and then in another five, Ryder, Cora, Vetra, Peebee, Jaal, and Thaia trotted down the loading ramp and into the jungle of Havarl.

The humidity embraced them and then hung on like an over-enthusiastic great-aunt who hadn’t seen them for decades and then wondered why she hadn’t seen them for decades. Thaia liked hugging and even she thought Great Aunt Tiryns always hung on for an excessive amount of time. There had been more than one incident when Eirian had literally run away from those hugs. Thaia had cheered her on and her dad had told them both to stop being shits and suck it up because Great Aunt Tiryns didn’t have more than a few years left to live.

Sula had been wrong because Great Aunt Tiryns had lived for another four decadesbecause she’d been determined to beat her older sister at who lived longer because Thaia’s family had a little problem with over-competitiveness.

Thaia flicked some dew off one of the broad leaves hanging from a tree to her right as she evaluated the terrain, which consisted mostly of the broad-leaved trees and rocks poking out—some towering out—of a thick carpet of low-lying ferns. It made for shit sightlines, which was bad because they couldn’t see shit, but good in that neither could their enemies. 

There were also alarming, creepy as fuck predator noises from honestly everywhere and the farther they advanced into the jungle, the more numerous they got. It distinctly reminded Thaia of Sanves and Thaia hated Sanves because it had a huge equatorial jungle and the militias had all liked to conduct training exercises there if they weren’t engaging in an actual mission there. 

Also that jungle had been full up on jungle spiders.

“This reminds me of Sanves,” Thaia said out loud.

“It really does,” said Cora. “I could never get over the size of those jungle spiders.”

“Me neither. Exploded a horde of them once during a mission.”

“Was it a covert mission?” asked Cora.

“It was a covert mission.”

“Is this a covert mission?” asked Vetra.

“I hope not.” Thaia ducked under a tree and then glared at a boulder for hiding whatever the fuck was behind it making those snuffling sounds. “If we’re quiet, all we’ll hear are all those fucking creatures out there wanting to kill us and eat us and I’d rather not hear them.”

“You do not wish to hear death approaching?” asked Jaal.

“Not really, no. I assume if you’re caught by surprise it’ll hurt less.”

“Ryder, does it?” asked Peebee.

“What?” asked Ryder.

“You technically died during your SAM transfer and no one saw that coming,” said Cora.

“Actually, it didn’t hurt. I remember being really confused, but that’s about it.”

“Could we not discuss anyone’s death or near-death experiences?” asked Lexi.

“But it’s for science,” Thaia said before she realized she really should’ve thought that through and not said it.

And she shouldn’t have because Lexi said, “I’ll agree to engaging in that discussion as soon as you read the dissertation of mine that you refuse to read.”

Like she’d do that in the next millennia. “All right, then. Someone think of another topic.”

“You don’t want to read her dissertation?” asked Ryder. “Is it the length?”

“It’s the topic.”

“The one about krogan aggression and virility?” asked Peebee.

“I would be interested in reading it,” said Jaal. 

“I read it,” said Ryder. “It really was interesting.”

“I agree,” said Suvi. “You should give it a read, Thaia. Open your mind a little.”

They were trying to kill her. “Please stop. All of you.”

“Touched a nerve there,” said Drack. “No swearing and using manners. That means you should keep going.”

“Goddess, are we there yet?” asked Thaia.

“Tell us the Sanves story and we’ll drop it,” said Vetra.

Thaia was fairly certain that both her new and old so-called friends hated her, but a way out was a way out. “Fine.” 

Then she followed Ryder she pushed through a thicker section of vegetation. Also wetter because the leaves dripped enough water onto her crest that she might as well have walked through a downpour. “So we were on a training exercise in the jungles of Sanves. Dark as shit, bunch of weird-ass animal noises. Being a training exercise, we had to remain as silent as operationally possible. The extent of the briefing we got on the bad buys was ‘they’re better than you.’ And that means?”

“Commandos who have at least a century more experience than you,” said Cora.

“Exactly! Up to and usually including a few matriarchs, which meant we were bound to lose and it was only a matter of how long it’d take. So my unfortunate ass pulled midwatch on the first night. Halfway through, the weird-ass noises got loud enough to wake up the rest of my squad and my CO tells me to investigate.”

“And you went?” asked Kallo.

“Yes.” Thaia scrambled up a pile of boulders and Vetra bounded straight past her like a champion rock climber that Thaia didn’t know she was. “Yes, I went. Maybe five meters in, the noises got louder and then I could see eyes. Thousands of green eyes and they’re getting closer. Now, we’d been briefed on the fucking things by our squad leader, who’d seen one a half a century before. She told us that they ‘only’ came up to our knees and the biologists theorized that the spiders moved in herds. But, they said, they rarely attacked so we should be fine. However, those observations had been recorded in areas with low spider populations.” 

Having caught up to Vetra at the top, Thaia crouched next to her as they waited for the others. “What I discovered out there in the near-dark after I readied my biotics was that their fangs were the same size as their bodies and they ran en fucking masse so it was like an unending horde of furry fangs carried by furry legs and a million green eyes in a tsunami of death. So I figure, ‘fuck this they’ll kill me and then everyone else if I don’t do something’ and hit them with the biggest fucking flare I’ve ever done.”

“You panicked, didn’t you?” asked Vetra.

“You’re goddess-damned right I did. Blinding panic and my flare killed them all and created a nice clearing where there’d been trees before but whatever. I’d saved everyone and I’m surrounded by thousands of jungle spider corpses and it’s gross and I’m silent because I’m standing there trying not to throw up.”

“Puking really does cut down on the badass factor,” said Liam.

“It does. So everything’s quiet because I took care of all the things that’d been making the weird-ass noises. Then I hear the commando who’s doing the comms for the matriarchs running the exercise comm my CO—who had open audio because she wanted to share me getting yelled at for blowing our cover—asking what the fuck just happened because our quadrant lit up like a Janiris festival. And what does my CO say? ‘Don’t worry, Kallistrate just got spooked by a couple jungle spiders.’ And I couldn’t let that stand.”

“Of course you couldn’t,” said Lexi.

Thaia felt vaguely offended, but left the comment alone because who fucking knew how Lexi would verbally retaliate and everyone was on the comms and it was embarrassing enough already. No need to give Lexi more ammunition. 

“So I shout over at them, ‘Fuck you it was at least a thousand and I just saved all of you and if we had medals I should get one.’ There was a pause and then the commando on the comm says, ‘Except your position will be overtaken in one minute so you’re dead anyway.’ I inform them that it’ll be a cleaner death than getting eaten by a horde of jungle spiders.”

“Yeah, I’m on your side about the jungle spiders,” said Peebee.

“Finally! Someone who understands,” said Thaia. “So a minute goes by and our position’s overrun and of course the bad guys are the more experienced commandos we expected. But who they also have with them is Matriarch Zosima, who commanded the entire Armali Guard at the time.”

“How bad was the reprimand?” asked Cora.

Thaia shrugged. It was nice to be able to do it and not get stopped by an irritated yet concerned doctor. “My CO said it was the harshest dressing down she’d witnessed in her three centuries as a commando.”

“Shit,” said Cora.

“It probably didn’t help that I was unrepentant. I did take responsibility for blowing our cover, but I wasn’t going to admit to wrongdoing after saving my squad from thousands of giant jungle spiders. So, Matriarch Zosima tells me she hasn’t decided what she’ll do with me. Sends me back to the main encampment with my squad while she and the other senior commandos investigate the area. Then we don’t hear shit from them for the rest of the night. My CO told me she thought I might get booted back to Thessia.”

“Did you?” asked Liam. 

“No, shockingly. In the morning, Matriarch Zosima pulls me aside and tells me, ‘Nice flare, Kallistrate. Be prepped for another op with your squad tonight.’ That was it. She never talked about it again.”

“Why the turnaround?” asked Vetra.

“Their scans had picked up thousands of dead jungle spiders in and around the clearing I’d made. I saved everyone’s asses. But do you think my squad was nice about it? No. Gave me shit for the next fucking century. I should’ve let the spiders kill all their ungrateful asses.”

Jaal stopped suddenly and signaled for everyone to come to a halt. He slipped into the foliage on the top of the ridge, then Ryder, followed by Thaia and Cora, joined him. 

“There are Roekaar ahead,” he said.

“I see them, too,” said Ryder.

Thaia did, as well. Judging by Cora’s nod, so did she. In a clearing at the bottom of a slick, rocky slope, she counted nine Roekaar fighting what looked like monsters. They weren’t, Thaia had been told by the angaran scientists. Just mutated fauna that was terrifying and made terrifying noises and looked like giant lizards.

Cora gestured for Vetra and Peebee to move up. After they did, Ryder observed the Roekaar for a few minutes before saying, “Maybe we should attack while they’re distracted.”

“I don’t know. The lizards are doing well for themselves,” said Thaia.

“The rylkor are monotremes,” Ryder said absentmindedly.

“They’re what?” Thaia wondered if she should take another biology course and actually pay attention because the monotreme fact seemed like something she should know. Then again, if she wanted to and had the materials, she could build a rocket that would send those monotremes into orbit and that was useful, too.

“Egg-laying mammals.”

“Like Salarians? Except hulking and loud and—all right, not so much like salarians.” Thaia checked the progress of the skirmish. “They’re winning, though. I’d recommend sneaking away while they’re preoccupied. Normally I’d recommend sabotaging both sides so they wipe each other out, but I think the Roekaar are clever enough to catch on what with the lizards and monotremes not advanced enough for firearms.”

“I agree,” said Cora

“Fine.” Ryder sighed and quietly walked back down the ridge. Then she brought up the area map on her omni, picked a new route to the chasm and synced it to everyone else. “But I don’t like this part, the hiding and sneaking around. It makes me uneasy.”

Cora placed a calming hand on Ryder’s shoulder. “Breathe, purpose, action.”

Thaia rolled her eyes. “Don’t start with the aphorisms.”

“I haven’t heard you use any,” said Cora. “Do you even know any?”

Another challenge, and the Tempest crew provided all sorts of them and this would be a nice distraction while they slowly advanced to the chasm. Everyone else might not like it, but Cora had called her out and Thaia was going to prove her wrong. “Game on, Harper. You go first.”

To Cora’s credit, she jumped right in. She had something to prove too—probably thought she had to prove it to other people, but it was really to herself. Thaia had seen it in plenty of fresh commandos before. “Luck is a balance beam between you and the enemy,” said Cora.

Thaia opted for classics from older asari martial philosophers. “The path through the stars lies not in the light but the darkness in between them.”

“The razor’s edge between known and unknown teaches you what can be cut away.”

“The past, like a shadow, cannot be cast away.” Shit, that was more applicable to the present than Thaia had thought. 

“A huntress must be able to discern which it is she hunts: fact or its shadow,” Cora countered.

“Know your quarry’s truth and you will know your quarry.”

“This, then,” Cora said as she surveyed the deep chasm below from the very edge, “is a resonant truth of the universe: what is most beautiful is often most deadly.”

Thaia used her biotics drift down to the first of several cutaway ledges carved by the Remnant that descended into the chasm. “Biotics are the most elegant of weapons.”

Cora landed nearby and nodded. “We are living weapons, we commandos.”

“A commando is power given form and purpose.” Thaia leapt down to the next ledge and waited for the others.

“A huntress without the trust of her team stands alone,” Cora said, joining her. “She is a tree in the desert hearing only defiance.”

Well, that was pointed. Besides, Ryder and Jaal had already joined her and being alone on point wasn’t a bad thing. Usually. “A huntress stands in silence so that she may hear the wisdom of the stars.”

“Grief and fear cannot rule you. Let them be your faithful servants, protective of their mistress. Loss serves a huntress like fuel serves fire.”

Then Thaia wasn’t there on the ledge. She stood where the flames had chased her outside the cryo pod room, hearing more snaps from the overloaded circuits whose sparks had started the fires. The palms of her hands and her fingertips burned from when she’d tried, tried to open the pod and it had seared her skin and the only thing loss had served was loss

Something inside Thaia twisted and tightened in her chest and she needed this to stop before she couldn’t breathe. “Commandos have three moods: fuck you, fuck me, and fuck off.”

“Was that a joke or an aphorism?” asked Ryder.

“I don’t think it’s an aphorism, but she’s not wrong, either,” said Cora.

“That was my favorite,” said Ryder. “Personally, I like the jokes better. Those aphorisms were like sitting through a philosophy class.”

“I was curious to see how long they could go on for,” said Suvi.

“I’m just glad someone made the torture stop,” said Gil.

Thaia would’ve been offended if she hadn’t agreed with him. “Ryder, if it’s shitty jokes you want, I’ve got more.”

“Let’s hear them!” said Ryder. “I can use them on my brother when he wakes up.”

Thaia was all in for future tormenting of siblings. After they’d finished their descent, landing in the knee-deep water—with small splashes from Ryder, Vetra, and Peebee and silence for herself, Cora, and Jaal—she obliged. She even had a joke that would require group participation. “A turian, an asari, a salarian, and a human are told to screw in a light bulb. Vetra, what does the turian say?”

“I need to calibrate it before I can do anything,” Vetra said with a laugh.

“Kallo, what does the salarian say?”

He sighed. “Our technology is beyond the need for light fixtures requiring bulbs.”

“Peebee, what’s the asari say?”

“I have to ask the matriarchs for their opinion first!” Peebee said.

“Is that the answer to the joke or does Peebee need to make the request?” asked Jaal.

Thaia smiled as she stopped to re-sync the map on her omni and look for more of those fucking spit bugs. And Remnant, them too. “A little of both,” she said out loud. “Ryder, what does the human say?”

“The human reaches up and screws it in. Then she says, ‘See, that’s why we progress faster than you!’” Ryder drew even with Thaia, oriented her omni screen so Thaia could see it, and then activated a more detailed scan through SAM. “I like that one. It isn’t often that humans get to show up the other galactic species.”

“There’s a lot of truth in that joke. Humans advance faster, take every advantage they can, are highly adaptable, and good at a whole lot of things.” Thaia shrugged. “Every species has their strengths and weaknesses. Especially asari and how the rest of the galactic populations view us. For example, let’s try a different joke. How many asari does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

“Really?” asked Cora, who sounded offended enough for all the asari in the Heleus Cluster.

Thaia gave Cora a flat look as she climbed up to join her and Ryder. “Cora, even asari aren’t that serious. I bet even Lexi knows one of the punchlines.”

“None. They’re all too busy screwing something else,” said Lexi.

“Only two, but how do you fit them inside the light bulb?” said Suvi.

“It only takes one asari to screw anything!” Peebee said with a suspect amount of enthusiasm. Then again, she was a maiden only a century and change old, so maybe not so suspect.

“I believe there is nuance here that I am missing,” said Jaal.

“I’ll explain the misconceptions and prejudices involved when you return to the Tempest, Jaal,” said Lexi.

“There’s the crashed ship.” Ryder pointed toward a wreck submerged in the stream below them, green vines crawling up from the water and across the half-buried ship. Sections of the net of damp vines were lit by scans from neutral observers patrolling around it. Then over the whirring of the observers came the clinks from assemblers as they stepped from behind the misty waterfalls to either side of the narrow chasm. “And some friends. Three observers? Four?”

“Five,” said Peebee, who’d already started programming with her omni. “They won’t be a problem when you give me the go ahead. They’ll start fighting each other and we can just shoot them out of the air. The four assemblers will be trouble though if we don’t get to them before they build breachers.”

Thaia looked over at Cora. “How many do you think you can blow up?”

“How many do you need me to?”

Damn, Thaia had missed running with other commandos. “I’ll pop in a singularity and you charge in first. I’ll be right behind you. Straight after you detonate, shield that ship unless someone alive needs your shield.”

“Save one for me!” said Peebee.

“Program faster, then,” said Thaia, tamping down her biotics as they surged, eager to find escape. It was like going all out in a skyball game or sparring, pent up energy needing someplace to go. Which was odd, now that she thought about it, because she and Drack had rolled over those mercenaries not even a week ago and had been on the Tempest since, so it wasn’t like she’d been around people who would’ve truly pissed her off—and definitely not to the point where this excess energy would’ve built right back up. And that meant it was something else, and that something else was likely the fact that she hadn’t had sex in over six hundred years and currently was really only interested in it with one person and she’d just spent days in that person’s company and she and that person had mutually agreed that they wouldn’t be having sex anytime in the near future. Not with each other, anyway.

Honestly, Thaia could’ve made a joke at her own fucking expense for that, but no matter what her not-so-subconscious conscious insisted and insistently fantasized about, she couldn’t. They couldn’t. They’d agreed. Lexi was on a break and Thaia had promised to honor that unless Lexi said otherwise and Lexi hadn’t. And she was Lexi’s patient at the moment, too. Trying to make their relationship—their friendship—into something it wasn’t would only lead to losing Lexi, and Thaia didn’t want her gone. Really, it was better to not get too attached or hopeful here anyway because Andromeda was fueled by loss. And, in Andromeda, hope always preceded loss for those who dared to hope in the first place. Better to accept the friendship they had, maintain it, and endure jokes she made at her own expense until her feelings weren’t a problem anymore.

“Ready on your word, Ryder,” said Jaal.

Ryder nodded. “All right. Thaia, Cora, go blow up the robots. Peebee, make the flying robots fight each other and the rest of us will shoot the distracted ones and any others that look like they need shooting.”

As soon as the observers began firing their lasers at each other, Thaia threw the singularity and it’d barely appeared when Cora charged into the middle and detonated it with a well-timed nova. It displaced the water, leaving bare the pebbles of the riverbed as the water swirled around the pieces and parts of the assemblers caught in the singularity’s gravity well. The biotic corona Thaia extended from herself picked up a one-legged assembler that wriggled on the newly-revealed rocks, which allowed her to hit it with a warp and explode the rest of it without looking away from the assembler that was the active threat. It had escaped the edge of Cora’s nova, slinking behind a Remnant rock structure as it constructed a breacher. Fuck, those things were annoying.

Jaal materialized behind it—how the fuck did he do that?—and sliced it in half while Thaia snared the breacher in a stasis and then collapsed it.

When the spent singularities freed the water they’d trapped, pieces from the last two observers went free as well, and a rain of water and metal returned to the river and washed downstream. Area clear, Thaia extinguished the rest of her biotics and darted over to the crashed ship—the crashed ancient angaran ship from before the Scourge that was actually there. 

Looking for any Remnant stragglers, Cora did another sweep of the area. Ryder, Jaal, Peebee, and Vetra followed Thaia. As Ryder ran, she called out after her, “Don’t break it!”

“I won’t!” Thaia didn’t think she would, anyway. If she broke it she couldn’t try to download shit from from it, which would suck because even the idea of actual star charts in there was tantalizing. If they were there she could research them and that meant she could do math and astrophysics and astronomy and not blow anyone up. “I want the data in it!”

“I did not realize you were an archeologist,” said Jaal.

“I’m not. But I am an astrophysicist and there might be pre-Scourge star charts in there and those would help us figure out the Scourge.” Thaia skidded to a halt in front of it, splashing water up on the ship’s hull. Then she sized it up. She couldn’t jump straight in at first because the transparent material in the windows was still completely intact. As Ryder ran up next to her, Thaia asked, “If I cut through this window, does that count as breaking it?”

“There is no less destructive method of gaining entry,” said SAM.

“Go for it,” Ryder said to Thaia. “Just be precise.”

Thaia nodded, formed a laser cutter with her omni, and then she and Ryder used their biotics to hold the window material in place until it was free. After they set the cut-out aside, Thaia jumped into the cockpit’s seat.

It was darker than Thaia had thought it would be and the smell was… musty. It wasn’t surprising but it didn’t make it any less unpleasant.

“What do you see?” Ryder asked.

“It’s dark, so a whole lot of fuck all and—” Thaia activated the flashlight integrated with her armor so she could see what she was doing. She shouldn’t have. When she saw what she’d landed on—it sure as fuck wasn’t a chair—she jumped up and whacked her head on the ship’s ceiling hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. “A whole lot of fuck this there’s a body still in here and it has to be the pilot and it’s so desiccated that it’s flat and I fucking landed on it! I might have to burn this armor.”

“Please don’t,” said Vetra. “I’m not sure if I can manage to find another set like that one in a reasonable amount of time. I’m good, but I can’t work miracles.”

Thaia still considered it because dead body and convincing herself that any information about star configurations was worth remaining in the presence of a dead body that was just there and shouldn’t have been and was so dried out it’d felt like a seat to her ass.

“What happened to getting star charts?” asked Cora, who’d apparently finished her sweep and decided to join the so-called fun.

“I landed on a dead body!”

Peebee pushed Ryder aside and then stuck her head through the window opening. “It’s mostly bones and some leathery, dried out skin. Doesn’t even smell that bad.”

Ryder shoved Peebee over to free up space for them both to peer inside. “I wonder how it was preserved so well.”

“Preserved?” Thaia gestured between them and the flattened body. “Have you looked at it?”

Still not the slightest bit revolted, Ryder finally looked at Thaia. “It should be all bones by now, so it’s preserved by comparison.”

“The fuck is wrong with you people?”

“It’s called scientific interest,” said Lexi.

“You requested we not discuss death or near-death experiences,” said Thaia. “A dead body involves, you know, death. And I sat on that dead body and there are probably dusty bone and skin particles on my ass, so I’m going to go roll around in the water outside to rinse them off. Then I’m going to hack shit from the outside or cover up that body or something.”

“Ryder,” said Lexi, “you should preserve it as best you can. Then Jaal can ask the scientists we’ve been coordinating with what they’d like to do with it. Ancient or not, it’s one of their people.”

“I will contact them,” said Jaal. “Thank you.”

Thaia clambered out of the cockpit, thankful that she had long enough legs to step over the reclined pilot’s seat without running the risk of bumping the body, and then propelled herself out the window. She landed in the deepest part of the stream, which still barely reached her knees. Whatever, it was enough. She flopped into it for a quick rinse. Then she decided to make sure and ducked her head into the water, too. Better safe than tracking bone dust everywhere and ending up very sorry. When she straightened, she found everyone staring at her. 

“What?”

“I didn’t think you were serious,” said Ryder.

“If it involves Thaia and water, it’s serious,” said Lexi. “Unless it’s a race.”

“Oh, come on. It’s been over six hundred years!”

Vetra, because Vetra knew about the race, laughed. Quietly, but Thaia saw her mandibles move.

“Objectively, but not relatively.”

“What’s she talking about?” asked Ryder.

“Nothing.” Thaia walked to the ship’s stern, but the majority of it was buried beneath the riverbed. She crossed her arms and studied it, wondering if it’d fall apart if she lifted it out with biotics. That couldn’t be determined without knowledge of what metal the angara had used to build it, so further scanning it was. Anything to avoid having to return to that cockpit. If it came down to it, she’d go in, but there was rather not and there was rather fucking not.

“That can’t be nothing,” said Peebee.

“You want to know, you can get the information out of Lexi.” Thaia had experienced hubris and had admitted it to Lexi, but that was Lexi. She’d share things with Lexi to a depth that before she’d only shared with her father or sisters. What that meant beyond utmost trust Thaia didn’t know, but there it was.

“Well?” said Cora.

“I’ll consider sharing, but not right now,” said Lexi.

“Better than nothing,” said Kallo. Kallo Jath, the worst gossip this side of the Heleus Cluster, who would be listening intently should either of them choose to share.

Maybe she’d biotically lift the ship. The metal alloys used in its construction hadn’t degraded much. Then again, it was hundreds of years old and while asari ships were built with centuries in mind, shorter-lived species didn’t build to account for that much time in service. If the ship was to be preserved as a relic and studied further, Thaia recalled that archeologists tended to want people to not fuck with artifacts. In fact, Thaia had once asked some of the researchers at that dig site her squad had provided overwatch for a long while back why they didn’t use biotics for excavation. The horrified looks she’d gotten in return had been answer enough, so she probably shouldn’t try to lift it out.

She could have, though. 

But she wouldn’t because that would be a jackass thing to do, which meant she’d have to go back into the cockpit through the window. Fuck.

“We should analyze what the angara used to make this flight helmet because it’s still completely intact,” said Ryder. “Came right off though, didn’t even disturb the head because it was—”

“We get the point,” said Thaia. “Can you please cover the body up? I’ll give you my emergency thermal blanket. I need to get into that cockpit and download the information.”

“I believe I can do so from here, Dr. Kallistrate,” said SAM.

Thaia briefly grumbled under her breath before she said, “One, that would be great so please do that if Ryder’s all right with it. Two, I’ve told you to refer to me by my first name because it’s weird when someone uses my title.”

“Would you prefer the rank you earned while serving with the Armali Guard?”

“No. Just my first name.”

“Noted,” said SAM.

“Let’s get the navigation data for our squeamish commando,” said Ryder.

Thaia would’ve objected, but Ryder wasn’t wrong and Thaia really did want that data. 

When Ryder synced the new information to Thaia’s omni, Thaia might’ve momentarily forgotten where she was and gleefully taken a peek. While she couldn’t speak the language, numbers were numbers and charts were charts and that was a common language across two galaxies, and she got to set aside being a commando for that moment. Experiencing what it was like to be a scientist again was worth the extensive teasing from the others as she stood in knee-deep water, a holo-projection of the Heleus Cluster as it was hundreds of years ago casting a blue-amber glow over a face lit with curiosity.

Chapter Text

Zaubray System, 2819.

“How fast do you think I could make this run?” Lisana T’Lesso asked over her shoulder. “Because I think I can shave five minutes off. Maybe ten if we don’t run across any kett.”

Thaia wondered if all former Citadel Fleet pilots were this competitive. She really fucking hoped not. It wasn’t that Lisana had been difficult to work with, not in the least. Vetra had been right: she was a damn good pilot with an open, friendly personality. But Lisana also had a competitive streak that spanned the length of the entire fucking cluster and that competitiveness extended to her own records. 

Even at their worst—like the time they’d all tried to outdo each other with biotic tricks while cliff-diving and their grandmother had been forced to put a stop to it after they accidentally sent a sailfish up onto the beach next to her—Thaia didn’t think she and her sisters had been this bad. If they had, then she had even more respect for the older generation of her family for putting up with their shit because it was tiresome being on the other side of it. And when you weren’t the one distracted by the competition, it was petrifying skirting so close to the Scourge that your microscales lifted. Which, coincidentally, was also a good way to get your ass killed. Shaving five minutes off a run meant nothing if you didn’t finish said run because you were dead.

Lexi would’ve been horrified after that last one. No, Lexi would’ve been horrified for all of them and Thaia really shouldn’t tell her how adventurous of a pilot Lisana was. Ever.

Lisana went on when Thaia didn’t immediately answer. “I’d love to do this job as a permanent one. Outrunning that kett ship last time was wild and then when we slipped through that slot between two Scourge tendrils while they smashed into them was even better. This is the best job in the galaxy. Way better than being bored flying CAP with the Citadel Fleet.”

Thaia was fairly certain that when they slipped through that slot the Scourge had fried the sensor array she’d spent three days building and bolting onto the side of Drack’s shuttle to prep for these runs. Maybe she should just be grateful that the array had worked properly for the first five days. Also that they weren’t dead.

“Maybe for a pilot,” said Thaia. “Some of us are fine with not cutting every possible minute from a run, like when we’re trying to chart things.” Charting while running comparisons to the pre-Scourge data, specifically. Jaal had gotten her in touch with Avela Kjar, the historian on Aya, who’d been sending her translations of the non-numerical data as she finished them. Every run garnered new data since every run was different due to the nature of the Scourge and the still unpredictable kett patrols. 

“I thought you did this run plenty of times before I got pulled from cryo?” asked Lisana.

Her ass was going numb. She really should’ve rigged the console up off the deck. “Yes, but you know as well as I do that the Scourge is always fucking moving. So I’m trying to figure out if there’s a pattern and I’m sure the eezo in it has something to do with it.” Thaia looked over at her. “Do you feel anything when we get closer to the Scourge?”

“Like under your skin?”

“Yeah.”

“I do. Helps me dodge it. I bet the kett crashed into it because they don’t have biotics to feel it.”

“Same. That’s why I piloted instead of surveying before since Drack isn’t biotic.”

Lisana swiped a finger across the haptic interface in front of her, and Thaia felt the slight dip in her stomach of quick course correction. “Where is Drack?”

“Running with the human Pathfinder. They’re on Havarl or Aya or wherever.” Thaia had hitched a ride with an angaran scientist crew over to Elaaden to pick up Drack’s shuttle for the ice runs. She didn’t know when—or even if—she’d be back on the Tempest again, which meant she didn’t know when she’d see Lexi again. When she let herself dwell on that unknown, her chest ached.

“Why aren’t you?”

“Reasons,” Thaia said, hoping that would convey her complete lack of interest in discussing the matter further.

She missed Lexi—she missed all of them, really, but she wouldn’t tell any of them that—but she did accept that she couldn’t stay on the ship for long periods of time. Her best friend had already provided emergency treatment too often. Once could’ve been shrugged off, but the Hyperion had barely been in Andromeda for a month, yet Thaia had needed medical treatment from Lexi a few times. Ethically, Lexi couldn’t be her doctor and if Lexi kept having to act as her doctor, then she might be forced to maintain professional distance even if Thaia never joined the Tempest’s crew. 

For Thaia, the thought of that distance becoming reality was more terrifying than the shuttle’s worst tangle with the Scourge. Lexi, the person who made Andromeda so much less terrible, would effectively be gone, and the disappearance of their friendship would be a death all its own.

So she dealt with it. She maintained the physical distance to prevent Lexi from having to act as her doctor, and did her best to make up for the physical distance by exchanging messages with Lexi a lot. Overall, it was far better than before the Hyperion arrived, because at least Lexi was here now. Everyone wasn’t gone.

“Fine, I won’t pry,” said Lisana. 

“Nothing to pry about.” Thaia leaned against the bulkhead and stretched out her legs as the in-progress scan hogged almost all the processing power not needed to actually fly the ship. It’d be nice to have SAM’s computational skills on it, but she didn’t have a link to SAM because that would mean staying on the Tempest with Lexi. 

She held in a sigh. Maybe messaging would help. She and Lisana were in a stable area of space without Scourge interference, and if the Tempest was too, they had clear comms. Maybe enough for almost real-time with the amount of buoys that’d been dropped over the past month, though Scourge interference rendered it infuriatingly unreliable in some areas. Still, worth a try, and so she activated her omni and initiated a connection for near real-time messaging. While she waited for the connection to establish, she checked her email, hoping Lexi had sent one because she liked the warmth she felt whenever she read her messages.

She wasn’t supposed to think about Lexi this much. 

Her omni finished its server sync and Thaia smiled because there was an email from Lexi and fuck those other messages because Lexi’s was more important.

Then once Thaia read the message Lexi had sent, her smile quickly transformed into a gape at what was contained in an email sent to—she double-checked the recipient line—the entire Tempest crew.

Lexi had sent everyone an email about doing yoga, but there was no fucking way it was really about yoga because the description for every single pose was suggestive as fuck. 

And because the Tempest crew had kindly included Thaia on their InfoBoard and email lists, and sometimes it felt more like a prank than a kindness, Thaia checked the recipients again. 

Still the entire Tempest list.

Why, why would Lexi be thinking of recommending any of these to any of them? 

Unwilling to risk a reply-all chain with the emails, Thaia checked the near real-time connection status. Amber, so that was a no-go. But she had one last less risky messaging choice in the InfoBoard’s private message option, so she switched the initiating connection from near real-time to the InfoBoard, drumming her fingers on the console as she waited.

It turned green and the text immediately appeared onto the screen.

- InfoBoard v3.49 [Tempest] -

[Thaia] Lexi, what? 

[Lexi] Did you lose the message? I can forward it to you again if you wish. 

[Thaia] Why? I meant **why**. Why are you sending me yoga instructions? 

[Lexi] To improve your flexibility. 

[Thaia] My flexibility is just fine, thank you. 

[Lexi] It could be better. 

[Thaia] I don’t even know what to say to that. 

[Lexi] Do you have something against yoga? 

[Thaia] I don’t need to do yoga. I’m flexible. 

[Lexi] I’ve never seen evidence of it. Feel free to prove me wrong. 

[Cora] Do you two realize you’ve been posting on the public board for this entire exchange? 

[Kallo] You ruined it! We all agreed to keep quiet! 

[Vetra] This was headed in a really good direction, too. 

[Drack] Go ahead, kid. Prove her wrong.

“Fuck,” Thaia said out loud.

“What?” asked Lisana.

Thaia looked up at the ceiling and wished she’d read the InfoBoard instructions thoroughly—and by that she meant had read them in the first place. But who did? No one except the technical copy editor did, that’s who. “Reply-all fiasco and I’m the asshole who started it.”

“Good luck with that shit.”

Maybe she couldn’t pretend none of the conversation had happened, but Thaia did have a way to shut them up. 

 - InfoBoard v3.4 [Tempest] -

[Thaia] A human, a turian, and a quarian walk into a bar. The volus walks under it.

No more replies. Maybe they were complaining over the Tempest comms, but at least Thaia didn’t have to hear more shit from them. Well, them being everyone except Lexi, who switched to near real-time messaging. Thaia agreed with that switch because fuck that trap of an InfoBoard.

> You should consider the yoga. It would genuinely help with your flexibility issues.

> We’re not talking about my non-existent flexibility issues.

They weren’t going to talk about her non-existent flexibility issues because her imagination also had no flexibility issues and honestly it was probably too flexible and there was thinking about Lexi too much and there was thinking about Lexi too much.

> How’s your sleep?

Right so apparently there were things worse than risking her imagination taking a deep dive into the possibilities of proving her own flexibility while also testing Lexi’s flexibility.

> Or maybe we should talk about my fictional flexibility issues.

> Is it that bad?

> Which?

> Your sleep.

> It hasn’t gotten worse.

> That isn’t exactly reassuring.

Even less reassuring would be telling Lexi how her sleep shifted sometimes. Some nights she could remember every single nightmare, nightmares that somehow recalled every single detail about what happened when she woke from cryo, and then wouldn’t let her forget when she woke up. Other nights, she wouldn’t remember a thing when she woke up cold and sweaty and her heart beating so fast that she pressed a hand over it, like she could keep it inside, like she could calm it down. Lexi was her friend, not her doctor, not her therapist, and while Thaia was honest with her, she didn’t want to worry her with something that couldn’t be helped. Not as things stood.

> Given that my sleep was constantly degrading at a slow rate before the Hyperion got to Andromeda, it’s better than it was.

> I suppose that’s better than worsening. How’s your immune booster supply?

> Enough for another week at least.

> Don’t forget that if you need more and the Tempest is unavailable that Harry will gladly restock your supply if you can get onto the Hyperion.

> That wouldn’t be a problem. I’ll keep it in mind.

> Don’t let your supply run out. I’m serious. That you escaped serious illness over the past year is nothing short of miraculous.

> Message received: you don’t want to doctor me back to health.

> I don’t want you to end up in a state that would require anyone to doctor you back to full health. Or a state where you couldn’t be doctored back to health at all.

Thaia didn’t want to die and definitely didn’t want to subject Lexi to her dying. Goddess, what if Lexi had to watch her die? Her chest ached with that strange twinge.

> Message received: take my fucking medicine.

> Please. And now I need to go because Liam’s done something else to himself. He might be more injury-prone than you.

> Good thing he’s got the best doctor, then.

She closed out her messaging program before Lexi could call her out on her bias. And before she started missing her too much and began brainstorming an excuse for helping on the Tempest.

“New Tuchanka’s given us clearance to land. We’ll be on the ground in five,” said Lisana, jolting Thaia out of the daydreaming she’d succumbed to. “Were you talking to the same person you’ve been messaging over the past week?”

“Yes. My best friend. We’ve been over this.”

Sure she is.” Lisana landed on the pad with a soft bump and powered down the controls. “You want me to come with you for the final delivery?”

Thaia hauled herself to her feet. “Better you don’t. So far you’ve been lucky enough to avoid the attention of Annea’s spies. Let’s keep it that way.” She paused at the door. “I’ll have to bring you back to the Nexus tomorrow, but we’ll overnight here since Tann won’t let me overnight on the Nexus and I don’t feel like dealing with sneaking around. The access codes for the room you’ve been using and free passage in the colony will still work. If you want some decent food, I’ll message Vorn to hook you up. And don’t bet in any of the pit fights. Whole thing’s a scam. We’ll leave at 0600 tomorrow.”

Lisana keyed the instrument panel lockout. “Where will you be?”

“Sleeping in my room at some point, I hope. But Grot wants me to look at something going on with the superstructure and Wratch had some kind of message for me, so who the fuck knows.”

“All right, then. See you in what serves as this planet’s lie of a morning if I don’t see you before then.”

Thaia hopped out. Elaaden was still hot as fuck even with how climate-controlled parts of the colony proper were. She really hoped whatever Grot wanted to consult about didn’t involve going outside.

Which of course meant an hour later she was climbing around the foundation superstructure below the colony, a safety line and her biotics the only things preventing her from plummeting in the bottomless chasm below. Thaia wasn’t generally bothered by heights, but the bottomless aspect of the sinkhole was of significant concern.

Also it was so fucking hot she had to wear the helmet to her hardsuit. One hand wrapped around a smaller support beam, Thaia swung around the truss to her left to see what Grot was pointing at.

“Looks like it’s getting eaten away,” he said, “but it isn’t rust.”

“Sabotage? A bit much, though. Overkill even if you’re trying to kill a bunch of krogan.” Thaia moved as close to the area as she dared. The reflective truss had turned grungy and black, piles of greenish-brown sludge gathered in the V-shaped joints. She just short of touched it and then was grateful for her helmet because there was no way it couldn’t smell like ass. “Do you think the birds shit acid?”

Grot crossed his arms as he let his safety line and his legs on another truss bear most of his weight as he dangled over the precipice like it wasn’t a big deal, which made Thaia want to swing over and shove him back onto a support truss because goddess it was a bottomless chasm that led who the fuck knew where.

“If New Tuchanka’s anything like the old one,” Grot said, staying in his position despite Thaia’s glare, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they do. But we aren’t going to let idiots shoot roosting birds down here. Some idiot would get some idiot idea to use a heavy weapon and do the job the birds are doing faster. I don’t know shit about repelling birds.”

“Don’t look at me. Not a biologist.”

“Aren’t you going to the Nexus soon to give Tann his pilot back?”

Thaia swung around the truss and then kept going, truss to truss, testing the fuck out of her recently healed shoulder. She experienced no pain or weakness in it, either. Lexi was a really good doctor and Thaia knew it wasn’t her own personal bias. However, Lexi would likely also be scolding her if she saw the extent to which Thaia was testing her shoulder. Which Thaia honestly wouldn’t mind that much because the fussing came from a place of caring and also Lexi had a voice that Thaia could happily listen to for an inordinately long time. 

“Tomorrow. You’re not going to ask me to ask Tann for help are you?”

“Only if you think you could get a yes out of him just to turn around and tell him no out of spite.”

“While that’s somewhat tempting, I’ll ask Kesh to ask around while I’m there instead. With how many more people they’ve been pulling from cryo, someone has to know how to repel acid-shitting birds.” Thaia gripped the edge of the catwalk and hauled herself up.

Grot followed, his mass landing on the catwalk sending tremors hard enough to rattle the safety rails. “Any of ‘em your dad?”

“No.” Thaia wanted her dad around. There was so much Sula would be able to fix and it would give Thaia things to fix. Things to build. Things to do that weren’t being a commando. She resisted a sigh and concentrated on detaching her safety line.

After he unhooked his own safety line, Grot gave her a slap on the back. “She’s alive. That’s something. Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“Vel won’t sell to me because she thinks my internal organs should stay intact and I happen to agree with her.” That and on both occasions Thaia had tried ryncol in a drink, she’d been fairly coherent—according to her squadmates—but couldn’t remember shit about it the next day. There were better drinks to be had.

“Buy you a water.”

“That’s insulting. I brought that water here.”

“Speaking of, Annea’s been asking around Paradise if anyone’s seen you. Wratch wanted to give you a heads-up.”

“That’s nice. Tell him to tell her I said hi.”

“Your dedication to being a shit is almost admirable. And it would be, if it didn’t mean you were a shit to everyone. Anyway, Vorn wants you to bring something to Kesh when you go to the Nexus. Maybe he can give you something in exchange.”

Thaia stopped in the middle of the walkway, earning a glare from a passing younger krogan. “Like a plant?”

Grot grinned. “Not just any plant. We’re talking flowers. Shit you not.” His eyes brightened. “Maybe he can give you one to give that ‘best friend’ of yours.”

“And you call me a shit.” She shoved him to the side, adding just enough biotics so that he bounced off the wall. 

All he did was laugh. Fucking krogan.

The Nexus, 2819.

Since Thaia planned on spending less than two hours on the Nexus, she stopped by Security to let Kandros know. Might as well appear compliant when she could. 

Except Tann strolled around the corner and demanded she be searched for weapons. 

“For fuck’s sake, really?” Thaia would’ve continued with her objections, but for one, it was difficult to appear intimidating while carrying a small potted plant in the crook of your arm. Two, Tann had that set to his jaw that meant unless she wanted to spend an outrageous amount of time arguing and then having to sneak onto the station later anyway, it would be faster to endure his pettiness.

She’d just conjure up some petty plans of her own to carry out on a later date.

Like, maybe she’d sneak into his apartment and draw tits on his forehead. It’d be a social experiment, waiting to see who bothered telling Tann about the tits. Probably no one. Maybe she’d discuss the idea with Lexi since psychology was one of Lexi’s fields.

Thaia’s agreement was more thrown at Tann than stated. “Fine.” Then she resisted the urge to slam the plant onto the tall counter in the Security office, gently setting it down instead. Vorn had put a lot of care into the plant and had his adorable relationship with Kesh and Thaia wasn’t going to fuck it up for them. So, gentle it was, even while she turned a glare on Tann.

Then she maintained her silent glare on Tann as she allowed Kandros to perform a begrudging and obviously—to her—cursory scan. She shouldn’t have to point out to Tann that asari, especially asari commandos, were never unarmed. If she wanted to, she could put both Tann and Kandros in a stasis or dangle them in the air, send them spinning in a singularity, then she could detonate those biotics with a warp or throw. Or if she felt like getting up close, she could charge and flare, instantly killing them and everyone in a meters-wide radius, or she could slowly and excruciatingly reave the life out of Tann, or she could nail him with a shockwave and break his spine against the wall from the force. Or if she didn’t want to be showy about it, she could sneak into Tann’s room during his hour of sleep and kill him.

She wouldn’t do any of those though and had no plans to. But it would’ve been a lie to say that considering them didn’t help her politely endure the search. That and it wasn’t invasive. She would’ve objected if it had been. Objected loudly and forcefully.

“Like I told you,” Kandros said to Tann, “no firearms.”

Kandros didn’t say ‘unarmed,’ because Kandros was smart.

“What about the plant?”

Both Kandros and Thaia turned to look at the innocent potted plant. Vorn had assured her that it was a flower, but it wouldn’t flower for another week or so. For now, it only had buds at the tips of the green stems and looked worryingly vulnerable.

“It’s a plant,” said Kandros. “One that doesn’t appear to be holding a gun because it’s a plant.”

“There could be one in the soil,” said Tann.

Kandros crossed his arms and gave Tann a flat look.

Tann nodded. “Point taken. It is safe to assume there is no contraband hidden in the soil.” Then he addressed Thaia again. “I—the Initiative—requires your expertise. You are among the few left alive from the ark integration teams. As we now have an ark that we are attempting to integrate into the Nexus, I would appreciate you checking the status of the integration.”

Because Thaia was an adult, she didn’t immediately tell Tann to stick his request for help up his cloaca and then leave him spluttering. 

Sometimes, she hated being an adult.

In truth, she did want to take a look at the Hyperion and its integration status. There was also the matter of needing to speak with SAM. The plan had been for Thaia to speak with the various Pathfinders during ark integration to discuss any messages from the Milky Way, what any of the potential messages meant, and then check the status of each of the QEC comm units that had a Milky Way pairing. Since the original Pathfinders knew about the Reaper threat to Milky Way, so did their SAMs, and Thaia thought it best to speak with the human SAM directly before talking to Sara Ryder about it. It would be awkward and uncomfortable and dangerous as fuck if Sara didn’t know and Thaia inadvertently told her.

“It’ll take me a couple hours to do a status check. Spending my paltry two hours performing the check means I can’t do what I came here for.” In addition to SAM, she needed to speak with Dr. Aridana. Also deliver the plant to Kesh and make fun of her before running away because while Kesh was incredibly level-headed, she still had a temper. Then she had a quick package drop-off for Anan from Vel.

“If you agree to perform the higher-level check on the Hyperion’s integration status, none of your time spent conducting the check will count against your allotted two hours on the Nexus.” There was no fucking reason why Tann had to act so put upon when he’d been the one asking for the favor. And yet.

And yet, fuck him and false generosity. “Will you let Matriarch Sula out of cryo?”

He scoffed, right in front of her, like he didn’t know who she’d lost and he wasn’t the one keeping her father from her, too. But he did know. The problem was that he didn’t care and she hated him for it. “Absolutely not,” he said, like she’d asked for something absurd.

“Then let’s see what the current hourly rate for an engineer commensurate with my education and experience.” Thaia activated her omni, found the rate, and sent it Tann.

He narrowed his eyes when he saw it. “You can’t be—”

“Serious about you paying me the standard hourly rate for a job you asked me to do? I am.”

He shifted his suspicious gaze to her. “What’s to prevent you from extending the amount of time it will take you to complete this job?”

Fuck him sideways, she was going to draw tits on his fucking forehead in the near future. Deciding that kept her from throwing him up into Ops.

Thaia didn’t raise her voice, but she let all the bite into her otherwise even tone. “I was on the team that designed and built the fucking arks, you asshole. Don’t insult my work or my integrity by intimating that I would lessen its quality just to be petty. And for that, if you still want me to inspect everything, you need to pay me a deposit for three hours of work.”

“Fine.” He jabbed his fingers into his omni’s haptic interface as he transferred the credits, and his voice was harsh when he said, “I agree to your terms.”

“Look at you being generous.” Before he could complain about Thaia’s lack of appreciation, and because the look Kandros gave her all but begged her to not make more of a scene, Thaia agreed to the deal and walked away. There was only so much she could withstand from him before she couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

Kesh’s reaction to Vorn’s gift and her reaction to Thaia’s teasing were worth the sprint from Kesh’s office to the tram. Goddess, it was nice to be able to give shit to someone else about a personal relationship for a change.

Then Thaia spent the next several hours doing a job that she loved while also legitimately accruing a significant amount of credits in addition pissing off Tann at the same time. Reviewing the integration systems and protocols required climbing through tunnels and up and down ladders in the guts of the Nexus and coordinating with Kesh. It meant that Kesh gave her shit over comms, but Thaia deserved it and it made everything more fun in its own way. The familiarity, she supposed. 

Thaia also had to speak with other engineers, people who’d been in cryo the last time Thaia had been on the Nexus. Most of what they discussed was shop talk, but there was some dodging of their inadvertently uncomfortable questions about Thaia’s family. They wanted to know where they were and what had happened during cryo, yet the most Thaia could say was that they hadn’t made it and that her dad was alive but still in cryo because Jarun Tann was a cloaca.

No one disagreed.

Yet, even the shadow of who and what Thaia had lost on the Nexus couldn’t ruin her contentment at something she came to Andromeda for. Over the course of the day, she collected a streak of grease from the internal mechanism of a docking clamp on one knee, soot from the burnt remains of an overloaded power junction on her shoulder, and a bruised elbow from whacking it on a different power junction over the course of the day. All those things together meant she’d been doing engineering shit and not commando shit and she was content. 

The day improved further when she had the chance to stop by the Hyperion’s medbay and say hello to Harry. 

“Harry!” she said and ran toward him when she spotted him from the open medbay door.

Initially, he appeared startled and wary, but once he recognized the blue blur approaching him, he lost the wariness. “Thaia!”

She stopped just short of his personal space. “You all right with hugs?”

“I am, but I appreciate you asking.”

So she hugged him. As soon as she stepped back, she said, “It’s nice that you aren’t dead.”

“I’m not sure how I should take that.”

There was enough friendly teasing in his voice that Thaia smiled. “At face value, I suppose. I didn’t want you to be dead and you aren’t dead and it’s nice. Also whatever other good words there are too because I’m not sure how well Lexi would handle you dying. That means you aren’t allowed to die, so get cracking on the whole immortality thing.”

“Speaking of mortality,” said Harry, slowly enough for Thaia to become suspicious, “how’s your supply of immune boosters?”

She raised her brows. “Someone’s been talking to Lexi.”

“You can’t be surprised that we routinely keep in touch,” said Harry.

“No, of course not. That was just a very specific question about my well being and not the general ‘how are you doing’ like most people use, even doctors.”

“You know how she cares.”

“Harry, she fusses more than a matriarch.” It was a trait of Lexi’s that Thaia liked, even though it played a role in keeping them further apart than she wanted. “But she wouldn’t be Lexi if she didn’t.”

“Don’t think I didn’t notice you still haven’t given me an answer about the immune boosters.”

Thaia rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’ve plenty and I’ve been using them. Goddess.” Then she tried to wipe the soot from her shoulder and only succeeded in working it further into the fabric. Now her only option was to work it in enough that it would became part of the fabric entirely. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about it getting on anything else, at least.

Harry activated his omni. “What happened to your elbow?”

“What?” Thaia looked. “Right, that. Errant power junction box.”

“Power junction boxes tend to wander about?” he asked as he gestured for her to sit on one of the exam beds.

She considered protesting, but his look told her that if Thaia didn’t cooperate, he’d cheat and threaten to contact Lexi, and then Thaia would feel bad and cooperate anyway. “Corralling them after they’ve escaped is a nightmare. Just zapping people everywhere,” she said to Harry as she walked over to the bed. After she sat down, the stain on her knee really stood out but she was an engineer so who the fuck cared.

He chuckled as he performed a quick scan to make sure there wasn’t any real damage underneath the bruising, and then healed it up. “There. Now your elbow won’t scare people who walk by.”

She smiled. “Thanks, Harry.”

“Anytime,” he said. “I mean it.”

After a nod and a promise to take care of herself, she headed to SAM Node. Thaia genuinely did like Harry and he was a remarkably good friend to Lexi and thank the fucking goddess he hadn’t been killed when the Hyperion hit the Scourge. Or the Scourge hit the Hyperion because Thaia wouldn’t put it past the Scourge to be actively targeting Initiative constructs. She’d seen the vid recording from when Arvex and Na’to had died during their EVA. The fucking Scourge had stalked them like a huntress before it struck. The only advantage they had over the Scourge was that it didn’t move fast enough to cross entire systems in an instant, which was the only reason she wasn’t frightened about the EVA she’d be doing after she talked to SAM.

Unfortunately, SAM had nothing of use, not even cooperation.

“I can say that the QEC comm units about which you’ve inquired are intact, but their locations are hidden behind encryption that only Sara Ryder can decrypt,” said SAM.

Thaia sat on the railing in SAM Node, right leg dangling down far enough for the toe of her boot to reach the floor. “So I can just ask Sara?”

SAM’s translucent blue cloud of what looked like glowflies swirled and coalesced closer to Thaia. “You could, but that action wouldn’t yield further information. Sara cannot decrypt the necessary files until certain conditions are met, which will take an unknown amount of time due to the method Alec Ryder used to block them.”

In lieu of kicking at the railing like a frustrated child, Thaia slid off it and glared past SAM, wishing Alec was there so she could yell at him for being an asshole. She could see why his next Pathfinder would need to be prevented from knowing automatically, but there wasn’t a reason for new information to be withheld from her or Dr. Aridana. 

And so, because of Alec, she and Dr. Aridana and everyone else still didn’t know if any of the regular messages had been received or if there was anyone left in the Milky Way to answer. They had nothing. They were lost and adrift without the knowledge of there being a Milky Way to return to if they wanted. And with the shitshow Andromeda had been, Thaia could do little more than dream about building the relay telescope and simply looking at the Milky Way, looking for Thessia, looking for Corope.

“I am sorry,” said SAM. “I wish I could be of more assistance.”

“I don’t blame you. We’ll just need to find the other arks, SAMs, and Pathfinders.” The Leusinia and Matriarch Ishara in particular, because Thaia had higher clearance with the asari SAM, and Matriarch Ishara—along with Eirian and Meir—would put a stop to Tann’s bullshit about not letting Sula out of cryo. Hope waited in dwindling amounts and the delay sparked an existential fury.

As a result, between her frustration with the late Alec Ryder and the damage the Scourge had inflicted on the Hyperion, it was the angriest EVA Thaia had ever done. The three humans who accompanied her were careful with their words and Thaia would’ve felt bad about it if not for the frustration. She did make sure she didn’t speak harshly with them, which came at the cost of not talking to them much except for what was necessary to conduct a safe EVA. And it was a mostly routine EVA, though it hadn’t gone without incidents, one of which had been another engineer catching Thaia’s safety line and yanking her out of position. She’d reacted by grabbing the first handhold she saw with her left arm, then had realized which arm and used biotics to slow her momentum before she undid Lexi’s excellent work with her shoulder. 

Thinking about Lexi did help improve her mood a little.

However, a lot of anger still clung to her post-EVA as she changed out of her hardsuit, scowled at the soot stain and the grease stain and the hatch leading to space for good measure. And it’d been such a good day heading into that chat with SAM. 

She thought about walking back to Drack’s shuttle and changing, then decided she didn’t care and neither would Dr. Aridana. Since she’d been Thaia’s advisor for her doctorates, she’d known Thaia for decades. She’d also witnessed the deplorable, filthy state of Thaia’s clothing after that one time Thaia had agreed to helping the geology department in the field. There was also the fact that Dr. Aridana was maybe a century away from becoming a matriarch, which translated to shifting priorities when it came to lists of fucks given.

Her mood improved slightly when Dr. Aridana directed her to meet in the real astrophysics lab, built into the curve along the edge of the very end of one of the wards. The light pollution from the ward and the rest of the Nexus, which would have interfered with their work, was easily filtered out from there. It’d been one of Thaia’s favorite places back in the Milky Way, but they hadn’t had enough power to waste on the lab and the tram that traversed the entire length of the ward to get there in Andromeda. Now that the Hyperion had been integrated, they had the power, and with astrophysics being essential to researching and understanding the Scourge, they had the justification for activating the expansive lab. 

Thaia wondered if Suvi knew it was up and running again. In addition to Suvi’s PhDs in geology and molecular biology, she was an astrophysicist and had worked with the astrophysics team in the Milky Way for years. And like most of the team, Suvi also favored the real astrophysics lab. If Thaia’s mood improved, she’d message Suvi about it later.

When Thaia entered, she found Dr. Aridana there like she’d expected, but Kesh was there as well. Her presence wasn’t a bad thing since Kesh was a friend, but if Thaia was going to talk to Dr. Aridana about the Milky Way shit, it would be difficult.

“What about the problem from dark space?” Thaia asked, using the ambiguous phrasing they’d agreed to use in public if ever needed.

“She knows,” said Dr. Aridana.

Well, problem fucking solved. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“She just did,” said Kesh. “What’s with attitude?”

Apparently Thaia’s mood hadn’t improved as much as she’d thought.

“My guess is whatever news she got from SAM,” said Dr. Aridana.

Thaia threw herself onto the couch in front of the astrophysics lab’s wide window that offered a remarkable view of the Zheng He System. Then she noticed it was the same couch they’d had in the Milky Way lab. “How’d we get this here?”

“You’re welcome,” said Kesh. 

Thaia resumed looking out at the space beyond the window. 

“In case you’ve forgotten,” said Dr. Aridana, “this is where you say ‘thank you’ to Kesh.”

“Thank you.” There were times Thaia believed Dr. Aridana acted too much like a matriarch already and this was one of them. However, seeing the view of the system surrounding the Nexus from the comfort of the couch she and the rest of the astrophysics team had spent years breaking in until it reached perfection did help. “Does Suvi know we brought the couch?”

“It was her idea, actually.” Dr. Aridana grabbed one of the stools and rolled it closer to the window. “What did SAM tell you?”

“Fuck all is what he told me.” Thaia relayed to them her short conversation with SAM, including Thaia’s take on Alec Ryder’s choices. “Any comms from Dr. T’Soni would be on the Leusinia with Matriarch Ishara, and the other QECs are on the missing arks. So we’re back to where we started, which was nowhere. Unless Jien Garson’s QEC turned up? I assume SAM would’ve said something if it was found during Ryder’s search of Spender’s apartment.”

“No QEC, but Ryder did find enough evidence to get Spender exiled,” said Kesh.

“Really? Shit, I wish I could’ve been here to see the look on his face.” She really did. Spender had fucked over the krogan and so many others and then some. With him exiled, it wasn’t a matter of if Spender was going to die, it was a matter of how, when, and who’d get to him first. Thaia thought it a toss-up between Morda and Sloane, and neither would begrudge the other the kill. 

“You could have if you’d been staying on the Nexus and pursuing your dream instead of being out there doing whatever commando things you’re doing,” said Dr. Aridana. 

“You bring that up every time I’m here.” 

Needing an excuse to not face Dr. Aridana’s combination of scrutiny and empathy, Thaia stood and went over to the most critically important supply cabinet in the entire lab—the food supply cabinet. It was also a valid excuse because she hadn’t gotten a chance to eat much that day other than a couple nutrition bars and therefore was ready to gnaw her fucking arm off. 

The cabinet was half-stocked and Thaia picked out one of the good ration packs and some water and internally celebrated a little because she hadn’t had to brawl for it and risk pissing off Lexi like she had on the Tempest.

So of course Kesh called Thaia’s behavior out because, really, what else were friends for? “You realize how obvious your avoidance was, right?” she asked from where she stood next to the table.

And of course Dr. Aridana waited until Thaia turned around and no longer had an excuse to avoid eye contact before she spoke again. “And I will continue bringing it up each time you visit until you’re here on a permanent basis because you’re punishing yourself with this grudge you have with Director Tann.”

“Did you forget that he’s keeping my father in cryo? Because from where I stand that’s a really good fucking reason for a grudge.” Her fingers tightening their grip on the ration pack like it was all that kept her escalating temper from getting away from her, Thaia held back the accusation that Dr. Aridana didn’t care about who she’d lost.

Dr. Aridana maintained her poise, as if Thaia hadn’t spoken rudely. “The way you’ve expressed your frustration with him has severely limited the contributions you could be making to our research.”

At this rate she was going to accidentally crush the fucking ration pack. Or throw it. She threw words instead. “Even if I could be a scientist right now, for me work here I’d have to apologize to Tann and if you think I’ll ever fucking apologize to him then you—he’s keeping my father in cryo just because he’s afraid of her! Everyone else in my family has been killed and he still won’t fucking let her out of cryo because that shitfucker doesn’t care about anyone except himself.”

“Tell us how you really feel,” Kesh said mildly.

Her mildness brought Thaia up short and then she became painfully aware of her behavior. “I sounded like I was going to run to Ops and headbutt him, didn’t I?”

“More or less. But I’m pretty sure Dr. Aridana has a reasonable point if you’ll let her get to it.” Kesh gestured toward the ration pack. “Eat and let her talk.”

Thaia returned to the couch, most of her remaining anger fading into resignation. “All right, I’m listening.”

“Good,” Dr. Aridana said with a nod and the calm she’d kept through Thaia’s admitted outburst. “Now, setting aside that you’re needlessly denying yourself your dream—”

Except Thaia wasn’t about to let this become about her personal responsibility when it wasn’t her fucking fault. “Andromeda denied the dream. Andromeda denied everyone’s dreams, and until we understand the Scourge, it will keep denying dreams.”

“And here I thought asari were good at listening,” said Kesh. “Maybe it’s your krogan ancestors.”

Thaia indicated her compliance by remaining silent and opening her ration pack.

“The point I’ve been trying to make,” said Dr. Aridana, “is that staying here on the Nexus would advance that understanding.”

Thaia frowned at her. “Did you not look at any of the data I sent you in the past two weeks?”

“I did. Now imagine what you could have done with it in a research lab. That’s what we’re losing. With the Hyperion docked, we have access to SAM and his computing power here in the lab.” She gestured to the large interactive table that dominated the center of the room. 

A circle inset along the top glowed blue and small version SAM’s blue cloud appeared. “I truly do wish I had more information to share,” said SAM.

“I know.” Thaia waved him off and then addressed Dr. Aridana. “Tann had me searched for weapons this time. So, no, I’m not going to stay here on a permanent basis.”

Dr. Aridana sighed, the first outward indication of frustration Thaia had seen from her during their conversation. “By focusing on and reacting to your grudge with Director Tann, you’re looking at this issue short-term when you need to be looking at this from a long-term perspective. Your focus should be on the courses of action that will allow you to circumvent Director Tann’s refusal to let your father out of cryo. Successful circumvention will require researching the Scourge and finding the other arks.”

Well, shit. “That’s a really good point.”

“But?” asked Dr. Aridana.

“I can’t stay. Not yet.” Thaia hoped Dr. Aridana would understand what she meant because she didn’t want to get into it because it would only serve to remind her that everyone was gone and her father was in cryo and Tann was a cloaca.

“The Nexus isn’t the only place where you could stay and advance research on the Scourge,” said Kesh. “There’s a SAM router and a fully equipped research table on the Tempest. You wouldn’t have to be around Number Eight and you’d still get to contribute more than you can now. And we all know Ryder wouldn’t have any objections to you joining her crew.”

Thaia drew a hand over her face. “Ryder isn’t the reason why I can’t stay on the Tempest.”

“I think it’s stupid,” said Kesh.

“Don’t hold back or anything.” Thaia resumed eating. She’d have been embarrassed at how quickly she consumed the rations if she hadn’t been a commando and had eaten way faster on multiple occasions. This was somewhere approaching polite, almost finished with it or not.

“If I didn’t hold back, we’d be here for hours,” Kesh said, and then looked over at Dr. Aridana.

The fuck? Thaia set aside the empty ration container as she waited.

“What about an unofficial return?” asked Dr. Aridana. “Unhindered access to the lab whenever you’re on the Nexus, whether you’ve reported your arrival to Director Tann or not. It wouldn’t be as much as any of us would prefer, but it would be far more than what you can do now.”

Thaia missed the work she’d done that day. Building things, repairing things, discovering things, things she didn’t get to do much as a commando, especially not in Andromeda. But how much she missed those things wasn’t strong enough to overcome her infuriated loathing of Tann because he wouldn’t let her dad out of cryo. He hadn’t let her out when everything had gone to shit around them and if he’d let her out, Sula wouldn’t have let people die because she would’ve protected them.

One more engineer could’ve detected the overloads sooner and the fires in the cryo pod rooms wouldn’t have started, so Auri and Basya would be alive. One more matriarch shielding the Nexus bridge could’ve held the atmosphere inside long enough for everyone to escape with their lives, so Aunt Jarah and Matriarch Nuara would be alive. With three matriarchs awake and alive, the Uprising wouldn’t have happened and Hydroponics wouldn’t have been set on fire and Safira would be alive. Spender wouldn’t have been able to lie to Morda and the Nakmor clan wouldn’t have left and Uncle Khel would be alive.

  If Tann let Sula out now, Andromeda wouldn’t be so fucking dangerous. Things would be better and yet he refused, so Thaia wasn’t going to apologize for shit.

But Kesh and Dr. Aridana had made an excellent point about research being a method of circumventing Tann’s refusal, and that alone meant it was worth it to spend what time here she could. 

“All right,” she said out loud.

“Good,” Dr. Aridana said with a smile. “Each time we progress toward understanding the Scourge, we also advance toward building the relay telescope.”

“Incremental progress,” said Thaia.

“Progress nonetheless. Perhaps it will take longer than our initial estimates, but it’s still a viable goal.”

“It’s something.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Kesh, who didn’t sound enthusiastic at all, which Thaia knew was her point. 

She checked the time on her omni. “I’ve got twenty minutes until I tell Kandros I’m leaving the station.”

“Are you?” asked Dr. Aridana.

“Maybe. I might crash here instead of going back to Elaaden tonight. Either way, I still have to talk to him and I need to stop by Vortex to drop off a package for Anan.” She stood and hunted for the recycling bin.

“The Tempest docked an hour ago,” said SAM. “Ryder said you are welcome to a free bunk on the ship whenever you wish.”

Thaia ended up grinning at the recycling bin because Lexi was going to be on the Nexus and she’d been wanting to see her and now she could. But then her smile wavered as she tried not to panic because Lexi was here and Thaia didn’t want to fuck anything up and then have Lexi gone, too.

Dr. Aridana rolled her stool back to her primary terminal. “You should do that,” she said as she rolled. “Go visit with Lexi. Maybe that will cheer you up.”

Kesh scoffed. “It still won’t, according to Drack.”

“Has Drack been gossiping?” Thaia asked, her composure mostly back.

“Hard to when there isn’t anything to gossip about, but he tries.” She headed toward the door. “Come on, I’ll ride with you to Operations and then the docks. I need to pick up ingredients for the plant food recipe Vorn sent me. And if you make one comment about it, I’ll stop looking for that Acolyte.”

Thaia didn’t say a word. If there was an Acolyte to be found and acquired in Andromeda, she needed everyone she could searching for it. Losing Kesh’s help would practically guarantee she’d never locate one and Kesh didn’t bluff.

The beginnings of new construction—construction that had nothing to do with repairs—along the ward’s tram line banished the rest of Thaia’s frustration. 

“Construction’s going slower than I like,” Kesh said as they observed the skeletal ward through the tram’s windows, “but it’s going. It’ll pick up when the other arks get here. And it will really pick up when Matriarch Ishara deals with Tann or your father is released from cryo, whichever comes first. We both know that once the Leusinia gets here, she won’t be in cryo much longer.”

“Between the ward and the outpost on Eos, you’d think Tann would acknowledge that there are now systems for her to integrate.” She took a breath, watching the spoke of Nexus Operations, the heart of the Nexus, loom larger. Then it went dark outside the windows when their tram entered the Ops tunnel, making the interior of the tram too bright. “But not while he thinks she’s a threat. He’ll have to be forced.”

“Let’s hope we find the other arks soon. I don’t think even Macen and Raeka are going to let him block getting Matriarch Sula out of cryo. She’ll be too much of a help to keep going to waste.” Kesh looked over at Thaia. “You could use her around, too.”

“I know.” She could, but the sensitive topics she’d talked about with Kesh and Dr. Aridana earlier, the blocks on SAM’s memory, and the reminders of why she couldn’t be closer to her best friend awakened the twisting inside, binding her lungs. Her breathing shallowed and the strips of light in the tunnel winked out.

Then tram stopped and the doors opened, a welcome escape.

Chapter Text

The Nexus, 2819.

Thaia’s talk with Kandros went longer than she’d thought. As she listened, he apologized for the weapons search and assured her that he’d convinced Tann to not demand it again. But there were times when, even though Thaia knew Kandros was in an awkward position and doing the best he could, she got tired of one variation or another of I’m just doing my job. Her tolerance for hearing it hovered near nonexistent and her awareness of it made the whole conversation uncomfortable because she also couldn’t forget that he’d once saved her life.

Then Kandros helped restore some of Thaia’s good will by telling her that he had no plans to visit Vortex that evening and neither did Talini.

Which basically meant that he gave zero shits if she hung out at Vortex for as long as she wanted after making her delivery to Anan. Then Thaia had thought maybe she could get Lexi out of the medbay and into Vortex so she could relax. Or, if Lexi insisted on continuing her work on her current research project, at least getting her working on it off the Tempest, either in the astrophysics lab or even in Vortex.

And it was entirely possible to do so because Vortex was the nicest and cleanest bar Thaia had visited in Andromeda, without question. To be fair, Kralla’s Song and Tartarus were at a distinct disadvantage due to their location on Kadara—Tartarus especially since it was in the slums—but the music choices alone inclined Thaia to Vortex more than the others. Instead of the standard Milky Way fare Umi played in Kralla’s Song, or the music that was like getting punched in the face in Tartarus, Vortex had a nice downtempo mix. What also gave Vortex the advantage was not being crammed wall to wall with people, sulfur clinging to their clothes, nor were its walls lined with literal cells occupied by the ubiquitous dancers. Because, even in Andromeda, the presence of asari dancers was inescapable. 

Shelves of various liquor bottles and bright screens showing a rotation of Initiative promos lined Vortex’s walls. Several tables were scattered through the room and patrons were scattered between the tables, the booths along the walls, some sitting at the bar under its dim blue lighting, and one lone turian with a critical case of stage fright standing silently on the small stage.

While Thaia was chatting with Anan about the new mixed drink she’d just had Thaia try, she caught sight of Lexi sitting alone in one of the booths in a corner of the place, slouched against the seat back, an unopened bottle of liquor in front of her.

Thaia frowned. 

“Took you less than five minutes to spot her,” said Anan. “She’s been there for nearly an hour, staring at that bottle like it has the answer to the meaning of life.”

Thaia continued to frown. “That’s something you ask matriarchs, not alcohol.”

Anan slid another full tumbler of the new drink over toward Thaia. “When Dutch dropped an empty glass off for her, he checked what was in that bottle. I’ll say this: you need to go stop your friend and give her this drink before she makes a mistake by drinking that shit liquor.”

“That bad?” Thaia looked at the clear tumbler, condensation already collecting on the outside, and then picked it up. It wasn’t like she wouldn’t have gone over there, anyway. 

“Either she has no idea what a good drink is,” said Dutch, “or whoever gave her that bottle hates her.”

Thaia’s frown returned. “How the fuck could anyone hate Lexi?”

“Goddess, just go intervene before it’s too late,” Anan said with a laugh. “Let me know later how she likes the drink.”

“I’m going.” Thaia pretended she didn’t hear Dutch joining in with Anan’s laughter, whatever that fucking meant, and headed toward the corner booth where her best friend was. 

As Thaia approached, Lexi lifted her downcast eyes and straightened from her slouch. “Did someone send you?” she asked with a considerable amount of sullen suspicion.

Thaia raised her eyebrows at the accusation in Lexi’s tone. “Wow, someone’s in a mood.” She set down the full tumbler and then took the seat across from Lexi without bothering to ask for permission. “I brought Anan some ingredients from Elaaden. She mentioned you were here and that you might need an intervention.” 

Lexi folded her arms across her chest. “An intervention?”

“For your truly awful choice in liquor.” Thaia leaned down so she could read the label. “Everlast Whiskey. Synthetically aged one hundred years.” Her eyes flicked up to Lexi. “That’s what you’re drinking? I thought Anan was exaggerating, but she’s right. You need an intervention. Well, unless you want to drink something that tastes like a campfire. And moss. A campfire of burning moss.”

She sighed. “I grew up on Omega. You’d think I’d be able to stomach any drink.”

“Well, I grew up on Illium, where we learned how not to sign anything while inebriated.” Thaia scrutinized the label again. “We also learned that good taste is a thing and some drinks aren’t worth drinking as a result.”

“Why’s that?”

“If you’re running the risk of waking up in a five-year contract as an indentured servant, you’d better really have enjoyed whatever you drank to get you there.”

Lexi picked up the bottled and contemplated it again, running one finger down the label. “Gil thought I’d like it.”

“You trounced him in poker. Three separate people sent me the vid.”

Lexi set the whiskey aside. “Does it really taste like moss? It doesn’t smell like it should.”

“I had some on a dare. Never again.” It’d been a dare from her squad and Thaia had spit it out and they’d never let her forget it. In fact, one of the last messages she’d gotten from them before the Initiative had left the Milky Way had been about that fucking dare.

“So what does good taste dictate you drink?” Lexi sat back, but it was far from relaxing into her seat. If anything, she looked more uncomfortable, like she didn’t know what do with her arms, at first crossing them before changing her mind and switching to place folded hands on the table in front of her. “Akantha?” Lexi’s voice fell flat, and instead of looking at Thaia while she awaited an answer, she looked at her hands.

Something really was wrong.

Thaia became serious about cajoling Lexi out of whatever mire she was in. “No element of risk in akantha. And it tastes boring. Sweet boring, but boring.” She slid the glass Anan had given her over to Lexi. “This one’s good. Give it a try, if you want.”

Lexi didn’t even consider it. “I’m not taking your drink from you.”

Thaia rolled her eyes. “I had mine at the bar right before Anan told me to stop you from making a terrible mistake and said for me to bring this to you. But if you don’t want yours, I’ll take it off your hands because it really was good.”

“I’m trusting you.” Which apparently didn’t go quite that far because Lexi only placed her hand on the glass and didn’t pick it up.

“It isn’t like I’m asking you to jump off a cliff.” 

The corner of Lexi’s mouth barely moved, but the beginnings of a smile were betrayed by the brightening of her eyes. Eyes that had, Thaia realized, taken on some of the warm amber hues from Vortex’s lighting scheme in addition to their usual grey. Then she struggled not to stare at them because the color shift was really cool and also because they were Lexi’s eyes and they were tempting to stare at in the first place.

After another unfairly dubious look at the drink, Lexi finally tried it. “All right, that is good,” she said after her first sip. “Good enough that you aren’t getting it back.”

“I’ll order another one of my own. And another one for you after you’re done with that one because we have to stay even when it comes to number of drinks.” After Lexi nodded—Thaia was sure to wait for an affirmative answer because she’d learned her fucking lesson about assumptions in the Milky Way—she placed the orders through her omni. 

By the time Lexi finished her drink yet still hadn’t volunteered any information about what the fuck was going on with her, Thaia opted to pry. “What’s brought you down to contemplating drinking something that a salty Gil recommended?”

One of the servers stopped by their table and swapped their empty glasses for full ones. After she’d gone, Lexi said, “Peebee thinks I don’t care about the crew. About people in general.” She looked across the table at Thaia. “That they and everyone else are just experiments to me. That none of my conversations are normal because I’m only trying to put labels on people so I can categorize them.”

“Peebee? You shouldn’t believe most of the things Peebee says about you. She doesn’t have any matriarchs to rebel against and it seems like you’re the closest she can get.”

“Your idea of helping me feel better,” Lexi said with incredulity at the mismatch between Thaia’s words and their intention, “involves comparing me to a matriarch?”

Also Lexi had an excellent point about Thaia’s approach not being the best. “No, more like you’re currently the most mature, responsible asari Peebee is in regular contact with, so you’re getting the brunt of her rebellion.”

“Mature. You’ve compared me to a matriarch and I’m not even a matron.”

Thaia used her glass to gesture at Lexi before she took a sip. “You act like one.”

“I’m not even three hundred,” Lexi said somewhat indignantly.

This was better. “And here I thought you were a doctor.”

“Just what do you mean?” Lexi’s question was every bit a challenge.

And it kept getting better. Combatively sad meant ready for verbal sparring. Even Lexi’s posture had improved. 

Thaia mostly tried not to appear smug but probably failed. “I’m an engineer and even I know the whole life stage shit isn’t entirely age-based. It’s not like when we go to sleep the night before we turn three-fifty still a maiden, and then the next morning we wake up and suddenly want a life of stability with a bondmate and daughters. Come on. You’re more stable and matronly than some asari who defaulted into matronhood because nobody’s a maiden by four hundred. Anyone who didn’t know your chronological age wouldn’t think twice about assuming you’re a matron. For all anyone knows, you’re already thinking a daughter would be a good idea once the kett are dealt with and there are thriving outposts.”

It took Lexi a suspect amount of time to respond—how close to the mark had she landed?—as she studied Thaia over the rim of her glass. Then screen on the wall beside them rotated to a new slide with a higher luminosity that glimmered as catchlights in Lexi’s eyes. 

Thaia forgot where she was going because she really liked Lexi’s eyes. They reflected so much of what Lexi felt, like the wicked flicker of cleverness right before she said something wry, or—goddess, she was so fucked if she couldn’t keep track of her thoughts because of eyes

But Lexi’s really were lovely.

“With all these assumptions you’re making,” Lexi said as she tilted her glass forward a little, which magnified her chin to a degree so ridiculous that Thaia almost laughed out loud, “I assume you’ve a point?”

“I did, but I lost it somewhere around when you looked at me over the rim of your glass.”

“I’m not drunk enough for egregious flirting to go unrecognized.”

Thaia indicated Lexi’s face. “Your nose got warped all funny by the refraction. Looked like it was about to annex your chin.”

Lexi laughed.

“There it is!” Thaia decided it’d be for the best if she didn’t tell Lexi that she’d meant her comment both ways. “Feel better?”

“I do, actually.”

“Good, because I was otherwise out of acceptable ideas.” Thaia finished her drink and chose to be a responsible adult this time around and not have a third. It was a tough call though because Anan’s drink had been excellent. Lexi was close to being done with her second, as well. “How did Peebee get to you so easily, anyway? I know from personal experience that it’s hard to rattle you. So I’d like to know what her secret method was.”

“Because what Peebee told me…” Lexi sighed and her slump returned as she stared at the dregs in her glass. “It wasn’t the first time someone’s told me that. Hence why I’m taking a break from relationships.”

Well, that’d gone in an unforeseen direction. “One, that’s a shit secret method that I won’t be using because it makes no sense. Two, you decided on a break from relationships because of that?”

Lexi stopped trying to divine answers from her glass and looked over at Thaia. “It seemed prudent, given each of my exes said something similar.”

And it had gone from merely not making sense to fucking incomprehensible. Thaia studied her, trying to understand how someone like Lexi, who was normally astonishingly insightful, couldn’t see it. Even when Lexi was being clinical, it was softened by the intensity of the care behind it. And that care extended into every aspect of Lexi’s life and if you knew her at all, you knew how integral it was to her. “Did they know you?”

“One would think. I’m not in the habit of referring to any one or two night stands as exes.”

Thaia took Lexi’s rallied defense as a positive sign, not that it would make helping Lexi see the truth any easier. Maybe she could just verbally hit Lexi over the head with it. “You’re doing this deliberately. There’s no other explanation. If your exes insisted you were like what Peebee—our rebellious, and it’s a damn good thing she’s got a good heart because she’s fucking exhausting maiden friend—said, then I don’t think they ever really knew you at all.”

Lexi straightened enough to cross her arms again. “That isn’t exactly reassuring.”

Fuck. A new galaxy and six hundred years later and Thaia still couldn’t say the right words around Lexi. “Made it sound like your exes didn’t care about you at all, didn’t I?” She sighed. “Not what I meant or what I think. Well, shit. We need wine. Good wine. Then maybe I can explain without fucking it up.” Thaia got to her feet and extended her hand. “Come on.”

With yet another sigh, Lexi stood. “Alcohol rarely provides answers.”

Thaia slung her left arm around Lexi’s shoulders and pulled her closer. “This is why we need good wine. I’ll even borrow the wine my dad brought from the Milky Way.”

“Borrow?”

“Steal. I’m stealing it. Unrepentantly. She’ll understand.”

“You’re sure?”

“Maybe. Maybe not, but she can’t complain and that’s her fault for not being out of cryo.” But if her dad had been out of cryo, then Thaia would’ve stayed here, and no one would’ve gone into her locker and stolen—no, this was about Lexi. Lexi, who was here, now, the warmth of her body leaning against her. Lexi, the person who needed to understand how wrong those other people were about her. “Shit, this is getting maudlin. Let’s go steal some wine.”

“Even in another galaxy, you’re trying to turn me into a miscreant.”

Thaia grinned at hearing the quiet laugh in Lexi’s words. “You’re with me and I’m trouble. And you aren’t in trouble yet, which means I’ve not done my job.” Then she guided Lexi toward the exit. “Need to steal the good wine first.”

“You do realize,” Lexi said once they’d turned down the deserted corridor to the stasis lockers, “what every single person who saw us leave together is going to assume?”

Just friends or not, it wasn’t like Thaia was going to stop being herself. “That we left to find a dark corner so I can fuck you senseless? Or if you’d rather fuck me senseless, that’s fine, too.”

Lexi swatted her on the stomach. “Have you no shame?”

“None whatsoever.”

Lexi’s reply was another genuine laugh.

While their exchange didn’t help Thaia with not imagining those scenarios, Lexi’s newfound cheerfulness made the struggle worth it.

Tonight was heading for the best and worst kinds of torture, but Thaia was all-in on the good wine and she had to get Lexi to understand how wrong her stupid exes were. And Peebee. Sure, it’d end up painful in some ways because if Lexi did finally understand that those people were wrong, she could decide her break in relationships was over. In the Milky Way, that would’ve been the best fucking development ever. But if they got that close here in Andromeda, Andromeda would be its shit self and then Lexi would be gone, too. 

And when Thaia imagined Lexi gone, terror tried to drown her from the inside. 

This was what they had. Lexi here at her side, warm and alive and in the moment. No matter what realizations Lexi made, Thaia would have to content herself with this. 

“Besides, if I censored myself, you’d get to wondering what was wrong and then you’d start in with your fussing because that’s who you are, what with that whole caring about other people thing.” Since Thaia had managed to say that much without fucking it up, she changed the subject before she did. “The stasis lockers are around the corner, right?”

“You’d know better than I would.”

“The one time Lexi T’Perro doesn’t have the answer.” Thaia reluctantly took back her arm and pulled up her more detailed than standard Nexus map on her omni. “Around that corner. My dad’s stasis locker is reasonably close to the entrance, which is good because I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the stasis locker bays, but they’re fucking huge.”

“I seem to recall,” Lexi said as they rounded the corner, “someone having said, in our very first conversation, that she had sworn off getting drunk. We’ve had two unnamed experimental drinks, courtesy of Anan, and we’re currently in the process of stealing good wine. There is no possible way either of us is escaping inebriation tonight.”

Resisting a sigh—because Lexi couldn’t have forgotten that Thaia had mentioned exceptions to said ban—Thaia put her arm around Lexi’s shoulders again. “I did say that. I also said something about exceptions made for the most compelling of reasons.” 

Thaia leaned down, closer to the side of Lexi’s head, as if telling her an intimate secret, but this needed the special emphasis. “You, Lexi T’Perro, are a most compelling reason. Tonight’s about helping you believe that all your exes were and are completely fucking wrong in what they said about you. Because they’re wrong. You’re inherently kind and caring and I believe it and I wish you’d believe it, too.” 

Then Thaia deposited a light kiss on the top of Lexi’s crest to emphasize her point and then realized it could have crossed a line and she internally panicked. And she externally panicked by trying to put some physical distance between them.

Lexi responded with a quiet, wistful sigh as she placed a hand over Thaia’s before Thaia could remove her arm from her shoulders. Then Lexi leaned more heavily against her, but that was it. No acknowledgement of believing those other people wrong even though they were.

Still so much work to be done.

At least it meant Thaia hadn’t overstepped bounds. Goddess, she needed to be careful. They’d both agreed to just best friends and, despite their physical interactions with each other pushing the line of affection one could acceptably give a best friend, that was still the agreement. It would remain so unless they mutually decided otherwise and Thaia needed to be more mindful of her physicality.

Thaia straightened and returned her voice to its normal level as they approached the doors. “Here we go. The wine is almost ours.”

They hushed as they entered the cavernous bay. Rows of lockers resembling half-size versions of stasis pods stretched tall and far, lights flicking on individually when they detected the motion of the two asari below them. Having taken back her arm, Thaia concentrated on her map as she followed its highlighted trail to Matriarch Sula Calfuray’s locker. Fortunately, Thaia had legitimate access to her dad’s locker. More fortunately, opening a stasis locker was a far easier and therefore shorter process than opening a stasis pod. As a bonus, removing something from one wouldn’t wreck anything inside as long as it wasn’t left open for an excessive amount of time.

“There.” Thaia indicated a locker on a middle row that didn’t require a ladder to reach. Then she input the key code and initiated the opening sequence. It would take a matter of minutes to run, which she relayed to Lexi.

Lexi nodded and then gestured at Thaia’s shoulder. “What happened there?”

She looked down. The large streak of soot she’d managed to make a permanent part of the fabric earlier stood out. “Oh, that. Burned out junction box I ran into earlier. Good thing I didn’t do the same with the elbow I bashed into an intact junction box afterward. Hit the side of it. The whole middle part of my arm was a bruise.”

Immediately, Lexi checked both Thaia’s elbows. 

Thaia almost laughed out loud. “It’s fine. Harry fixed it, so stop fussing. The EVA I went on after the excursion in the Nexus’s access tunnels was more dangerous anyway.”

“You did what?”

“Went on an EVA,” said Thaia. “It’s something people who design and build ships have a lot of experience with and are expected to do more than occasionally. They’re statistically more dangerous than whacking body parts on toasty junction boxes, but obviously I’m fine because my body isn’t out there all frozen and floating about.”

“That isn’t—” Lexi crossed her arms. “You dying isn’t something to joke about.”

“Probably not, no.” Joking about it was easier, though. Easier than a lot of things.

“There’s no probably about it.”

Things are different, Safira had said. There were jokes that were off limits now that never would’ve been before and had it been Lexi joking about herself being dead, Thaia would be the one objecting. Objecting because even a single thought devoted to the idea of Lexi being gone tightened the fear that bound her chest. 

Lexi uncrossed her arms and stepped closer, question of concern already forming and Thaia didn’t want to remember.

The locker’s door rotated open, revealing four bottles of wine tucked in amongst the other belongings Sula had thought worthy of bringing to another galaxy. Thaia didn’t look at her father’s stuff other than the wine, trying to decide between two varieties of the four. She couldn’t decide, so both it was. 

“Fuck it.” Grabbed the bottles, handed one to Lexi, tucked the other under her arm, and triggered the resume sequence. Then she turned and stopped. “Shit. Glasses.”

“That would be helpful.” Lexi examined the label of the bottle she held. “Stolen or not, this isn’t a vintage of wine you drink straight from the bottle.”

“Definitely not. Dad would be more offended about us drinking it out of the bottle than having stolen it in the first place. I have a solution, though.” Thaia headed for the exit and Lexi kept pace next to her. “Suvi told me she’s got extra glassware on the Tempest.”

“You want me to go back onto the ship and retrieve them?” Lexi asked after they’d gotten to the corridor.

Thaia scowled at her. “No, that’s boring. I’ll sneak aboard and get them because that’s not boring.”

Lexi raised her eyebrows. “You won’t get caught?”

“Of course not.” The only challenges would be Cora or Jaal, but she’d snuck by both of them before, and they might not even be on the ship in the first place.

“You’re certain?” Lexi’s tone had shifted from mildly skeptical to convinced Thaia had insisted she could fly into a black hole without being reduced to her constituent atoms and those atoms being reduced to their constituent particles.

“You keep saying that and I’m going to take it personally.”

To Lexi’s credit, she looked legitimately perplexed. “Why would you? You aren’t planning an easy task.”

Thaia really did try not to be offended. “Maybe not easy for you because you’re not a commando. Saying a commando can’t sneak aboard a civilian ship like the Tempest is like saying a doctor can’t fix a classic dislocated shoulder.”

That got Lexi frowning at her. “It isn’t the same thing.”

“Really?” Thaia bent over slightly and flopped her left arm around. “Oh, no, my shoulder fell out of its socket! Must’ve been a shitty doctor who allegedly mended it!”

The frown deepened. “The next time you dislocate it, I’m not reducing it.”

Thaia outright laughed. “That’s the biggest fucking lie in two galaxies, T’Perro. The moment you see anyone in that much pain, you instinctively try to help.” When Lexi turned to deny it, Thaia didn’t give her the chance. “No, don’t argue. That’s as factual and unchanging as a planet’s gravitational constant and I’m the stubborn as fuck astrophysicist in this relationship, so I’d win. Also,” she said as they walked by Vortex again, “we don’t have time to argue about it anyway if we want to enjoy this wine before those drinks of Anan’s hit us. She said it’d take at least a couple hours, but they will hit.”

The challenge lingered in Lexi’s eyes just long enough that Thaia believed they might actually get into an argument. Then Lexi said, “Fine, I’ll set it aside for now.” After Thaia nodded, Lexi resumed talking, this time over her omni. “SAM, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t inform the crew about Thaia’s brief foray aboard the Tempest.”

Thaia’s amusement didn’t fade. “You just asked SAM not to tattle on me.”

“Dr. T’Perro,” said SAM, “as long as Althaia refrains from playing any pranks while aboard, I will refrain from ‘tattling.’”

“SAM, what the fuck? I said to use my first name,” said Thaia.

“Althaia is your given first name. Thaia is a nickname,” said SAM.

“SAM’s right,” said Lexi.

Thaia shot a glare at Lexi. “Thank you for your unwavering support.”

“You’re welcome.” Honestly, Lexi didn’t have to look so self-satisfied. Or so attractive when she looked so self-satisfied.

“I promise I won’t play any pranks, SAM,” Thaia said. “I’ll even write Suvi a note telling her I borrowed some of her glasses.”

“Then I will not, as you called it, tattle,” said SAM.

Thaia looked at Lexi. “There, the AI’s on board with my plan. You stay here with the wine and act casual. I’ll be back shortly with glasses.”

“All right,” Lexi said, still not entirely convinced but gamely cooperating with Thaia’s tame heist. “Good luck.”

“I’m a commando, so the phrase is ‘good hunting.’”

Lexi smiled. “Good hunting, then.”

Thaia returned the smile and then slipped into the shadows to sneak her way onto the Tempest.

***

The white wine Thaia had stolen from her father was excellent. Remarkable enough that Lexi typed the name of the wine into a note on her omni—there was a possibility someone else might’ve brought the same wine or the means to make it to Andromeda—before she passed the point of remembering because it was looking like that kind of night.

It was.

The drinks at Vortex and the wine had lulled Lexi into a pleasant calm along with bringing them both to the dangerous, yet freeing stage of talking without reservation while still mostly articulate. Thaia had brought Lexi to the astrophysics lab, for some reason being incredibly insistent on showing Lexi the plans for the relay telescope and how it could survey Corope from Andromeda. Since they lacked any other location on the Nexus to talk privately and neither of them wanted to hear whatever the Tempest’s crew would have to say about either of them in this state, Lexi had agreed.

Thaia sat on the large table in the center of the room while she fiddled with its inset terminal, a holo of a plan for a mass relay projected over it. A portion of the projection fell across Thaia’s crest and, from what Lexi could gather from Thaia’s grumbling, it wasn’t supposed to. 

Glass in hand and resisting a fond smile at Thaia’s playful scowl, Lexi watched from where she’d taken a seat in the corner of the couch in front of the wide observation window. “There are chairs,” said Lexi. “Many of them.”

“And some stools and the couch you’re sitting on. Do you have a point or does drunk you enjoy waxing philosophical about seating?” Thaia jabbed at the terminal and then frowned. “Is that what drunk you does?”

“I was merely curious about why you don’t use them.”

“Because they’re boring.” The projection tilted closer to Thaia instead of away. She glared up at it. “How the fuck am I going to be able to show you the relay telescope if I can’t properly display a single relay? Goddess, if I can’t get this to work, I’m going to have to relinquish the right to call myself an engineer. Then I’d have too much leisure time and get into more trouble. Or be a commando all the time and get myself into all the trouble.” She took another sip of her wine and looked over at Lexi. “If you weren’t a doctor, what would you be?”

It was a question Lexi still couldn’t find a suitable answer for and she knew continuing with only her work was to her own detriment. “I don’t know who I am, if not a doctor. I live for my work.”

Thaia studied Lexi, tilting her head to the side so her crest didn’t have green lines painted across it by the projection. “Work doesn’t live for you, though.”

“That…” There was an extended pause as Lexi tried to figure out what Thaia meant. Then she gave up. “That didn’t even make sense.”

Thaia didn’t hide from laughing at herself. “It really didn’t. Right, no aphorism creation when I’m almost drunk. Or probably drunk.”

“You tried.”

“Mm. Not sure if that makes it better or worse.” She adjusted the display and it resumed the position it had been in before the last adjustment. “Fuck this thing.” Thaia sighed and turned to Lexi again. “Maybe look at it another way, then. Why did you become a doctor?”

Lexi smiled, because remembering why she’d become a doctor meant remembering her father. “I’d patch up my dad after busy nights. Discovered I had steady hands with a soft touch. The more I helped him, the more I became fascinated with the process of healing. Then I realized I had gentle hands because I cared about healing his pain, too.”

Both of Thaia’s legs dangled from the table when she fully faced Lexi. “So you—no, don’t make that face at me. I can get this out. So you gave a shit, and you were good at giving a shit, and you’re still good at giving a shit. I’d phrase it another way, but you know what happened a few minutes ago when I went for pithy.”

“That was a bit of a train wreck.” But Thaia’s wholehearted effort to communicate, for Lexi’s benefit, what she saw when she looked at Lexi inspired the genuine affection underpinning Lexi’s words.

Determined to get across whatever it was on her mind, Thaia’s earnest smile didn’t diminish. “And so was what I just said. Let me try again. It’s like… a lot of people couldn’t give a shit, right? Then you have the decent people who give a shit. Then you have other people who give at least two shits and probably more.” She raised her glass at Lexi in salute. “You’re in that third category.”

However crude the explanation, it made sense. “You should write a paper about your insight.”

“What? On the doctor who gives a shit to the nth degree, but most of those shits stay hidden unless you know her? Pretty sure it’s reached the status of a superpower you had so many people fooled. Unobservant people fooled, by the way. That part’s important.”

“No,” Lexi said before she thought too much about what Thaia had said and how close to the truth it was. “I meant your peculiarly colorful categorization of caring. Write a paper on it, submit it. You could probably get it published in a peer-reviewed journal once Andromeda has them.”

Thaia’s smile added an extra note of warmth to the light rasp the wine had brought out in her voice. “Could be the wine, but I’m pretty sure you’re making fun of me.”

Her voice had always hinted at the rasp, but hearing it made Lexi want to luxuriate in it. “It’s the wine. I’m being perfectly nice.”

“I think your position on the shit-giving scale is sinking. Wait, no. You’re actively giving me shit so it’d be rising. Or…” Thaia paused. “You know what? I didn’t think the creation and definition of terms all the way through.”

“We can still brainstorm titles.” Because if they brainstormed titles, it meant Lexi could listen to her voice even longer.

Thaia frowned into her empty wine glass. “How strong is this fucking wine? Because that sounds like a good idea, which means I’m closer to drunk than I thought.” In an attempt to reach the bottle on the opposite end of the table, Thaia stretched across it, blocking most of the projection with her body, but her fingers fell just short. With a mutter about how a commando should’ve been able to do that, Thaia rolled off the table and onto her feet, grabbed her glass, and then walked over and picked up the bottle with her free hand.

The fluidity of Thaia’s movement captured Lexi’s attention. And then her mind followed, visualizing that same grace being exercised along her own body on that very same table. Thaia’s confidence in knowing where each part of her body was at any given moment mirrored her ability of knowing who she was in any given setting—the scientist separated from the commando, and then again separated from who Thaia was as a person. It gave Thaia a certain self-possessiveness, an enticement Lexi found increasingly difficult to ignore.

But it was also a certainty of self that Lexi could only wish to know for herself. Had she the ability to separate her career from her very being, she wouldn’t need to continue ignoring the attraction between herself and Thaia. An attraction to someone who espoused an opinion on Lexi that stood in direct opposition of every long-term lover that Lexi had ever had. And Thaia refused to back down from her position, such was the strength of her belief. Yet, the beliefs and opinions of Lexi’s exes still held a higher relevancy because, unlike Thaia, they had been inside her mind.

You couldn’t meld with someone on numerous occasions and not know them, which meant when someone angrily asked, “Is lover just another category to you?” before they ended a relationship, that there was truth in their question. Those same truths lined the trail of exes Lexi had let slip from her life—I’m not some subject of a thesis of yours; your devotion goes to your experiments; which group am I in, experimental or control?—so there had to be something her exes had seen in her that Thaia couldn’t. Or maybe there was something Thaia saw in her that Lexi’s exes never had, even still.

And perhaps if Lexi knew who she was in all aspects of her life, she’d know the answer.

The couch suddenly uncomfortable, Lexi stood.

She wanted—needed—to separate herself from her work, didn’t know how to accomplish it, and it concerned her that maybe she never would. 

As Thaia read the label on the bottle, Lexi went to the window to view the field of stars and the planet hanging below. Despite having lived on space stations for nearly her entire life, Lexi knew little beyond the basics of astronomy. Yet the friend here with her knew so much about it and rarely let on unless she was actively engaged in it.  

Lexi turned toward the friend in question, who looked up quizzically when Lexi asked, “How do you do it?” Though she trusted Thaia, Lexi disliked the audible tremor of vulnerability in her question and leaned against the window behind her for stability. “Separate who you are from what you do?”

Thaia shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I don’t? It isn’t like I’ve done much engineering or astrophysics over the past year. Just commando shit and that’s what people see.” She placed the bottle and her glass on the side table, and then instead of walking around the couch like the average person, Thaia vaulted over it. Then she softly laughed at herself. “I suppose doing shit like that doesn’t help disprove their assumptions.”

“We’re standing in an astrophysics lab. If people aren’t seeing that you’re more than a commando, they aren’t looking hard enough to see who you are.”

It brought out another smile, one fonder than was prudent when paired with the open admiration in her gaze. “You said that so much better than I did when I tried to explain how wrong your exes were.” Then as if Thaia had recognized their venture into dangerous territory, she shifted to look over Lexi’s shoulder. “And you’re leaning against a window with space on the other side. The same type of window you asked me not to lean against for whatever Lexi reasons you had.”

“I’m trusting your calculations.”

“I didn’t do the calculations for that window.”

“Then I’m placing my trust mathematics.” After another laugh from Thaia, Lexi asked the question she’d forgotten to when they’d arrived. “How do you even have access to this lab? It’s one thing to sneak aboard the Tempest, but we had to take a tram the entire length of an under construction ward to get here. A tram isn’t something that will go unnoticed.”

Thaia rolled her eyes as she gestured around the room with arms that, for once, weren’t hidden under long sleeves. As Thaia spoke, Lexi indulged in admiring the definition between the muscles while yearning to trace each of those lines with her fingers.

“Kesh is in on it,” Thaia said while she continued gesturing, “so she knows if the tram is moving at a weird time, it’s me or Dr. Aridana. The lab and access to it is their idea for luring me back to working on the Nexus full time.”

“Why haven’t you returned?”

Some frustration crept into Thaia’s tone, though it wasn’t directed at Lexi. Resentment for what had happened between Thaia and Director Tann. Her arms fell, hands briefly curling into fists before she noticed and relaxed them. “For me to live on the Nexus, I’d have to apologize to Tann.”

With the amount of animosity between Thaia and Tann, Thaia would never capitulate to his demands. “That seems unlikely.”

“Not unless ‘fine, unfuck you,’ counts as an apology.” Thaia’s smirk was primarily amusement at the thought of telling Director Tann exactly that, but her anger with him clearly hadn’t abated.

It bewildered, at times. Thaia was still Thaia, but Andromeda had changed her. Perhaps not permanently, yet neither was it transient. “You didn’t have this much of a temper in the Milky Way.”

“Technically I did, but I had a lot of patience to go with it. Angry is easier here.”

“Why?”

Shoulders tight, Thaia looked out the window, at the same field of stars Lexi had observed moments ago, but Thaia saw something else entirely. Her tone started fierce then tumbled toward a whisper. “Because then I don’t remember.” The force Thaia had thrown behind the last word caused it to crack.

Then Lexi saw what Thaia’s anger eclipsed—fear. Something in those avoided memories terrified Thaia, and for her to have survived the upheaval of Andromeda, avoidance would have been necessary. Maybe it was, sadly, necessary still. 

Yet, the avoidance needn’t apply to the good memories. Perhaps helping Thaia would be as simple as changing the course of her memories from ones she wasn’t ready to confront to ones that would help her remember who she was.

“How long has it been since you went swimming?” asked Lexi.

“Last time was when I brought you to the ocean on Thessia.” Thaia turned from the view beyond the window, her eyes engaged again as the good memories took hold. “Why?”

“I’m thinking it’s related to your ill temper. After Drack told me some stories of you while in a disagreeable mood, I told him if it happened again that he should throw you into the nearest safe body of water.”

Thaia let out a soft huff of a laugh, bringing an irresistible vibrancy to her eyes. “Most people wouldn’t even think about my throwback attachment to water.”

Lexi couldn’t look away. “Most people.” And she recognized that she’d wandered from the safe path, yet her reservations had abandoned her entirely, leaving everything unspoken to a momentum all their own. “But once I knew what to look for, it was right there the whole time.”

“I think I’ve realized the same,” said Thaia, who was suddenly much closer than Lexi had originally thought. Not that she minded.

Not when Thaia wore an impetuous little smile reflected in her eyes, her face right in front of Lexi’s, the distance so short their noses almost touched. And Lexi instantly knew where this was going because she’d had more than two centuries of adulthood to learn the language. Thaia was going to kiss her and Lexi couldn’t remember a single objection, nor did she want to. She’d return it, is what she would do. Or maybe just initiate it.

In the end, it didn’t matter who kissed whom because they weren’t and then they were. It shouldn’t have happened and Lexi knew it was a mistake, but she couldn’t muster the will to pull away. Not when Thaia’s tongue traced Lexi’s lower lip and Lexi responded by—oh, she tasted like the stolen wine they’d shared and a hint of something else that when Lexi delved deeper to determine earned a muffled moan from Thaia. Then Thaia’s fingers moved up to cup Lexi’s cheeks as her body pressed Lexi against the window, wonderfully trapped between the coolness at her back and the heat from contact with the person she craved. Lexi’s hands settled above Thaia’s hips, her shirt smooth underneath them and Lexi wanted nothing more than to ruck it up so she could feel the warm skin be—

Then Thaia pitched sideways and forward, barely managing to spin around to brace her back against the window as she fought a short wave of dizziness. The strength of Thaia’s body no longer against her, Lexi’s skin tingled at the loss as the cool air stole the warmth from it. She tried to take a settling breath, but ended up savoring the lingering scent of wine instead. And it took concentration to keep from tilting sideways, which led her to the realization that her own condition wasn’t much better than Thaia’s.

Clearly, they wouldn’t have gone anywhere with anything. The point had been reached where they would either not remember the kiss happening or they would pretend they didn’t remember. While less gratifying an outcome—far less gratifying in far too many ways—it would be for the best for them and their friendship.

However, it didn’t prevent Lexi from fussing. Nothing could, it seemed. Not even inebriation. And maybe she should have given the alcohol consumption more thought, because while she had all her internal organs intact, Thaia was missing a spleen. Alcohol sometimes depressed immune systems, which wouldn’t have an impact on most people unless they had a preexisting immune deficiency, which a missing spleen constituted. However, the chances were still small unless one consumed ryncol, which had a higher chance of depressing a non-krogan’s immune system. Lexi couldn’t not check and so she asked, not as delicately as she’d intended, “What did you have at the bar?”

Thaia blinked, baffled at the accusatory tone. “The new drink from Anan, same as you. I wonder what was in it.”

“You didn’t even ask?” And more accusation was in her voice when she really just wanted to tell Thaia to pin her right back up against the window.

“I trust Anan. Well, I did trust Anan.” Thaia managed to straighten somewhat, regaining enough balance to move from the window to stand in front of Lexi, swaying slightly. “And you didn’t ask me what was in it.”

“Because I’d thought I could trust you.”

Thaia loosely crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “You’re awfully judgmental for a fellow drunk person.”

Lexi really did try to concentrate on her indignance but her eyes kept darting to Thaia’s now inadvertently flexed arms. “I’m not the one who’s dizzy and about to suffer an igmin—ignorm—embarrassing fall.”

“Only because you’ve made friends with that window that’s kindly holding you up. And even though I’m about to fall on my ass, I can say ignominious.” 

The further intensified rasp in Thaia’s voice made Lexi want to hear how it sounded as she reduced Thaia to shivering incoherence.

Somehow, Lexi managed to speak intelligibly along with not hinting at the true direction of her thoughts. “Slowly. Like a primary school student who’s encountered the word for the first time.”

“But I said it, unlike someone else.”

Thaia was being her irritating combination of charismatic and a shit, and Lexi decided she’d had enough. She reached out and gently pushed Thaia on the shoulder, knocking her down onto the couch. But Thaia grabbed Lexi’s arm on her way down, bringing Lexi with her.

Then Thaia hit the seat cushions before tumbling onto the floor to land parallel to the couch and on her front. Lexi bounced off the couch and ended up landing on her back, her head resting against a seat cushion and her legs across Thaia’s back.

“Lexi,” said Thaia, “don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re heavier than you look.”

“And you’re a more comfortable seat than you look.”

Thaia dropped her head into her arms and smothered laughs shook her entire body. “I can’t think of a single reply that isn’t outrageously sexual.”

“I didn’t even think of it that way.” That was before Thaia had alluded to it and now Lexi was considering it, every nerve alight with anticipation, acutely aware of every centimeter of her body touching Thaia’s. A few hours of abandon given over to mutual pleasure, Lexi learning how much finesse a commando could have with her tongue and Thaia discovering what it really meant to experience the mastery of touch only an anatomist could wield warranted more than consideration. Maybe if they refrained from melding, it wouldn’t need to exist as mere fantasy.

While Lexi had exceptional self-control, it didn’t negate the fact that she did have a libido, that they’d both been drawn to each other since they’d first met, and her libido was, right now, absolutely determined to make itself heard.

“You’re thinking about it right now, aren’t you?” asked Thaia.

“Yes.” Lexi flicked the side of Thaia’s crest because Thaia was frustrating her in more than one fashion. “This is your fault.”

“What’s my fault?”

“My dilemma.”

While Lexi didn’t move, keeping her legs across Thaia’s, Thaia rolled over and propped herself up on her arms so that her head was level with Lexi’s. “What dilemma?”

Lexi frowned at her because Thaia knew exactly what Lexi was referring to and was being a shit about it. Then she sighed and ran her fingers along Thaia’s cheek. Thaia was still, her focus on Lexi’s eyes with the occasional glance toward her lips. “Do you think,” Lexi said, pausing when her index finger skimmed over the divot in Thaia’s jaw, “do you think we could handle one night and not have it interfere with anything?”

Desire flared in Thaia’s eyes before they became stricken by a scarcely muted terror. She shook her head, but not hard enough to shift Lexi’s finger from where it rested on the notch in her jaw. “That would be even worse than… no, we shouldn’t.”

“Would you want to?” In Lexi’s question was the slight quake of her own fear, that maybe she’d interpreted everything wrong, that this need to erase any distance remaining between them wasn’t mutual.

Thaia reached out with her right hand and then traced with her thumb the white stripe of Lexi’s tattoo from her bottom lip down to her chin. Her thumb lingered a moment longer before she removed it, returning to using both arms to prop herself up. “Yes but no? Not when I want—what I would want if the situation were different—more than one or two nights with you. Like a string of them in unending succession, preferably. But that isn’t an option. Not with you and your being convinced that you’ll wreck another relationship because people are idiots who can’t see past the clinical you even though the people who really do care about you say otherwise. And.” 

And as fear unfurled in her eyes, Thaia looked away. She drew a steadying breath before she returned to Lexi. “And not with me and how Andromeda is too—I don’t think I could take losing anyone else I care so much for and if we—we’d be even closer. We both know it. And it would be asking for Andromeda to be its awful self and then one of us would be gone.”

Without moving her hand, Lexi leaned over and fleetingly pressed her lips against Thaia’s forehead. “I’m not leaving.”

Thaia’s attempt at a smile was faint, and the fear that had been in her eyes hollowed out her voice. “The problem is that Andromeda’s been making those choices. And Andromeda makes the worst choices and takes people away. You’re here now and I don’t want you to not be.”

It wasn’t a fear to be overcome tonight, nor would it be overcome with ease. A small part of Lexi despaired at the unacknowledged grief that influenced Thaia’s fear and her subsequent choices. Yet what Thaia had experienced was far beyond the norm, and the emotions she experienced in reaction to what had happened were real. Lexi had no intentions of being gone, but for now there wasn’t any proof in the galaxy that would assuage Thaia’s fears except for Lexi’s continued presence. Thaia might not have freedom from Andromeda’s influence, but Lexi did. 

“I’m not going to let Andromeda make any of my choices for me.” Lexi stood up and then offered Thaia a hand. Once Thaia was on her feet, she was somewhat unsteady, so Lexi guided her to one end of the couch, had her sit down, and then put her legs up on it. Then Lexi settled in on the other side and extended her own legs alongside Thaia’s. It was continued contact, but nothing that would likely lead them to trouble again. 

“Also,” Thaia said with a mischievous grin as she reached behind herself and successfully came up with the second bottle and her wineglass, “I’m pretty sure we’re drunk, so I’d be taking advantage of me.”

“You’re not making sense again.” Lexi didn’t disagree with Thaia’s first conclusion of them being drunk. The unsteadiness and dizziness from earlier was one indication, as was how words were becoming incrementally harder to pin down. She glanced behind herself at the other side table and discovered that she’d placed her glass on the countertop some distance away.

“I like our friendship and I don’t want it gone, either.” Thaia, who’d refilled her glass, noticed Lexi’s lack of one and extended her own. “Here, I can share. It’s the least I can do for the sexual frustration that’s apparently entirely my fault.” After Lexi accepted the glass, Thaia continued on her topic from before. “So I don’t want to fuck this up. However, it’s—you’re—still tempting as fuck, you’ve no idea and, goddess, we really shouldn’t have kissed. Drunk me takes a lot more convincing than sober me, so I’d be taking advantage of me if I just went with one night that’d be torture to leave at only one night.”

“And while I’d love to explain to you how much of a temptation you are, it’s probably better your ego not be fed.” Lexi briefly held up the glass in salute, as Thaia had done to her much earlier, now serving as acknowledgement of their agreement. They couldn’t risk the bond between them being shattered by fear, even though if they could jettison their separate fears, they could have this night and as many others as they desired. For now, they would have to settle for what they had. “Best friends?”

“Always.” Thaia brandished the bottle. “I wouldn’t share my really good brought-it-from-the-Milky-Way-in-stasis wine with just anyone.”

“You stole this wine from your father.”

She used the bottle to point at Lexi. “Especially if it’s wine I stole from my dad. And when she finds out—because she will—I won’t even implicate you.” Then she extended her hand. “I’d like more, though. Please.”

Lexi obliged by passing the glass over. “In some places, that would be tantamount to a declaration of love.” Not implicating someone after getting caught out was a very Omegan expression of love. You wouldn’t take a fall for anyone else.

Thaia’s expression turned thoughtful, and then she downed the rest of the wine in lieu of an immediate reply. Then she placed the empty glass on the side table before slyly asking, “Other than when we were arrested in Armali, had you ever acted irresponsibly? Or were you born a matron?”

There were times when Lexi was convinced Thaia couldn’t resist being a shit and this was one of them. Lexi picked up a stylus from the side table behind her and threw it in Thaia’s direction. “Of course I have.”

Having dodged the stylus, because commandos had exceptional reflexes even while drunk, Thaia rested her arm along the top of the couch and looked expectantly at Lexi. “Let’s hear it.”

“Which of us was it,” Lexi said smugly, “who put forth the ridiculous idea of the equivalent of a one night stand?”

“While that’s an excellent point, I’m pretty sure we should run the fuck away from that topic, so… you know what? Since we aren’t going to remember shit, I’ll tell you a secret no one else alive in two entire fucking galaxies knows except for me and my dad.”

“I’m listening.”

“When I was little, my mother called me Waterbug.”

Goddess, if only she would remember this. “That might be one of the most adorable things I’ve ever heard. Can I call you that? Maybe over comms?”

“No! You can’t tell anyone! I told you because we aren’t going to remember shit and I trust you not to write it down. But hopefully you’ll remember that what all your exes said is dead wrong. Peebee, too. Peebee’s wrong. They don’t know you for you.” Thaia scowled. “That made more sense in my head.”

“I think it made sense. And if it does, then we really should get back to the Tempest before we can’t walk at all.”

Thaia nodded, but when they went to rise, neither of them could manage it and they collapsed back onto the couch, shoulder to shoulder.

After a moment of silent acceptance of their fate, Thaia said, “I believe we’ve been defeated by a localized gravity storm.”

“Do those even exist?”

“If they didn’t, they do now.”

Lexi raised a brow. “You can declare it just like that?”

“Atrophist. No. Astroist—fuck.” Thaia swept her arm toward the window. “Knowledge of space things moving through space or some shit. Whatever. Yes, I can.”

With perfect diction, Lexi said, “Astrophysicist.”

Thaia laughed.

Lexi wasn’t sure how long they stayed there, sharing a quiet, drowsy contentment that would retreat into forgotten memory by morning. 

Then Dr. Aridana suddenly stood in front of them, Kesh right behind her, blocking their view of the stars. “What happened to you two?”

“Did you know,” Thaia said slowly, as if her words were becoming harder to form, “that the gravity on the Nexus seems to have increased?”

“Can’t say that I have,” said Dr. Aridana.

Lexi was fairly certain Dr. Aridana was stifling a laugh.

“And,” Thaia continued, “Lexi can’t say ignominious. One of her big words gone, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand to go. Never thought I’d see it. Statistically, she uses those big words on an average of two per sentence, so now that she’s lost one from the source, it could change the average—”

“Could you not.” Months of this endearing yet irritating behavior and Lexi had no idea how she’d fallen in love with her and—she dearly hoped she hadn’t said that out loud because she’d only just realized it and had no idea what to do with it except pretend it wasn’t true. Or that it was absolutely and certainly only the kind of love one had for best friends. And not the kind where you loved every aspect of that best friend, even the irritating things, and thought about how they or you could express that love in body and mind and… she wanted to kiss her again.

Nothing like that.

“I bet I could get the p-value to zero point zero four—”

“Goddess,” said Lexi, “just fuck off about the word.”

Thaia stopped, but only to grin in triumph at Lexi.

Kesh chuckled as she walked over and helped Lexi to her feet. “People should tell her that more often.”

“Probably,” said Thaia. Then her features settled into seriousness as she addressed Kesh and Dr. Aridana. “Peebee thinks Lexi doesn’t care.”

“About?” asked Dr. Aridana.

“People.”

“Why would someone become a doctor if they didn’t care about people?” asked Kesh.

“According to Peebee and also all of Lexi’s exes, it’s because she sees them as experiments. Things to analyze and categorize. And.”

“And what?” asked Kesh.

“They’re wrong.” Thaia pointed toward the end of the couch on her right. “Say that’s the side of being right.” She pointed to her left. “And that’s the side of being wrong. Now you go all the way over to the wall, then keep going to the opposite end of the opposite ward and then all the way into the black hole and that’s where all those wrong people are because they’re wrong.”

Unsteadiness in her legs required Lexi to lean heavily against Kesh’s bulk so she didn’t fall as she listened to Thaia’s impromptu speech. She wished she would remember it, but her inability to stand entirely on her own told her otherwise. Even so, hearing Thaia’s utter conviction that Lexi’s exes were wrong declared with such finality formed within her a tiny, nascent hope that maybe Thaia was right. That maybe she was right, and their fears would one day be left behind.

“You have very strong feelings about their wrongness,” said Dr. Aridana.

“I have all the feelings about their wrongness. And I’m glad you agree with me because otherwise I would’ve had to explain the shit-giving scale I came up with.” Thaia frowned. “No, giving a shit scale. There were scales involved and shits involved, but not biological shits because that would be gross.”

“Are you sure you didn’t have anything with ryncol?” asked Kesh.

Thaia reached over the arm of the couch, grabbed the bottle, and then waved it at Kesh. “Wine. Really fucking good wine.”

“You brought wine in your stasis locker?”

“My dad brought wine in her stasis locker and I borrowed some of it. And Anan gave us a new drink to try. Didn’t have a name for it yet and I have no idea what the fuck was in it, but it was good.”

Kesh looked between them and then at Dr. Aridana. “If it had ryncol, I think Anan should have given fair warning.”

“That would be a good name for it,” said Lexi. She certainly would have appreciated the warning. As it was, they wouldn’t remember much about what might have been.

She hoped.

Chapter Text

Eos, 2819.

Eos was hot as fuck. Which was a strange turn of events because Eos had previously not been hot as fuck. In fact, it had been even less hot after the vault activation. And yet, right now, it was hot as fuck

It almost made Thaia wish she’d stayed aboard the Tempest when, yet again, Ryder had offered her a place on the crew. That had been a month ago, when the knowledge that the Tempest had excellent climate control hadn’t really featured in her decision making process. But Lexi really, really couldn’t be Thaia’s doctor—and Thaia really, really wished either of them could remember more of happened that night when Thaia had tried to science under the influence—and so Thaia had turned Ryder down.

Now, boiling in the Eos sun, it seemed like a stupidly short-sighted decision. Also, her best friend was on the Tempest and while they’d chatted over comms, emails, messages, and even the InfoBoard, they hadn’t met up for a while due to scheduling conflicts. Between Thaia’s scouting and ice running and Ryder doing Pathfinder things with the Tempest—like fixing Havarl’s vault and building an outpost on Elaaden—seeing each other in person had been near impossible. 

The establishment of the Elaaden outpost had been almost three weeks ago and Thaia had gotten to see Lexi then, along with showing her the colony and Grot deciding that since Lexi was a doctor maybe she would know something about the acid-shitting birds and took her out below the colony for a look. 

They found out that while Lexi knew a lot of things, she didn’t know anything about acid-shitting birds other than they should be avoided. 

Which was entirely reasonable.

Lexi had also brought safety standards into question, such as shouldn’t you be taking precautions to prevent the colony from collapsing into the bottomless pit? Grot had insisted that unless the infestation got worse, they’d be fine. Lexi had been mostly convinced. ‘Mostly’ because she’d asked for regular updates.

Grot had wisely decided cooperation was the best available option.

Thaia was going to get to see Lexi again today. And, thanks to Dr. Ramirez in Prodromos, who’d sent a message to Ryder that Ryder had then passed along to Thaia, she had a new lead on the Leusinia’s location. A survey team had found an escape pod from the Leusinia out by Resilience. Had a hard landing, but all five passengers had survived. After treating their injuries, Dr. Ramirez had let Ryder know they’d still be in his clinic for a few more days before he’d clear them to go anywhere else, but they were recovered enough to talk. Since Ryder had gotten tied up on Havarl, she’d asked Thaia to go after the escape pod before scavengers or wildlife got to it.

They’d been too late to prevent the wildlife from reaching the pod. They might’ve also been too late for scavengers, but if they were, they’d never know because the wildlife had probably eaten the scavengers.

Maybe after they were done on Eos, Thaia would stick around long enough to cool down and then hang out with Lexi some. Thaia actually had a surprise for her—she’d located a copy of the first book in that favorite series of Lexi’s and read it.

And liked it. Mostly. It hadn’t been a tawdry romance novel, and Thaia hadn’t been able to decide if she was disappointed or not that it wasn’t.

“This thing is beat to shit,” Lisana said as she kicked the exposed side of the escape pod. “I’m surprised it survived atmo entry, much less anyone inside it.”

“It did what it was designed to.” Also it was fucking hot in the beat-to-shit escape pod half-buried just outside Resilience and Thaia hadn’t gotten anything from the simple internal computer and the flight recorder was missing and she was pretty sure something fucking ate it.

And if she had to deal with one more fucking kaerkyn trying to sneak up on their asses she was going to lose her goddess-damned mind.

“What are you trying to get out of that thing?”

“Whatever I can, which is fuck all so far.” Then Thaia heard skittering outside. “T’Lesso, please tell me I’m not hearing more kaerkyn.”

“You want me to lie?”

“Can you lie convincingly?”

“Better grab your shotgun, Kallistrate. It’s a pack of them.”

Thaia backed out of the escape pod and then saw what Lisana had. 

It wasn’t a pack. 

“That’s a fucking swarm.” And they were moving fast and Thaia had honestly had enough shit today. “You should duck,” she said to Lisana as she readied her biotics. She didn’t look to see if Lisana hid as she scooped up the entire herd of kaerkyn in a lift, clumped them together with a singularity, and then detonated everything.

In her frustrated anger, Thaia hadn’t given much thought to how energetic of a singularity it would take to hold that many kaerkyn and then the energy required to detonate the singularity and the resulting mess. 

Mostly the resulting mess.

Also, she hadn’t taken cover fast enough and she now had kaerkyn guts all over her hardsuit. All over, like she’d been tossed into a pit of brownish-green kaerkyn blood and viscera and rolled around in it. And she was fairly certain the sweaty skyball gear she’d forgotten and left to fester in a sealed gym bag for a month during the off season had smelled better. The stench of moldy, mildewed clothing with the added tang of ripe socks had hit her so hard that she’d immediately thrown up on the bag and the gear.

Meir had witnessed the entire scene and laughed so hard that she’d had to sit down.

“Fuck this planet.” Thaia would’ve cursed more, but she felt a rivulet of kaerkyn guts soup trickling down from the top of her crest and if it got in her mouth, she’d throw up everything she’d eaten that day then not eat again for another week.

“That was effective,” said Lisana, who did not have any kaerkyn guts anywhere. “When are you supposed to meet Ryder at Prodromos to talk to the survivors?”

“Waiting for them to contact me over comms.” Her omni flashed. “Speaking of.” Thaia enabled the connection. “You here yet?”

“We’ll be landing in Prodromos in ten,” said Kallo.

“Sensors picked up an explosion somewhere around your location,” said Suvi. “Is everything all right down there?”

“We’re fine. Quick question: does Prodromos have a way of hosing people off?”

“You’re not getting in the shuttle like that,” said Lisana.

Thaia glared. “It’s my fucking shuttle.”

“It’s mine, if you wanna get technical about it,” said Drack. “Why won’t your pilot let you on?”

“The kaerkyn are no longer a problem around Resilience. Is it safe to jump in the lake? I don’t need to swim a lap or anything. Just jump in and out to rinse off whatever the fuck is on my armor.”

“No,” said Lexi.

“Really fast.”

“I say go for it,” said Drack.

“Thaia, don’t go in the lake. Drack, stop encouraging her,” said Lexi.

“This,” Thaia said to Lisana, “is why you never have a doctor as your best friend.”

“One would hope that any friend would attempt to dissuade you from jumping into a toxic, corrosive lake,” said Lexi.

“Bradley just told me that Building Two at Resilience has working water. He said you can use its facilities to rinse off,” said Ryder. “You going to meet us in Prodromos after?”

“Yeah,” said Thaia. “See you there.”

Between yanking the computer straight out of the pod and just taking the fucking thing, rinsing off, and then the flight over, it was thirty minutes before they were in Prodromos. After Thaia split from Lisana, who had her own Initiative business to deal with, Thaia joined up with Ryder and Cora by the Tempest’s loading ramp. 

“What’d you get?” asked Ryder.

“The computer I ripped from the pod and nightmare fuel for the next six months,” said Thaia. “Computer’s in the shuttle, nightmares are in my head.”

Ryder squinted over at the clinic building. “You ready to go in?”

“So long as there aren’t any kaerkyn in there, yes.”

The clinic was on the second floor of the prefab, its door opening as soon as they stepped in front of it. A human med tech ushered them inside, and Dr. Ramirez greeted them once he’d finished up with his patient.

“Next room,” Dr. Ramirez said. “Go on in. I told the five of them to expect visitors.”

Five people seemed so few against the twenty thousand who’d been on the Leusinia, but five was greater than the zero of the last year and a half. 

The small, brightly lit room held six beds. Three of them had been pushed sideways against the wall, right under the large windows. On the middle bed next to a window looking out onto the colony sat an asari child no older than four, scribbling in a holographic coloring book on her lap. Two matrons sat on the bed closest to her, one reading from a datapad and another on her omni. Two more adults—maidens both—one in civilian clothes like the others and one in Initiative fatigues, argued quietly in a corner near the door. 

When Thaia and the others walked in, the civilian nearest to the door said, “You’ve found us!”

Startled, the child leapt to her feet, coloring book clattering to the metal floor. The book struck hard on its corner, and when the child picked it up, it broke right off. 

She promptly burst into tears.

“Shit,” said the matron who’d been using her omni. Then she scooped up the crying child, who immediately wrapped her arms around her neck and buried her face in her shoulder.

The other matron frowned at her as she stood.

The first didn’t need to see it to know, defending herself as she rubbed the child’s back, her bonding bracelet briefly catching the overhead light. “Don’t give me that look, Adhara. I don’t know where we’ll even find another one.”

Thaia would bet fifty credits Vetra could find multiple coloring books.

“You’re a commando! Are you from the Leusinia?” said the person in Initiative clothing. “I’m Lieutenant Hydaria, a junior ship officer.” 

“I’m Thaia Kallistrate.” Then Thaia gestured toward Ryder and Cora. “This is Sara Ryder, the human Pathfinder. Next to her is Lieutenant Cora Harper, the human Pathfinder team’s operations specialist.”

Hydaria rapidly introduced the other asari with her, pointing to each in turn. “The littlest one is Zahlie, Itys is the one holding her, you’ve already heard Adhara’s name, and next to me is Serrin.”

Serrin jumped in with her questions before Hydaria could continue. “We were told commandos were being sent on the survey ship to help distract the kett from our escape pods, so if you’re here now, does that mean we can go back?”

Fuck. Diversionary measures meant the evac was done under fire or threat of fire and fuck. As a senior militia captain, Meir would be awake and commanding one of those defense squads. Meir should be here to retrieve these evacuees and bring them back to the Leusinia, but they didn’t know where the Leusinia was and Thaia wasn’t Meir. 

“My assignment was the Nexus,” Thaia said. “I was a militia subcaptain in the Milky Way, but I wasn’t supposed to be a commando here.”

“Seems like you are now, though,” said Itys.

“Unfortunately.” She fought a grimace. This was supposed to be good. They’d finally found something to prove that the Leusinia had made it to Andromeda. Except they’d evacuated and commandos had been sent out and one could be Meir. “What happened?”

“I’m not sure, exactly,” said Hydaria. “The—”

Serrin interrupted, raising her arms toward the ceiling in her anger. “We woke up to fire and screaming! I gave up my entire life for this and this is what we get?”

Zahlie started crying again. Both Adhara and Itys glared at Serrin. 

“We asked you to stop going on like that,” said Adhara. “And you agreed that you would. Act your goddess-damned age and stop whining.”

“She isn’t even one fifty,” said Itys. “Maybe she is acting her age.”

Thaia almost laughed out loud when Itys winked at Thaia, Ryder, and Cora.

Serrin shot Itys a look of absolute outrage. “I’m one hundred and thirty-two and I have every right to protest!”

Behind her, Hydaria rolled her eyes. 

Again Thaia almost laughed out loud because Hydaria couldn’t have been two hundred. That said, Peebee would’ve been doing the same as Hydaria, but Peebee also had times when she acted a lot older than her age, usually due to either how clever she was or because she had a good heart and that heart had seen some shit.

“This is asari ageism, isn’t it?” Ryder asked quietly.

“In all its blue glory,” said Thaia, who then looked at Hydaria. “You were saying?”

“Again, I really don’t know much. I got evac orders as soon as I woke up from cryo. Hundreds of us were trying to flee and the kett peeled one deck right open. Commandos kept themselves between us and the kett and the Periphona was supposed to do the same and then come get us when it was safe. All we’ve got are evac orders that are identical except for our names and whatever we had on us. Oh!” Hydaria darted over to a back corner and then lifted a small container. “I also took the flight recorder when we left the escape pod to come here.” She returned and handed the container over to Thaia, who passed it to Ryder. 

Then Ryder popped it open. As they all peeked inside, Cora said, “It looks beat to hell.”

Cora wasn’t kidding. The orange box was covered with scorch marks, scrapes, and the metal of one side had warped from flat to concave. However, it was far better than not having one at all and that’s what Thaia told herself when tingling panic spread through her chest. If it was too busted, then they couldn’t recover the flight data, they wouldn’t find the Periphona and Meir, and they might not find the Leusinia.

“Since I thought one of those fucking kaerkyn had eaten it, I’ll take it,” said Thaia. “Hydaria, you’re sure it was the Periphona that was sent out with the pods?” 

“Yes,” said Hydaria.

“I heard the same thing,” said Serrin.

“As did I,” said Adhara.

“I did, too,” said Itys. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I have the Periphona’s transponder codes. Between your pod’s flight recorder and the transponder codes, we should be able to catch up to it. And if we can talk to the commandos on the Periphona, we should be able to find the Leusinia through them.” Thaia glanced down at the box in Cora’s hands and then at Hydaria. “Did Matriarch Ishara give the evac order?”

Hydaria shook her head. “No, it came from Sarissa Theris. The same order said that she—”

“Matriarch Ishara’s dead,” said Serrin. “Just say it because that’s this awful reality we all woke up to. Matriarch Ishara’s dead.”

“Shit,” said Cora.

It was like watching a rope tied to a mooring loosening in the middle storm-ravaged sea, the boat the line was supposed to secure to its mooring one wave away from completely letting go. The low environmental temperature in the prefab didn’t help, too similar to the cold chill of dark dread, and a cascade of prickly hot cold swept over Thaia’s skin, stealing the feeling from her limbs. The vise gripping her chest twisted, tightening down, and she couldn’t get enough air. 

Thaia looked beyond the Leusinia’s evacuees, trying to keep in mind what these people needed, what the asari needed, what her people needed, and trying not to think the selfish thought about Matriarch Ishara being dead meant that she wouldn’t be able to advocate for Sula to be released from cryo. That her father wouldn’t be here where her people needed her. Where Thaia needed her. When Sula could fix things because it was what matriarchs did and now they wouldn’t have Matriarch Ishara. Goddess, unless there were some matriarchs in the Leusinia’s general population, the only matriarch left in the entire galaxy was Sula. 

Stop, slow down, deep breaths, Thaia remembered being taught centuries ago. Focus on your muscles then relax them one by one, starting at your toes. Listen to what’s happening right now around you and go there.

“What about the other matriarchs?” she heard Adhara ask. “The ones on the Nexus? Matriarch Nuara was supposed to lead the Initiative after everyone got here. Then there were two others, right?”

“Matriarchs Jarah and Sula,” said Itys.

“Matriarch Nuara died when the Nexus encountered the Scourge,” Ryder said when no one else spoke up. “And…”

“So did Matriarch Jarah.” Thaia brought her gaze back into the room. “And while my father is alive, she’s still in cryo because the Initiative’s current director doesn’t want her usurping his leadership.”

Zahlie grinned up at Itys and then at Thaia. “I thought your markings looked kinda like mine! Your dad’s asari, too?”

Thaia smiled at her in return, reminded that ‘things are different’ wasn’t always bad. Good meant little asari kids with two asari parents wouldn’t get shit for having those two asari parents in Andromeda. No kid would get shit about being a ‘pureblood,’ because it wouldn’t fucking matter. But Thaia wasn’t given a chance to verbally affirm her parentage because Ryder immediately voiced her complete confusion.

“Wait, what?” Ryder glanced back and forth between Zahlie’s cobalt blue face and Thaia’s own steel blue face. “Neither of you have any markings. Well, unless the ones on Thaia’s face are markings, but I thought they were tattoos. Aren’t they tattoos?”

“They’re tattoos,” said Thaia. “Traditional commando ones, but only part of the set because my first go with them was my last because they hurt way more than anyone let on.”

“So what’s Zahlie talking about?” Ryder asked, her genuine natural curiosity having replaced her confusion.

“Unless you’ve figured out a way to see into the UV spectrum like asari can, they have markings that we can’t see,” said Cora.

Adhara looked at Ryder and tilted her head to the side. “What do you see on my face?”

Ryder studied her for a moment then shrugged. “Some rough stripes on your cheeks, but I’ve seen ones like that on other asari.”

“You don’t see her swirls?” Zahlie leaned precariously from Itys’s arms, so she passed her over the Adhara. Then Zahlie patted Itys’s forehead and chin. “Mum has swirls here. And here. No one else has ones like hers.” Then she smiled at Ryder, a full one that reflected brightly in her eyes, and waved a little arm in Itys’s direction. “My dad’s are close, but different colors.”

“Well, we can’t all be perfect like your mother,” Itys said with a slight roll of her eyes.

“Matriarch Sula’s my dad,” Thaia said to Zahlie. “And here in Andromeda, hopefully we won’t have to deal with bullies anymore just because our second parent’s asari.”

“That’s why we signed on,” Adhara said, her voice softened by her love for her child and the reason for her traveling to another galaxy. “There wasn’t a way for Zahlie to avoid bullying in Republics space, and we didn’t want to live in the Terminus Systems. We heard about the Initiative and inquired about it. Then when it was revealed that they’d eliminated AYS, we were in.” She held up her arm left arm, which had a bonding bracelet close to her omni. “And once we were living in Initiative quarters, we began wearing these all the time, for us and for Zahlie. Though we know it will take some time for full acceptance, even here.”

“Also,” said Itys, “Adhara is a sociologist, so she’ll talk your crest off about this stuff if you give her half a chance.”

“There’s cultural socialization of prejudice against endogamous couples to take into account. And then you have—”

Itys raised her eyebrows at the others. “See?”

“Wait, bullying?” asked Ryder. “I knew two asari having a kid together was sort of discouraged in the Milky Way, but I didn’t know the kids got bullied.” She turned her again surprised green eyes onto Thaia. “Were you bullied?”

Thaia tapped the small scar on her crest. “This is from headbutting a bully when I was nine.”

“I thought violence between asari children is taboo,” said Cora.

“It is, but asari kids can be shits to each other as much as any other species. If someone tells you different, she’s lying, either to herself or you or both. Also, the other kid literally pushed me first.” And she had. Thaia had put up with Cinzia’s shit for months without saying a word or pushing back. Then Cinzia had literally pushed her and honestly she’d never seen a more surprised face than Cinzia’s after that headbutt.

“How’d your mother react?” asked Ryder.

That had been back when Indah was still herself. A good memory. “She did that thing parents do when they’re trying to scold you because they know they’re supposed to, but they’re having a hard time keeping a straight face because they think what you did was hilarious.” Thaia looked over at the other asari to explain, since the majority of asari mothers would’ve been horrified at Thaia’s reaction. “She thought it was funny because one of my grandfathers was krogan.”

Zahlie squirmed out of Adhara’s arms. “I have a krogan grandfather, too! She taught me how to headbutt.”

Itys laughed while Adhara put a hand over her face.

“My dad taught me, so it could be worse,” Thaia said to them. “I’d stay to talk about it, but we need to go find that survey ship.”

“Hold on,” Ryder said as she activated her omni. “I messaged Bradley earlier about whether or not they’ll stay here or go to the Nexus or what. Where is—there we go.” She looked up at the arrayed asari in the room. “He says you can stay as long as you need to. Prodromos is a scientific outpost, you both have applicable specialties, and there’s plenty of room. Or you can go to the Nexus, it’s up to you. As for us, we’ll be going to find your ark as quick as we can.”

“Thank you,” said Hydaria.

“One more thing.” Thaia crouched to speak with Zahlie at eye level. “I have a friend who can find you some new coloring books, if you want them.”

Zahlie clapped, excited enough that it felt like she hadn’t expected something good to happen. “Please! Yes!”

“I’ll give your parents my comm channel code so we can coordinate having them delivered if I can’t bring them by,” said Thaia.

“That would be wonderful,” said Adhara.

Thaia smiled again. “I’ll send a message as soon as we get some.”

When Thaia went to stand, Zahlie grabbed her arm. “I have a question,” she said quietly once she saw that Thaia was listening.

“Which is?” asked Thaia.

Zahlie moved closer so she could whisper. “Can I headbutt you? Soft, like a practice one.”

“Do you think you can knock me over?” Thaia whispered back, both of them quiet enough during their whole exchange that the others in the room wouldn’t hear.

“No,” Zahlie said as if Thaia had asked something absurd, “you’re a commando.

“Commandos are still vulnerable to headbutts, but all right.” Thaia balanced and then positioned herself so that any incoming headbutt wouldn’t result in more than a tap. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Zahlie smiled, and then reared back her little body before flinging her head forward, leading with her crest. In Thaia’s estimation, it was pretty good form.

Thaia leaned far enough back that their crests barely bumped, and then flopped backward like she’d been laid out by a krogan-driven headbutt.

“Goddess, I’m sorry!” said Adhara, who darted forward to collect her giggling child.

Meanwhile, Itys laughed and only laughed harder when Adhara glared.

“I’m fine,” Thaia said as she pushed herself to her feet, surprisingly a little woozy since Zahlie’s headbutt shouldn’t have caused balance problems. However, it wasn’t debilitating and she was able to hide it from the others. “Really. Besides, the krogan asari kids have to stick together, uncouth as we are.” She checked to make sure Adhara wasn’t upset and then glanced over at Hydaria. “We should get going, though. We’ll be in contact soon.”

As Thaia walked out the door with Ryder and Cora, Hydaria said, “Good hunting.”

The Tempest, 2819.

The Tempest was cold as fuck.

Thaia recalled it being below her preferred ambient temperature, but not cold enough for her prior complaints to be real ones. Yet even after she’d showered and changed into regular clothes, including a long-sleeved shirt, she felt like she was on the verge of shivering. The fuck. Maybe Gil had reset the temperature or something. Whatever the reason, she needed to dig up a jacket from her pack before she froze, and she’d left it in the armory that Vetra also used as her room.

When Thaia got to the cargo bay, she discovered it more populated than she’d seen before on the Tempest. Cora was tinkering around with the flight recorder and pod computer at her workbench, Drack was nearby inspecting Cora’s shotgun, and Gil was up above near the humming engine core. As Thaia walked by the open door to Liam’s room, she caught a flash of both Liam and Jaal shirtless and arguing while standing next to a table covered with armor pieces. 

Thaia decided it was best not to ask and continued onto the armory, where she found Vetra and Peebee talking about parts for one project or another of Peebee’s.

“We ready to leave yet?” asked Vetra.

Thaia leaned against the door frame. “Not last I checked. Ryder’s out talking with Bradley, and Lexi and Suvi are talking to the outpost’s collection of experts in various life sciences fields. Anyway.” She stepped all the way inside. “I have to get my jacket because Gil apparently decided that the Tempest has ice cubes for passengers rather than people.”

“I’m curious,” Peebee said after Thaia had opened up her pack.

Thaia knew she should know better but engaged anyway. “About?”

“Is Lexi as uptight as I assume?”

After stopping what she was doing, Thaia slowly looked up at Peebee, who was sitting on a stack of containers. “No.” Definitely not after that night a month ago. “Why are you asking?”

“I was curious. You’re supposedly ‘best friends’—”

“There’s no ‘supposedly’ about it. We are.”

“Whatever.” Peebee waved her off. “My point is that I know you well enough to know for sure that anyone who’s a friend of yours can’t possibly be uptight. Yet Lexi seems so uptight that you know her dad’s turian.”

“Her dad was turian.”

“In case either of you forgot,” said Vetra, “there’s a turian sitting right here at her desk.”

Well, Thaia couldn’t let stand the possibility of someone thinking Lexi’s dad wasn’t cool. “Being compared to Lexi’s dad is a good thing because Lexi’s dad was awesome, so don’t worry about it.” Then she returned to Peebee. “Lexi’s dad was cool, so don’t talk shit about him or we’ll be having a throw-down. Also, no, Lexi isn’t uptight.”

“How do you know for sure? You have a sizable bias, so I’m going to need more evidence.”

Thaia triumphantly came up with her jacket, tossed it over her shoulder, and then zipped her pack. “Ask her where she grew up.” That Lexi had grown up on Omega was fact and therefore unaffected by Thaia’s admittedly significant bias. Though the fact that she and Lexi had spent a night drinking way too much wine and that other drink Anan gave them wasn’t biased either. Then there was the whole arrested for criminal mischief thing.

Puzzled, Peebee cocked her head to the side. “Where she grew up?”

A set of footsteps ran up the loading ramp, and then two more people walking at a normal pace followed. “They’re back,” said Thaia. 

“You hear them already?” Peebee asked as she jumped down from the container. “Do commandos train for detecting faint sounds or is it a prerequisite to becoming a commando?”

“First one. Second one helps, though. And it’s everyone who’s back, which means we can get underway and go find that survey ship.” But by the time Thaia had finished her sentence, Peebee had sprinted out the door and practically accosted Lexi.

“Where’d you grow up?” Peebee asked as she just short of knocked Lexi over.

“Everyone stand clear of the ramp,” said Kallo. “I’m closing it in one minute.”

“Where I grew up?” Lexi posed half her question to Peebee before shooting an accusatory look at Thaia for the rest.

Thaia shrugged on her jacket and then leaned against the Nomad, too tired to climb up and sit on its roof for a better view of the cargo bay. “Peebee wanted unbiased, fact-based evidence that you aren’t uptight, so I told her to ask where you grew up.”

Suddenly, it became everyone’s topic of interest, the rest of the Tempest’s crew shouting out their curiosity as the loading ramp closed and Kallo brought the ship into orbit. 

“Place your bets,” Gil said, emerging from the engine room. “Five credits each.”

Cora set aside the flight recorder. “I assumed you grew up on Thessia.”

“Armali, specifically,” said Peebee.

“The Citadel,” said Vetra as she exited her office to join them.

Liam stepped out of his room, still shirtless. “That was my guess.”

“Same guess wins, you split the pot,” said Gil. “Mine’s Nevos.”

“Lusia,” said Suvi, who’d walked over to stand with Vetra.

“Leaving Eos orbit now,” said Kallo. “I’m guessing Lexi’s mother was a member of the asari diplomatic corps and assigned to Palaven.”

“Tuchanka.” Drack turned around and shruggled. “How else would she know so much about krogan?”

Thaia couldn’t make eye contact with Drack because he knew where Lexi had grown up—Lexi had even once explained to him that’s why she could study krogan with Omega’s relatively high krogan population—yet for some fucking reason he’d thrown his bet and she’d blow his cover if she laughed.

Ryder climbed onto the Nomad’s roof. “Citadel.”

“The Milky Way,” Jaal said from Liam’s room. No one argued because it wasn’t like Jaal had any other guess available to him, though it did mean he’d split the winnings no matter who else won.

Lexi sighed, looking rather put-upon. “Omega.”

Shouts of disbelief came from everyone in the cargo bay and over comms. The skepticism didn’t relent until SAM verified Lexi’s statement.

“If I thought anyone would’ve grown up on Omega, it would’ve been Peebee or Thaia,” said Ryder.

“Boring Hyetiana here,” said Peebee.

“Close,” said Thaia. “Illium.”

“Illium’s Omega in a nice dress,” said Drack.

“However,” said Lexi, who didn’t give Thaia the courtesy of a warning, “Thaia spent the first twenty years of her childhood on Thessia. In fact, I believe she was born there.”

“Really?” asked Kallo.

“I don’t believe you,” said Peebee.

Thaia couldn’t decide if she was offended or not, but she crossed her arms in an effort to keep warm because fuck Gil and his fucking with environmental controls. “If you want, I can convincingly act the part of a stereotypical Thessian.”

“So you grew up in Serrice is what you’re saying,” said Peebee.

“Worse.”

You’re from Armali?”

“I am,” said Thaia. “Also, I brought Lexi to see Armali before we left the Milky Way and I might’ve gotten her arrested for criminal mischief while we were there.”

Cora stared disbelievingly at Lexi. “You? Criminal mischief?”

“The charges,” Lexi said, crisply enunciating each word, “were dropped.”

“Because we were leaving the galaxy,” said Thaia.

“Don’t forget about your devastating loss in the swim race earlier on the same day,” said Lexi.

“It wasn’t devastating.” Thaia mulled over it as she shoved her hands in her jacket pockets. What the fuck? Maybe she should find gloves if Gil was intent on keeping the ship this temperature. “All right, maybe it was a little devastating.” It had somewhat been. The devastating part had been vastly outweighed by Lexi getting the chance to swim in a Thessian ocean and the smile Lexi had given her afterward.

Judging by the curl at the corner of Lexi’s mouth, she had wry comment ready, but when she turned to Thaia again, her smile faded. “Are you all right?” she asked, her tone no longer droll. Not even a hint of it. “You look pale.”

“I’m fine.” Just for fucking once, Thaia didn’t want Lexi to have to be her doctor when she was on the Tempest. While Thaia did acknowledge that she was accident and injury prone by nature, it would’ve been nice for Lexi to just be Lexi around her and not have to be a doctor. Not reminding her of one reason why Thaia couldn’t stay on the Tempest and be near her best friend all the time.

“I don’t know,” said Vetra. “You look like you’ve gone from steel blue to light blue. Really light blue.”

Fucking honestly. “Really, aside from Gil having lowered the Tempest’s ambient temperature, I’m fine.”

“You’re not pinning this on me,” said Gil. “I haven’t messed with the environmental control settings since before you were on the ship last.”

They were teaming up against her and Thaia didn’t glare only because it wouldn’t help her case. Not that she had much of a case because she was starting to think maybe the others had a point. She didn’t want them to, though. Because then Lexi would be understandably upset because Thaia suddenly realized she hadn’t been keeping up with that immune shot thing and fuck.

Then Lexi stood in front of Thaia, the serious, concerned doctor expression on her face. “I need you to look up at the ceiling.”

“Why?” Maybe if she played it off she could escape.

“Because with you feeling excessively cold—even for you—and how pale you look, I want to examine the lymph nodes on your neck and under your jaw.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.” Enough warning imbued Lexi’s tone that Thaia ran the risk of upsetting her by continuing to be a pain in the ass.

With a token sigh of protest, Thaia obliged and looked up at incredibly boring ceiling. At least being this cold and tired meant inappropriate thoughts weren’t a problem when she felt Lexi’s fingers on her skin, and then there definitely weren’t issues when Lexi slid over some surprisingly tender lymph nodes. Thaia did her best to keep from flinching, but it was Lexi, so of course she noticed.

“Did that hurt?”

“Maybe a little.”

Thaia didn’t have to see Lexi’s face because she heard the appearance of the frown in Lexi’s question. Still gentle, but with that firmness from being annoyed that someone she cared about had been stupid about their health. “Have you experienced anything else out of the ordinary?”

“Eos was hot. Felt like Elaaden sometimes.”

Lexi’s fingers stilled.

Shit. Thaia reluctantly stopped looking at the ceiling and brought her focus back down to Lexi, who was frowning.

Then Lexi withdrew her hands and stepped back. “Your lymph nodes are enlarged and tender, you’re experiencing temperature swings, and you aren’t sitting on top of the Nomad, which leads me to believe that you’re also tired. When’s the last time you had an immune booster?”

How she could ever forget just how good of a doctor Lexi was, Thaia would never know, because Lexi was as observant as a fucking commando. And Thaia had let her immune system issue go to the wayside as she’d tracked down the phantoms of rumors about the asari ark that had finally yielded something tangible. Try as she might to avoid it, she fucking knew she was about to find out the true cost of her irresponsibility.

She tried to keep things light while also trying to dodge the question because she wasn’t going to willingly walk into whatever was about to happen. “Hey, you’re not my doctor.”

“I am if you’re on the Tempest.” No give, no give at all in that tone. Just none.

Thaia straightened. “All right, well. I’m off.”

“We’ve left Eos orbit,” said Kallo. “And I don’t think anyone will actually airlock you.”

“Shit.” And Kallo was right, too. Nobody would airlock her, but not because they were afraid of her. They were afraid of what Lexi would do. Say, actually. Say because Lexi’s words could be sharp as fuck.

“Take it from an old man who’s learned,” said Drack. “Easier to let her fuss than argue about it. She’ll win and you’re too young to die from something stupid like not giving yourself shots because of the needles. Besides, tiny needles shouldn’t bother you after surviving being stabbed by a metal spike.”

“To be fair, I didn’t know the spike was coming and I do with the needles.” Needles didn’t bother her at all, but anything to avoid the scolding she knew was coming.

“So what you’re saying is that the doc has to sneak up on you to give you your shots,” said Gil.

“Sneaking up on a commando is a good way to get wrapped up in biotics,” said Cora.

“But not in the fun way,” said Peebee.

“Wait,” said Liam as he looked at Thaia. “You got stabbed with a spike?”

“The Scourge tried to kill me and the Nexus was its weapon of choice. Ultimately, it failed but it did manage to take my spleen and here we are.”

“Yes,” said Lexi. “Here we are. Where you neglect to take steps made necessary due to the fact that you don’t have a spleen and therefore may finish the Scourge’s job for it. When did you run out of the supply I gave you?”

“A week ago?” Thaia shrugged. “But I’ve felt fine.”

Lexi waited. 

Even her silence was scathing.

Thaia did not look at her feet as she replied, even though she really wanted to. “Until today. I felt fine until today.”

“You went that long without them?”

“You’re angry.” Thaia had to admit that Lexi had every right to be furious with her because while she hadn’t promised to keep up with the shots, she’d said she would. Then she hadn’t and here they were.

“Because what you did amounted to ill-considered, imbecilic foolishness reflecting an alarming amount of short-sightedness with regard to your mortality.”

Fuck. She was pissed.

Pissed enough that everyone else in the cargo bay suddenly announced reasons why they needed to be elsewhere.

“No, none of you need to relocate,” Lexi said to them, perfectly reasonable and not pissed at them. “Thaia and I will continue our discussion in medbay.” Then without waiting for acknowledgement from anyone, Lexi strode toward one of the doors leading to the interior of the ship.

Thaia followed, feeling miserable because she was sick and because she’d underestimated how upset Lexi would be with her for not taking her immune system issue seriously enough.

“Nice knowing you, kid,” Drack said as she walked by.

She sighed and hunched into her jacket. Though, by the time she reached the medbay, she started to think the jacket might’ve been a mistake. Or that Gil was fucking with her head and had messed with environmental controls after she’d left, because now it felt too hot.

When Thaia walked into medbay, Lexi didn’t look up from calibrating her scanner as she pointed to the nearest exam bed.

Since she’d already managed to make Lexi the most pissed she’d ever seen her, Thaia dropped any pretenses at salvaging any ideas of being perfectly healthy—or even mildly healthy—and took off her jacket before she got onto the exam bed. Then she realized she was cold again. Or still. Goddess, her body couldn’t make up its fucking mind.

Lexi still hadn’t looked up. “Why didn’t you just ask me for more? It isn’t like we haven’t spoken with each other during that time. With Vetra’s contacts, a delivery and pickup wouldn’t have been difficult to arrange nearly anywhere in the cluster. Or, if you could’ve gotten to the Nexus, Harry would have provided them for you.”

She was right and Thaia knew it and maybe there was more to her having been neglectful about the shots. “I was too focused on tracking down the latest lead on the Leusinia.” Thaia fidgeted with her jacket and she didn’t fucking fidget. And yet. “But I’m not your patient. I’m your friend and you don’t have to—you don’t need the distraction of thinking about my medical well being.”

“Knowing you’re out there every day in hostile environments is distracting enough.” Omni still active but the scanner not, Lexi finally looked at Thaia. “You could die. You could die and I’d never know what happened if your body wasn’t found. Your messages would stop. Your comms would stop and you just wouldn’t come back. That reality alone is distracting whenever I think about it.”

“How often do you?” Thaia had known Lexi fretted. It wasn’t like Lexi not to, but she’d hoped it wouldn’t be to the extent it sounded like it was. To the extent that Thaia fretted about Lexi’s well being even though she never really let on. Or tried not to.

“Whenever I’ve read a message from you or ended a comm with you or you’ve gone on a mission, whether it be with Ryder or anyone else you’re helping. There isn’t a choice about me worrying over your well being. It simply is. So knowing that you at least would be less likely to be killed by a random new pathogen that your unaided immune system couldn’t handle would be less of a distraction, not more.” She exhaled and raised her omni, then lowered it when she took another look at Thaia. “You’re sweating.”

“Lexi.” Thaia leaned forward, wanting to lighten the conversation up because it was skirting too close to things she didn’t want to think about. “Lexi, don’t tell anyone I told you this, but I think I might be coming down with something. Also,” Thaia continued before Lexi could respond, “I was an ass and didn’t think and I apologize and I promise I won’t neglect my immune system issue again.”

When Lexi looked away and didn’t reply, Thaia panicked a little that maybe she’d fucked up even more than she’d thought. Then she panicked more when Lexi still didn’t say anything, instead quietly opening various drawers and cabinets and removing an assortment of medical things from them. Then Thaia panicked evenmore when Lexi stayed silent as she arranged those medical things on her desk just so.

Then Lexi let out a heavy sigh and faced Thaia, the worry in her eyes having abated somewhat, and some of Thaia’s panic faded in turn. “And,” Lexi said, close to apologetically, “I’m sorry for saying some of what I said in the cargo bay, such as the long string of insults.”

Those had been beautiful and Thaia couldn’t let her think they weren’t. “Oh, no, don’t take those back. Those were amazing and I fully deserved them. Do you practice those? Because if that was off the top of your head that makes them even more amazing. Also kind of hot.”

“Are you referring to me, what I said, or yourself?” But her eyes brightened and the corner of her mouth lifted a little as she activated her medical scanner and stood in front of Thaia. 

“All of them. Those.” Thaia went to gesture what she meant but opted to keep her hands braced on either side of her because her balance was becoming problematic. “How sick am I?”

After finishing the scan, Lexi stayed put as she read the results populating on her omni’s display. “You’ve a fever, which isn’t surprising. Merely standing next to you, I can feel the heat emanating from your body.”

“Of course you can because I—”

Without looking, Lexi reached out and placed a finger over Thaia’s lips. “Not one comment. You’re fortunate I was more worried than angry. No need for you to push your luck.” Then she removed her finger.

“Because I have a fever is obviously what I was going to say.” But Thaia’s smile betrayed her original intention. “And I have a fever because I was stupid is what you said but with a lot more sharp, clever, and targeted words.”

“I wasn’t wrong.” Lexi tapped in a few commands and then deactivated her omni. “The good news is that the virus you have isn’t life-threatening, though it’s doing its best to make you miserable. I’ll get an antiviral to deal with the virus and an analgesic to deal with your fever since it’s reached the stage of uncomfortable.” Then she motioned to the bed. “Lie down.” When Thaia didn’t immediately move, she continued more slowly, as if explaining to a small child, “It’s what people do when they’re sick. They rest, which involves lying down in a bed, such as the one you’re sitting on, and sleeping. I can administer the shots whether you’re awake or you’re asleep if I’ve your permission.”

“Whatever you need to do.” Thaia didn’t need to be told twice, not as shitty as she felt. She felt a little less shitty after Lexi unfolded a blanket she’d retrieved from a supply cabinet and draped it over Thaia. “Aw, you care,” she said after Lexi had safely moved to her desk.

“If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t worry over you.” Lexi concentrated on the various tiny packets and small vials she removed from drawers as data appeared on the terminal. “Though there are times when I question why I do.”

“Because you love me and couldn’t live without me,” Thaia said as the exhaustion from the illness began to overpower her will to stay awake.

She was asleep before Lexi finished her sigh.

***

When Thaia woke, she felt better. Not way better, but enough that she wasn’t freezing nor was she sweating and she wasn’t bone tired. She also had no idea how long she’d been out until she noticed Lexi drinking tea in an amount that indicated it was either the middle of the night and she’d decided to pull an all nighter or—

“Good morning, Waterbug,” said Lexi.

Which meant she’d slept the entire night, but that wasn’t important any longer because Lexi had just used a nickname that only—Thaia had believed—one person in two entire fucking galaxies knew. “Who told you?”

“You did. How are you feeling?”

“I told you? Me? When?”

Lexi set down her mug and picked up a glass of water. “During the night with the wine. I was waiting until the right time to use it and this seemed appropriate.” Once she stood at the side of the bed, she asked again, “How are you feeling?”

“Astonished. Thirsty. Also better.” Thaia accepted the water then drank it as Lexi did another scan and Thaia tried to remember when the fuck she’d told Lexi about that nickname during that night because her memories about it were mostly bits and pieces. Lexi’s exes and Peebee being entirely fucking wrong about Lexi, then there’d been Anan’s new drink that Anan had informed them both the next day she’d decided to call ‘Fair Warning,’ and there’d also been a failed attempt at sciencing under the influence.

“It seems the virus ran its course while you slept.” Lexi deactivated her omni and motioned for Thaia to sit up. “Look up at the ceiling, please. I need to have another look at your lymph nodes.” This time, none of the pressure from Lexi’s fingertips on them made Thaia flinch. Lexi nodded and withdrew. “Good. No longer tender. There’s some residual swelling, but worst has passed and your lymph nodes should return to normal by tomorrow morning.”

“So I can go to Voeld today?”

“Absolutely not.” Lexi’s frown brooked no fucking argument and after how Thaia’s actions had affected her the day before, Thaia wasn’t going to argue. “What you can do is remain on the Tempest under observation until your lymph nodes are their normal size. Under observation means you’re here in this bed until midday and I’ll assess your status from there. If you’ve made more steps toward recovery, I might let you wander about the ship and then sleep in one of the free bunks. Right now, feel free to take a shower and put on fresh clothes. You have twenty minutes before I’ll come looking for you. Make no mistake, I will retrieve you from your shower if you don’t return on time.”

Thaia opened her mouth.

“No,” Lexi said before Thaia could, “it will not be a good thing, so don’t even think about it.”

Thaia’s shoulders drooped. “You know me too well.”

“There are days.”

“I really told you about my nickname?”

“You told me your mother gave it to you. You didn’t say why, but the reason is obvious since you said she had to drag you kicking and screaming from the ocean on multiple occasions.” Lexi picked up her mug again and looked at Thaia over the rim. “We still haven’t properly discussed what we do and do not remember from the night with the wine.”

“Is that what we’re calling it?” Thaia asked as she slid off the bed. “It sounds like a bad vid title. Porn or romance? I can’t decide.”

Lexi’s expression stayed neutral. “Erotica.”

Thaia almost fell over and if she had she would’ve said it was obviously because she’d just been ill and not because Lexi had once again caught her unawares. But she just managed to stay upright and gape at Lexi instead.

“Shower,” Lexi said when it became apparent Thaia had lost her words.

Thaia took a step toward the door and then turned when her stomach growled. “Can I eat first?”

“Your meal will be waiting in here when you’re done.”

An opening to even things up without having to say a fucking word. Thaia grinned at Lexi.

“Not like—” Lexi glared, though it didn’t hide her amusement. “That isn’t what I meant. Goddess, you’re impossible.” She pointed at the door. “Go.”

Thaia’s shower was subsequently rushed and marked by a steadily increasing anxiety. Then it exponentially increased when Thaia went from wondering if she’d really told Lexi the nickname—because there was a slight possibility Sula might have—to wondering if Lexi had told anyone else.

If she had, Thaia would be forced to airlock herself.

If the rest of the Tempest’s crew found out about her childhood nickname, there wouldn’t be anything else for it. Even her fucking sisters didn’t know about the nickname, thank the fucking goddess. She trusted Lexi to keep it to herself if Thaia asked, but like she couldn’t remember that she’d told her, she couldn’t remember if she’d made the request.

So the first question Thaia asked after she returned to the medbay was, “Have you told anyone?”

“Of course I haven’t,” Lexi said mildly as she read from a datapad, as if it wasn’t a big deal at all except that it was. “You asked me not to and I don’t break confidences.”

Thaia sat down heavily on the exam bed, and then picked up one of the really good ration packs. “Thank you.” Then as she began eating, she asked, “What else do you remember? Because the gist of what I remember aside from the whole your exes being phenomenally, fantastically wrong about you not caring about people, is trying to show you the plans for a mass relay and some really serious conversation.” She paused, abandoning her food for a moment in favor of looking over at Lexi. “Possibly about whatever is and isn’t going on between us.”

Lexi twirled her stylus in a circle and maintained eye contact with Thaia. “You mean our non-relationship relationship?”

“Yes, that.” Thaia jerked into sitting up straight. “Did I make a comment about fucking you in a dark corner?”

“You did,” Lexi said with a laugh. “That was after Anan’s drinks and before the wine. I think we were on our way to stealing the wine. But it was a comment and nothing more, as far as I can remember. In the end, I’m fairly certain we agreed to remain friends.”

Thaia pointed at Lexi with her spoon. “Best friends. Best friends because somewhere inside, for some psychological reason that you probably know, you still think that Peebee and your exes are right. But they’re wrong and I’ll keep saying it and maybe one day you’ll believe it because they’re wrong.”

“Maybe.” Lexi stared into her mug. “And you… I recall you being afraid but I can’t remember the reason behind it.”

“Andromeda.”

When Thaia didn’t elaborate, Lexi prompted her. “In case you’re under the mistaken impression that your answer elucidated the reason for your fear, it did not.”

Thaia held in a sigh and shoved away the fear that liked to surface whenever the word even came up in conversation. “Andromeda takes things away. Takes people away. Whenever something good happens, Andromeda evens the scale. The Nexus made it here and Aunt Jarah and—they died. I made Safira laugh weeks later, the first time she’d laughed since coming out of cryo, and then I got that spike through me almost right after. Then after I got her to laugh again, there was the uprising and the fire and then she was gone.” Thaia didn’t look away from Lexi because this was important. 

It was important because Lexi needed to understand the Andromeda that Thaia had experienced. Then she’d understand why Thaia couldn’t agree to them going beyond friendship even if Lexi ultimately decided that she wanted to try. Why Thaia wouldn’t be able to try here, even though it was what she’d wanted in the Milky Way. Even though it was what she thought she’d still want in Andromeda. What she still wanted in Andromeda. Because if they—if she dared to hope, Andromeda took people away.

“Andromeda takes and then takes more and with everyone gone, the idea of you being gone too is…” Fear shambled from the shadows within, slipping into the brittle fractures inside, waiting for its chance to hurt and overwhelm and drown and Thaia wouldn’t let it. “It’s safer if we keep things as they are.”

Lexi searched her eyes for the truth behind them. “Is that what you want?”

Thaia looked at the display behind Lexi and saw broken cryo pods and fires and the creeping tendrils of the Scourge and her lungs burned. 

“It’s what Andromeda wants.”

Chapter Text

The Tempest, 2819.

A loud crack followed by a low bang jerked Lexi awake and instantly alert. When she slid open her bunk’s privacy screen, the undertone of ozone in the air of the crew quarters turned cutting. Through the dim lighting of the Tempest’s night, she saw an asari silhouette and a privacy screen split in two lying on the deck.

Then she heard Thaia say in a voice still raspy with sleep, “Fuck.”

“Are you okay?” Lexi asked.

At the same time, Suvi asked, “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Just… woke up, needed to hit the head, and couldn’t get the screen open.”

“You’re going to be fixing that tomorrow. Replacements are in the cargo bay, upper deck storage units,” said Gil, somehow managing to sound effectively annoyed, yet still mostly-asleep.

“That’s fair,” Thaia said after a moment. “Everyone go back to sleep. I can handle a visit to the head on my own.”

Gil rolled over in his bunk. “You’d better not break that, too.”

“I’m not that kind of monster,” Thaia said with a surprising inflection of self-loathing as she stood and leaned the remains of the screen against a wall. Her footsteps were silent when she walked into the head, but a sheen of sweat was noticeable on her skin.

Lexi resisted the urge to follow and verify that Thaia was okay, but Thaia’s explanation for the fallout of another worrisome nightmare likely held an element of truth and Lexi left her to her privacy.

When Thaia returned to her bunk, which was immediately to the right of Lexi’s own, Lexi whispered, “How are you feeling?”

The bedding rustled before Thaia whispered back, “If you’re asking if my fever came back, it didn’t.”

She couldn’t decide which outcome would be less concerning. “Are you really all right?”

“I will be.” Thaia paused before she added, “I will.”

Lexi didn’t believe her, but chose not to press the issue in favor of hoping Thaia would quickly return to sleep—much needed sleep. But when Lexi settled back to seek sleep herself, it would not come, her mind insistent on mulling over the problem. Thaia evidently didn’t feel ready to confront the source of her nightmares, yet they were unlikely to improve until she did, which required willingness to seek treatment. And her throw-away comment about not being ‘that kind of monster’ bothered too, especially knowing that Thaia was the product of an endogamous relationship. To anyone trained or even simply well-versed in asari psychology, it was a confluence that begged further and careful exploration. It also prompted the unexpected revelation that, atop the horrendous incident with her turian stepfather, Thaia had probably been bullied as a child, and badly.

Lexi shifted uneasily in her bunk.

While the chances of developing AYS were very low, and of manifesting the more extreme forms lower still, the fact remained that it only occurred in the children of endogamous matings, and was a driving force behind the social pressure to seek a non-asari mate.  Furthermore, until the Initiative, AYS was undetectable before puberty, leaving those children anywhere between thirty and fifty years to anticipate and dread a positive test result and a diagnosis of a genetic condition that would brand them as demons. Deviants. Monsters. The research of recent centuries was clear in the psychological toll this could take on children, often leaving them with internalized shame and deep-seated fear that otherwise normal emotional responses or lapses in biotic control were signs that those childhood fears were well-founded. That Thaia had recently interacted with a bonded asari pair and their child likely meant the association was high in her subconscious after realizing she’d biotically destroyed something in her sleep.

It was another issue Thaia would need to address in counseling, though one Lexi needed to be careful about broaching when she eventually encouraged Thaia to seek said counseling from professionals on the Nexus. But not now. Thaia would need to feel safe to confront such a long and deeply-held fear, and it was far too clear that she felt anything but. Like Peebee, she seemed to have one foot out the door everywhere she went. Lexi couldn’t help but worry, and took that worry with her into what proved to be a fitful sleep.

When Lexi awakened, Thaia was gone, but her bunk was as neat as it was each time she overnighted on the Tempest, the blanket without a single wrinkle. 

It didn’t stay that way for long.

Suvi was the first to muss it, rumpling the blanket and nudging the pillow out of perfect alignment and disappearing just before Thaia returned from the showers. Fetching a lab coat from her locker, Lexi saw Thaia smooth it out on her brief return before she went to the cargo bay. So, on her way to the medbay, Lexi mussed it again. 

Lexi kept the medbay’s door open, which allowed her to hear Thaia saying, “Come the fuck on,” when she entered the crew quarters, replacement screen in her arms, and discovered the state of her blanket.

The minor sabotage continued throughout the day, primarily perpetuated by Lexi, Suvi, Gil, and Kallo. Even Ryder and Jaal  joined in the attempt to annoy Thaia into better spirits—the method of choice for anyone on the Tempest who needed cheering up.

When Thaia caught Lexi mid-muss in the early afternoon, her initial irritation quickly turned into a sly smile. Then she leaned down so her lips almost touched Lexi’s crest and said in a lowered voice that almost made Lexi shiver, “There are a lot of other ways to muss my bed that would be a lot more fun for both of us.” 

Thaia left the room while Lexi struggled for a reply.

Goddess. Rather than continue that particular game, Lexi chose to leave the mussing to the others for the rest of the day, watching with amusement as Thaia grew increasingly exasperated, not just at the mussing but at her inability to catch any culprit save Lexi.

But what finally saw the full return of Thaia’s usual ebullience was an outraged question, one posed loudly enough to carry to Lexi as she strode from the bridge onto the upper walkway: “Why the fuck is that in here!?

It sounded like it came from somewhere near the research table, and Lexi had no qualms about finding an excuse to head there and eavesdrop. She could read over Harry’s reports at the research table just as easily as she could the medbay.

“Because it’s a bio lab,” said Cora, her flat statement negating the need to add an obviously at the end.

There was a pause. Then, “So that’s a good reason. But how do you sleep in here without having nightmares about it crawling out of its giant specimen container and killing you in your sleep?”

The miniature spotted pallad was an herbivore and was in no way a danger to anyone. Had it posed a danger, Lexi wouldn’t have allowed it onto the ship. She was honestly beginning to think that Thaia’s mother should have at least tried treatment for Thaia’s fear of arachnids when Thaia was a child. It certainly would have been easier than trying to convince the adult Thaia to do so.

“Is that what yours was about last night?” asked Suvi.

“If I’d had a nightmare about a giant arachnid chasing me, I’d have destroyed more than a privacy screen in my attempt to get the fuck away from it,” Thaia said. “Anyway, I didn’t lie. I did need to go to the head.”

“I mostly believe you,” said Suvi, “but no matter how badly you have to go, using biotics to smash through a privacy screen is a bit much.”

When Lexi entered the research room, she found Drack standing at the requisition terminal at the table, Suvi using the table’s holodisplay, Ryder near one of the wall displays, and Thaia standing in the bio lab’s doorway. Suvi and Ryder waved their hellos and Drack nodded when they saw Lexi, and she greeted them in kind.

Thaia retreated from the bio lab’s open doorway, noticed Lexi, and her eyes brightened with her sudden smile. Then she seemed to catch onto the swift change in her expression and tried to cover it up by lifting herself up to sit on the stack of containers just outside the bio lab. Lexi joined Suvi and Drack at the table after quickly returning Thaia’s smile. Then Drack looked at Lexi, grinned, and jerked his chin in Thaia’s direction. 

Lexi ignored him.

“Maybe,” Thaia said to Suvi, “I’m used to traveling on asari ships, so I’m not used to encountering privacy screens on bunks in the middle of the night.” 

“Asari ships have privacy screens on their bunks,” said Cora, utilizing her teaching tone. “It’s just that those bunks are bigger.”

“Why are they bigger?” asked Ryder, her curiosity honest, without a hint of the usual Tempest crew teasing. It served as a reminder of Sara’s derailed studies of exobiology and sociology, and how the shunting aside of her aspirations of a career in the sciences was something Sara struggled with daily. Even as Sara improved in her position as Pathfinder, she’d yet to truly settle in, to the point where it was fair to say that she might never grow to like it. But Sara possessed a strong work ethic, one that wouldn’t allow her do to less than her best.

Yet, the reminder that Sara was still denied the career she wanted—one at which Lexi believed Sara would excel, given the opportunity—saddened. And it prompted Lexi to open the message Harry had sent regarding Scott’s progress. Still no good news.

“Communal species,” said Cora.

“Sex,” Thaia said at the same time. “Those ships are largely crewed by maidens and younger matrons. The privacy screens are courtesy for the people who are trying to sleep. They’re also almost entirely soundproof and have comm panels inside for ship-wide alarms.”

“She’s kidding, right?” said Ryder, showing that she still had some distance to go in her exosociology studies. “Lexi? Cora?”

“For once, no,” said Lexi.

Cora sighed. “No, not entirely.”

It bewildered, Cora’s selective adaptation to asari mores, where she readily accepted the majority of differences between human convention and asari, had integrated well into her commando squad, yet still exhibited discomfort in some areas. As typical with most humans, one of the most prominent areas of disconnect was the ease in which asari accepted sex as just another aspect of life and therefore accommodated it where possible. Or perhaps it wasn’t that so much as it was that asari also didn’t think twice about said acceptance or the accommodations. For asari, it simply was.

Yet the closest Cora had come to addressing the differences had been her comment to Ryder that commandos ‘figure things out.’ Lexi had been nearby at the time, and she had nearly said out loud that there was a lotof ‘figuring out’ within commando units and aboard Republics Navy ships. However, Lexi had withheld her comment then because it wouldn’t have been fair to Cora, who struggled still with the absence of the asari ark and therefore Janae—whom Cora had privately disclosed to Lexi was much more than a best friend.

“Wait a minute,” Suvi said as she looked at Thaia through the holo over the table. “Since asari ships do have privacy screens, I’m suspicious of your claim that you aren’t used to them being there. Whenever hydrology consulted with the geology team, your sister liked to tell stories about you and your time as a commando.”

Thaia blinked at the mention of Safira, but she didn’t otherwise react outwardly. “Maybe I was just impolite and didn’t bother with the screens.”

Drack scoffed. “You can be rude, but even you aren’t that rude.”

With it looking like Thaia might be cornered over the real contents of her nightmare, Lexi changed the subject back to an earlier one. “Thaia, were you shouting about the miniature spotted pallad?”

Thaia looked from Lexi, to the bio lab, and then back to Lexi. “How the fuck is that thing miniature?”

“It is when you compare it to a bunch of its bigger relatives I squashed on Havarl,” said Drack. “Well, be hard to compare it to piles of muck, so we’d have to find a live one.”

“Stop trying to make me throw up.” Thaia’s complexion had already paled.

“We’re still trying to think of a name,” said Ryder. “Got any ideas?”

“There,” Thaia said slowly, “is something wrong with all of you.” She took a deep breath and then returned to her late evening interrogation of Cora. “Especially Cora and the questionable locations in which she chooses to sleep on Initiative ships.”

“The pallad’s harmless,” said Cora.

“For now,” said Thaia. “You should airlock it.”

Honestly, Thaia’s fear of arachnids had long ago passed pathological in nature, evident now in her threats to harm a perfectly innocent pallad.

“Did you come to the bio lab just to caution me about the biological specimens in here?” The surprisingly vehement undertone in Cora’s accusatory question gave Lexi pause—enough that she made a reminder to herself to check in with Cora about the Leusinia and Janae.

“No.” Thaia’s puzzlement at the intensity behind Cora’s question manifested in an incredulous look at the bio lab and modulating her tone to mild. “I didn’t even know it was in there until it scared the shit out of me. I wanted to check with you to see if you came up with the same transponder location I did because I got multiple ones, which is weird. But I got distracted by that fucking thing.”

“Cora had the same problem with the signal.” Suvi rotated the topographical map projected over the research table. Several highlighted locations appeared, most within an area east of the Resistance base. “I’m thinking it’s Voeld’s geological features reflecting it, making it bounce around everywhere.”

That explained much. Cora had already been on edge regarding the Periphona, and continued raised hopes followed by disappointment after disappointment would grate on anyone.

“Whatever it is, it’s making locating the Periphona take a lot longer than it should.” Cora sighed. “I really thought we’d found it yesterday afternoon, but it was that meteorite interfering with signals all over the planet.”

“The meteorite had traces of the Scourge on it and was surrounded by adhi,” said Ryder. “Multiple packs of adhi and I don’t want to deal with that many ever again.” 

Ryder’s injuries had cut short the search for the rest of the day, and then today Ryder had been recuperating while cooped up on the ship. Cora had been antsy—maybe antsier than Thaia—to continue searching for the survey ship. Even now, with Thaia recovered and her usual energetic self, Cora was still the more outwardly motivated.

Drack laughed. “That was fun. We should do it again.”

“No, you should not,” Lexi said. At this point, it was pure reflex for her to waylay any and all plans that involved Drack, fun, and again. And, this time, for all the others joked about it, Sara had been seriously injured.

Drack directed his answer to Lexi. “Come on, Ryder wasn’t that torn up. Scratches, mostly.”

“Sara’s lacerations required an entire tube of sealant to close and several patches of skin required treatment for frostbite. Hardly scratches.”

Thaia looked over at Ryder. “Any cool scars?”

“Lexi said no,” said Ryder.

“Stop requesting that I do shoddy work, all of you,” said Lexi. “My answer will always be no.”

Thaia rolled her eyes and it did not escape Lexi’s notice that Ryder had stifled a laugh. When Lexi added, “Don’t roll your eyes at me,” the laugh burst out. But Thaia’s eyes shined and she grinned instead of being irritated by the admonishment, which led Lexi to the realization that Thaia was becoming immune to her chastisement and therefore Lexi would need to further refine her technique.

Ryder stole the rolling stool from Suvi and proceeded to roll to the table. “I need a cool scar so I can impress Scott with it when he stops being lazy and wakes up from his coma.” She pointed at Thaia. “Jaw scars are cool. How’d you get yours?”

“Ritual batarian knife fight.”

“And there aren’t any batarians here yet so I can’t get one like that.”

“You don’t want one like someone else’s,” said Thaia. “It isn’t cool if it is.”

Liam’s head popped up from behind the railing above in the meeting room. “What about the one from when you got stabbed with that spike? You got a scar out of it, right?”

Thaia didn’t hesitate at all in lifting the hem of her shirt to reveal her entire torso. Then she pointed at the scar in the shape of an almost right-angle V. “This one?”

“I don’t want to get stabbed by the Nexus, though,” said Ryder.

“No one should want to get stabbed by the Nexus,” said Lexi, not as scolding as it should have been due to her sudden distraction that wasn’t Thaia’s scar. The delineation between Thaia’s abdominal muscles as they tapered to a V compelled Lexi’s eyes to follow until those lines disappeared beneath the waistband of Initiative fatigues. Their disappearance was absolutely tragic. From an anatomist’s perspective. Of course.

“That one’s pretty good,” Drack said to Thaia. “Someone told me you ran around showing whoever you could after you’d healed up.”

“I did!” Thaia smiled again. “Managed to impress some krogan. Maybe it’ll impress my dad after she’s out of cryo.” The smile waned and she dropped the hem of her shirt. “Ryder, where’s the meteorite? Still on the planet? If it’s got traces of the Scourge on it, I want to look at it.”

“We sent it to the Nexus so the tech people could study it,” said Ryder. “I’m sure they’ll let you study it, too.” 

They would. 

Lexi had overheard because Ryder had spoken with Dr. Aridana while still in the medbay after the initial treatment of her wounds. Initially, the conversation was about the meteorite and its Scourge connection. Dr. Aridana had then explained the plan to get Thaia to stay on the Nexus, working in the labs where she’d originally been assigned. Ryder had declared that she liked the idea because then Thaia would be somewhere safe and Lexi wouldn’t fret about her and pretend she wasn’t and do a terrible job of it. Lexi’s protests of “I’m standing right here,” had gone ignored.

“It can wait,” said Thaia. “I’m not postponing the hunt for the Periphona again. We need to search the other possible sites on Voeld and find out where they’re hunkered down.”

“Do you think they are?” asked Cora. “Maybe it crashed.”

Thaia leaned her shoulders against the wall behind her and idly kicked her heels against the container she was sitting on. “It’s a good ship that should hold together in most atmospheric descent conditions and it’s got really good shielding to make up for not having weapons. If it did crash, there’d be survivors. It would be recent and they’d be able to use the ship to protect them from the environment until they could be rescued, like they’re trained to.”

“We need to find them and then we need to find the ark and Sarissa.” Cora finally emerged from the lab she used as her room and went to the research table. “I bet she’s got a plan to get us out of this mess already.”

“Fifty credits says her plan is ‘shield everyone else from the kett’ and if that doesn’t work, it’ll be ‘kill lots of kett.’ Those tend to be the methods she uses most.”

Cora spun and leaned against the table as she frowned at Thaia. “I can’t tell if you respect her or not. It seems like you don’t.”

Thaia blinked as if Cora’s accusation had taken her by surprise. “I do.”

“Wait,” said Drack as he assessed the people gathered in the research room along with the plummeting temperature of the conversation. “Let’s have this talk while we’re doing something else. I have an idea.”

“Which is?” asked Thaia.

“What do you think about a game of Fire-breathing Thresher Maws of Doom?”

Thaia’s response held genuine excitement. “I love that game! I’m in.”

“Good,” said Drack. “Wouldn’t have taken no for an answer, anyway. You recruit more players while I grab the game. We’ll use the table up in the meeting room.”

“Oh, I’ve heard stories about that one,” said Liam. “Hell yeah I’m playing.”

Cora had begun to lighten up already. “With that title? I think I want to try it out, too.”

Vetra’s mandibles drew tight as she thought it over, Thaia and Liam looking at her pleadingly the entire time. Then she shook her head. “Not tonight. I’ll be talking to Sid in a little while.”

“Jaal?” asked Liam.

“I would be happy to,” Jaal said as he exited the tech lab.

The doors to the bridge opened and Peebee sprinted down the upper walkway to the research room. “I’m playing! You can’t play without me! It’s not allowed!”

“I’m in, as well,” said Suvi.

“It’s best that salarians not play. It’s a krogan game and it’s… not kind to us,” said Kallo. “I’ll listen from here.”

“Gil?” asked Liam. “What about you?”

“I’ll jump in. Give me a few minutes to wrap up down here.”

Lexi had played the game on numerous occasions during her dissertation work. Afterward, she’d continued playing when she could because she thoroughly enjoyed that game and its surprisingly deep and complicated strategy. “Count me in, as well. I just need to check on something in medbay first.”

When Lexi joined the group in the meeting room, four boxes that she recognized as one of the regular editions of the game were stacked on the table. 

Drack was in the middle of setting up the game, which was designed to incorporate as many players as they wanted because it added to the chaos. And while Drack was boasting—loudly—about the amount of chaos, he wasn’t mentioning what Lexi already knew and the others were apt to discover soon: there were layers to the chaos. And there were strategies to manage those layers, though said strategies were particularly suited to krogan minds. It was when Lexi had learned how much complexity krogan minds held that her interest in krogan, both personal and academic, had sparked. Though that interest had been quiet as of late and Lexi choose not to think about why even though she knew the answer.

“How do you win?” asked Suvi.

It was, to Lexi, a question of utmost importance for any competitive game.

“Burn down all the other pieces on the map.” Drack indicated the board as he placed a large figurine of Kalros in the central plain. “This one’s the classic Tuchanka map with the special target Kalros in the middle. But if you want to be able to take down Kalros, you’re going to need to recruit the Aralakh Company onto your team or you won’t stand a chance.”

“What are the other teams? Aside from the ones we’re starting with,” said Gil.

“You can recruit a Blackwatch team, a commando team, an STG team, and this edition has the Alliance team expansion. You can also obtain ships for orbital bombardment, but I’ve only seen a game reach that stage a couple times.” He passed out sets of seven dice and short stacks of cards. “You’ll need these. I’ll explain as we go.”

“What about the flamethrowers?” asked Liam.

“Keep your pants on, Kosta. We’re getting there.” Drack pushed the two other boxes onto the table and opened them, revealing piles of little figurines of various Milky Way Council species wearing combat gear, while the other box held thresher maw figurines. “Pick your initial teams. Everyone gets one maw they control that can acid-weaken or even kill the other teams if they get too close. The rest of the maws are randomly placed on the map. If your maw dies, you lose unless you’ve tamed one of the wild ones. You only get two krogan. Apparently we’re overpowered, like we hadn’t invented the game in the first place, but whatever. You have five other slots to fill in your first team with whatever other species you want.”

Each of them picked their teams, everyone wisely taking the maximum of two krogan along with their allotted thresher maw. Drack selected a mix of two humans, two asari and one turian, grumbling as he selected the turian, though Lexi understood the strategy behind it. If you wanted to maximize weapon effectiveness scores, you needed at least one turian on your squad. Without hesitation, Thaia picked five asari to join her two krogan and then began using her cards to kit them up. Lexi analyzed Thaia’s choices and encountered difficulty deciding whether Thaia had rounded out her team with only asari because she’d been a commando or if Thaia was opting to use gambits older than the Krogan Rebellions. 

In the end, Lexi opted to wait and see, and then took three turians and two humans from the box. The game’s meta had changed significantly when humans had been added in 2184, after they’d gained representation on the Citadel Council, and Lexi wouldn’t allow nostalgia to prevent her from using the best strategy.

Thaia looked up from her cards, down at the team Lexi was arranging in front of her, and then rolled her eyes. However, her actions didn’t indicate whether she’d rolled her eyes simply because Lexi had forgone commandos and was personally insulted, or if she knew the meta and thought less of it.

No matter. Lexi wasn’t going to pick an inferior team out of a misplaced attachment to her own species.

Those who were new to the game debated the pros and cons of each other species. The debate raged on until Drack called an end to it and declared that they had thirty seconds to pick the rest of their people or they’d be given salarians by default.

In less than ten seconds, everyone else had rounded out their teams. 

The only person who’d selected a single salarian was Suvi. “I’m going to call him Kallo,” she said as she placed the figurine next to her two humans.

“Suvi, I’m touched, but I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Kallo.

“Maybe it’ll bring me good luck,” said Suvi.

Even Ryder, ever-positive, looked skeptical.

Lexi agreed—salarians were too weak to use competitively and having even one on your initial team risked an early exit from the game.

While she debated whether or not to give Suvi advice, Drack brought out the flamethrowers.

Flamethrowers that were not holographic when holographic flamethrowers were standard. And real flamethrowers weren’t what Lexi had agreed to because working flamethrowers had been nonstandard for two millennia.

“Working flamethrowers?” Lexi couldn’t fathom how anyone—krogan included—could voluntarily play a game involving working flamethrowers. It boggled the mind and it bore repeating. “Working flamethrowers? No, that’s more risk than I signed on for.”

“Tiny ones,” said Thaia, who didn’t look the least bit bothered by the latest development, instead entirely bothered that Lexi had withdrawn from the game.

She would not be charmed into it, not even by Thaia. “No, I’m not condoning anyone playing anything involving flamethrowers, life-sized or miniaturized.”

“Tiny flamethrowers never hurt anyone,” Thaia said with an audaciously straight face.

Ryder elbowed Peebee when she failed to stifle a laugh.

Lexi crossed her arms. “Really.”

“Tiny flamethrowers never hurt anyone much.”

“Really.” She would not be swayed, no matter how plaintive Thaia’s look became. She would not.

Thaia placed her arms on the table, folded them, and then rested her chin on her hands. “Tiny flamethrowers never hurt anyone much if they move fast enough.”

Suvi hid a giggle behind her hand.

“Really,” said Lexi.

“Tiny flamethrowers never hurt anyone much if they move fast enough and your reflexes are perfectly fine and it’ll be fun so you should still play. Will you?” The eyes Thaia focused on her, as deep a blue as the bay next to her childhood home, were genuinely woebegone. “Please say yes.”

Goddess, swayed she was. Thaia’s insistence on sharing this experience reminded Lexi of when she’d asked her to jump off the cliffs into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Or visiting Thessia in the first place. Or agreeing to an act of criminal mischief at Guildhall Park. Had Lexi not agreed to any of those things, she would have forever regretted it. That in mind, she reevaluated her previous decision.

They truly were tiny flamethrowers. And, as Drack was helpfully pointing out, there was a pile of flameproof gloves for non-krogan to use, which would negate the chances of anything beyond less-than-mild burns, and negated the majority reason for her objection. And the spontaneity of doing something silly—and, to be honest, mildly dangerous—was something Lexi loved about Thaia and something she sought for herself. The ability to set aside things job-related in favor of playing a krogan game with a crowd of others also inspired her to play it. To live in the moment.

“All right,” Lexi said out loud. “I’ll still play.”

Thaia beamed. An entirely unabashed grin. Lexi reflexively returned it, and then tried to hide her reaction by picking up the datapad with the copy of the rules. However, even when she noticed that Drack had seen the exchange of smiles—and then proceeded to wink at her to make sure she knew he’d seen—it was worth the sacrifice of her dignity simply for seeing that smile.

“Quick, let’s get to playing before she changes her mind again,” said Ryder.

“Youngest goes first,” Drack said after everyone seated themselves. “No lying about your ages either because Lexi might not say your exact age, but she can call out any liars.”

Lexi would. Fair play was important.

“Wait,” said Gil. “If we’re burning all the pieces we can, how do we play another time?”

“We spend some free time fabricating replacements,” said Drack. “The game just isn’t the same with holos. Now stop delaying and get to playing. Ryder, you’re up.”

Mini-Kallo went in the first round. No one could have prevented it.

“Oh, no!” Suvi said as the figure disintegrated. “Kallo, you’ve burnt to a crisp.”

“Is there hope for a comeback?”

“No, I’m afraid you’re a wee pile of ash.”

“That’s why I don’t name my team,” said Drack. “And why I don’t pick salarians.”

“Because the built-in krogan bias against salarians renders them ineffective unless you have three or more STG teams and the Aralakh Company to protect them?” asked Lexi. She left the team name claim of his alone—calling attention to the fact that Drack was sentimental and likely did name his teams would only serve to further increase his desire to win and he would become more shrewd in his play as a result. Better he stayed less focused on the finer, more easily overlooked mechanics of the game.

“Hey, I didn’t see you picking any salarians,” said Drack.

“Objecting to built-in bias doesn’t necessitate playing to lose.”

“Quit complaining and take your turn,” said Peebee, who’d filled her team with humans the moment she’d seen that Liam had filled his with asari, with neither of them giving thought to actual strategy and instead responding to whatever whim struck them. They played board games, it turned out, much like they lived their lives.

Lexi drew a card, gained stealth, and set it aside for later use. Then she rolled the dice and sent her two krogan toward Gil’s closest team, setting them up to be flanked by her three-turian strike team. The longer Gil stayed in the game, the more time he would have to get into the other players’ heads. While Lexi was immune to his tactics, most of the others were not, and Lexi wasn’t taking the chance. Not when she’d taken note of him closely observing the three veteran players in what teams they chose and cards they set out before he moved a muscle. Not when she knew Gil would immediately be gunning for her.

No one had discussed teaming up against Gil, yet every single person whose turn came after hers also rushed him. They attacked him wave after wave until his maw and all his pieces were aflame. Even Jaal participated in the rush without requiring verbal prodding from the others.

Psychologically, the group mentality on display was fascinating. Everyone had gone after him, but Lexi was, she believed, the only person who hadn’t gone after him out of vengeance. 

“You all cheated,” said Gil. “Conspiracy and collaboration.”

Drack shrugged. “Not against the rules.”

“I’m taking every single credit from each of you next poker game.” Gil stood and glared as the ashes of his pieces settled. “Mark my words.” Then he stalked down the ramp and into the cargo bay.

“He says that like he wouldn’t have in the first place,” said Liam.

“It’s cute that he thinks any of us would play him again,” Thaia said as she advanced her entire team toward a thresher maw nest marked by her scout on her previous turn.

Ryder brushed the ashes from the board. “I’m sure I can get the hang of it and earn my credits and everyone else’s back.”

“Oh, Ryder,” said Suvi, softly and sadly.

Cora drew a card and then looked at Thaia. “Are you going to explain how you respect Sarissa Theris when you never sound like you do?”

“That’s because I’m shit with words,” said Thaia.

“You really are,” said Lexi. “To hear you at times, it can be difficult to believe you’re one of the erudite.”

It garnered her a dark scowl from Thaia, yet she said not a single word in her own defense. She likely literally didn’t have one to give. However, what often saved Thaia, in Lexi’s estimation, was that it was usually easy to see the intentions behind Thaia’s words when she had those moments of struggling to get out what she wanted to say. The authenticity of her body language and sincerity in her eyes made up for a significant amount in her dismal ability with expressive language. Especially if it didn’t involve the word fuck.

Thaia drew a card, turned her scowl onto it, and then addressed Cora again. “Look, Sarissa’s a damn good commando and her philosophies are good, too. But there are as many commando philosophies as there are militias and Nisira only had time to teach you about one. It’d be good if you learned about others and figure out which suits you the best. It might be Sarissa’s, but it might not.”

While Lexi maintained awareness of the game board and kept track of the plays the others made, she gave over a certain amount of attention to listening to the exchange between Thaia and Cora. One reason was because it was interesting to hear more details of how commandos and their militias functioned—most asari who hadn’t served knew little more about the militia function other than they were excellent at what they did. Another was because Cora’s strong identification with the commandos, and therefore asari as a whole, tended to cause some rumpled scales with asari who didn’t know the entirety of Cora’s background. While Peebee had strong, often very negative reactions to Cora’s consistent identification with asari culture, they were in part caused by Peebee’s own pointed rejection of elements of her own culture. Thaia wasn’t exempt from the irritation either, though hers was far less.

Thaia studied Cora for a long moment. “You’re a special case though, with the human thing.”

“Feel free to unpack that,” said Cora.

Sidestepping Cora’s defensive hostility, Thaia finished her approach on the maw nest before she explained. “After a decade or two, commandos are usually sent to train for five to ten years—sometimes more—under matriarchs and matrons who teach different philosophies, strategies, specialties, and tactics. Expands your base of knowledge and gives you a chance to find one that works best. For instance, Sarissa’s stuff is the more defensive kind that exerts control. The incredibly strong biotic shields and the almost unbreakable stasis fields, that sort of thing. I think my oldest sister studied under the same—doesn’t matter. Anyway, Sarissa has the best biotic shield of all the commandos, stronger than a lot of matriarchs, so the philosophy she found and continued to study and write about, suited her best. But it wouldn’t suit me best.”

“Why not?” asked Ryder.

“Her biotics like blowing shit up the best,” said Drack.

Lexi immediately recalled Thaia’s nightmare from the previous night and the fallout from it in the destroyed panel. Namely, the destruction caused by her biotics, which apparently were so inherently prone to large detonations that a krogan felt it necessary to specifically mention.

It likely hadn’t aided Thaia in believing that her perfectly normal biotic reactions were just that—normal. Even Thaia’s use of biotics in response to an intense nightmare wasn’t out of the norm. Biotics were a natural part of asari, literally ingrained in their bodies and ways of life. For an asari not to respond biotically to a perceived strong threat, even in a nightmare, would be unusual. And yet, Thaia would likely have a stronger compulsion for fine control of her biotics, both due to her status as a child of an endogamous relationship and because her biotics tended toward outsized detonations.

“Janae’s were like that,” said Cora. “She once yanked an AA gun from its housing, crushed a group of slavers with it, and then blew it up.”

“If they are,” said Thaia, “then if she’d stayed in the Milky Way, she probably would’ve gone to study under the same matriarch I did.” Then she frowned. “Wait, no. She died so it would’ve been another matriarch really good with offensive biotics.”

“Who did you study with?” asked Cora.

“I don’t think the who is important,” said Thaia, a little too quickly. 

Drack’s laugh was a low rumble vibrating from his stomach against the table and through it. “Tell ‘em. They’ll find out from someone eventually. Shit, your dad will tell them after she’s awake.”

Thaia shook her dice, tossed them, and then pretended to be preoccupied with counting. “Around 2035 or so, my squad was sent to study with Matriarch Benezia.”

“Holy shit!” said Ryder. “Wasn’t she the matriarch involved with the geth attacks a few years back? Well, a few years ago for us.”

The geth attack had been a double blow to many asari. One hit they shared with the rest of the galaxy in the attack on the Citadel. The other had been asari as a whole reeling after learning that one of their most well known and beloved matriarchs had aided Saren Arterius and the geth in their campaign that had ended with the Battle of the Citadel. The idea that Matriarch Benezia, a proponent of peaceful philosophic ideals, who had even practiced those ideals herself, had done so much harm, had been beyond comprehension.

As for Lexi herself, she recalled discussing the Citadel attack with Harry. Had she and Harry not joined the Initiative and moved to Theia Station as a result, they would certainly have been on the Citadel during the attack. The concept was unsettling, especially after learning that the wards had folded shut and how strange it must have been for those standing on those wards to experience it, not to mention the battling fleets around them and the geth inside the station.

“Yes. Technically?” Thaia shrugged. “I don’t know. But the person everyone heard about in 2183 wasn’t the same matriarch who trained us. Matriarch Benezia was deadly, yeah, but she was also really kind. Kind as in someone who wouldn’t ally with geth and decimate a human colony. And deadly as in you really wouldn’t want to fuck with her because her biotics would fuck you up and her own cadre of commandos were almost as good.” The smile that had lurking at the corners of Thaia’s lips broke free, accompanied by a fond, nostalgic laugh. “But they were all nice about it whenever they kicked your ass.”

Lexi enjoyed seeing such smiles from her, especially when accompanied by a warmth in her voice. The enthusiasm Thaia expressed now as she recounted memories of her time in the militia illustrated some reasons why Thaia had served for as long as she had—camaraderie and biotic training she wouldn’t have received otherwise. 

“How were they nice about it?” asked Suvi.

“Running over if a detonation launched you across the training room—it was a really big room—particularly hard to ask if you were all right. Helping you up and then a couple minutes later launching you again until you managed to counter in time. Stuff like—ha! Got another!” Thaia tagged the new maw she’d just tamed.

Though Lexi did question some of the commando training methodology if people were getting thrown across entire rooms.

“How many how you taken control of?” Liam asked as he nervously glanced toward his two commandos who were now uncomfortably close to the newly tamed maw. It was justifiable nervousness, as well. His commandos had gone from a suboptimal position to an extremely poor one.

“Five.”

“Where’d you even pick up that strategy?” asked Drack. “It’s an old one. Tough to pull off.”

The strategy truly was as ancient as it was difficult. Lexi had witnessed it used only twice, both times on Omega by a krogan over a thousand years old. It had passed from the metagame nearly four centuries ago, viewed as an unreliable high-risk, high-reward strategy.

Along with her small, pleased smile, Thaia’s eyes glimmered brightly. “My grandmother taught one of my older sisters and me so we could win a three-on-three game between us and my dad, and my other two sisters.”

Drack grunted. “She taught you well. So far. Careful it doesn’t bite you in the ass.”

“My grandmother might come back from the dead if I fuck it up,” said Thaia.

Apparently inspired by Thaia’s rounding up and taming of maws, Liam and Peebee teamed up to tame Kalros, starting their approach immediately after one of Liam’s commandos was disabled by acid from Thaia’s new maw.

“That takes a quad,” said Drack.

“Not real smart though,” said Thaia.

You’ve been taming maws,” said Peebee.

“Yeah, but not the mother of all thresher maws.”

“Did you like the training?” asked Cora. “Was it effective? I can’t even imagine studying under someone that renowned.”

“Probably the best I had throughout my whole career as a commando, honestly. We had training with a couple other matriarchs learning other specialties, but the training with Matriarch Benezia suited my biotics the best. So instead of shielding all the people like Sarissa would, I blow up all the people trying to hurt the people being shielded.” Thaia’s answer had started with as much enthusiasm as before, but it waned as she explained the role of her own biotics.

Lexi knew why, and while she couldn’t help with the underlying cause, she could aid with the return of the smile. Or, at least, change the subject so entirely away from Thaia’s explosive biotics that she would forget for the time being. And because, on more than one occasion, Lexi had caught—though the instances were so short they were likely only noticeable trained observers—Thaia’s attention briefly stolen by a set of well-formed breasts.

Also on more than one occasion, Lexi had seen Matriarch Benezia in person. Her ability to command people’s attention without requesting it had proved unmatched and stronger than Lexi had believed it could. However, said attention hadn’t been based on charisma alone. As a result, Lexi now found herself wondering how Thaia could ever have paid enough attention to the matriarch’s instructions to effectively learn new techniques. Because, if Thaia still had fleeting moments of distraction past the age of three hundred, they had to have been far worse two centuries ago. 

“How did you manage to pay attention when Matriarch Benezia herself did the teaching?” Lexi asked.

Thaia straightened so fast she nearly went flying backward off her chair. Then she slowly looked in Lexi’s direction, written all over her face that she knew exactly what Lexi had been alluding to.

“How could she be distracted from learning biotic techniques from a legendary instructor?” Cora asked before Thaia could say a word.

Cora, in Lexi’s estimation, could be too serious at times. She was serious in general, only occasionally making the odd joke or two. But even then, it was only when things were going according to plan. Unfortunately, the closer they’d gotten to finding the Leusinia, the fewer times Cora participated in moments like these. Given what Lexi, in her role as psychologist, had discussed with Cora about the reasons why she’d traveled to Andromeda, it was an understandable reaction on Cora’s part.

Alec Ryder himself had requested Cora join the Initiative and train as his second. Then, for reasons that Sara had explained later after SAM revealed why, Alec had passed over Cora when he’d selected his replacement. But he’d never explained to Cora why she couldn’t be his replacement—despite the fact that she had trained well and traveled to Andromeda for that position—that her being passed over wasn’t a result of a deficiency or incompetence on her part, but a result of SAM’s enhanced programming. 

Thus the confidence in herself and her position that Cora had slowly begun to gain first by serving with the commando unit and then becoming Alec Ryder’s second, was dealt a devastating blow. It had also taken away one of the reasons why Cora had journeyed to Andromeda, disconnecting her from the Initiative on an emotional level. However, Cora’s closest friend, Janae, had joined the Initiative after Cora, and had been assigned to the Leusinia. Having lost her position as Pathfinder and ostensibly the Pathfinder’s second due to SAM’s limitation to only people who shared DNA with Alec Ryder, she now stood the chance of losing another emotional connection she would have to the Initiative. 

In Cora’s place, Lexi would have worried and tended toward being overly serious, as well.

Then Peebee and Liam’s combined teams rolled terribly and were attacked early by Kalros. Peebee happily added to the effects of Kalros bursting from the sand by using her biotics to shake everything on the table, spilling Liam’s drink onto Ryder, leading them both to complain loudly.

“Stop whining or I’ll kick you out of the game,” said Drack.

They stopped complaining, and then Liam managed to roll high enough to escape Kalros with no more than acid-ravaged legs. However, his fortune was followed by Peebee choosing the wrong combination of cards, leading to Kalros wiping out both their teams despite Liam’s luck. The fallout also claimed Ryder’s team, who’d ventured too close in pursuit of the loot Peebee and Liam’s teams would inevitably drop.

“Come on,” said Ryder.

“You,” said Jaal, “were too eager to scavenge.”

Ryder waved her hand in the direction of Jaal’s two krogan, who happened to be looting Ryder’s team and were in good position to reach the scattered remains of Peebee and Liam’s teams. “And you aren’t?”

“If I were, my team would also be dead. Instead, they are enriched.”

Ryder crossed her arms and grumbled under her breath. From what Lexi could catch, it regarded regretting having chosen to not let SAM help her.

“Lexi, what was the reason for Thaia’s distraction?” asked Suvi, earning a dark glare from Thaia.

“Matriarch Benezia wasn’t legendary only for her biotic ability and instruction,” said Lexi, allowing her smile to tinge her tone with amusement. “Nor was she known for only her religious and philosophical teachings.”

Thaia stared at Lexi while she asked, with no small amount of dread, “How would you even know?”

“Matriarch Benezia,” Lexi said with a smug smile, “guest lectured at my first university on several occasions, and we both know how much people like to gossip about political figures.”

“So Thaia would’ve been distracted by politics?” Cora frowned and looked at Thaia. “I didn’t know you liked politics.”

“I don’t.”

“Then I’m missing something.”

“I think everyone here is,” said Ryder. 

“Here.” Drack chuckled as he activated his omni. “I’ll show you a picture. It’ll take you less than ten seconds to figure it out.”

“Drack, no,” said Thaia.

He ignored Thaia, flipped his omni’s display, and then showed everyone the picture he’d dug up on the extranet. It was Matriarch Benezia, posing for an event while wearing an incredibly low cut, well-tailored yellow dress. 

It took maybe five seconds for them to put it together.

Liam immediately howled with laughter and Ryder was right behind him. Jaal’s low chuckle accompanied Suvi’s giggle. Cora slapped a hand over her mouth in an attempt to stay her laughter. It didn’t work and she laughed as hard as Ryder had—laughing right through Suvi wrecking her entire team and then her maw.

Thaia studied her newest thresher maw with suspicious intensity and did not make eye contact with a single person in the room.

They laughed so loud that the comms lit up from around the ship, those few not at the table demanding to know what was so funny.

“I’ll post it on the InfoBoard,” said Drack.

“Don’t forget the question that preceded it,” said Lexi.

“Already on it, Doc.”

Thaia shot Lexi a betrayed look. “Why do you hate me?”

“I don’t hate you,” said Lexi, because she couldn’t possibly. If she were ever going to hate Thaia, it would’ve started when they’d been arrested. “I’m keeping you honest. And I am truly curious about the answer.”

“I think we all are,” said Suvi. “I don’t think I would have learned a thing.”

Then Thaia blushed and refused to look at Lexi as she answered. “It was difficult. Torture sometimes. It helped that she was tall, which meant eyes were at eye level for both of us. But what really fixed things was what happened a little while into the program. Matriarch Benezia was showing us martial forms and I got distracted again. Little did I know that the matriarch’s bondmate had returned from whatever assignment she’d been on—someone told me later that she was a spy for the matriarchy and I believed it because she could sneak up on any commando there. So she sidles up to me and I had no idea she was there until she says, ‘That rack, right? I know it’s a thing of glory, but you keep staring and you’ll miss part of the form, leave a gap in your defense, and then get smacked in the face with a shockwave.’ And I wanted to die. Just die right there to the extent that I wondered if someone could literally die from embarrassment.”

“Perhaps a secondary medical problem arising from the embarrassment could,” said Lexi, who would have paid to see the young Thaia’s reaction. It made her wonder how Thaia had been as a young maiden around Peebee’s age. Judging by stories she’d heard thus far, it seemed maturation had been a slow process in the beginning. “But it wouldn’t be the primary cause of death. Close enough, however.”

Thaia hummed. “That’s nice.” Then she flipped two cards toward Lexi. “Say goodbye to your team.”

Lexi plucked a single card from her tidy pile and flicked it toward Thaia, where it fluttered to a gentle landing in front of her.

Then came Thaia’s highly satisfactory reaction of a stricken and softly-spoken, “Fuck.”

“Hand them over,” said Lexi.

Thaia picked up her dice, studied them, and then glanced over at Lexi. “Have you no mercy?”

“When competing on Omega,” Lexi said as she extended her hand toward Thaia, palm up, “there was only one rule: mercy is for the weak. Now, give them over.”

It earned another whispered fuck from Thaia, yet the light blush on Thaia’s cheeks indicated that it was no longer entirely out of disbelief at how the tables had turned. If Lexi wasn’t mistaken, which she likely wasn’t given how well she knew her, the new element was arousal. And Lexi wasn’t above using it to her advantage if winning the game called for it.

Thaia passed Lexi four out of her seven dice, which would compromise her efforts in succeeding with her current strategy. If she continued to roll well, then winning was still a possibility. But no longer did she have room for error or misfortune. Then Thaia, apparently not above dramatics, placed her head face-first on the table in front of her. Suvi gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

“Aethyta wasn’t the jealous type, though,” Drack said rather nonchalantly.

Lexi raised an eyebrow at the name-drop, though honestly she should have been well past the point of being surprised by anything Drack said.

More importantly, Thaia set aside her overdramatics and raised her head. “You knew Aethyta?”

Drack shifted the offensive positions of his maw and his expanded krogan team that had nearly reached the status of Aralakh Company recruits. “Yeah, I knew her. Knew her well enough to know she wouldn’t get mad about someone getting it on with her bondmate so long as she was in on the action, too.”

“But how would you even know?” Suvi asked, brow furrowed in confusion. “It just seems like something really… personal.”

He chuckled as he shuffled through his cards. “There’s a reason why I ended up on a first-name basis with one of the most powerful people in the Asari Republics.”

Thaia made a sound that Lexi would never be able to classify beyond the woefully inadequate horrified.

Drack just grinned, which really didn’t confirm if he’d made up the story or not.

“So if she wasn’t the jealous type,” said Ryder, “how did her talking to you solve your problem?”

After she scrubbed a hand over her eyes, Thaia said, “Aethyta knew my dad and my dad knew me and had asked her to check on me and told her why. Apparently they talked about it after that incident and my dad laughed so hard she cried.”

Cora folded her arms across her chest. “So did the acute embarrassment solve the problem?”

“Whole thing was resolved the moment Aethyta told me she and Matriarch Benezia knew my dad,” Thaia said with a glare leveled on Drack. “Funny what associating someone with a parent will do.” She then rolled a terrible combination with her remaining dice, the result being all of her maws turning on each other and the rest of her team, causing the flamethrowers to rupture, burning maws and bipeds both.

While the roll worked wildly to Lexi’s advantage, it had been so improbable an outcome that she had set it aside as a real possibility. However, she still made quick use of the opportunity presented to her to flank both Jaal and Drack.

“You were doing pretty well up until that shit luck, kid,” Drack said as his team overran Jaal’s after his commandos sabotaged it. Then he began looting their supplies as the rest of his team walked through the ashes.

“That was low,” said Jaal.

Drack laughed. “Get me next time.”

“I shall.”

“Thaia, how low was the probability of that combination?” asked Suvi.

Thaia threw herself onto the couch behind the table. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Are you sulking?” Lexi asked as she turned to look at her.

“No.”

She was and it was adorable.

When Lexi turned her attention back to the game, Suvi finished up her turn, which resulted in an incredible gambit that had her team demolish Lexi’s team right where they stood, and none of the cards Lexi had in reserve could undo the damage.

“Goddess,” Lexi said out loud, “that was well-played.”

“Thank you!” said Suvi. “I think I’m getting the hang of it.”

Lexi narrowed her eyes. “Suvi, have you played this be—”

Then a screech emanated from the figurine in the middle of the table and it lit up and began holographically rising.

“Kalros!” shouted Drack.

Having emerged from the ground, the holo of the risen Kalros loomed over the position of Drack’s team. If Drack didn’t use his next turn to retreat, odds were high that they’d be wiped.

“You can still run,” said Suvi. “My trap wasn’t inescapable.”

“Run? No! If they call themselves krogan, they’ll face Kalros straight on!” 

Drack rolled.

His krogan charged.

Kalros ate them.

“I won!” said Suvi. “It’s a pity Kallo didn’t live to see it, though. Poor Kallo.”

Chapter Text

Voeld, 2819.

“This planet is so fucking cold,” said Thaia.

Huddled in the Nomad as Ryder, Cora, Jaal, and Thaia were, no one disagreed. Ryder’s hands felt like they’d frozen in position hovering over the haptic control panel. Maybe around hour ago, she’d started believing that, despite her earlier excitement, this was not a better activity than staying on the Tempest and doing nothing. The nice, toasty warm Tempest that was not currently navigating this ice-bound hellscape, driving from false signal to false signal and slowly subjecting its occupants to frostbite.

“Why don’t the kett freeze?” asked Ryder. “They should freeze. It would be nice of them to freeze.”

“If they did something nice, they would not be kett,” said Jaal.

“Fair point.”

“This planet is so fucking cold that all the oceans are frozen,” Thaia said after the Nomad bounced into then over a pile of snowbound rocks. “All this ice over all this water.” She pressed her helmeted head against one of the right side passenger windows. “How thick do you think it is? A few meters? If you cut through it, there’d be water. If we put a forward station nearby, the open section wouldn’t refreeze immediately, maybe even make the top layer a safe condition zone. Then we could—”

“No,” Lexi said over the comms.

Ryder loved the times when they got to have open comms with the Tempest crew because they ended up having conversations they never would’ve had otherwise. It also helped distract from terrible conditions, such as being trapped in an icebox of a vehicle and driving for hours through a blizzard and hoping to not run across a kett camp or kett scouts or kett anything, really.

Even without being able to see Thaia’s face due to the helmet, Ryder could hear the scowl in her tone. “You didn’t even let me finish outlining my plan.”

“Because attempting it would get you—and anyone foolish enough to follow you—killed.”

Ryder wondered how many people Thaia could convince to follow her if she tried. If Thaia channeled the responsible asari who bellowed so loudly about weapon safety in the early hours of the morning, she’d probably prevent people from joining her. But if she channeled the asari who had somehow convinced Lexi T’Perro—one of the most responsible people Ryder had known in her entire life—to commit criminal mischief, then she could get fifty people to follow her, easy. Hell, Ryder probably would.

Except then Lexi would intervene and stop them all, so there was that.

Unless.

Unless Lexi had already been convinced. Ryder had overheard Vetra and Drack discussing something about Thaia having once talked Lexi into jumping off a cliff. Which had, according to Vetra, taken place before the criminal mischief. Drack had called bullshit on the cliff jumping but Vetra had insisted it was true. Then Vetra had noticed Ryder and changed the subject. But if Thaia had talked Lexi into jumping off a cliff, then maybe talking her into going for a swim in a temporary swimming area of questionable safety wasn’t so far-fetched.

Thaia had even talked Lexi into staying in their Fire-breathing Thresher Maws of Doom game last night after the reveal of working flamethrowers.

Or.

Or Lexi could even be in on the whole swimming plan. Because, aside from having learned how not to burn her fingers with tiny flamethrowers, playing Fire-breathing Thresher Maws of Doom had taught Ryder that Lexi was downright devious. There was no way that the embarrassment Lexi had brought upon Thaia hadn’t been calculated to distract Thaia—one of only a few veteran players and therefore real competition—from the game.

“I’d wear a hardsuit,” said Thaia. “And I’d make anyone else who wanted to swim wear a hardsuit.”

“Then you and your foolish followers would die from exposure while in said hardsuits.”

“You’re sure?”

“Dr. T’Perro is correct, Althaia,” said SAM.

Comms didn’t pick up all of what Thaia muttered, but Ryder deduced enough to know it wasn’t nice. However, Thaia’s plan had been harebrained and that was being nice about it. 

“You want go to swimming?” Ryder said as she glanced over at Thaia. “That’s what it was about? Were you serious?”

“Yes. I miss it.”

“That is very dedicated,” said Jaal. “Are asari aquatic creatures, then?”

“Not anymore,” said Lexi.

“Yes,” Thaia said at the same time.

“Kid’s a throwback,” said Drack.

Jaal leaned forward and studied Thaia as he hummed in thought. Then he said, “Perhaps if we succeed in our rescue of Moshae Sjefa tonight, you would be permitted to swim in one of the many lakes and oceans on Aya.”

“Really?” Thaia straightened from her slouch. “If you made that happen, you’d be my favorite person in the whole galaxy.”

Jaal’s hum turned into a warm chuckle. “Second favorite, I believe.”

“Who told you about my deep and abiding love for Suvi?”

“I didn’t know you felt that way,” said Suvi. “All this time, I had no idea.”

“How can anyone not love the person who shook Jien Garson’s hand and then told her she wanted to look under her dress?”

“Prototype smart textile! And a lot of champagne.”

After the laugher passed, Lexi asked, “Thaia, are you letting go of your plan for death via preventable hypothermia?”

Thaia’s helmet knocked against the window when the Nomad jumped a gap between ice sheets and landed hard. Then she said, “Possibly.”

“Need I extract a promise from you that you won’t attempt to carry out your plan?”

“This is like when I had to get Sid to not do something dumb when she was younger,” said Vetra.

Thaia straightened in her harness. “Oh, that reminds me! Vetra, do you think you can scrounge up any holographic coloring books?”

“I don’t see why not. New hobby?”

“The books are for the kid who was in the escape pod on Eos. When we went to to talk with her and the others, everyone jumped up and she dropped her only coloring book. Hit at just the wrong angle—those things are engineered to take all sorts of high-impact falls, so I think it had a material flaw—and the corner snapped off. Kid burst into tears. Seriously, it was pitiful.”

“She seemed better after you talked to her about headbutts,” said Ryder. “Then she cheered way up after you let her headbutt you.” She’d even gotten a recording of it with her omni. The whole encounter with the group of asari from the escape pod had been fascinating for Ryder, but watching a tiny asari headbutt an adult asari had been been hilarious and a recording meant she could cheer herself up anytime she needed it.

“What’s this about headbutts?” asked Lexi.

“The kid had a krogan grandparent, too. That’s all,” said Thaia.

“Don’t give her shit,” said Drack. “The krogan-asari kids bond in good ways.”

“Headbutting isn’t a healthy way to bond unless you’re krogan,” said Lexi.

“I said good, not healthy,” said Drack.

Then Ryder kind of regretted trying to shave off some time by driving over a cliff onto the plain below, except she didn’t feel the regret until they were already in midair. And, despite the mass effect field shock absorbers cushioning the landing, her hands still smacked the haptic panel pretty hard. Well, at least it meant her hands weren’t frozen there forever.

“Thaia,” said Lexi.

“Hm, what?” Thaia asked like she had no idea what Lexi was going to revisit even though every person in the Nomad and on comms did.

“You still  haven’t answered about canceling the hypothermic event you’re planning.”

As the Nomad barreled over a snowbank, Thaia flung out both her arms and braced herself between the window to her right and the back of Ryder’s seat to her left. “I will not plan nor will I execute any plan involving water and death from exposure,” she said so flatly that there was no possible way she meant it.

“I need a binding agreement.”

“Goddess, fine. I promise.”

“One has to admire her dedication,” said Jaal.

Thaia leaned over far enough in her seat that she could extend her left arm backward and exchange an awkward angaran fist-bump with Jaal.

“No,” said Lexi. “One does not.

“Hey, Ryder,” Thaia said too casually to actually be casual. “Knock-knock.”

But Ryder wasn’t opposed to playing along. “Who’s there?”

“Unsolicited advice.”

“Unsolicited advice who?” Ryder asked as she slammed her hand on the accelerator when she saw the lights of a kett patrol in the distance.

Thaia returned to facing forward and adjusted her harness. “Here’s some unsolicited advice: never become best friends with a doctor.”

“Thaia,” Lexi said before anyone else could comment, “what has four legs but only one foot?”

“I don’t know. What?” Thaia asked as she looked out her window.

“A bed.”

“So you’re saying you’ll be in—”

“As in, I know where you sleep and I have access to things that are your worst fears. I’ll leave you to do the math.”

“Fuck,” said Thaia.

That isn’t even in the equation,” said Lexi.

Thaia laid her head on the control panel in front of her and said nothing, which was really probably in her best interest.

With how Thaia and Lexi were, Ryder wondered if best friends was a different concept among asari than with humans. She’d had best friends before and Ryder knew she and any of her besties had never acted like Thaia and Lexi did with each other. And the same went for other best friends she’d seen. But her own and the other pairs of best friends she’d interacted with had all been human, though. So maybe with asari it wasn’t the same. “Do asari have a different concept of what best friends are than humans do? Or other species, for that matter?”

“Nope,” said Peebee.

Thaia slowly sat up, looked at Ryder, and then kept silently and steadily looking at her.

Ryder understood the warning behind the gesture, but she decided to ignore it because she had the chance to get one over on someone centuries older than her and she wasn’t going to pass it up. She couldn’t reasonably be expected to. “So, asari best friends are pretty much like human best friends? Or turians? Or salarians? Or krogan?”

“Sure,” said Drack. “Well, krogan best friends are krantt and we have rituals and shit, but it’s pretty much the same.”

“I had a best friend or two in the Milky Way,” said Vetra. “Sometimes people thought we were sisters.”

Ryder glanced at Thaia, who hadn’t stopped looking—no, glaring, Ryder was pretty sure at this point it was a glare—at her. In response, Thaia flared her biotics a little. Then Ryder reminded herself that Thaia also collected model ships and therefore was not scary and pressed on. “But Thaia and Lexi don’t act like sisters would.”

“Oh, no,” said Kallo. “They’re more like the early stages of a couple you’d see in Fleet and Flotilla.”

“So,” Ryder said as she did not look over at Thaia again, “the consensus I’m getting here is that in the case of these two particular asari that the claim of ‘best friends’ is a crock of shit?”

“The biggest crock of shit,” said Gil.

No one disagreed except the two asari in question, whose protests were overruled.

Ryder could listen to shit like this all day and this was part of why she loved the Tempest’s crew. They made being Pathfinder when she didn’t want to be suck a lot less. They were what made Heleus tolerable and sometimes even enjoyable, which was one reason why she had them on mission comms as often as possible and she’d yet to regret it. If she could ever pass the job to Scott, she’d stay on the ship as part of the crew, doing her exobiology thing, and giving everyone shit over comms, too.

“Thaia,” said Jaal, “during your conversation with Cora last night, you mentioned a sister.”

“I did,” said Thaia, who then offered nothing else. Which was weird, Ryder thought, because Thaia wasn’t the non-talkative type.

Jaal’s voice carried the same confusion. “Is it taboo for asari to discuss family?”

“No,” Thaia said after a moment. “It’s difficult. Safira was on the Nexus, same as me. But there was a fire and she died.”

Ryder hadn’t known. Shit. Her gut twisted a little, thinking about how she would be if she’d lost Scott. After what’d happened with his cryo pod, she’d been relieved to find out he was ‘just’ in a coma and would eventually naturally wake up. It still sucked, though, not having him around. And the thought of having him gone permanently was just… so painfully unfathomable. She still wasn’t sure about how she felt—or didn’t feel—about her father dying, but her brother was a completely different story. Annoying as he was, her life wouldn’t be the same without Scott around.

“I remember you saying before,” Jaal said carefully, “that your father is in cryo.” He briefly halted, allowing time for his gentle question to be turned aside before he asked it. “Did any other family accompany you on the Nexus?”

The pause between Jaal’s question and Thaia’s answer was long enough that Ryder thought she was pretending to not have heard him. Then Thaia said, “An aunt. Uncle. Two nieces. They… didn’t make it.”

Ryder really hadn’t known. Thaia hadn’t let on, not that Ryder could recall, and it wasn’t something she’d have forgotten because holy shit you didn’t forget something like a friend losing a shitload of their family. Not when something like that was life-shattering and Ryder was pretty sure she wouldn’t have her shit together for a long time if she’d lost that many people she cared about. Her gut twisted again and she missed Scott more than usual. But at least she could go see him, in a coma or not. He was still alive. Yet, Ryder had no idea what the hell to say to Thaia. Or if she should even say something at all since Thaia hadn’t breathed a word of it before this.

But Jaal knew because Jaal was kind and Jaal was angara and therefore way better than anyone from the Milky Way at openly dealing with stuff that was hard to deal with, like what the hell to say when you found out a friend had lost a bunch of family members. 

“I can see how it would be difficult to speak about them, then,” Jaal said as gently as before. “What about other family? You do have Lexi.”

Immediate answer. “She’s my best friend.”

“Yeah,” said Ryder, taking her hands off the haptic panel long enough to add the necessary air quotes. “‘Best friends.’”

Thaia reached over and lightly pushed Ryder on the shoulder, a lot like Scott would’ve done if teased the same way. It made Ryder feel better.

“Among angara, you would be taoshay,” said Jaal.

“Is that what your people call your best friends?” Thaia asked.

Jaal laughed, comforting and friendly. “Close enough.”

Then the Nomad skidded out on a patch of bare ice, the rear end spinning until the tires hit an obstacle and then several more of similar size. Ryder scowled at the control panel, engaged six-wheel drive, and crawled out of the ditch they’d landed in. “SAM, were those more rocks?”

“Scans indicate that they were frozen bodies. Several kett and two angara.”

“I will notify the Resistance to recover the angara,” said Jaal. “And dispose of the kett. It has been some time since a full patrol went through here.”

Frozen bodies and kett and unlucky angara pretty much defined Voeld. And while Ryder knew it was daytime outside, between the fact that they’d run over frozen dead bodies and the eternal blizzard blocking the sun and how cold it was, it felt like night. A cold night where all you wanted to do was go inside and hug a heater. Ryder also would’ve accepted a hug from her mom. Those helped a lot, too.

Ryder sighed and accelerated across a bridge set over a deep chasm. In her peripheral vision, an omni display flared to life in the back. Cora’s, for probably the hundredth time in the last few hours, because that’s all Cora had concentrated on. She hadn’t even been participating on comms.

“This signal location is out pretty far,” Cora said in a tight voice. “Farther than the others. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad or if it’s better or worse if Janae’s on it.”

Ryder couldn’t take it anymore. “Who’s Janae? Seriously, who’s Janae because I feel like she’s a person I need to know and yet I still have no idea other than she’s a commando, has explody biotics, and you want to find her”

Cora’s shoulders stiffened so much they didn’t move when the Nomad jounced over an outcropping. “Janae was in Talein’s Daughters. She’s only in Andromeda because of me.”

God, Ryder hadn’t thought she’d ever hear Cora sound that damn sad, but the quaver in her voice had done it and Ryder couldn’t bring herself to tease her. She wasn’t the only one, either. Silence rushed in to occupy the spaces between them all. Lights flashed outside as they zipped past a small kett outpost and then tore across the barren ice fields again. 

Thaia brought the topographic map up on the forward display.“We’re coming up on the location,” she said, zooming in. “It’s tucked right into a shallow valley. Vulnerable to the high ground, but the valley walls are high enough to block some of the wind. That’d cut down on the power drain on hardsuits and the ship from maintaining a safe condition. I’m going to transmit ident codes. See if we get an active response. Even if they don’t respond, they’ll know we’re friendlies.”

No response.

Then SAM said, “I detect kett signals at the transponder site.”

“Fuck.” Thaia checked her weapons, and then checked Ryder’s as Cora and Jaal checked their own.

Thaia was a veteran commando. One thing Ryder remembered from her scant amount of leadership training was delegation and knowing her strengths and the strengths of the people she was supposed to lead. If an asari commando explained how to approach a situation involving a downed asari ship, it was probably for the best that you went with what they said.

“Thaia, this is your field and your people,” Ryder said as she slowed the Nomad. “How would you approach this?”

“Park the Nomad where it can’t be seen above the lip of this hill.” Thaia marked the location on the map. “We can use the Nomad for cover and then look down, keep a low profile so we can see where the kett are in relation to the commandos. That way we know where they need help the most.”

“We’ll go with that,” said Ryder.

Not that Ryder was thrilled about having to low crawl through the snow from the Nomad to the top of the hill. She knew there wasn’t a temperature difference inside her hardsuit, but it felt like there should be and she felt more chilled as a result. SAM insisted there wasn’t a difference, but she didn’t think it was something he’d quite understand.

When they looked down from where they’d stopped, still on their stomachs at the lip of the hill, they saw a debris field strewn across the little valley. Chunks of twisted hull, torn seats, scraps of metal, scattered belongings. Larger pieces of the Periphona had broken through the ice and rested there, half-submerged and frozen into the ice pack on Voeld’s ocean. 

Ryder didn’t see how anyone could have survived. And just because things weren’t bad enough, at the farthest reaches of the field, there was a parked kett vehicle and kett patrolling on foot.

“Jaal, you’ve dealt with the kett here the most,” said Ryder. “What’s your take?”

“Kill the kett and then assess from there,” said Jaal.

Hard to argue with that, given the circumstances. “Thaia, you take point.”

Thaia drew her shotgun as her biotics lit over her armor, drawing the snow around her swirling into the air.

“I’ll be right behind you,” said Cora. “What’s the plan?”

“No detonations,” said Thaia. “We don’t want to displace wreckage or obscure trails the survivors would’ve left for other commandos to follow to find them. I’m going to lift those kett into the air and reave the fuck out of them. Everyone else, pick off the strays.” The intensity of Thaia’s aura increased and then she charged into the valley, Cora right behind her, two biotic blurs.

“Reave?” asked Jaal.

“Asari biotic technique that most non-asari can’t replicate,” said Ryder. “I’ll explain more later. We need to catch up.”

The fury unleashed by Thaia and Cora on the kett patrol scouring the crash site proved impossible for Ryder and Jaal to match. The kett were all writhing in the air before she and Jaal were halfway down the hill, and then they were screaming by the time she and Jaal slid over the clear ice. Jaal shot one, sending its body thumping into the deep snow. Ryder threw one of them hard into the olive drab kett vehicle, but it hadn’t been hard enough and it shakily got to its feet. Without a backwards glance, Thaia biotically picked it up and sent it right back into the side of the vehicle, the crack from its breaking body louder than the fading screams from the dying kett in the air.

As the lift dissipated, Cora shot one and it fell silently to the snow. Thaia’s biotics yanked the other two back into the air and slung them into the side of the kett vehicle. Ryder felt the crunch of the impact in her teeth and the bodies tumbled onto the first. Then Jaal took out another that twitched while Ryder checked to make sure the last three by the vehicle were dead.

They were. They assuredly were. The first was bent beyond a ninety degree angle, its spine extruding from a blown-out fissure in its back, but it was identifiable. Unidentifiable were the other two that’d been rendered to splinters of bone strewn over the remains of the first and greenish-brown sludge oozing into the snow.

Holy shit.

But it didn’t look like any of the asari who’d crewed the Periphona were any more alive than the kett they’d just killed. She could see one body in a section of the hull, twisted in with loose seats in ways that no living person of any species could survive. 

Then it was quiet. Then there was breathing. Catching their breath as the snow drifted and spun around them. 

“I don’t feel much better,” said Cora.

“You made sure those kett can’t do this to anyone else. It’s something,” said Thaia.

It didn’t feel like enough and Ryder sought for something more. So she activated her omni and scanned for the smallest, tiniest chance that someone might have survived. 

The only life signs the scanner picked up were their own.

Dammit.

And under Thaia’s feet, locked within ice cleared of snow by boots and biotics, were two more bodies.

Suddenly, the outrageous ice-hole swimming scheme Thaia had concocted during their ride in the Nomad—along with the subsequent quasi-argument between Thaia and Lexi over it—and its survivability wasn’t funny anymore.

“Pathfinder,” said SAM, “judging from the status of the bodies, we could not possibly have reached them in time for a rescue. I suspect the kett attacked the survivors moments after the ship crashed. This patrol was a scavenger team.”

“How many people are we looking for?” asked Ryder, assuming Thaia would answer since the Periphona was part of the Leusinia.

But it was SAM who answered. “The Periphona was designed for a crew complement of six. If the ship was meant to distract the kett away from the escape pods, it would need to maintain maneuverability. Therefore, they would not have gone beyond the ship’s capacity.”

“Then we are looking for no more than six asari?” asked Jaal. “So there are three more to be found?”

“Correct,” said SAM. “However, a more thorough survey of the area by a larger team at a later time would be advisable. For now, due to the hazardous environment and the limits of hardsuits and Nomad capabilities, I would advise searching for the transponder and flight recorder as you search for the remaining bodies.”

Cora, Thaia with her, checked the body in the seats, and then the two under the ice. Then they all began a slow sweep of the area, Ryder walking toward the largest section of intact hull, the others trailing her, swinging out to the right and left. Between the section of hull and the jumble of seats and warped metal just in front of it was another clear patch of ice. Under the ice were three more bodies, but none had injuries resulting from blunt force trauma that Ryder could see. Each one had been shot in the temple.

Had there been a mutiny on the ship? No, that wouldn’t make sense.

“Do not tread on the clear ice,” SAM said when Thaia and Cora stepped closer. “It is not thick enough to withstand the weight of anyone in a hardsuit. Submersion in these conditions would likely result in death within a minute.”

Thaia didn’t advance. She stopped and studied the bodies as Cora and Jaal did the same from the opposite side.

“I have seen this before,” said Jaal. “As if to mock us, the kett melt the ice, throw our dead in the water, and then they allow the water to freeze again, so that we risk our own lives in order to recover our dead.”

“Shit,” said Ryder.

“None of them are Janae. There’s something.” Cora exhaled slowly. “All right, I’m going to keep looking for the transponder.”

Ryder nodded and then glanced over at Thaia, expecting her to have already started.

She hadn’t moved from staring into the ice. She didn’t move after Cora and Ryder found the recorder, didn’t move after SAM advised them to return to the Nomad, didn’t move despite SAM giving warnings about the impending nighttime temperature drop and the hardsuits reaching their limitations.

Then Ryder wondered if Thaia knew any of them. The dead asari. A commando wouldn’t have stopped this long, close to the point of irresponsibility, otherwise. Maybe? Or maybe asari were especially bothered by the deaths of other asari? She didn’t remember covering asari beliefs regarding death in cultural studies at school and that would’ve been really handy right about now.

She also wished she could see Thaia’s face. And she wished she had the ability to haul Thaia to the Nomad if forced because she wasn’t going to let Thaia die from exposure, and not just because she was afraid of what Lexi would do if she did. She could ask, though. “Thaia, are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” Thaia’s voice sounded like someone who’d spoken for the first time after a silence of years.

“That’s… not very convincing.” Honestly, the time that Scott had tried to convince her that unicorns were real had been more believable.

“I’ll be fine.” Thaia turned toward the Nomad. “We have to meet the Resistance for the Moshae’s rescue soon. We should get going.”

This, after she’d not moved for so long that their suits were redlining. “But—”

“Focus on someone who might still be alive,” Thaia said with the weight and force of a command. Then she walked past Ryder without looking back.

Something was definitely wrong. Ryder couldn’t ever recall Thaia being this snappish, not even during that first time they’d all met. She glanced over at Cora, who shrugged. Then Cora held up the flight recorder, SAM warned them about needing to get to safety conditions, and that was that. 

They returned to the Nomad in quiet. Ryder wasn’t going to lie—in her current mood, Thaia was kind of scary. It was like she’d returned to being the stranger who’d scared the shit out of them on Eos. An unknown quantity in someone who was hard to predict and dangerous. Ryder had just seen what Thaia had done to those kett in the Periphona’s wreckage. The reaves and the snapped spines and how she’d just basically mowed them down made it hard to remember the friendly Thaia she’d come to know in the months since Eos. It wasn’t that she hadn’t seen Thaia do shit like that in combat before—and Drack was even scarier and way messier and Ryder could really do with less of the burning bodies—but once combat was over, Thaia went back to the friend Ryder knew. 

She hadn’t gone back this time and it was unsettling.

“If no one disagrees, would it be helpful to ask the Resistance to send our recovery team here? It would be best if they go during the raid since the kett will be highly distracted,” Jaal said once they were safely inside the Nomad. “We, unfortunately, have a dedicated team for these tasks.”

“Please,” said Ryder.

“Then I will ask when we arrive at the base to finish final preparations for the rescue.” Jaal looked over at Cora. “Is anything recoverable?”

Cora sighed. “The only thing I can access with my omni is the last audio log.”

“Let’s hear it,” said Ryder. “Maybe it’ll give us some hope.”

“Sure,” said Cora. Then she played it.

“If the ark ever finds this,” said an asari voice, “we failed. We couldn’t draw them off. Forgive us. We tried—”

The recording ended in shots fired.

“So much for hope,” said Thaia, as brittle as the ice beneath them.

After that, it was a long ride to the Resistance base as they replayed the message over and over, searching for any clue as to what had happened in those last moments and the moments that led to them.

***

Once they were inside the Resistance base, the heated facility gave everyone the chance to remove their helmets for a while, which was really nice after the hours they’d been stuck in them while searching for the Periphona. However, Ryder did wish a little bit that they hadn’t removed their helmets, because no helmets meant she saw that Thaia’s eye tattoos were drawn down in determination, and Thaia’s determination looked a lot like she was pissed.

Ryder decided to bring it up with Cora, who sat next to her as they ate rations that Ryder wished were tasteless. The Initiative had built ships capable of traveling to another galaxy, and yet rations still usually tasted like nothing or worse. “Does Thaia seem more, I don’t know, deadly to you?”

“The ride here in the Nomad from the crash site was awfully quiet after we stopped listening to the log.” Slightly frowning, Cora squinted at the label of her ration pack. “I think the wreckage and the bodies we found earlier affected her more than we assumed.” 

While Cora sounded concerned about Thaia, it didn’t sound anything like the trepidation Ryder felt. Then again, it made sense because Cora was used to seeing and fighting alongside exceptional biotics, so whenever Thaia did something particularly explody, Cora went unbothered. Even the extreme kett reactions to Thaia’s reaves—and what was left behind after the throws—hadn’t seemed to bother her. 

Ryder was also really glad Thaia didn’t use reaves all that often because they were, in a word, unnerving. Thaia was sort of like death incarnate on the battlefield and some of those times when Thaia and Cora and Drack coordinated really well, Ryder had actively felt sorry for their enemies. But that was balanced out enough that it was really easy to forget how deadly Thaia could be on the days when she blushed or walked into inanimate objects or was rendered speechless by her completely transparent crush on Lexi.

But right now, on the other side of the room while sitting next to Jaal as they ate, Thaia had a scowl on her face. No chatting with Jaal. No interacting with any of them beyond what civility called for. Whatever was going on, she wasn’t really in the best mental space. While right now all four of them were the only ones in a smaller room close to the base’s infirmary, in little more than an hour they would be expected in headquarters, where the Resistance base’s leader, Anjik Do Xeel, would be starting up the rescue operation briefing. The rescue had been a challenging prospect before, but not intimidating because Ryder thought she’d have centuries of experience on her side. Now those centuries of experience didn’t feel like the security blanket she’d thought they’d be.

Suddenly, Ryder couldn’t sit still. Even her rations tasted appetizing compared to having to figure out what she was going to do. And she’d had it all settled before she’d left the Tempest this morning.

While she knew she was in overall command of the Initiative team, she hadn’t been planning on leading during the actual covert mission since it wasn’t what she was trained for. Moreover, she had two experienced commandos with her, people who walked silently by default, one of whom had literal centuries of experience. Previous to their ride here on the Nomad, Ryder had planned on asking Thaia to take point because they were infiltrating and sabotaging and if you had someone who’d done that sort of thing for two centuries, you used them. 

Except. 

Except when you weren’t sure if they were acting like the leader they’d been during the latter decades of those centuries. Maybe Thaia was perfectly capable of doing commando stuff still—and Ryder wanted as many commandos along as she could get—but this wasn’t the Thaia who could’ve talked people into swimming in the hypothermia-inducing swimming pool. She could be a commando, use all those reaves and explody biotics on the kett, but leading seemed out of the question.

Shit.

Ryder surreptitiously looked over at Thaia again and then back to her mostly eaten rations. 

Cora said, “Shit, this is the second-worst one.”

Oh, right. Cora wasn’t a commando who’d been in for centuries, but she was a veteran commando and an Alliance-trained officer. Someone perfectly capable of leading. She had to be, otherwise Alec Ryder wouldn’t have asked and trained her to be his second when he still thought he could pass SAM along to anybody he selected. Her father had never been one to ‘blow smoke up someone’s ass,’ as it were, so if he said someone was good at something, they were.

Not that her dad hadn’t completely invalidated all of that when he passed her over due to reasons beyond his control and didn’t explain that key part. Which meant it would probably be a really good idea to remind Cora that she was exceptional by having Cora prove to herself that she really did have those skills. And Cora was still technically her second even though she couldn’t pass SAM to Cora which… actually presented its own set of complications that she didn’t have the energy to think about right now.

“Which one did you get?” Cora asked as she inspected Ryder’s packet. “Oh, the worst one. You’d think Pathfinders would get the good stuff.”

“We do if we don’t accidentally blab to the ship’s physician that our requisitions officer has a crate of Blast-O’s in her room.”

Cora laughed quietly. “I’d wondered who’d spilled.”

“I didn’t mean to. Lexi was talking to me about nutrition and I might have asked if a small amount of simple carbohydrates in the form of breakfast cereal shaped like tiny spaceships was acceptable.” Sara sighed. “She wanted to know where I would even get my hands on it. Then she just waited.”

“Waited?”

“Yeah. Didn’t say anything, just waited for me to answer while I squirmed and she just kept looking at me and I broke, okay? I should’ve taken Thaia’s warnings about her glare more seriously.” She looked over at Thaia and Jaal again, but Thaia had her eyes on her rations and Jaal was reading his omni. Ryder sighed. “Cora, since I’m not so great with the stealth anything, I want you to lead our team for this mission. You were an Alliance officer and you served with asari commandos for four years and you’re good at this stuff.”

Cora stilled, then her eyes flicked toward Thaia and back to Ryder. “You’re sure I’m the commando you want?”

Well, Ryder hadn’t expected Cora to advocate for Thaia to lead with the weird mood she was in, but it sounded like Cora was. “Do you think Thaia should?”

“No.”

Ryder sighed and stood up, Cora following suit. “Then, yes, I’m sure. I don’t have the skills and you do.”

“Let me get this straight,” Thaia said as she got to her feet and discarded the packaging from her rations in a trash bin and of course she’d overheard them. “You seriously want someone who served with a commando unit for four years to lead over someone who served with a commando unit for over two centuries?” She leaned a shoulder against the cool metal wall. “And for several of those decades, I was the subcaptain for my unit. It’s your call, Pathfinder, but you’re making the wrong one.”

Well, when she put it that way, Ryder doubted her decision again because literal centuries of experience seemed like something you shouldn’t turn down. Yet there was a detectable undercurrent of anger in Thaia’s statements, though they’d sounded mostly calm and rational. There was a challenge in there that had never been present before, not even during that first mission on Eos. And she’d called Ryder ‘Pathfinder,’ which she’d literally never done before, not like this. Then there was the asari ageism, right there out front. Blue Thessian ass, hanging right out there, like Drack had said.

Jaal finally rose, his big eyes shifting back and forth between the others.

“I’m sticking with it,” Ryder said after a moment. “Cora’s going to take the lead for our team on this raid.”

Thaia straightened from her casual stance and crossed her arms, but her voice was still level. “You’re making a mistake.”

“You said it’s my call and I’ve made it.” God, Ryder hoped Thaia didn’t keep up the pressure because Ryder wasn’t sure how much she could endure. She had a natural inclination to defer to people with more experience and it was a constant struggle to include other factors in her decision-making. She’d been working on it with Lexi, but in the face of a hard mission, centuries of experience, and a very hard expression from the person with all that experience, she was lucky enough that her voice had come off as certain. 

When Thaia merely glowered in lieu of a reply, Ryder resumed the breathing she hadn’t realized she’d stopped and turned to Cora. “Anything we need to do before we have that briefing with Anjik?”

Cora, who’d activated her omni, looked up. “I want Drack on the mission. There’s going to be a lot of close-quarters combat and he excels at it.”

“Oh, good idea.” Ryder would’ve eventually thought of the same, but probably not until she was mid-combat and wanting to literally hide behind him. There was something strangely reassuring about Drack being on a mission with them. Felt like they had their own irascible, fire-breathing turtle-tank. “I’ll send him a message.”

“Thank you.” Cora glanced over at Thaia, now scowling at her omni, and then returned to Ryder. “And I want Thaia sent back to the Tempest.”

Thaia’s head whipped up and her omni display disappeared. “You have to be fucking kidding me. First you think I can’t fucking lead and now you want me off the mission entirely?”

“Yes.” Cora met Thaia’s hostility with calm, arms at her sides, hands not in fists but her shoulders were tight. “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but you’re volatile and unpredictable right now. Your hardsuit redlined in a level one hazardous environment for no reason I can determine. If it’s about the Periphona, it’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get yourself or someone else hurt or killed in your current mindset. You need to be on the Tempest.”

“I need to be on this mission. You need me to be on this mission. Ryder needs me to be on this mission.”

“No one needs you on any mission with how you are right now. You froze up out there and almost literally froze. In my place, Nisira would send you packing and she would be right to do so.”

Thaia, who still hadn’t raised her voice even though the even tone didn’t match her words at all, gaped at Cora. “Are you—now you’re speaking for Nisira? Who the fuck do you think you are?” 

“The person the Pathfinder designated as leader for this raid.”

Ryder wished Cora hadn’t brought her into it. Not that Cora was wrong about where her authority came from, but Ryder didn’t have the fortitude to essentially stare Thaia down like Cora was doing right then. Especially not when you could practically see the fury rising up within Thaia, her jaw clenched and her eyes snapping with it, measured speaking tone or not.

However, Thaia’s look at Ryder was fleeting and she returned her building wrath to Cora and their argument continued, quiet but vicious and Ryder wondered if they should postpone the raid or something. Honestly, she’d feel better if they yelled at each other.

Then Drack walked in, greeted by Ryder and Jaal, but Cora and Thaia didn’t acknowledge him at all. He lumbered over to stand next to Ryder and Jaal, and then jerked his chin in the direction of the other two. “What’s with them?”

“Cora is sending Thaia back to the Tempest,” said Jaal.

“Why would she try to do something stupid like that?” asked Drack.

Ryder did her best to explain, but then gave up when she couldn’t come up with something adequate. “She’s acting weird.”

He shrugged. “So she’s got some sand in her crest. Big deal.”

To Ryder, Thaia’s current disposition seemed more involved than the asari equivalent of a hair across her ass—though Thaia and Cora had fallen into a silent, outrage-filled standoff—but when she went to retry arguing her case, her brain caught up to what Drack had said before. “Wait, did you say try?”

“She doesn’t wanna go, who’s going to make her?” Unspoken went because I’m not and really Drack was probably the only person who could make her go back. Even then Ryder wasn’t entirely certain he could. Lexi probably could, but involving Lexi right now seemed a good way to have everything blow up in their faces in a thousand different ways. That and Ryder didn’t really want her to go. Maybe Cora believed they didn’t need Thaia on the mission, but Ryder still thought they did. When she’d put Cora in charge, she really hadn’t thought she’d boot Thaia back to the ship. “I was hoping she’d cooperate.”

“Hope just gets you hurt,” Thaia said.

Drack snapped his head toward her and narrowed his eyes until Ryder could barely see the yellow. When Thaia ignored him, he muttered, “Shit.” Then he looked at Ryder. “Second thought, let her take her krogan out on the kett. Better for everyone who isn’t kett.” 

Then Cora shot him a distinct ‘you’re not helping’ glare. “She’s a risk, Drack.”

“She’s a risk to the kett, you mean. You want this raid to go right, then you want her on it. If you want to be sure this raid’ll go off right, you want her leading it. But, whatever, sticks up your asses about sand under crests, I get it, so no leading. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what sort of mood she’s in or you think she’s in because she’s still a commando. Shittier mood than this, she led a raid on Elaaden. Did all the recon, then took a bunch of Nakmor, including Morda, and wiped the base. No Scavs left after we were done. You don’t have your head on straight, you aren’t getting a bunch of krogan to do shit for you all organized, especially if one of those krogan is Morda. Whatever it is you think she will or won’t do, you’re wrong.”

Cora folded her arms. “She needs to—”

“Go on this raid.” Drack looked over at Thaia again, who was frowning at him. Then he shrugged and addressed Cora. “Look, I’m going, right? So I’ll be there to aim her.”

Thaia let out a noise that might have been a laugh in any other situation, like any situation that didn’t involve an ungodly amount outrage. But maybe Drack was right about having take whatever it was out on the kett. It’d be to the team’s benefit.

Ryder held in a sigh as she looked back and forth between them, then at Cora, and then all of them. The other thing she feared was that Drack would take Thaia’s side over theirs. No, she knew he would, if it came down to it. If the fallout from this was bad enough between Thaia and Cora and possibly herself, then there was a possibility they’d lose Drack. Lexi probably wouldn’t appreciate it either, but she’d be more rational about it, more professional, and stick with her job. 

But it would be awkward, especially if Ryder forgot and later asked how Lexi would spend her time on leave, and Lexi mentioned anything about going to see her best friend. Of course she’d just leave it there and not say ‘you know, the person with whom you had a falling out and consequently I rarely have the opportunity to see’ but it would be there anyway because Ryder would be thinking it, only in less grammatically correct terms. Awkwardly dangling right there, them awkwardly and silently looking at each other.

Also, Drack was fourteen hundred years old and knew combat. And if Thaia had done what Drack said—and Ryder didn’t see why he’d lie about it—then they really could use her. Part of Ryder still toyed with the idea of her leading, but Cora had really good points, too. However, after all this, Ryder wouldn’t be surprised if they had a verbal knock-down, drag-out fight. Maybe even a physical one. But the most important thing was for the raid to go well and that would be done by retrieving the Moshae from kett hands. So if a fourteen hundred year old krogan said to take a certain person with you, you took them.

“I want Thaia to stay,” Ryder said to Cora. “You’re still leading, and she has to follow your orders, but Drack’s got a point about the experience.”

Cora was silent for an eternal moment before she let out a breath. “It’s your call. If that’s what you’ve decided, then she stays. But anything else happens that’s not by the book before we launch the raid, she’s out.”

“Like I said,” said Drack, “I’ll aim her.”

“Fuck off, Drack,” said Thaia.

He didn’t. “Hey, you want the chance to wreck those kett, you better get your shit together. You act krogan and you’ll prove her right instead of me.”

Ryder assumed that when Thaia didn’t tell Drack to fuck off for a second time that it was her way of agreeing to their terms. But nobody except Drack looked thrilled about said terms. Well, everyone could deal and they’d all be fine once they freed the Moshae. That was the important thing and nothing else would matter when they accomplished it.

Chapter Text

Voeld, 2819.

“We need to put an end to this place and all places like it,” said Commander Heckt, leader of the Resistance raid team, and he punctuated it with a fist banged against a terminal. “One scout came back. One, out of too many. Stumbled through the entrance, collapsed, and bled out before our medics could get to her. She’d been bitten repeatedly by those invisible wretches they keep.”

The rotating holographic display of Voeld cast everyone gathered in front of it in varying shades of blue.

Ryder had once associated the color blue with calm. Between the light doing nothing to calm most of the room’s occupants, along with a certain blue asari currently existing in a state of seething anger beneath an absolutely focused, cool demeanor, Ryder no longer associated blue with calm. Maybe upheaval. Cora might’ve been deemed a consummate professional except Ryder knew she was pissed. She couldn’t not be and while she hid it a lot better than Thaia was, it was there in her scowl that couldn’t entirely be accounted for by mission planning. Drack was, well, Drack. Not only that, but he was the Drack ready and eager for combat, so no calm there unless you compared him to the angry Thaia standing next to him.

Even Jaal didn’t help, offering his own cheerful, upbeat pep talk with how anyone who went into the kett facility never came out and basically disappeared forever. Except for that one unlucky but not scout who’d died on the base’s doorstep.

“No more of our people will disappear after tonight,” said Base Commander Anjik Do Xeel, who was also overall raid commander. “You and Lieutenant Harper are personally seeing to it, Commander Heckt.”

No pressure there. None. Except all the pressure. Cora could handle it, though. You couldn’t be someone originally recruited to be a Pathfinder’s second and supposed successor unless you could take it.

“In addition to the cover of nighttime,” said Intelligence Officer Kaas, “you will have the cover of an intense blizzard with near whiteout conditions on the ground. Weather modeling predicts the blizzard will continue through the night in its current state, with an eighty percent chance of substantially worsening four hours from now.”

“With the weather this severe,” said Dr. Harihn, “everyone will need to use extreme-cold specialized mods for each and every mod slot available in your armor. No exceptions.” He pointed at Drack before Drack could say a word. “Even you. I consulted with the Tempest’s physician and she agreed with me. She also said that if you’re inclined to argue, you can take it up with her.”

“Nah, I’m good,” said Drack. 

Most reasonable people declined taking up arguments with Lexi after directly challenged to it and Drack was no exception.

“Besides,” Drack continued, “someone will have to drag you squishy people out of the cold when you get your asses frozen.”

He wasn’t wrong, but Ryder still couldn’t see why they had to go in these conditions on purpose. The constant snow in the daytime felt like good enough cover and, really, no one who wasn’t desperate would venture out at night when it was even colder. While the angara seemed determined, they didn’t seem desperate. “Why’re we going at night? We’re replacing every armor mod with these life support ones for the sole purpose of making sure we don’t freeze to death. Daytime would given us more mod flexibility.”

“Stealth operations work better when the enemy isn’t looking for you,” Thaia said without looking away from the overhead view of the area of operation that Kaas had just projected in place of the entire map of Voeld. Thaia’s tone had been flat, yet it still felt awfully pointed.

Plus, it was an excellent point, so Ryder left it alone. Besides, they’d all already recolored their armor to blend in with the snow.

“We will lose stealth once we’re inside,” said Heckt. Then he looked at Cora. “My team first, but our distractions should give your team enough time to hack through the perimeter security fence and into the base.”

Anjik nodded. “Then we want speed and violence in attacks from both teams. Move through the base as fast as you can while causing as much destruction as possible with whatever methods available.”

“Explody biotics and a krogan,” said Ryder. There, another reason why Thaia should go with them. Ryder was a generalist with biotics, still working on barriers, and her biotics had never been particularly explody. But Cora and Thaia working together, well. Lots of explody. Too bad Anjik had limited both teams to five or Ryder would’ve asked Peebee to go with them. Though maybe it was a better idea Peebee not be there under current psychological conditions. Peebee being Peebee would test the bounds of Cora’s ability to maintain complete professionalism and Ryder really didn’t want to witness what waited beyond the bounds of Thaia’s temper.

“I wish I could see those in action,” said Heckt. “We’ll be using ordnance, for the most part.”

“It’s in and out, correct?” asked Cora. “My team and yours with different insertion points, your team’s the distraction while my team conducts the rescue, and withdrawing immediately on recovering the Moshae?”

“Correct,” said Heckt.

“Evac shuttles, the same as the ones who drop you off, will be on standby at this hidden location.” Kaas tapped something into his omni and a point a safe distance from the kett base lit up. “Backup shuttles will be at here at the base. The primary extraction points will be the insertion points, with a secondary extraction point for both teams a landing pad on the kett base’s roof.” He zoomed into the recon shot of the top of the base. “Without intelligence on the inside of the base, it will be up to your teams to determine how to reach it.”

“When I access the kett base’s systems,” said SAM, “I will have access to the entire facility plans. From there, determining an escape route should not be difficult.”

“Helps to have an AI like that,” said Skaelv, the Resistance team’s tech expert. “Bet it makes hacking a lot easier.”

“It does, yeah,” said Ryder. Sometimes, it was like all she did was aim SAM in the right direction and let him do his thing.

Kaas rotated the overhead shot and then zoomed in on another section, one tucked away in a high cirque. “The scout who died managed to bring us a map of their vulnerable security nodes.” A dot lit up on the security fencing. “And your AI should be able to hack through it, allowing your team to surprise the kett.” He zoomed in beyond the fencing. “You should be able to breach the actual base here, through these vents.”

“If they need to cut their way in, we need to make sure they’re properly equipped,” said Heckt.

“I can just charge through it,” said Drack. 

“Or they could shoot it,” said Owwin, another angara on the Resistance team.

Cora looked over at Thaia. “What’s your assessment?”

Thaia nodded once, and then studied the holo for a few moments. “I can silently dismantle it as long as I have someone with me who can also remain silent.”

Maybe it was a good sign that Thaia had just essentially requested Cora’s help without detectable resentment. 

It wasn’t.

Ryder would swear that the atmosphere in the transport shuttle to the kett base was colder than outside. Jaal was serious and silent, standing next to Ryder’s seat and using a ceiling-mounted grab handle to hold himself upright. Thaia and Cora were polite with each other to the point of ruthlessness, each of them adhering to procedure and protocol and god it was the worst. Somehow, it strangely gave Ryder more confidence in the mission. Neither of them were about to deviate from procedure, which meant they’d be sneaky and deadly as hell commandos and ensure every kett in their way died as they rescued the Moshae.

However, Ryder decided not to think about what would happen after, for the sake of her own sanity.

“Gear check,” said Cora. “Make sure your fancy new cold-specialized life support mods are still functioning as well as they were at the base.”

It felt odd that Thaia didn’t comment like she usually did about Cora’s attention to detail. While those comments had been teasing in nature, Thaia had also noted that Cora’s detail-oriented nature in terms of mission preparation was a good thing, and had always done as Cora asked. This time she activated her omni and checked hardsuit integrity and function like everyone else did, but dispensed with commenting. Nor did she comment the second or third times Cora called for a gear check and Ryder felt like she was going to lose her mind because this was already a hard mission for her in the first place and she could really use a break from the stifling tension.

Like one of Thaia’s stupid jokes, but Thaia continued not saying anything, as much a collaborator to the tension as everyone else.

“Two minutes out,” said Mariet, their Resistance pilot. “Everyone hold on because we’re flying through the storm. Near whiteout conditions on the ground.”

“Good,” said Thaia.

“I thought you didn’t like the cold,” said Ryder.

Thaia’s voice bit like the cold outside. “I like successful missions and living more than I hate the cold.”

Ryder was pretty sure she’d had more productive conversations with brick walls. And she barely stopped herself from saying out loud that Thaia was being a hypocrite because earlier that day she’d stayed outside the Nomad until her suit redlined for whatever reasons she hadn’t shared with anyone else.

Instead, Ryder concentrated on the shuttle’s door opening as they landed. Snow blew inside and Ryder tried to see what lay beyond the door but she couldn’t see anything but snow. It still seemed like a bad thing to her, but no one else seemed bothered. Personally, she would’ve rather have been sitting by a nice crackling fire while wrapped in a fuzzy blanket and drinking hot cocoa.

Either way, it seemed dangerous, the whole plan.

“All right, let’s stay safe,” said Ryder.

Cora halted next to Ryder, but her hand was a reassuring squeeze of her shoulder. “It’s ‘good hunting,’ if you’re going on a mission,” she said in that reassuring way of hers. “Replaces things like ‘good luck’ and ‘stay safe’ because either of those aren’t what you need when you’re running a combat operation. Now, come on. If we stay behind Drack, he’ll act like a windbreaker.”

“Fuck the cold,” Drack said from in the doorway, snowflakes swirling around to steal behind him and into the shuttle.

Ryder thought he was being overdramatic until they stood outside and the shuttle had taken off and the wind changed direction, meaning Drack no longer blocked it. God, it was like the wind wanted to knock her off her feet and freeze her limbs all at the same time. Then Cora moved them toward the objective, and Ryder couldn’t tell if it was the wind masking crunching from Cora’s boots in the snow or if she was actually managing to soundlessly walk through snow. Ryder didn’t and usually it wouldn’t have bothered her, but her crunching seemed particularly loud next to Jaal’s almost silent steps and Thaia’s silent ones. Then she heard Drack’s over the wind and didn’t feel quite so bad.

When the flickering blue security fencing came into view through the blizzard, Cora signaled a halt. Then she called for Thaia to go check the perimeter while they waited and then tell them to come up once she deemed it reasonably safe.

Given how it was cold and they weren’t on the leeward side of the mountain, Ryder hoped it would be a quick check.

It was. “Come up, but everyone quiet and watch your steps,” said Thaia. “I can hear wraiths on the other side of the shield.”

“I hate those things.” More than Ryder ever thought possible after being torn up by their non-mutated kin the other day. 

“Don’t worry, we won’t let you get mauled again,” said Cora.

They drew even with Thaia, who’d taken up a post near the security node Kaas had marked. After SAM started his hack, Ryder said, “I didn’t know you cared about me so much.”

Drack snorted as he hunkered down near the mountainside. “More like Lexi will kill us if we bring you back to the Tempest mauled again.”

“I doubt Dr. T’Perro would resort to physical violence were Ryder to be injured,” said SAM. “It would go against her oath as a physician, as well as defeating the purpose.”

“You’ve never been on the receiving end of one of her glares,” said Cora. “Those are deadly all on their own.”

“And I remain thankful that I have not,” said SAM.

“You should,” said Ryder. “Anyone in their right mind should.”

“There was that time when she threatened to break Liam’s bones,” said Drack. “Hard to forget about that one.”

“She was kidding,” said Ryder, who became alarmed when no one agreed. “Right? Right, guys?”

“Maybe,” Drack said after no one else spoke up. “Maybe not. She grew up on Omega and people from Omega don’t fuck around. You saw what she did during that game last night.”

He was right. They’d all been witnesses to Lexi’s systematic deconstruction of her very own best friend, and the only reason why Lexi hadn’t won the entire game was Suvi’s well-played act of Firebreathing Thresher Maws of Doom’s equivalent of a pool shark. But Lexi had psychologically broken down her very own best friend so really Liam didn’t stand a chance if he tested Lexi’s resolve.

“A section of shielding should be down shortly,” said SAM. “The place where the opening will appear is now colored green.”

“Drack, Thaia, when it opens, I want you in first,” said Cora.

“Might not be anything left in there to fight before the rest of you get there,” Drack said as he and Thaia moved into position at the green section of shielding.

“That’s what I’m counting on,” said Cora. “We might lose stealth as soon as we deal with those wraiths, so I went us all on that vent and inside ASAP. Ryder, you and SAM have comms. Stay on our rear.”

“Okay.” Ryder did her best not to take it personally. With having appointed Cora the leader through the raid, only the fact that Ryder was a Pathfinder and therefore had SAM was she even on the raid still. And because she didn’t have anyone to pass SAM to because Scott’s lazy butt was in a coma, she was immediately below the Moshae as an asset who needed to be kept alive.

The section of fencing dropped. Thaia and Drack had hardly taken three steps inside when the growls and attack cries of the wraiths carried through Ryder’s helmet and immediately raised her hair on end. As Thaia and Drack ripped apart the wraiths that had the audacity to try to rip them apart—okay, Drack had not in the slightest amount been wrong about about Thaia letting her krogan out on the kett—Ryder commed Heckt to let him know they were inside the perimeter and making their way inside the building.

By the time they were all huddled out of the wind and in front of the vent, the wraiths were long dead and in tatters strewn over blood-soaked snow. Drack reached over and plucked a shred from Thaia’s shoulder. “Got some on you.”

All she did was flick it from Drack’s fingers, out into the snow. Not one comment about being grossed out. Didn’t even seem to be affected by nausea with her movements swift and sure as she and Cora dismantled the vent grating and the entire team made their way inside.

“Heckt,” Ryder said over comms, “we’re in the building.”

“So are we,” said Heckt. “We’ll start with some of our bigger diversions. Keep me updated on your progress.”

“Will do,” said Ryder.

Cora led them silently through the dark, cramped access corridors until they emerged on a ledge perched above a large cafeteria-like room where several unwary kett milled about.

“This is where we lose the secrecy part of our mission,” said Jaal.

“We’ve got the drop on the kett here. Let’s take advantage of it.” Cora turned and surveyed all of them. “You ready?”

Everyone nodded in the affirmative. Kneeling just before the lip of the drop, Thaia exchanged a look with Cora, and made a hand signal that Ryder had seen them do before. As soon as Cora returned a minute nod, Thaia sent a singularity into the exact center of the largest cluster of unwary kett. The instant the singularity popped into existence, Cora charged into it, her exiting nova partially detonating the singularity and killing half the kett caught up in it. Then as if they’d prearranged the steps, Cora charged to safety while Thaia, encased in her constant combat biotic vortex, charged in and detonated the singularity for good. 

First cluster down, Thaia pivoted and threw another singularity and Cora charged into it, and their methodical destruction proceeded from there, each of them executing precise actions with calm professionalism. Drack joined in with a flamethrower and krogan charges, and that paired with the lethal combination of Thaia and Cora’s biotics wreaked havoc through the entire room.

Ryder and Jaal didn’t have much to do afterward. She wasn’t sure if either commando had even fired a single shot because it didn’t look like they’d needed to. Kett everywhere, all of them dead, some of them way too dead—which Ryder discovered when a kett eyeball fell from a beam up above, bounced off her shoulder onto the floor, and then kept rolling until Drack stomped on it.

So sickening to see and Ryder had no idea how Thaia hadn’t thrown up because she sure as hell wanted to.

With the kett eliminated, Ryder and the rest of the Initiative team were left with the Archon’s holo droning on about embracing his greatness and that he was the archon or something or other. For a guy who had a face that looked like a teddy bear’s, the Archon really was full of himself.

Then Thaia shot the console. Out of nowhere, not even a warning. Just… bam. Sizzling wires, sparks, no Archon.

Ryder almost jumped out of her skin. “What the hell?”

“I got tired of his voice,” Thaia said with a shrug.

Drack laughed.

Cora shot Ryder an annoyed, questioning look, silently asking if Ryder wanted to step in. But Ryder thought shutting up the archon was a good thing, Drack had just given Thaia a nod of approval, Jaal hadn’t vocally disagreed, and shooting the irritating inanimate object seemed like a good place for Thaia to have directed her anger. So she offered Cora her own shrug, Cora stared at her for another second like she wanted to object, and then told everyone to move on, instead.

In retrospect, it was when they found out that the kett were angara—had been angara because after those injections, they didn’t look or act anything like angara and that was after their indoctrination—where things started falling apart. Jaal fell to his knees and cried over the body they’d watched be transformed from angara to kett and then proceeded to kill along with all the other kett, which really hadn’t helped matters. But Ryder hadn’t grown up in an environment that was open about feelings and all of them had pretended they weren’t crying when they were, so she felt helpless as hell over Jaal even though she wanted to make him feel better.

She crouched next to him. “Jaal? Jaal, what can I do?”

He stared down at the corpse as helplessly as Ryder felt. “I do not know.”

Shit. Angara were experts at expressing emotion and if Jaal didn’t know what to do, Ryder—who readily acknowledged she was a little emotionally stunted thanks to the subpar parenting techniques of one Alec Ryder—was screwed.

Then Cora put a hand on Jaal’s shoulder. “We can go make sure these kett can’t do that to anyone else.”

It was reminiscent of what Thaia had told Cora at the Periphona’s crash site, but not only had Thaia not said anything this time, she hadn’t tried. Instead, jaw clenched, she’d gone and secured the exit, leaving reassurance to everyone else. After Drack silently looked between the others, he moved up to join Thaia.

Ryder tried to reassure herself that if Drack didn’t seem bothered by Thaia’s unnerving quiet, then everything was fine. However, she had to repeat it to herself several times to get it to almost work.

Cora’s encouragement got Jaal up and moving, which relieved Ryder, but it also got him more forceful, which erased all that relief in a matter of minutes. Basically, urgency formed a person and that person was Jaal. But it was directed urgency, all active and driven and exacted on the kett who tried to stop them, so things didn’t feel out of control. Rushed, sure, because stealth had long since been thrown out the window. Now it was all about something Cora called ‘violence of action’ which Drack translated to ‘shock and awe’ which Thaia wordlessly illustrated when a detonation sent several kett scrambling to escape the rain of biological debris, and then Ryder finally figured out it meant ‘scare the shit out of their enemies.’ 

The kett didn’t seem scared—though one could argue kett never seemed scared which was now explained by the cultish indoctrination shit—but Ryder’s side was definitely tearing through them. With glee, if Drack’s grin was any indication. Or without mercy, if the hair-raising screams caused by Thaia’s reaves were another indication.

When they ran into another small, rectangular decon chamber and saw Moshae Sjefa through the window, and then saw that a Destined was about to jab her with one of those needles of ‘turn you into a mindless kett,’ Ryder began to slowly comprehend what ‘tenuous control’ truly meant. Because Jaal took that forceful urgency and directed it into slamming his entire body into the window in an effort to reach the Moshae. 

The slams shook the room, but the window showed no signs of breaking. That itself wasn’t surprising because SAM had said they were impenetrable, but sometimes when you freaked out you ignored the logical things your friendly AI teammate told you. But Ryder didn’t object because they were trapped in this chamber until either SAM hacked it or the decon cycle finished, so it was something for Jaal to do as they passed the time.

Ryder got a little more antsy when Thaia joined Jaal, using her biotics to propel herself into the window with a remarkable amount of force. And then, as if Thaia had given him the idea, Jaal started using his bioelectrics on the window. When that didn’t work, Thaia grabbed Drack and he joined in. Biotics flowed across the window and Ryder caught the fresh, clean scent of ozone right before bioelectrics crackled over the biotics, the entire window a cascade of blue. 

Then Ryder wondered if Thaia was losing her temper because her next slam into the window was brutal enough to rattle the walls and when it did nothing more, Ryder thought she heard Thaia growl. It made sense that Jaal would be upset and angry, desperate to rescue someone that he, and all the other angara, cared a great deal for. But for Thaia it looked like a depth of anger Ryder had never before imagined existed in her was surfacing right in the middle of an important mission.

Yet she’d successfully run that whole raid and controlled a bunch of krogan while doing it, so she’d keep her head. Ryder hoped. And they had Drack. Drack could handle her if she ultimately lost her head. 

And now Cora’s biotics had coalesced over her hardsuit, whereas before she’d just impassively, yet attentively observed. Ryder straightened in alarm because if Cora tried to biotically stop anyone—

Then Jaal, Thaia, and Drack all hit the window at the same time, smashing it and sending a cascade of glowing blue shards crashing into the next room. 

Ryder nearly shit her pants. 

They’d shattered a supposedly invulnerable window with the force of Jaal’s rage, Thaia’s temper, and Drack’s help. Drack had helped and god, Ryder hoped Drack hadn’t lied about the Scav raid. 

Ryder purposefully did not make eye contact with Cora when she saw the flash of irritation in her eyes before she followed Jaal, Thaia, and their enabler who went by the name of Drack.

“I do not know how that was possible,” SAM said as Ryder and the rest of them fought through the kett preventing them from catching up to the Destined carrying the Moshae. “Perhaps the interaction between biotics and the angaran bioelectric field weakened the window’s material.”

That was the likely scientific explanation, Ryder fully agreed. However, she also believed that maybe Thaia’s lost temper had something to do with it, because Ryder didn’t think Thaia would’ve helped if she wasn’t so angry.

SAM stayed on their private channel. “You are confused.”

“I have no idea what to make of anything right now, especially with her,” Ryder subvocalized.

“I am confused by Althaia’s behavior as well. Perhaps once we return to the Tempest, we should ask Dr. T’Perro for her psychological interpretation.”

“It might be our only option, but I don’t think it’d go over well.” Ryder really didn’t know what to do because Thaia had always been so calm in fights before and now the rage looked like it was consuming her from the inside out, as if she took what the kett were doing as personally as Jaal or any of the angara were.

In the next spare moment when Jaal and Thaia were dispatching the last of the kett in the immediate area and then moving into the next room at Cora’s command, Ryder quietly asked Drack, “Is that what you meant about letting her krogan out on the kett?” 

Because if it was, maybe he could still handle Thaia if her seething anger stopped being seething and boiled right over and burned everyone.

He nodded. “Yeah. People might tell you otherwise, but I’m damn sure that asari who have recent krogan ancestry can get into krogan-like blood rages.”

Well, Thaia wasn’t attacking everything and everyone, so that was a good sign. Granted, Ryder was fairly sure she hadn’t seen a full krogan blood rage, so she didn’t have the most accurate of comparisons. “It was bad, but I’m not sure if it was blood rage bad.”

“It isn’t insignificant, either,” Cora said from closer than Ryder had thought she was and who sounded understandably exceptionally salty.

“She’s fine,” said Drack. “You only need to worry if she’s getting herself hurt and she’s still actively avoiding getting hurt, so stop worrying.”

Cora looked less than convinced.

Then from the next room, they heard shouting. 

“What the fuck?” yelled Thaia.

Jaal joined in. “What? What is this?”

Then Thaia said, “Ah, fuck. More!”

Drack ran right in, Cora and Ryder after him, sliding into the room and behind cover right as a slew of kett ran inside through the other two doors. Thaia and Jaal had managed to decently position themselves before the room was overrun, each of them in blind spots near the side entrances. Jaal detonated a mine after three had entered, catching them and a fourth in the blast as he ducked behind a console. Thaia caught four in a singularity and detonated it in a shower of kett. A fifth and sixth dashed into the room, one of them a Destined that went straight for Cora as soon as she popped out of cover.

After the third time the Destined disappeared in that smoky cloak or whatever the hell they did, Cora complained out loud.

Thaia said from her own cover, “Throw a shockwave in the area you think it’s in and that’ll knock it out of hiding! It really pisses them off!”

Ryder pointed to Cora’s left. “I think it went in that direction!”

Cora threw the shockwave and the Destined bounced out of the cloak, all angry and surprised and then Drack smashed him into a wall when he charged into him from his blind spot. The kett had looked even more surprised then, right up until he was crushed.

Drack stepped away from the wall and the remains of the kett tumbled onto the floor in pieces. He paused to admire his handiwork and then turned to Thaia. “Not as messy as all that ripping apart your biotics have done tonight, but getting there.”

Without looking at the kett remains, Thaia muttered something that sounded like, “Let’s not both act like monsters,” and headed for the window.

Everyone else followed, and when Ryder looked down into the courtyard, she fully agreed with the reactions from Thaia and Jaal earlier. 

The Cardinal stood before four angara arrayed in a shallow semi-circle, who were then flanked by crowds of assembled kett. A giant stone statue of the Archon loomed over them all, his arms posed open in welcome. Four of those pods they’d seen throughout the entire facility descended from the lifts and opened behind the Cardinal.

When she spoke, her amplified voice carried through the courtyard and over the speakers inside the facility. “Fortunate welcome. Step forward.” Immediately and without protest, the four angara did so and the Cardinal continued, like she’d expected the easy cooperation. “I am humbled before you. You who are the Chosen, chosen by the Archon. Chosen to be exalted.” 

Then, like they were in a religious ceremony, the four angara and all the kett folded their arms over their chests and said, “Chosen to be exalted.”

“The fuck?” Thaia said quietly.

Maybe this was a religious ceremony. Holy shit, maybe they worshipped the Archon. That would explain his god complex and all this cult shit.

Without saying anything more, the four angara walked straight into the pods.

“Why aren’t they resisting?” Jaal asked in barely a whisper.

“Looked like they were in some sort of trance,” said Ryder. “Maybe that’s why.” And it’d explain all the indoctrination evidence they’d found during the raid, too.

“Whatever the fuck’s going on down there, we need to stop it,” said Thaia.

“The Moshae isn’t down there.” Then Jaal tapped the window and pointed at a row of suspended, occupied pods. “Maybe in one of those.”

“That’s a lead,” said Cora. “We can use it.”

Jaal briefly pressed his hand and then his forehead against the window. Then he took a deep breath and lifted his head to face Ryder. “We have to save all the angara.” Somehow, his request had come out evenly, if with a little steel behind it.

“Done,” said Ryder. “If we can.”

“That wasn’t the plan,” said Cora because Cora really liked plans and apparently, as Cora had said during the planning phase at the Resistance base, following the plan was highly important during a raid.

But this wasn’t a typical raid and all those angara needed saving and it was baffling and honestly verging on irritating that Cora wouldn’t make it a priority to save those people. “Plans change. We need to be flexible.”

For a second, Ryder thought Cora was going to get huffy, but in the end she nodded. “Then we could use a distraction.”

“Luckily, we have a team for that.” She tried to give Cora an upbeat, reassuring smile, but all Cora did was nod and do another sweep of the room. Ryder held in a sigh and activated her comm. “Heckt, can we order up a really big distraction?”

“We can set the power plant on fire,” Heckt said with, well, glee. “Be ready.”

Within maybe ten seconds, an explosion rocked the entire facility, sending everyone but Drack scrambling to stay on their feet. Even the Cardinal down below momentarily lost her footing. “Impossible!” she shouted as alarms starting going off.

A holo of the Archon, large enough to eclipse the statue of himself, appeared over her and the assembled kett. “Explain.”

All the kett went to a knee in obeisance before the Cardinal said, “We’ve been breached. I will defend the temple.”

The Archon held up a hand. “Wait! Is the Moshae among these?”

“No. It awaits final exaltation.”

“Then proceed immediately and bring it to me.” The Archon’s holo winked out and the Cardinal turned and strode quickly toward an exit, the rest of the kett filing out behind her.

“Final exaltation?” asked Jaal. “Final? What are they doing?”

“Those pods will have the answer.” Cora motioned them toward the door SAM highlighted. “Let’s see where they go.”

On their way out, Thaia shot the speaker.

Cora gave Ryder another one of those this is some bullshit and you need to say something because I’m not overriding you looks, but Ryder didn’t disagree with shooting the speaker. She really didn’t because that alarm sound had been the most annoying sound Ryder had ever heard and she decided to leave it. “SAM, where do you think they’re going?”

“I was able to access the facility plans. If the Cardinal wishes to escape the facility with the Moshae, the nearest exit is the shuttle launch area above.”

“The same one as our secondary extraction point?” asked Cora.

“Yes,” said SAM.

“Good. Ryder, notify the pilots and Heckt that our team will be using the secondary site, take his team to the primary, and to have all shuttles, including backups, prepped and ready.”

Following SAM’s directions, they jogged through the corridor and into the elevator. As they did, Ryder contacted Heckt and told him about the courtyard cult shit and to find and open all the pods they could. After he acknowledged the change of plan, he said he’d contact Anjik to ready the shuttles.

The elevator door opened to admit them onto the second floor of a gigantic two-story room with two bridges extending across the open middle. Across from the entrance, beyond where Ryder and the others had taken cover, a wide staircase descended from the second floor to the first and at the top of the staircase stood the Cardinal. 

She immediately pointed at them. “I see you! It is not yours to take!”

“We will free you, Moshae!” said Jaal. Then he readied his rifle. “Cora, on your word.”

Cora did a quick survey of the area and then turned to the rest of them. “Ryder, Drack, Jaal, I want you to keep the Cardinal distracted. Ryder and Jaal from a distance, working together. Drack, be yourself. Thaia, you and I are going to dismantle the rest of the kett before we all take on the Cardinal.”

Thaia nodded. “On your signal.”

“Go,” said Cora.

They broke from cover. Drack charged straight at the nearest Chosen between him and the Cardinal, while Jaal stayed with Ryder as they took potshots at the Cardinal. Except the Cardinal produced a ball-shaped drone that emitted a spherical barrier, which they quickly discovered absorbed all their shots. “Shoot the drone!” shouted Jaal.

Shooting the damn drone worked, but every time they managed to blow it up, the Cardinal, briefly vulnerable, produced another one within seconds. “Of course they have flash-forging tech.” Ryder ejected her magma-orange thermal clip and loaded another and sighted the stupid drone again.

Thaia and Cora zipped away in blue, headed for the cluster of kett emerging below. Basically a death pit, Ryder thought, if they got caught down there. Better the highly skilled biotics who could charge up and out at a moment’s notice take that floor.

“Arrogant simpletons!” shouted the Cardinal. “This is a gift! Who are you to deny it?”

“You turn them into monsters!” Thaia shouted back, and then detonated a singularity and exploded several of said monsters into tiny bits. Effective, but like a lot of the combat tactics Thaia and Drack used, the results were stomach-churning.

The drone imploded, allowing a piece of shattered bone to hit the Cardinal over her eye. She frowned briefly and then yelled in Ryder’s direction, “These Chosen join with us to become great beyond your ability to understand! Like them, I was once wretched, and the exalted DNA of our great Archon entwines with mine. I stand on the shoulders of his greatness. As they do. As, one day, you will!”

“You don’t get to decide what’s great!” said Ryder.

And the drone was back. The Cardinal hadn’t moved from where she stood, with the Moshae a heap somewhere behind her. Then the Cardinal swept her gaze over the room. “You will all be exalted!” 

“Fuck your exaltation!” Thaia disappeared only to appear behind a Destined that tried to use its cloaking ability, but she threw a shockwave. The Destined popped out and flew straight into two Chosen. “Cora, your turn!”

Cora charged over and her nova touched off another detonation.

“See!” Thaia lifted the two kett nearest the Cardinal into a reave. “Fuck your kett and fuck your Archon, too!”

Ryder heard Drack’s cackling over the screams of the kett and the combination was more than a little disconcerting and the reaving signaled a resurgence of Thaia’s temper and dammit. However, Thaia and Cora did continue working together to wreck the kett and, if any escaped the explosions, Jaal sniped them or Drack charged them. Biotic detonations echoed off the bridges and the walls, bounding up stairs to echo some more, until there was only the Cardinal and her damn drone. 

So while Cora and Thaia studied it from cover, Ryder, Drack, and Jaal kept yelling at the Cardinal—Ryder and Drack—or reassuring the Moshae—Jaal—and repeatedly destroying the drone.

“Get your commando asses moving because I’m too old for this playing around shit!” Drack shouted at Cora and Thaia.

“The Moshae is running out of time!” said Jaal.

Ryder wasn’t sure how Jaal could tell with how far away they were, but the Moshae hadn’t gotten up during their whole battle so it was a fair assumption.

“You will not take it!” said the Cardinal. “It is for the Archon himself.”

Creepy. Creepy as shit.

“Thaia, got anything?” Cora asked. 

Thaia straightened slightly. “Skyball!”

Cora glared. “We need to blow up the ball. Not move it toward the goal.”

“No shit,” Thaia said, and while she didn’t actually roll her eyes, her tone indicated that it would’ve been there if she wasn’t so pissed at everything.

“As soon as I’m out of my charge,” said Thaia, “Cora and Drack, both of you charge straight at the Cardinal. You’ll take her down in one hit.”

“We’ll be right behind you,” said Cora. “Jaal, Ryder, if this doesn’t work, be ready to take your shots.”

Thaia disappeared in a blue blur and Ryder watched. With SAM’s help, Ryder was able to discern what went into the apparent skyball move: directly charging the ball, grabbing it with a pull then putting it in a stasis, detonating it, and charging away before the detonation triggered.

“The ball is supposed to move a measured amount,” said SAM. “Exploding the ball is an ejection-worthy foul in skyball.”

The moment the drone blew up and the Cardinal’s shield dissipated, Cora and Drack slammed into her, knocking her ass hard enough on the floor right in front of the staircase that she skidded a few meters and didn’t get back up. When his charge stopped a couple steps beyond where the Cardinal had been put on the floor, Drack turned and covered her with his shotgun. Cora’s charge carried her past the Moshae and Drack. When she emerged just behind and to the right of Drack and saw that he had the Cardinal covered, she slotted her shotgun but kept her biotics active. 

Jaal sprinted over to the Moshae, who had collapsed just inside a large door opposite of the stairs. Thaia took up a position halfway between Jaal and Cora, and then put away her shotgun while keeping her biotics up like Cora.

“Pathfinder,” SAM said as Ryder slotted her rifle and jogged toward downed Cardinal, “I am tracking multiple inbound kett cruisers.”

Of course. Ryder withheld a sigh and stopped in front Cardinal. It made her a little nervous to face her though, because now it was harder to keep track of her squadmates. The door was at her back, so she couldn’t see Jaal or Thaia, and Cora was barely in her peripheral vision. But Drack was right there to her left, shotgun still pointed at the Cardinal, and that made Ryder feel a lot better. “SAM, is there an off switch to this horror palace?”

“Yes. I’ve accessed the EM field. I can overload it at your command.”

“Keep it prepped.”

“You promised you would get our people out,” said Jaal.

Drack’s eyes flicked briefly in Jaal’s direction. “There’s no time to open hundreds of pods, let alone help the angara inside.”

“Wait!” The Cardinal, who had shakily gotten into a sitting position, stood even more shakily. When she saw Drack’s shotgun leveled at her, she held out both her hands and swayed from the effort. “Leave my sacred temple intact and I will open the pods of the Chosen. Take them—just leave this holy place standing.”

“No,” the Moshae said with an unexpected amount of vehemence. “Even if I die here, this place must be destroyed.”

“We can come back to destroy it,” said Jaal. “With respect, our compatriots are also here. Our fighters. Our scientists. Our strength. Let’s free those who are here now.”

“If your plan fails, the kett will simply fill this place again,” said the Moshae, her voice even stronger.

“Ryder,” said Cora, “this is a Pathfinder’s call.”

The Moshae wasn’t wrong, but Ryder really didn’t like the idea of blowing the place up with all the angara who hadn’t yet been transformed into kett. She couldn’t ethically say no to that deal. People were more important, and she’d promised Jaal and Ryder kept her promises. So she swallowed back the bile from cutting a deal with the the kett. “All right. Release the angara below and we won’t destroy this place.”

The Cardinal activated her comm unit without delay. “Enact emergency shutdown. Release all the Chosen.”

Still somewhere behind Ryder, Jaal contacted Heckt immediately and told him to get out all the angara he could. When Ryder quickly looked over, she saw the Moshae looking neutrally at Jaal and then toward the Cardinal. Wait, no, she looked on with the same sort of seething anger Thaia had earlier, before she’d just started letting it all out. With reaves. Lots of reaves. Damn. Ryder hoped there wasn’t an angaran bioelectric equivalent of a reave. If there was, she had a feeling they’d be seeing it soon, used on the Cardinal that Ryder turned her attention to again.

While the Cardinal didn’t move and neither did Drack, Ryder noticed movement from Thaia out of the corner of her eye. But Thaia’s movement dead stopped almost as soon as it started.

“Do you want to be a war criminal?” Cora said, almost too softly for Ryder to hear. Because it wasn’t directed at her—it was directed at Thaia. 

Before Thaia could respond, Drack said, “Sure,” stepped forward and shot the Cardinal twice. The first hit her in the chest, sending her back to the floor. The second struck her in the head. Then Drack turned and aimed his weapon at—Cora? The hell?

Ryder turned and saw why: Cora had a pistol aimed at Thaia and what the shit was going on?

“Better put that thing down, Harper,” said Drack. 

Cora lowered her weapon and then Drack did the same and Ryder let out a shaky sigh of relief because Drack hadn’t sounded like he was fucking around and he’d already shot the Cardinal out of nowhere. 

Ryder glanced over at Jaal and the Moshae, who both looked confused but unalarmed and the Moshae might’ve been… well, maybe not happy, but she definitely wasn’t mourning the Cardinal’s death.

Biotic corona writhing around her body, Thaia asked, “Did you seriously point your fucking weapon at me?” Her tone edged on deadly and Ryder hoped to god that Cora had a really good answer.

“You had and still have a barrier up.” Cora stood with perfect posture, shoulders squared, facing Thaia full on. “One shot wouldn’t have hurt you, only startled you. I wasn’t going to let you become a war criminal because you lost your temper.”

“I haven’t lost my fucking temper,” said Thaia, her biotics fading as the few weak threads of her fraying composure regained their hold.

Yet, thought Ryder.

“Doesn’t matter.” Drack nudged the Cardinal’s corpse with his boot. “Krogan don’t have war crimes.”

Cora managed a serious, yet level tone. “We do. And we have rules of engagement. And we made a deal with her.”

Ryder made a deal,” said Drack. “I didn’t agree to shit. The Moshae was right and so was Jaal. We evac the angara and we still destroy the facility and we kept this thing”—he nudged the corpse again—“from turning anyone else into fucking kett.”

“We don’t shoot prisoners,” Cora said shortly.

A thread snapped and Thaia’s biotics flared again. “You don’t take slavers prisoner. You kill them.”

Cora, a flash of frustration finally passing through her eyes, looked at the Cardinal and then pointedly at Thaia. Then, with an increasingly tenuous calm, she said, “We accepted her surrender.”

Another thread gone and another biotic flare and Ryder glanced toward Drack, who watched intently but did nothing. Thaia gestured sharply at the Cardinal. “Surrender? Slavers don’t—”

“Kett reinforcements are beginning to deploy onto the shuttle platform,” said SAM.

Shit.

Ryder knew they were supposed to move, that they should move, that they needed to move, but no one did except Ryder, who shifted her weight from her right foot to her left. But everyone just kept looking at everyone else and Thaia’s biotics hadn’t dimmed and Cora’s right hand was still close to her sidearm and Drack kept watching that hand as Cora stared down Thaia. 

The Moshae coughed. Then, with a little reproach, she said, “The kett, I believe, are still our common enemy.”

One more breath of silence and then Cora used her right hand to activate her comms. “Heckt, we’re heading to the roof for extraction. Get your team to your primary extraction point.” Ignoring Thaia’s dark glare, Cora input another frequency into her omni. “Anjik, what’s the current status of the shuttles? We’re about to have heavy kett resistance.”

“Shuttles are currently inbound,” said Anjik.

“Copy. Harper out.” Cora faced the rest of them, but addressed Thaia first. “We can argue about this when we aren’t about to get overrun by kett.”

Thaia met Cora’s hard look with one of her own. “You’re goddess-damned right we will.”

Then Drack trudged between them, breaking their line of sight. On his way by, he grabbed Thaia by the shoulder and swung her around to face the exit. “Let’s go kill some kett,” he told her.

“Let’s move,” Cora told everyone else.

There were a lot of kett on the platform and SAM told them that there were more still on their way and how many kett were on this planet, anyway? And blowing around all those kett was a lot of snow, which was sort of good because it reflected what ambient light was available, which wasn’t much to begin with and they couldn’t use their suit lights because they just made it harder to see through the damn snow.

However, despite Jaal having had to drag her to her feet, Moshae Sjefa was spry and determined, both to make it out of there and to help while doing so. “Come close! I’ll shield you from the kett when they arrive!”

“Don’t worry about us,” said Drack. “The kid and I will clear the way. Still got some krogan to get out.”

“Lieutenant Harper, Base Commander Anjik,” came Anjik’s voice over comms. “The intensity of the storm system has increased triple-fold. Advise to evacuate immediately. Commander Heckt, evacuate as many of our people as you can until the shuttles arrive.”

“Acknowledged,” said Cora.

“On it,” said Heckt. “As many as we can.”

“Eyes up! Here they come!” shouted Thaia.

“Move forward to the landing pad!” said Cora. “We’ll pick off any strays!”

Drack raised his shotgun and roared. “Let’s go fuck ‘em up!”

The Moshae did a good job with whatever shield thing she’d generated with her bioelectric ability—Ryder really wanted to know how it worked and that was a thing she was supposed to be doing Andromeda, studying exobiology like a people able to control their bioelectric field, so seriously her dad could eat shit for sticking her with this job—while Cora, Ryder, and Jaal picked off whoever Thaia and Drack didn’t literally drive off the long, narrow platform. They got so far ahead in clearing the way that if not for the IFF signals from their omnis and Thaia’s biotic aura lifting crates, kett body parts, spent thermal clips, and snow in a slowly spinning vortex around her, they would’ve lost sight of them in the driving snow.

There were also the pyrotechnics from all the detonations and the fires from Drack’s flamethrower.

Reasonably quickly, Thaia and Drack reached the end of the platform and ran onto the landing pad, where they set up cover fire for the rest of the team. Jaal escorted the Moshae behind the large cargo container and the Moshae maintained her shield over everything. Ryder squinted out at the snow-filled sky beyond, but couldn’t see any shuttles. Then she saw flicker of the Resistance IFF tags and almost cheered. “I have a visual on the shuttles!”

“I have visuals on kett reinforcements,” said Jaal. “At least two fiends on the far end of this platform, and enough Chosen and Anointed that I cannot count.”

“Mariet!” Cora yelled over comms at their pilot. “We’ve got the Moshae! Get down here before we’re overrun or we’re coming back in long bags!”

“I can’t land!” said Mariet. “Not enough room!”

“And not enough time to clear space,” said Drack.

“Then hover off the edge of the landing pad and we’ll jump in,” said Cora.

“Be there in five.”

“We need to hold them off until the shuttle’s here and the Moshae and the Pathfinder are on it,” said Cora to their team. “When it gets here, I’ll take over shielding everyone from the Moshae. Ryder and Jaal, get the Moshae onto the shuttle, then both of you get on right after her. Thaia and Drack, coordinate to make sure nothing gets past you while they’re boarding. After the Moshae and Ryder are on, I want everyone else on that shuttle as fast as you can. I’ll be last in.”

Thaia looked through the heavy snow toward the opposite end of the platform before she said to Cora, “If we need to hold them off, we need to hold them off farther away than your barrier can extend. I can keep them busy by blowing them and everything around them up. Tell me the second everyone’s on and I’ll be right behind you.”

Cora whipped her head around, but the expression behind her faceplate was neutral. Okay, mostly neutral. 

Ryder hoped the shuttle would be there soon and not just because of the kett.

Then Cora leveled her challenge at Thaia. “Are you questioning my ability?”

Thaia drew her head back. “What the fuck? No. It’s a statement of fact. Unless you’re Sarissa Fucking Theris, your barrier isn’t going to have the reach to keep the kett far enough away from the shuttle. And unless you’re me, your detonations won’t touch off the monster-sized explosions we need to keep the kett a safe distance away.”

It was Cora’s turn to evaluate what could barely be seen at the other end of the platform. After a moment, she nodded once, sharply. “Fine. But your ass better be on that shuttle right after mine.”

“Not a problem,” said Thaia.

Somehow, it sounded like a threat.

While Ryder wouldn’t have called Thaia reckless in her fighting, there was an edge of barely controlled in the deadliness. Lucky for them, she exercised it fully on the kett, taking them apart again and again, sometimes literally. But the waves of kett didn’t abate as Drack smashed into some, as Jaal eliminated others, as Thaia’s biotics continuously blew them to bits or tossed them from the platform, they just kept coming, no matter the combined marvel.

It happened as Jaal jumped in after Ryder and Cora, leaving Thaia the last of their team on the landing pad. A fiend knocked aside a cargo container and the container hit something explosive, the snow and debris masking the fiend’s leap forward. It caught Thaia’s leg in its mouth long enough to flip her, but she managed to biotically charge out from under it. 

Another kett had been running over to take advantage, but Thaia grabbed him in a pull, smacked him into the fiend, and then tossed them into the chasm below. Then she leapt onto the shuttle, Cora helping to get her there with extra biotics when Thaia’s own biotics noticeably flagged, her aura fading alarmingly fast.

Once Thaia was in, the door slid shut and Mariet brought the shuttle into the storm, lurching enough that Ryder’s stomach nearly dropped out. 

“We’ve got everyone we could and our shuttles are clear,” Heckt said over comms.

“SAM,” said Ryder, “trigger the EM overload.”

“Doing so now, Pathfinder.”

Ryder wished they could see it collapsing into flame and rubble behind them, but there wasn’t a window. Instead, she concentrated on strapping in for the bumpy ride back to base, as did most others.

“Everyone give me your status,” said Cora, who sat down in the jump seat to Ryder’s right, the hatch to the cockpit between them. “Moshae? How are you doing?”

“Better, now that the kett abomination of a facility is gone.” Seated in one of the jump seats on the aft side of the shuttle, facing the door, the Moshae slowly buckled her safety harness with Jaal’s help. 

Everyone else answered Cora’s inquiry with affirmatives of one kind or another. Then Cora said, “Thaia, you’re bleeding.”

“What?” Thaia’s voice sounded scratchy, as if her mind had been anywhere but inside the shuttle, and she only had half her harness on. 

Cora gestured toward Thaia’s leg. “You’re bleeding. Surprised you aren’t feeling it with how bad it looks.”

Thaia investigated her leg, leaning down while slightly lifting it, and winced. “Interesting turnaround from holding someone at gunpoint.”

“I’ll grab the medkit for a temp patch.” Cora stood instead of strapping in and retrieved the the standard combat medkit from her back.

“You were going to shoot me,” Thaia said slowly and with a great deal of incredulity, “and now you want to mend my leg?”

God, Ryder hoped this surliness was a short-lived phase, especially since she noticed Cora gritting her teeth, which meant the dwindling of the last reserves of Cora’s patience. But it wasn’t like they could kick Thaia off the mission now when they were leaving.

“It wouldn’t have hurt you or I wouldn’t have done it. It was meant to startle you.” Cora’s voice was even, though her jaw visibly flexed as she started walking towards Thaia, who sat in the seat nearest the closed door.

“You never point a weapon at someone unless you’re willing to kill them so maybe we have different definitions of hurt.” Then Thaia’s mostly reasonable if confused tone proved disingenuous. “Unless you didn’t pay attention to a basic lesson during your huntress training.”

Cora straightened so quickly that her head hit a grab handle. She smacked it away as she once again stared Thaia down. And now there weren’t any kett to interrupt. “I made a calculated decision.”

Thaia’s legs tensed to jump, but it pulled at her laceration and she grimaced. Forced to stay seated, Thaia’s rancor became words thrown at Cora. “Fuck your calculations. You were willing to shoot me to defend that fucking piece of shit Cardinal.”

“Your barrier was still up so you would have been fine if I’d shot at it. Not you,” Cora said as if speaking to a small child, “the barrier. It would have startled you, which was the point because I was keeping you from committing a war crime.”

Ryder blinked. She’d disagreed with the abruptness of Drack shooting the Cardinal, but she hadn’t thought it was a war crime. Shit. Was it? Cora had undergone a lot more extensive training than Ryder. But Ryder vaguely remembered that they were supposed to cover rules of engagement before a mission and she couldn’t remember if they had for this one, but those rules would’ve come from Anjik and whatever the angaran rules of engagement were.

As she pressed her hand over the laceration instead of finishing buckling her harness, Thaia grumbled under her breath before she resumed talking, still aiming her ire at Cora. “War crimes require a formal fucking war. Even if it was, killing an enemy who’s surrendered fully is a war crime, not whatever shit the Cardinal was trying to pull. She was freeing slaves because she was a fucking slaver and was going to start it all over again once we left. That wasn’t a full surrender. That was a ruse. The rules of engagement for slavers is to kill them.”

“So you’re in the habit of summarily executing prisoners?”

“What the fuck? She wasn’t a fucking prisoner, she was—”

“Because that would be murder,” Cora said in the teaching-an-apprentice tone Thaia had utilized earlier with her, “which is prohibited by every militia in the Asari Republics.”

“She wasn’t a prisoner.” Thaia removed her hands from her leg and ticked off the reasons why on her fingers. “She wasn’t restrained. She had the freedom to walk away.”

“Being held at gunpoint isn’t exactly ‘free to walk away,’” said Cora.

Thaia ignored her. “And, technically, she was still armed because we still haven’t figured out how she was forging that drone. Last, she was a fucking slaver and not a prisoner and killing her wouldn’t have been a war crime if you’d fully compared the situation to any of the militia codes.” Then she reapplied the pressure to her leg.

“There wasn’t time for deep analysis. Context was close enough to default to safe rather than sorry and I’m not going to be sorry about stopping a squadmate from committing a possible war crime.” Cora grabbed onto the seat back behind Thaia when the shuttle pitched and executed a sharp turn. “Or wasting a potentially useful intelligence asset. Or did the possibility that we could take her with us and interrogate her not cross your mind?”

Thaia scowled up at her. The laceration hadn’t done much to improve her mood, nor was the current lurching, heart-stopping ride in the shuttle because of the storm. “How about you try popping my barrier with yours or something? That’s just as startling and way less potentially fucking deadly.”

“Mine wouldn’t have enough impact. But having someone point a weapon at you would startle you, without question.”

Another bump and slam and Cora went ass over teakettle, the medkit ripped from her hands by physics. Once the shuttle leveled out, with Cora leveled on the deck, the Moshae asked, “Is everyone all right?”

“Fine,” said Cora as she sat up. 

“Yeah,” said Thaia.

Ryder frowned. “You’re still bleeding.”

“Well, it can’t be that deep or I’d be dead,” said Thaia.

“That is not reassuring,” said Jaal.

Then the shuttle plummeted and spun in dizzying circles until it straightened. The passengers strapped in were fine, but Cora skidded across the deck until Drack grabbed her by the ankle. Thaia was wrenched from her seat and her one strap and spun in the air, her injured leg slamming into the emergency supply bin, the point of impact directly on the laceration. Then she dropped to the deck, landing on her back. When the shuttle seemed to be holding steady, she sat up and scooted back, using a bulkhead as a brace.

“Shit! Goddess-damned—”

“Where’s the medkit?” asked Cora.

“How the fuck should I know?”

“Found it,” said Drack. “Wedged between me and a corner.”

Cora took it. “We need to keep pressure on the wound.”

“For Athame’s fucking sake, I’m not going to bleed out.”

“There’s a chance you might. Are you a medic?”

“No, but you aren’t either. Just put a fucking bandage on it. Or just amputate it because it hurts like a motherfucker.”

“You did ding it pretty hard when you went flying,” said Drack. 

“Ryder, help me out,” said Cora. “I need you to keep pressure on it while I cut away the material so there’s room for the bandage.” After Ryder slipped out of her harness and helped, Cora kept talking. “Lexi will have take a look at this when we get back.” She removed the section of outer armor near the laceration and cut the cloth from around the wound. Then she wiped it down and ripped open the packaging on the bandage. “Ryder, lift your hands on three.” As soon as Cora had a clear line, she slapped the bandage on.

Generally, Ryder really liked those patches because the medigel inside was enough to numb any pain, including the times she’d used them on papercuts. Though the slapping of the bandage over the laceration looked like it hurt Thaia as much as hitting it on emergency supply bin. 

Thaia let loose a string of curses, and Ryder could only make out ‘shitfucker’ before losing track. Cora actually wrapped gauze around it to hold it in place even with Thaia swearing right up until the medigel numbed it. Then she said a grudging, “Thank you.” 

They both silently found their seats and Ryder thought for a lonely, hopeful moment that maybe they were done.

Then Cora said, “You were reckless and you got hurt because of it.”

“I was fucking not.” Thaia yanked on her right shoulder harness. “The fiend hit something explosive.”

“I’m not just talking about what happened with the fiend.” The new sharp edge marked the shredding of Cora’s remaining patience.

“You were talking about when I was injured and that was when the fiend fucking bit me.” Thaia stopped tugging on the left shoulder harness and indicated her leg. “The fact that it leapt out of a fucking cloud of snow had nothing to do with recklessness and everything to do with the conditions.”

Cora also paused in strapping herself into her seat. “You were only in that position because you insisted that you had to use explosions to hold those kett when a barrier would’ve better.” Finally loosed, her words came out quick and forceful. “And because we had the kett breathing down our necks, there wasn’t time to argue. A better use for your biotics would’ve been helping sustain a stronger barrier, and not the reckless display of detonations you used instead.”

“By the time your ancestors had the math to try proving the mere existence of dark energy, I’d been using biotics for two centuries.” Thaia’s sneer descended into a snarl of warning. “So don’t you dare think it’s your fucking place to tell me where my biotics are best used.”

Cora jerked so hard on the strap of her harness that it almost snapped. “It isn’t your biotics I’m questioning. What I’m questioning are your completely reckless decisions.”

“They,” Thaia said, voice deceptively calm while she looked Cora in the eyes, “were calculated.”

“So almost committing a war crime was calculated, too?”

“I didn’t try to do shit.” Thaia threw a hand in Drack’s direction. “He shot the Cardinal, not me. Or did you forget?”

“You’d centered your weight and your hand was moving toward your sidearm as you chose where to target the Cardinal.” Disbelief ran alongside Cora’s frustration as she looked at Thaia in askance. “You were actively thinking about it and I wasn’t going to let you murder someone.”

“So we talking war crimes or thought crimes?” Thaia asked, head snapping up from where she’d been inspecting the damage to her hardsuit.

“They aren’t mutually exclusive. Asari happen to be the only species who have thought crimes listed as war crimes,” Cora said, her lips twisting in disgust, “so if you were planning on melding with the Cardinal as you killed her, like one of those demons—”

Thaia’s biotics flared and she leaned so far forward that the straps on her harness strained. “You’d better be careful about the next fucking thing you say, Lieutenant,” she said in a low, deadly tone. “Because if you go in that direction, a cut on my leg isn’t going to stop me.”

“This is what I’m talking about.” Cora gestured at Thaia’s glowing biotics. “Now you’re threatening a squadmate.” It would’ve been a fairer point if Cora’s own biotics hadn’t flared in answer to Thaia’s.

“No, I’m threatening someone who’s calling me—”

“Enough!” said Ryder. “Everyone just shut up if you aren’t Mariet or the Moshae! We’ll sort this out on the Tempest after whoever’s hurt has been healed. For now, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Somewhere, Ryder realized, things had gone wrong, leaving Cora herding a bunch of angry, resentful cats who only allowed themselves to be herded because they were angrier with the enemy than their allies. And now that there weren’t any kett left to fight, they’d defaulted to each other.

It was a long, silent ride to the Resistance base.

Chapter Text

The Tempest, 2819.

“If the ark ever finds this,” said a familiar voice, “we failed. We couldn’t draw them off. Forgive us. We tried—”

Vetra straightened from where she’d leaned closer to the medbay’s terminal, and then she looked blankly toward the active wall display next to Lexi’s desk. “Did that sound like Meir to you?” she asked quietly.

Lexi’s heart plunged down to somewhere near her feet. Hope had left her unprepared to hear Meir die. “It did.”

“The voice from the Periphona’s final audio log is a match for Meir Calfuray,” said SAM.

Imagining Thaia without her family was nearly impossible, and yet it was slowly and painfully becoming reality. Lexi felt Meir’s loss, felt it as she had the others of Thaia’s family who’d died, the people she’d become so fond of during the relatively short time she’d known them. How much they’d cared for each other. How they all somehow both mercilessly teased Thaia and yet wholeheartedly supported her, no matter what the endeavor. The same as Thaia had wished for them, they wanted Thaia to be happy. They were just unique in how they carried out ensuring the happiness of loved ones, and Lexi had been witness to it—and admittedly subjected to it—early on.

Such as during the first of the many evenings Lexi had spent with Thaia’s family on the Initiative station. Straight after Thaia had left the kitchen with Auri and Basya, Meir had declared: “Goddess, but she’s transparent as fuck.”

“Lexi,” Eirian had said, “has she walked into a wall yet? Tripped over anything?

“Not that I’ve witnessed,” Lexi had replied, entirely puzzled at the idea because she hadn’t yet seen Thaia do anything physically clumsy, though that had changed within the span of a few hours.

“Oh,” Safira had said, “she tripped over the table in the living room after Lexi said she’d come visit. Claimed it had to be a commando table for it to sneak up on her like that.”

“Militias must be getting desperate for recruits if they’re training tables,” Aunt Jarah had said.

“I’m more concerned about the possibility of sentient tables,” Eirian had said.

Then Basya and Auri had run back in, brimming with bright-eyed curiosity, and immediately assaulted Lexi with a question about if someone’s crest turning green was really a symptom of a deadly illness. After Lexi had answered them to their satisfaction, they had then happily repeated to her absolutely everything Thaia had said about Lexi within their earshot. It had been a lot, the majority of it complimentary, and each family member present had gleefully corroborated every bit of it. Thaia had run into the kitchen at the tail end, heard just enough to warrant glaring at all of them, and then rushed back out, saying it was because she wanted to play kowla with Khel and not any other reason.

To which Aunt Jarah had said, “I know where I’ll be meddling after we get to Andromeda.”

Everyone had volunteered to help, even the children.

Lexi had known them for such a short time and their loss hurt, but it was no comparison to what Thaia had lost. Losing family, either found or blood related, possessed its own kind of pain, deep and slow to heal. Even more than two centuries later, Lexi still experienced the occasional twinge stemming from the deaths of her own parents—especially her mother. It wasn’t that she’d loved her father any less, but she’d been prepared for his death. She hadn’t her mother’s and certainly not at the same time as her father. While he’d been approaching the upper end of the average turian life expectancy, her mother had turned only five hundred a few years before they’d been killed.

Vetra kept her gaze on the displays, her mandibles briefly flaring against her cheeks. It was a similar expression to one Lexi’s father had gotten after one of his friends died in a shootout, which made sense. Arguably, Vetra had known Meir better than Lexi had. 

“After what happened…” Vetra sighed. “After what happened on the Nexus and then Elaaden, I’d hoped Thaia and Sula wouldn’t lose anyone else.”

“SAM,” said Lexi, “was this the only log entry they were able to retrieve?”

“Yes,” said SAM. “In the Nomad, they played it a total of nine times before giving up on finding more information about what happened to the Periphona.”

“Spirits,” said Vetra.

Goddess. Thaia had listened to her sister die nine times that afternoon. And she was supposed to participate in the raid on the kett facility and the last place Thaia needed to be right now was in combat. “SAM, has the raid started yet?”

“They are en route to the kett facility now. Do you wish me to relay a message to Ryder?”

Too late to turn back. “No. Thank you, SAM.” While Lexi would rather Thaia not have gone at all, at least Drack had gone, too. Drack had been there after Khel had died, and he’d kept Thaia alive and reasonably well since. He would do the same through the raid.

“Drack’s there,” said Vetra, who’d been witness to what Drack had done for Thaia in the time between Khel’s death and the Hyperion’s arrival. “He’ll keep her from doing anything stupid.” She paused and then finally turned to Lexi, mandibles a little relaxed, as if trying to boost both her spirits and Lexi’s with humor, but not quite getting there. “Well, anything that’s stupid according to him, which I’m pretty sure will at least keep her alive.”

It was reassuring in its own way.

Then Vetra left for the cargo bay while Lexi stayed in the medbay. As she finished prepping for any incoming wounded, she clung to the reassurance of Drack’s presence on the raid team. But she couldn’t forget what could happen in the kett facility. Who could get hurt. How she could get hurt. How she shouldn’t have been down there in the first place. 

When the medbay was ready, Lexi sat down in front of her terminal to begin writing methodology for her eventual research on kett anatomy. She got as far as opening a new document.

Drack would keep her safe. He would keep her alive.

It almost worked. It almost worked right until Ryder contacted Lexi via private comm channel and the first thing she said was: “Um, Lexi? How good are you at conflict resolution?”

The question boded less than well and Lexi’s attention fully abandoned the blinking cursor on the terminal in front of her. “Why do you ask?”

“Hold on.” There was shuffling and footsteps from Ryder’s end, muffled talking with an angara, and then quiet. “Sorry, I had to move to the cockpit so I could talk in relative privacy. Anyway, there was some conflict on the team during the raid. Mostly at the end. Arguing. Swearing. Maybe some guns pulled on people who weren’t kett.

“Who pulled weapons on whom?”

“Cora on Thaia and then Drack on Cora because Cora pulled one on Thaia?”

Outrage surged within her, that Thaia had been placed in danger not because of risky actions taken during a combat situation, but placed in danger from her own squadmate. From Cora, whom they all should have been able to trust without reservation. The only reassurance was the one from before—Drack had kept Thaia safe. But, anger aside, Lexi couldn’t allow herself to believe that Cora would have put Thaia in danger without cause. Goddess, had Thaia been a threat to the others? “Ryder, what happened?”

“It’s complicated. Something about ethics and differences between human, asari, and krogan rules of war and… did I mention it’s complicated?” Ryder sighed. “The simplest explanation is that the kett cardinal sort of surrendered. We—I—made a deal to let the rest of the angaran prisoners go if we left the place standing. After the cardinal opened the pods, Cora saw Thaia about to shoot her and thought it could be a war crime, so she pulled her sidearm on Thaia to stop her from doing it. So then Drack shot the cardinal and then pointed his weapon at Cora. Told her to put her weapon down. She did, he did, and then the ethics argument started. But Cora had done it in good faith since the ethics weren’t immediately clear, and friends don’t let friends commit possible war crimes.”

Lexi’s anger retreated, relieved that the situation hadn’t been what she’d feared. Cora had prevented Thaia from doing something potentially criminal because her mind was struggling against too many emotions. Anger wouldn’t be rational here, not when Lexi would have done the same, albeit with biotics instead of a weapon. However, since she was asari, her biotics would be enough to give Thaia pause. Cora’s, though incredibly powerful for a human, still wouldn’t have. So Cora had used the most reliable method at her disposal, which had unfortunately been a weapon. “I’m not as well-versed in Alliance and Republics military ethics, but I can say with certainty that Drack killing the Cardinal wouldn’t have been a war crime according to the krogan.”

“Yeah, that’s what Drack said. I think it’s more like krogan have war crimes committed against them.” Ryder sighed again. “There’s more. Thaia was monumentally pissed when I told Cora to lead the raid instead of her. And I know you won’t be able to address it until people are physically taken care of, so I wanted to make sure you knew what all the tension’s about. Because there’s a lot and I’m pretty sure I screwed up somewhere. But we freed the Moshae and a whole bunch of other angara and no one on our side got shot, so there’s that.”

Leadership over those older than her was an ongoing struggle for Ryder, so hearing that she may have essentially lost control during such fraught circumstances came as no surprise. Ryder often defaulted to experience and, both fortunately and unfortunately, she had an excessive amount of experience available for her ground teams. Factor in that Thaia would have been less than pleased at Cora being tapped as squad leader over herself—Thaia was no exception to asari elitism and ageism—and that her mood would not have been the most open after finding out about Meir, and anyone would have had a difficult time keeping a team in order. That the raid had been successful spoke to Cora’s ability as a leader. 

However, Ryder certainly hadn’t been exaggerating about a great deal of conflict resolution looming in their immediate future. Lexi typed in a note to address some of those issues with Ryder later. “Do you want to talk about it once things are more settled?”

“Yeah.”

“All right. You mentioned that no one was shot, but that doesn’t preclude other types of injuries. Or the Moshae’s condition.”

“Jaal scanned the Moshae and says her immune system is really weak. When we land at the Resistance base, Dr. Harihn will be waiting to stabilize her enough to bring her onto the Tempest. Then we can transport her to Aya.”

“I can coordinate with him easily enough.” Lexi typed in another note. “How is everyone else?”

“We’re all tired and cranky, but no one else got hurt except Thaia. She’s got a laceration on her leg. A fiend leapt out of a cloud of snow and debris and chomped on it, but she escaped it pretty quick. Didn’t even notice until we were on the shuttle, which was weird.” Ryder paused. “She’s been acting weird today in general, actually.”

Dread began to slip from its shadow and her hands stilled, hovering over the haptic keyboard. “All day?”

“Well, not all. Not until after we found the wreckage and the bodies this afternoon. It was like she was a different person. Seeing the wreckage got to everyone, but Thaia just stood there for the longest time, staring at the bodies under the ice. I’m not sure if she even saw them, after a while. Then later, during the raid…”

Her fingers began to tremble as she asked, barely keeping her voice level, “What happened?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was reckless, though Cora completely disagrees with me and told Thaia that to her face and that went over like a sky-diving elcor. They’re arguing about that more than they are the drawn weapons. I think that’s progress? I don’t know.”

“Reckless?” In addition to Thaia’s disposition toward accidental injury, Lexi knew she had the tendency to throw herself completely into whatever action she was taking. In cases such as sports or combat, the throwing was literal. Lexi’s worry over that propensity had been assuaged with the knowledge that Thaia maintained exemplary control over her actions, even when having to employ a greater show of force for mission-specific purposes. For that control to diminish, to be overridden by something like recklessness, left Lexi distressingly fearful of the inevitable consequences.

“Usually even when she’s like the wrath of an angry goddess on the battlefield, you know it’s controlled. Like you can feel it. That wasn’t there today.”

Lexi sighed and placed her hands on the desktop. The trembling stopped. “I wanted to contact you earlier to have you remove Thaia from the raid, but you’d already departed.”

“Because?”

“I suspect Thaia’s current disposition is because Meir—one of her sisters—was among the Periphona’s casualties.”

Ryder stopped breathing and there was a long pause before she said in a small voice, “Please tell me Meir wasn’t the one who recorded the log.”

Perhaps if Meir hadn’t been, things wouldn’t have degenerated quite so far. It was one thing to find out that your sister had died. It was another thing entirely to hear her die. “She was.”

“Shit. Shit. Lexi, should I say anything to her? To anyone?”

“Unless she’s brought it up herself, no.” Given the reported conflict on the mission, Thaia would be more on the defensive than usual and any mention of Meir would only increase her defensiveness. “When will you arrive?”

“Ten minutes or so. Dr. Harihn should be contacting you shortly.”

“We’ll be ready.”

Unintelligible raised voices transmitted across the connection and Ryder grumbled. “I need to go. They’re at it again and Jaal and the Moshae don’t seem bothered by it at all.”

“Angara prefer open conflict rather than hiding it. So this would be normal for them.” Were the Moshae in better condition, she might even have played the part of arbiter, like a matriarch. Would that she were, all around. Would that Sula were here.

Maybe I’ll just let Drack headbutt everyone.”

“So long as everyone’s wearing a helmet.”

Ryder’s laugh was weary, but sincere. “See you when we’re groundside.”

***

As Dr. Harihn, Jaal, and Lexi settled the Moshae onto the bed the farthest from the door in the Tempest’s medbay, they heard a few pairs of heavy footsteps in the corridor, followed by voices. All of the people to whom the voices belonged were in various stages of tired and expressing it in their own ways. Drack was Drack, of course. But Ryder’s voice was artificially upbeat, meaning she was anxious. Cora’s tone was precisely controlled, meaning she was struggling mightily to remain somewhat calm. And Thaia—

“Need me to carry you?” Drack asked.

“Need a kick in the quad?” said Thaia.

Thaia was combative.

Ryder sighed loudly. “Just go in. Please.”

Fine.”

“I’ll be getting food, a shower, and some sleep,” Cora said, voice already fading as she continued down the corridor, bypassing the medbay entirely. Because Lexi knew she wasn’t injured, as per Ryder’s report, she didn’t object because those three things were likely what Cora needed.

Ryder popped her head in. “Lexi, I have to go talk with Anjik, so I’ll be back later.”

“Thank you for letting me know,” Lexi said as she stepped away from the Moshae.

Then Thaia was practically shoved into the medbay and Drack walked off immediately afterward, saying he’d be in the cargo bay. Lexi walked over to assess Thaia’s status beyond recalcitrant.

Thaia’s leg looked to be in abominable shape, wrapped in gauze with several patches saturated with violet blood. She seemed to be walking without too much difficulty, which was good. So, of course, Thaia spun on her heel and tried to walk back out.

“No,” Lexi said as she grabbed back of Thaia’s armor and then herded her to the free exam bed. “You’re staying. As soon as Dr. Harihn and the Moshae and I are done, I’ll be taking a look at that leg of yours.”

“It’s a cut.” Thaia leaned against the exam bed and crossed her arms. “It isn’t bad enough to need more than medigel.”

“Unless you earned your medical degree while you were down there, I decide which injuries require what treatments, seeing as I’m the physician and you’re the physicist.”

Thaia muttered something under her breath.

“What was that?” asked Lexi, sharp with warning.

A warning that went ignored. “Astrophysicist.”

“Well, your astrophysicist self can wait right there.”

Though Thaia grumbled again, she stayed put. With Thaia in this oppositional of a mood, Lexi took what she could get and turned her attention to finishing up with Dr. Harihn regarding the Moshae’s condition. Fortunately, Dr. Harihn had been able to stimulate Moshae Sjefa’s immune system and it showed strong signs of a rapid return to normal. Provided, of course, she replenish her exhausted body with rest and sustenance. She already had an extra blanket around her as she remained seated, eating the angaran nutrient paste supplied by Jaal.

“Any better?” asked Jaal.

The Moshae adjusted the blanket. “Getting there.”

Yet while Moshae Sjefa’s physical health was a relatively simple matter to mend, psychological healing was another issue entirely, which angaran clinical psychology professionals—assuming they had them—would be attending to on Aya. Lexi made a note to continue her education on angaran medical and psychological standards after the Moshae was returned. Intellectual curiosity of alien anatomy aside, for her to continue to be largely uneducated in angaran medical matters would be highly irresponsible.

“You’re well on your way,” said Dr. Harihn, and then looked at Lexi. “Well enough that you can take a look at—where did she go?”

Goddess. She hadn’t. Lexi turned to see and yes, Thaia had indeed sneaked out while everyone was busy. 

“Since we’re in orbit,” Lexi said while trying not to sigh, “she’s theoretically still on the Tempest.” Then Lexi gave in and sighed. Thaia was usually responsible about injuries. Perhaps not so much for illnesses, but injuries she did tend to. Whether it was due to commando training to be fit for fighting or because Thaia was happy to have an excuse to spend more time with Lexi, she didn’t know. Thaia’s avoidance of dealing with possible illness was understandable, rooted in having yet to change her perception of her immune system to one with diminished capability. But if her current reticence was the start of a trend, it was worrisome.

“It’s safe enough for you to track her down, if need be,” said Dr. Harihn. “I’ve had to do the same with Resistance soldiers too stubborn for their own good. An advantage in the field, but not so much afterward. With Moshae Sjefa’s immune system in a restorative cycle, all she needs now is a few good meals, hydration, and plenty of rest. Jaal can watch her when you aren’t in here.”

After Lexi reassured herself by checking the Moshae’s vitals, she excused herself and went in search of Thaia. However, the problem with searching for commandos was that they were as good at hiding as they were sneaking away. 

Well, if Thaia was going to go as far as sneaking away from the medbay, Lexi wasn’t beyond cheating and asking SAM where she was, which she did.

“Althaia is in the cargo bay, Lexi,” said SAM.

Lexi thanked SAM as she walked. Inside the cargo bay, she found Gil standing at a terminal on the catwalk while Drack, Peebee, and Vetra spoke with each other just outside the door to Vetra’s room. And in plain view, Thaia sat on a container, her injured leg extended along its top. Cora’s workbench stood next to the container, and scattered on the deck in front of both were various components of Thaia’s upper armor.

She didn’t look up from prodding at the patch over her laceration as Lexi approached. However, she did acknowledge Lexi’s presence by saying, “I’ve eaten a recovery bar and had two of those energy drinks that taste like bottled misery, so you don’t have to fret about me keeling over from biotic exhaustion.”

Lexi studied her features, searching for any signs of exhaustion or her injury being worse than it appeared. Thankfully, her pallor was normal and she didn’t show any other signs of exhaustion or shock, so it was safe to converse for a bit and ignore the injury and whom Thaia had lost. “One, it isn’t biotic exhaustion I’ve fretted about. Two, you ran away when we weren’t looking.”

“Walked. Walked away. Running would’ve been noisy.” Thaia had the decency to look sheepish when she glanced up at Lexi before she looked back down at her leg. “And I’m not sure I could actually run with my leg right now, not unless my life literally depended on it. Besides, compared to what happened to the Moshae, my leg is nothing.” Her eyes went toward the damaged escape pod on the other side of the cargo bay, and then the strength of her voice faltered, as if recounting a nightmare. “The Moshae was trapped in those pods.”

“She was,” Lexi said as gently as she would were she exploring a wound. “Thankfully, she wasn’t conscious during the times she was confined to one.”

Thaia let out a breath of relief that relaxed her rigid shoulders. Her voice even returned to its normal volume and strength. “That’s good.”

“And you need to get to medbay so I can have a look at your leg.” Lexi checked to make sure the others hadn’t left during their conversation. “You’ll need help getting there. Either I can help you or I can ask Vetra or Drack or Peebee. Two of us can help if you feel like your leg can’t take the weight.”

“I can get there on my own.” As if to prove it, Thaia used the workbench to push herself to her feet, standing less unsteadily than Lexi would have thought.

She evaluated the risk of Thaia further injuring herself if she let her fully embrace her mulishness by walking through the ship under her own power, and then decided the bandage would hold long enough. “Fine, hobble. Once you get there, take off the rest of that outer armor, including your boots, but leave the undersuit on. I’ll deal with access to the laceration when I get there.”

Thaia raised her eyebrows and her next question indicated an attempt to return to better spirits. “So you’ll be rip—”

“With shears.”

Before she started for the medbay, Thaia gave her a sidelong look, eyes glinting with mirth at all the comments she refrained from saying, with a half smile that—Lexi had to look elsewhere before she blushed.

“Shit,” she heard Gil say as soon as Thaia was safely out of earshot. “Did you see that?”

“See it? I felt it,” said Peebee.

“I think the look she just gave Lexi needs to be classified as a weapon,” said Vetra.

Drack only laughed.

“Stop, all of you,” said Lexi. Much as she wished to believe that Thaia was okay, and much as Thaia had tried to convince her with humor that she was okay, Lexi wasn’t convinced. Not in the least. Not when unspoken sorrow dwelled between each comment Thaia made. Not when beneath every jest was a shadow of pain that Lexi wanted to alleviate, and her throat ached at the idea that there might be nothing she could do. 

“You should quad up and call her on it,” said Drack. “Do both yourselves a favor. I’m betting she could use the distraction right now. Probably you, too. Get to it.”

“Sometimes things aren’t as easy as you believe, Drack.” It wasn’t like she could inform Drack that she and Thaia had already discussed the subject and had chosen to remain as they were. It was necessary that they did, because each time Thaia ended up her patient due to urgent or emergency medical issues, their friendship already skirted an ethical line. If they tried for something more, they risked losing that much more. It was better this way, to assure themselves they could at least keep a friendship neither of them could bear to lose.

He harrumphed. “Only because you kids make them more complicated than they should be.”

Lexi chose not to bother with a defense. Drack saw things as he did, and one would have better luck convincing a rock to change its ways than a krogan over fourteen hundred years of age. Still unsure of what to say regarding Meir, if anything should be directly said at all, she headed for the medbay.

When Lexi entered the room, Thaia was there and had even followed Lexi’s instructions involving her armor. With the other exam bed occupied by a heavily sleeping Moshae Sjefa, and Lexi’s chair occupied by an awake Jaal tapping away at a datapad, Thaia had gotten onto the other exam bed and propped herself up on arms stretched behind her back.

“Do you need me to leave?” asked Jaal.

Thaia glanced over at him, as if she’d just realized he was there. “No, you’re fine.”

At least Thaia seemed to be cooperative, which Lexi wasn’t going to waste. “Is it all right if I have a look?”

“I wouldn’t have come back here otherwise.” Thaia gestured toward her leg without looking at it. “Go ahead. It’s still numb from the patch, so you can dig around in it if you want.” She paled, swallowed several times, and then stared at the wall across from the bed, evidently because she’d nauseated herself with her own comment.

Only nominally hiding her amusement, Lexi took an exam kit from a drawer, set it on the bed near Thaia’s injured leg, sterilized her hands, and then used her biotics to roll the stool over so she could sit next to the bed. Then she took a look. The site was already clear, Cora having cut away the cloth surrounding the laceration. Lexi put on gloves and then wiped the patch and the skin around it with an antiseptic to prevent further contamination. Then she positioned two fingers of each hand on the sides of the laceration and peered inside.

It was an ugly wound. The long tooth—Lexi assumed it was the mechanism of injury from the description Ryder had given her—had penetrated Thaia’s leg deeply enough to have scraped along the bone. But Lexi was lucky to even see it through the amount of detritus inside. It might’ve been the most contaminated wound she’d ever put her eyes on and there was no telling what microorganisms might have been in the fiend’s saliva. Thankfully, the shot Thaia had gotten prior to leaving for Voeld in the morning would take care of those. “Did you pour dirt into it? Followed by dusting it with some rust flakes for good measure?”

Thaia shifted her weight on the exam bed but still didn’t look down at her leg. “I figured it was the only way to get you into my pants.”

Lexi wasn’t about to let that pass unchecked. “Did it occur to you to try asking nicely?”

Jaal chuckled.

Thaia stared at Lexi in shock. Then she saw her wound and had to look away before Lexi could reassess how Thaia was doing beyond her reaction to Lexi’s rejoinder. Unfortunately, the anesthetic effect of the medigel patch had begun to wear off, discovered when Lexi nudged aside a flap of skin and Thaia flinched. 

“You did that on purpose,” said Thaia.

Lexi pushed away from the bed and walked to the drawer storing the shears. When she answered, she did her best to keep her voice flat, but couldn’t keep it entirely mild. “It’s offensive that you would think it, let alone say it. I would never and you know I wouldn’t.” 

“I know.” Thaia sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m still on edge.”

Understandable, and Lexi’s defensiveness waned. “It’s going to need extensive irrigation before I can treat it. Once it’s mended, you’ll likely need to refrain from headbutting, fighting, biotics, and playing games involving flamethrowers.”

Thaia gasped in mock horror. “That’s like telling me not to breathe.”

“I’m sure you can forego using flamethrowers of any size for a couple days.” 

“Right,” Thaia said, a little smile emerging as her body relaxed, “because that’s exactly what I was talking about.”

Jaal stood, observed the sleeping Moshae for a few moments, and then looked over at Thaia, eyes still alight with amusement. “It is good advice, regardless.” He nodded at both Thaia and Lexi. “While the Moshae is asleep, I am going to rest. If you would excuse me.”

After watching him go, Lexi waited until the door had closed before she started investigating the mechanism of Thaia’s injury with open-ended neutrality. “What happened?”

“A fiend decided to bite my leg.”

So they would be sticking with their attempt at lightheartedness. Lexi played along, her gaze on the drawer as she closed it. “How much of a shit had you been to it?” She looked up just in time to see Thaia’s reaction. 

Thaia opened her mouth, closed it, and then glared. Or tried to, because a laugh worked its way through lips she’d pressed flat. “If raining death and destruction on the kett like a vengeful monster counts as being a shit to it, then a giant one.” She looked at her leg again. “Honestly, I didn’t even notice that my armor had been punctured until Cora mentioned it.”

  “That was from the adrenaline and the cold from the breached suit.”

“And Cora pointing it out.”

“Don’t you blame her for what the fiend did.” Lexi held up the shears. “You ready?”

Thaia’s eyes flicked between the shears and Lexi’s face. “Are you going to explain exactly what you’re going to do with those things?”

“Cut off your pant leg.”

There was a pause before Thaia asked, “How high are we talking? Because sometimes having you treat my wounds is like a special sort of torture and this is one of those times.”

Goddess, Thaia wasn’t going to admit anything was wrong easily, and even though Lexi knew Thaia’s question was mostly geared toward convincing Lexi that she was fine by putting Lexi off balance, only a healthy dose of Lexi’s professionalism kept her thoughts entirely on track. 

“If you wish to avoid such torture in the future,” Lexi said as she began cutting through the material a few centimeters above the laceration, “my recommendation is that you stop injuring yourself and especially stop injuring yourself around me. If you can accomplish those things, then I won’t have to be the one to mend whatever it is you’ve managed to do to yourself.”

Thaia scowled. “I can treat this myself and say you did it.”

“Not a single person would believe you.” They wouldn’t even need to see whatever scar Thaia would inadvertently give herself because they’d catch Thaia in her blatant lie. 

“Fine. I’ll do my best to get injured only when other medical professionals are around. But you’d have to spend way less time around me.”

“The sacrifices I make.”

There was a laugh there, but it fell away from Thaia’s eyes before it could make a sound. 

Stillness stole the room.

Lexi disposed of the material that had once been the leg of the undersuit for Thaia’s combat armor and then retrieved the supplies she’d need to irrigate the wound. Once she had them set down in easy reach on the bed, she asked, “How are you doing?”

The question startled Thaia, due to either exhaustion or whatever memories had surfaced, and she hesitated. Then she surveyed the room before focusing on the wall. “Been better.”

As Lexi worked, Thaia settled into a quiet, minutes passing by without words exchanged between them, yet without tension. Space given to gather thoughts.

Lexi proceeded with the steps necessary to treat the laceration, anesthetizing, sanitizing, and then scanning it for complications before she began sealing it up in two stages. While the scan wasn’t good news, it wasn’t the worst, either. The laceration had come within millimeters of an eezo node, but hadn’t breached it. A breached node would’ve brought a whole host of complications that they’d escaped.

Though she’d yet to say anything, once the inside of her leg was no longer visible, Thaia peered closely as Lexi worked, engaged and yet not. Unprompted, Lexi gave her an update. “The tooth didn’t sever any nerves or tendons, and I was able to wash out all the debris. It did get uncomfortably close to an eezo node, however. Another few millimeters and the node would’ve been punctured.”

“That would’ve sucked.” Thaia’s reply lacked its usual energy, but the understatement of understatements was hers. 

“Yes, it would have.” The surgery required to repair an eezo node in an asari was delicate, painstaking work. “As it is, you’ll need to take it easy for the next day. That means no biotics for twenty hours.”

Thaia sat up straight in disbelief. “No biotics?”

“For twenty hours. I’m sure even you can endure it, with or without dramatics. I’ll check the laceration site again tomorrow. If it’s healed all the way, then you can go down to Voeld and throw the Nomad and any other heavy vehicles around if you’d like.”

The admonishment didn’t mollify Thaia so much as it amused her and she smiled. “I’ve done that before.”

Lexi stood and disposed of the single-use items she’d used for wound treatment. “When was this?”

“Before Andromeda. My squad was on Tuchanka and the joint operation we were there for was delayed and we got bored. Which, as I’m sure you know, is a bad thing if commandos are involved. So we had a competition for who could throw a tomkah the farthest.” Then Thaia fell silent and looked expectantly at Lexi.

“You’re not seriously going to make me ask you who won, are you?” Lexi asked as she retook her seat on the stool next to the bed.

“You’re not going to let me brag?”

She swatted her on the shoulder. “With your biotics, you should be above it.”

“The high road is boring.” Though mischief had returned to Thaia’s eyes, the brightness it usually brought turned ephemeral and was gone. “Meir’s squad was there, too. They were the judges for the competition.”

Lexi waited.

Thaia’s storytelling voice had vanished, drawn under the shadows. “On Eos, when Ryder and Cora and I went to see the survivors from the Leusinia escape pod, the moment they saw me, they saw a commando. A commando like everyone sees, like it’s who I am. And it couldn’t be—in the Milky Way, I wanted to leave the militia entirely because it wasn’t being a commando that I liked so much, it was using my biotics. Testing them to see how far I could go with them, so that’s where their compromise came in. The militia, I mean. Biotics instructor and we’ll let you go learn the other shit that you’d rather do. In the end, being a commando was incidental. I liked that.”

She tugged a thread loose from the ragged edge of the sheared off undersuit leg. Then she tossed it onto the blanket, the short, dark thread alone in the field of Initiative blue. “I came to Andromeda to not be a commando.”

Another thread came loose and Thaia dropped it onto the first. “Meir was the commando. I didn’t love being a commando but Meir did and she was going to stay a commando in Andromeda. She was going to train new ones here.”

A third loose thread and then Thaia swept her hand over the blanket, sending the broken threads floating to the floor, lost on landing. “Meir’s gone. Meir’s gone because Andromeda—you let yourself hope and Andromeda takes. It takes whatever measure of happiness you found and then takes a little more.”

Lexi wished she could help, wished she could allay that pain of loss straining Thaia’s voice and stealing her breath. Yet, beyond listening, the only real help she could give would be clinical and that wasn’t what Thaia needed from her. But Lexi shared some memory with Thaia about who Meir had been, knew some of the reasons why her loss hit hard. 

“It was Meir who told me the story,” Lexi said out loud. Gently, like she did when using her fingertips to locate the source of pain while trying to avoid compounding it.

“What?” Confusion entwined with the strain in Thaia’s voice, but it didn’t worsen.

“The story about you and the archeometrist and the line of statues.” Goddess, whether it was how Meir had told the story or it was Thaia’s elder sister who was telling it or the story itself, Lexi wasn’t sure, but she’d laughed harder than she had in ages.

Thaia’s own laugh caught on the uneven edge of grief before it could find its way out. “She was my primary suspect, but I couldn’t get her to confess.”

“Meir also contacted me the night of the second bar fight, after you’d left the clinic for the second time that day.”

“Why?”

“She wanted to make sure I knew you’d told the truth about objecting to that second fight so I wouldn’t judge you unfairly.” Lexi smiled at remembering Meir’s staunch defense of her youngest sister and how easily she had switched over to well-intentioned teasing. “I told her that I believed you when you told me, and that we were planning a trip to the Citadel for lunch, as friends. She then informed me that the ‘as friends’ part was bullshit and it was a date and I would never convince her otherwise.”

For Thaia, the smile never reached fruition, caught on the same edge as the laugh and turned back. “I miss them,” she said as she rested a hand on the blanket where the threads had been. “I miss all of them and I want to remember like you can but it hurts too much and it—if I do, you get what happened at the crash site.”

“What did happen?”

“I don’t know. It…” She let out a breath in frustration and looked around the room. 

“Take whatever time you need. I’m not going anywhere.” Then, like she had the last time Thaia had struggled to talk about her losses, Lexi put her hand over hers.

It drew Thaia back in, the tiny smile returning as she flipped her hand over and laced their fingers together. “I know that much. You’re like a constant all your own.” Then she tried again. “Seeing her in the ice made me remember what I can’t and then my hardsuit was redlining. If Ryder hadn’t said something, I’m not sure if I would’ve moved in time.” Fear lurked behind Thaia’s gaze when she looked over at Lexi, but it wasn’t fear for her own life. Before Lexi could determine what it was, Thaia broke eye contact. “I could have died. That’s why it’s dangerous to remember.”

Lexi wrestled with the realization that Thaia could easily have died on Voeld that day, well before the raid. Danger didn’t only wait in the obvious, like combat or the Scourge, but also waited in the mundane. When the reality of loss became too painful to face and Thaia’s self-preservation became secondary to casting aside those memories, anywhere became dangerous. 

The danger wasn’t the act of remembering; the danger was the absence of grieving.

Thaia needed help and Lexi wanted to help, but she didn’t know how to help without being clinical, without being the physician or the psychologist. One person who would know what to do was Matriarch Sula, who would have been here to do so if not for Director Tann’s interference. She should be here and Lexi experienced a fleeting flare of anger at Tann for preventing it. Much as Thaia wouldn’t admit to it, she needed her father. However, Sula’s aid wasn’t an option for the time being, which meant seeking out other possibilities. Perhaps a consultation with Harry would—

“Hey,” said Thaia, squeezing Lexi’s hand for emphasis, “I didn’t actually die. So you don’t have to freak out like I’d be haunting your ass or something. Which I would do if I died, just so you know. Specifically your ass.” As if to make sure Lexi got the subtext, Thaia glanced down at the body part in question.

Despite the fact that Thaia’s humor had worked as undoubtedly intended, Lexi extricated her hand and glared. “You’re impossible.”

When Thaia grinned, some of the shadows were chased away. “Also, am I allowed to walk yet? Because I’m sad but I’m also really hungry.” She leaned forward and examined Lexi for a moment. “When’s the last time you ate?”

This return to levity was necessary for them both, Lexi believed. Otherwise, worries and fears would spiral. “Who’s the doctor here?”

“Well, the doctor here didn’t say I couldn’t walk.” Thaia stood up and tested her leg before she let go of the exam bed. “And you avoided answering my actual question, so you’re coming with me. Caring doctors need caring in return.” She threw her arm around Lexi’s shoulders and started for the door. 

However, Thaia was leaning some actual weight on her instead of just bringing her closer as they walked side by side. “Are you using me to keep yourself upright?” asked Lexi.

And making sure you don’t die of hunger.” Thaia did rush Lexi somewhat when she realized her leg was cold because she only had one intact pant leg and detoured to the crew quarters to trade the cut-up undersuit for a pair of Initiative sweats and a long-sleeved shirt. 

As they entered the empty galley, Thaia directed Lexi to sit at the table. “Drack said something about making a roast earlier. I’m not sure if it was an excuse to stay away from Voeld as long as possible or because he wanted something better than rations. Probably both.”

“What was the roast?”

“Grunnien? Maybe? I don’t know what it is, but it tastes really good so I haven’t asked for specifics. You can, if you want, but please ask where I can’t hear the answer so it doesn’t get ruined.” Thaia opened the refrigerator. “Yes! Leftovers.” Then she immediately proceeded to dish out two plates with food, set both on the table, and then slid one in front of Lexi. 

They’d barely started in when Ryder and Jaal joined them, Ryder taking a large helping of the leftovers for herself and sliding in next to Lexi, and then Jaal sitting across from the others, nutrient paste in hand.

“Good,” Ryder said and pointed to Lexi’s plate, “someone got you to eat.”

Lexi pretended she didn’t see the triumphant little smile Thaia sent her way.

Despite what Ryder had spoken to Lexi about over comms earlier, and the moods of everyone in the corridor when they’d first returned to the Tempest, the atmosphere of the galley was relatively calm. Though, from what Lexi had gathered, the tensions had not been as much been between Thaia and everyone on the team, but between Thaia and Cora.

After Thaia had cleared a second plate, she stood and deposited her dishes in the galley’s small sink. Then she leaned against the counter and lifted her injured leg so that her sole of her socked foot rested against a cabinet door. 

There was a moment of quiet before Thaia gave Lexi, Jaal, and Ryder a horrified look and then, with the slow speed of a retrospective realization, she said, “I was the biggest asshole to Cora.”

“I’m pretty sure she knows that much,” said Ryder.

The glare Thaia aimed at Ryder was only partly feigned.

His tube of nutrient paste empty, Jaal set it down on the table and relaxed into his seat. “You and Cora should have had your argument before we left for the raid. It was a relief on the shuttle back when you both finally began airing your grievances. I do not know how you Milky Way species withhold your feelings for so long. It is far easier to argue until it is finished.”

Thaia crossed her arms. “We didn’t finish arguing because Ryder freaked the fuck out and shut us down.”

“Because I’m not angara!” Ryder gestured between herself and Jaal as if to illustrate how much not angara she was. “And you two are supposed to be the responsible, ‘leading us to victory with your skills and professionalism’ commandos. Instead, you were arguing and honestly it was like watching parents argue and I wanted you to stop. I’m human, so I don’t think my reaction was unreasonable.”

Defensiveness draining away, Thaia uncrossed her arms and braced them on the countertop. “Mine was.”

“Given the circumstances, I would say your reaction wasn’t unreasonable so much as incompatible with the mission that you shouldn’t have been on,” said Lexi gently.

Jaal’s lips pursed as he glanced at Thaia and then switched his puzzled look to Lexi. “Why not? The discord aside, she performed admirably in combat.” He turned to Thaia. “I am not certain I even agree with Cora’s assessment that you were reckless.”

“I’m not sure either of you would be the best judges of that since you both, along with Drack, broke through a supposedly unbreakable window via some harrowing teamwork,” said Ryder.

Thaia boosted herself up onto a clear section of the counter. “The question about recklessness isn’t important, though. What’s important is that Cora was right and I should’ve been sent back to the Tempest after what happened at the crash site.”

Jaal tilted his head. “Are you referring to the biotic technique I had not seen you use before? The one that resulted in the screaming?”

Thaia didn’t look up from where she’d taken a sudden interest in an errant spoon that hadn’t quite made its way into the sink, but it didn’t conceal the light blush that colored her cheeks. “Those were reaves and no. But I don’t normally use those, so I can see why you’d think they were.” Then she opened her mouth to explain, but closed it and said nothing. And she still didn’t look up.

Bewildered, Ryder looked over at Lexi and raised her eyebrows, plainly asking what she should do because Ryder knew what Thaia meant. However, since Lexi hadn’t yet verified with Thaia if she wanted to keep Meir’s death to herself, she could offer nothing more to Ryder than a neutral look. Confidentiality came first, which was why she didn’t pry there in the galley when Thaia fell silent. It was difficult, nearly as difficult as when she’d had to leave Thaia be after the nightmare she’d had the other night because she wanted to help. But not when they had an audience. It would’ve only made things worse.

Then Ryder, in a flash of insight, brought up a topic related to Meir’s death, but only indirectly referenced it when she addressed Thaia. “That reminds me, before I got distracted by that roast, I was coming in here to let you know that the Resistance recovered all the bodies from the crash site. They asked me what we want done with them. Since I don’t know what the asari cultural traditions involving death are and they were asari commandos, I figured you’d be the person to ask.”

While asari practices regarding the dead varied between geographical region, religion, and family tradition, one constant theme was the role of the living in the disposition of the body. The eldest person in the family—usually a matriarch—took charge in arranging for transport of the body, subsequent cremation, and then, with the rest of the family and the community, seeing to whatever specific tradition of mourning they followed. Even if Meir had not been among the dead, with Thaia being the eldest of the three asari currently aboard the Tempest, it would have been her responsibility to see to the bodies of the commandos. That, Lexi believed, Thaia could have handled without an undue amount of difficulty. 

However, as the youngest in a multi-generational family, a role that Thaia had likely believed would never fall to her was now, sadly, hers. Had the situation at large in the Heleus Cluster not been outrageously atypical, two matriarchs would have aided a lone survivor like Thaia, so that she would be one in a group of three. She wouldn’t even be afforded that much.

Ryder had already given Lexi two panicked looks before Thaia said anything.

“SAM, what time is it on Voeld?” Thaia asked. “Wait, no. That part doesn’t—how many hours until sunrise at the Resistance base?”

“Eight point three hours,” said SAM.

Thaia looked at Ryder. “Please let the Resistance know I’ll come by around then.”

Ryder nodded, but her eyebrows drew together in confusion and her innate curiosity refused to be set aside. “Is there any particular reason?”

“Probably?” Thaia shrugged. “That’s how it’s been. If circumstances allow, you see to the bodies at dawn. I’m not even sure if it’s siari or the Athame Doctrine or what, but that’s the encouraged guideline.”

“Wait, are you religious?” asked Ryder.

“Me? Not really, no. I suspect if I was then I would’ve known where the whole dawn tradition came from. At best, my family as a whole would be considered nominally siarist.” Though Thaia had started out sounding amused, it faded, replaced by weariness that went beyond physical. “Something something all is one what the fuck ever it still fucking sucks when people die.” She slid off the counter and landed silently on her feet. “I’m going to go shower and get some sleep while I can. Good night.”

“I also require more rest,” said Jaal. “I will see you all in the morning.”

“That was abrupt,” Ryder said after both Jaal and Thaia had gone.

“You know why,” said Lexi.

Ryder scowled, but her frustration was undermined by sadness. “I wish she’d say something. Jaal isn’t going to react well. I mean, nobody’s going to react well, but with how angara are about family…” She sighed. “Does anyone else know?”

“Vetra was with me when I had SAM play back the audio. She’d known Thaia’s family and recognized Meir’s voice as quickly as I did.”

“How long do you think she’ll keep quiet about this?”

“Given her responsibility for the bodies of the commandos, including Meir’s, I doubt she’ll be able to keep it a secret past the visit to the base.”

“All right.” Ryder took deep breath, shoulders back, then let it out before she said, “So, I messed up that whole mission. Okay, maybe not the whole thing since we got the Moshae out and other angara out and blew up the place, but personnel-wise, I messed up and Cora paid the price even though Cora was right to want to send her back. She was right and she didn’t even know about Meir. Just made that call based on Thaia’s behavior alone.”

“She was right, yes,” Lexi said, and while she’d acknowledged the mistakes Ryder had admitted, she was gentle. “And you did make some poor decisions, which isn’t entirely unexpected given how you were thrown into this leadership role without preparation.”

“Yeah. Still.” She turned and started to rifle through one of the cabinets. “I should’ve backed her. I had the feeling something was off, enough that I put Cora in charge even though I’d planned on that being Thaia since it’s hard to argue with over two centuries of experience.” Her hand stopped on a box of Blast-Os—with the secret out, the crew had stopped bothering to hide them. “Or fourteen hundred years of experience. But even with all that, they were still both wrong and I should’ve backed Cora over them.”

Lexi waited.

“I think I make really bad choices in security blankets. I definitely did for that mission.” Cereal box in hand, Ryder turned around, cheeky smile already on her face as she sought to lighten the mood, as she often did. “Though I can’t be entirely wrong about Thaia and Drack being good security blankets. I bet they’re really good at giving hugs when they aren’t busy being scary.”

Goddess. “Sara, that was a metaphor.”

“Am I wrong?”

“Take your nutritionally deficient cereal and go.” While Lexi couldn’t speak to Drack’s ability to hug, Ryder wasn’t wrong about Thaia’s. Not that Lexi would be directly admitting it.

Sara laughed on her way to the door, then halted to ask, “Should I apologize to Cora?”

“I think you know the answer.”

Ryder heaved a mighty sigh worthy of a young asari maiden. “Yeah, I do. Now I’m going to go eat my nutritionally deficient cereal without you judging me.”

“I wouldn’t be judging you. Only your choice in food.”

“Whatever. Still judging and I can’t take the guilt. Have a good night!” Then Sara was out the door before Lexi could level any further remonstration for her choices.

Before Lexi went to bed herself, she needed to check on the Moshae and set alarms for if she awakened and needed something. She gathered her own dishes and placed them in the sink.

However, Cora entering the galley and coming to a dead stop the moment she saw Lexi changed those tentative plans. 

“It occurs to me,” Cora said after a brief moment of warily eyeing Lexi, “that you might resent the fact that I pointed a sidearm at your best friend.”

In all fairness, that had been Lexi’s immediate, knee-jerk reaction to hearing about a loved one being placed in danger.

Out loud, and after she’d made certain the anger had truly gone, Lexi said, “If you hadn’t had a justifiable reason for doing so, I would be angry, like any other person. But you did have one. The only side I’ve taken is the side of reason—and that’s the side I’ll always be on, even when it comes to matters of whose side I would take if it came to conflict between Thaia and the crew.”

Cora relaxed slightly, but the trouble in her eyes didn’t abate. “That doesn’t negate the fact that I still pointed a weapon at your best friend.”

“And because she’s my best friend,” Lexi said as she returned to the table for what likely wouldn’t be a quick chat with Cora, “I well know that when she’s being impossible how tempting it is to try any number of methods to get her to shut up, including attempts to airlock her, put her in a stasis, or headbutt her. In the larger scheme of things, merely pointing a weapon at her when she has a barrier up—meaning a shot wouldn’t touch her—is nothing. In fact, I’m sure I could provide you with a very long list of extraordinary measures her family has taken to get her to be quiet, behave, or both.”

Cora loosened up enough to laugh, though it was as quiet as the door closing behind her. “I don’t think anyone can argue that point.”

“No, not even her family.” Sorrow washed over Lexi in a wave and she struggled to prevent it from showing. Goddess, there were so few of them left where once there had been so many and it was difficult to comprehend that they were gone.

The rigidity returned to Cora’s posture as she stared into the open refrigerator, one hand on the door and the other running through her hair. “I pulled the log entry with the crew manifest from the transponder earlier. Then, with SAM’s help, I looked up next-of-kin to see if anyone from the Nexus or the Hyperion needed to be notified.” She sighed as she took a container from a shelf and closed the fridge with her foot. “I was both surprised and not to find out that Thaia—because her father’s still in cryo—is the listed next-of-kin for the Periphona’s squad leader. One of the people who’d been shot and then frozen in the sea ice. The person who’d recorded that last audio log.”

“Meir,” said Lexi. “Her second oldest sister.”

Cora started to cross her arms, but the container got in the way and she turned to fetch a plate from a cabinet instead. “So you knew.” Frustration, entirely natural frustration, tightened her tone. “You could have said—no. I know you. You would’ve physically pulled her from the mission if you’d had the chance. When did you find out?”

“When you were en route to the kett facility.”

“So, too late to take Thaia off the mission. Damn. So much could’ve been avoided.”

“Unfortunately.” Lexi made sure her voice showed her resolution about how Cora had done well on Voeld. “Your instincts were right. Thaia shouldn’t have been on that mission at all.”

Cora sighed, silently filled her plate and then sat down across from Lexi. “How she acted today makes a lot more sense now. I wish she’d said something.”

So did Lexi. Ryder wouldn’t have overridden Cora, and Drack’s argument against Thaia returning to the Tempest wouldn’t have swayed anyone. “Be that as it may,” she said out loud, “it is an explanation for Thaia’s behavior, but that doesn’t excuse it. It doesn’t excuse anyone’s behavior toward you and all three of them—Thaia, Ryder, and Drack—owe you an apology. Genuine apologies because that’s what you deserve after what they put you through on a raid that you still managed to successfully lead.”

“I just…” Cora got up and retrieved a cup of water. Then she swirled the water around in the glass instead of drinking it, her other hand tapping on the table. “I keep thinking that Alec or Sarissa would’ve handled everything better.”

Alec Ryder had done a number on Cora’s confidence. Enough that even after she’d performed well in highly adverse conditions, the doubt not only lingered, but remained steadfast. “You led a raid where not only did your team not incur any casualties, but you rescued the Moshae and freed a large number of angaran captives. I’ll grant you that Alec or Sarissa may have gone about it differently, but I doubt they could have done any better.” 

Cora drank some of her water, which Lexi took as her being partly convinced. Enough for the night and they could revisit this in an actual therapy session.

“But,” Lexi said once Cora looked at her again, “what’s most important for you and everyone else right now, is that you get some sleep.” She arched an eyebrow, daring Cora to argue. 

Luckily for the both of them, Cora merely nodded. “Yeah. Planned on it once I ate. Which is now, I suppose.” Then before she stepped out the door, Cora added, “Thanks. And I assume we’ll be talking about it more later?”

“You would assume correctly. Now, go. We can arrange our next session after you’ve had a good night’s rest.”

Once Cora had gone, Lexi again made to leave, only to literally walk into Drack when the door opened.

“You eat all my roast or something?” asked Drack as Lexi stepped aside so he could enter the galley. “And now you’re making your getaway?”

“Me?” Lexi leaned against the counter. “No. All of the biotics who went on the raid did.” Then she leveled a glare on Drack, who’d lumbered across the room.

“Well