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A Song for the Robber Queen

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A SONG FOR THE ROBBER QUEEN

 

OMEGA – 2186

Kissing was simple. It was an extension of the day, of the fight; the echo of her own words in every heaving, thriving space Omega reclaimed. Aria still felt Petrovsky’s ragged pulse ghosting across her palms, the heat and fear and the uselessness of him, and thinking that was dangerous, so she kissed Shepard instead, and it was almost there—pressure and a clean warmth and a small joy from the surprise the Commander felt, honest and easily read.

No. Not right. Not at all. Aria released her. Pushed the human away, and felt her mouth twist in a grin that brightened her voice as she talked and promised—yes, there’ll be a fuckton of Eezo; yes, couldn’t have done it without you, you insufferable infant; yes, I’ll be part of that grand, dying world, ready to fight your war. I know bargains. Now get the fuck out of my sight.

Shepard stared, lips a little swollen, scars glinting red through her dark skin like something molten, and Aria shook her head. The woman slept with a drell—she should have a much higher threshold for dazed.

When you make your speeches, you shape the world, my song.”

Nyreen’s voice, the low buzz settling deep in the muscles of Aria’s neck and back, and the press of talons across her shoulder.

And it’s terrifying.”

Aria had laughed, then. She’d been light, her throat raw from speech and the jagged edges of adrenaline still spiking in her face, her fingertips. She had made a riot dance, and still lived to be smug about it. She’d turned her head, looking up into her partner’s face.

I hate that name,” she’d said. (She’d always said).

This is Omega, isn’t it?” Nyreen Kandros shifted her hand, letting it spread and slip from Aria’s shoulder to her breastbone, one talon resting in the hollow of her throat. Aria lifted her chin, daring her to grip, or cut. Daring her to dare.

Nyreen smiled. Aria had felt it. The change of air from an indrawn breath. The flick of a mandible. “I can do what I want.” A beat, pupils thinning to slits. “My song.”

Aria gripped Nyreen’s wrist, but did not move her head. She let her hand lock, and met the turian’s eyes. Pleased, lazy heat made her want to close her own.

I love a quick learner,” she’d said.

And she had. No harm in admitting it now.

Aria watched Commander Shephard trudge back to the Normandy, only closing her eyes when the human was lost in the swirl of her station as it tried to rebuild.

“Orders?”

Bray: battered and stalwart and ugly as a three-day-hangover. Aria could have kissed him, too, just to clear her head. She didn’t.

“Find a team to clear up Gozu District,” she said. “It’s—”

The blast had run hot. Too hot to leave a body. Adjutants and cinder-block and vorcha and glass. And one turian. All ash, and all mixed in together.

“Use the Talons,” she said. “They’ll see it as—” she scowled. “Just see it done.”

“Aria.” Crisp acknowledgment; a slow, four-eyed blink, and he was gone.

The next time she set foot in Gozu District, if she ever did so again, it would be clean and stark, waiting for time to add its familiar destructions. The friendly mess of graffiti and blood and refuse that told you where you were. The battle would be lost under it.

Spirits,” Aria drawled, ignoring the burning in her throat, the ache behind her eyes. “I’m sure you approve.”

 

GOZU DISTRICT – 2165

“Spirits,” said Nyreen Kandros, breathing hard and still glowing faintly in the shattered remains of an upper-level office building. The bodies of an escaped Torfun slaver-ring were scattered in bits about her feet.

“That was—”

Aria smirked. “Not how biotics fly on Palaven?”

“We don’t—flying?” The turian, settled on Omega for six months and in Aria’s employ for four, broke into appalled, three part harmony.

“The waste of energy alone would—who do you think we are? Human?” She stopped, tilting her head to take in Aria’s still, expectant form. “Oh,” she said. Flat. “You’re laughing at me.”

“What gave me away, sweetheart?”

“You did.” Turians couldn’t scowl. They didn’t need to. Her distress spilled out into the air, throbbed just at the edges of asari hearing. Hands clawing at her sides clarified the image.

“You’re smiling,” Nyreen muttered. “And don’t call me that.”

“I have many smiles,” Aria said. “And watching you warp these fools until they were liquid inside their armor was sweet, Nyreen. You’re stronger.”

“There’s a lot of practice here,” Nyreen said, distress modulating to disdain

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Chaos,” said the turian. She looked away, gaze caught on a group of Blood Pack vorcha entangled their own form of self-selection in the district below. Filtered light caught at the sharp upper curve of her cowl. “I’m never going to understand it.”

Aria sighed. “You don’t have to understand it, Lieutenant. You have to survive it. And I think you will.”

Nyreen swallowed. Aria caught the movement, heard a cascade of bone clicks and shifting scale. “Lieutenant? But you don’t run an arm—”

“—I run what I need to run, and you respond well to military titles.” Aria grinned wide.

“—and,” Nyreen said, skepticism mixing uncomfortably with outrage and wonder, “I’ve only been working for you for four months.”

The asari groaned. “Fucking turians.”

Aria's hands found a window-edge. She gripped, feeling warped metal against her palm. A small charge, and it crumpled.

“This isn’t a Cabal, Nyreen,” she said. “No one’s going to keep you doing grunt work because it’s better for their gene pool. Or their paperwork."

“It’s actually both,” Nyreen said, reluctant amusement deepening the words until Aria had to strain to hear. “Procreation license policy is…complex. Are you going to keep vandalising that building?”

Aria laughed. “It’s my building.”

“If I’m your lieutenant, ma’am, then I respectfully suggest you leave the infrastructure in peace.”

“It’s. My. Building.”

Nyreen shifted. “Well,” she said. “If I’m going to stay here, could you teach me how to do that?”

“Destroy property?” Aria’s grin was bright, and the turian seemed fixed on it, eyes following each loose, quick movement as Aria turned to face her again. “I knew I liked you.”

“You altered a complex alloy with a single, focused charge,” Nyreen muttered, with another clattering swallow. “I’d appreciate seeing how—”

“—stay here, sweetheart, and you’ll see all sorts of things.” Aria closed her eyes. She didn’t need to—no biotic worth half the planet that birthed her needed an external focus to wake up their amps—but the theatrics were worth it to see the intense, concentrated pleasure on Nyreen’s face when she opened her eyes again, power showing purple through skin and scaling.

She raised a hand, and Nyreen, flaring with her own charge—brighter, paler, showing in strange and tangled patterns where blue-flushed skin met plate—met it with her own, palm to palm, talons curling over Aria’s fingertips.

“You should know,” Aria said, “That I’m a letch, not a teacher.”

“You’re asari,” Nyreen deadpanned. “I thought that meant both.” She paused, the next indrawn breath taking on smiling, warm tones.

“Did I just watch a flare of conscience?”

Aria cocked her head. “You’re, what? 21. And I’m—”

“—Asari,” Nyreen shrugged. “If a turian’s old enough to be sent to the farthest Cabal, she’s old enough for awkward propositions from a friendly dictator.”

A pause. A growl. A lash.

Nyreen laughed, shields broadening and brightening as a shockwave tried to push her back. Aria only snarled.

“What part of that assessment do you object to, T’Loak?”

Friendly,” Aria snapped, one hand moving to grip the turian’s wrist, grunting as alien biotics plucked at her, trying to gather in and hurl her across the room. “I swear, Nyreen, I’ll just land you in stasis—”

“—that would be boring,” Nyreen said, and her voice rang in a way Aria could feel in the small, tightening space between their bodies, through her own skin and right back up again into her head.

“You only ever seem this pleased when you’re killing mercs,” Aria said, smirking as she pulled off a modified lash that had the other biotic stumbling back a step, cursing someone’s dead grandfathers. “I’m flattered.”

“My biotics are strong enough to wind you,” Nyreen said, finding stance again. “And Lieutenants get to pick teams. And you’re—”

“—Interested.”

“That, too. Though I did not expect things to—”

Aria smirked. “—Escalate?”

The apartment building never stood a chance.

 

OMEGA, “ARCHANGEL’S BRIDGE”- 2185

The mercs never stood a chance, but Archangel had left a lot of blood behind. Not that, until Aria entered the cooling battle site, there had been anyone but the bodies who’d notice.

Grizz glared fiercely in her wake: Aria wasn’t sure if he was impressed, or disappointed the turian hadn’t died with his triumvirate of angry merc bands. The living remnants scattered as she approached, belligerent and bewildered.

“Clean up this mess,” she said, and it was done.

Nyreen, she thought sourly, would be proud.

She had been sure. When the first reports started. Whispers about some turian bastard with a rife and an agenda had seeped into market brawls, Afterlife’s bass, and the delivery kid who brought Patriarch’s morning ryncol. Aria had laughed as she chased those rumours, imagining Nyreen standing tall and insufferable in a cobbled hide-out, directing missions to clean Omega’s crooked streets.

It was stupid, and Aria would have had to kill her, but she still laughed for the scale of it.

Nyreen Kandros was a perfect Archangel.

Learning that he was another high-minded pain in her ass felt like a personal betrayal.

Again.

 

AFTERLIFE – 2167

“Say that again, Kandros?”

“I know your secret.”

The words throbbed as Nyreen settled into one corner of Aria’s couch, the dark cloak she had taken to wearing over the past few months flaring, then folding, about her.

Aria snorted. “This’ll be good.”

“I know why you sulk up here,” Nyreen said, mandibles twitching in something alarmingly close to a giggle.

“Lieutenant,” Aria said. “I do not skulk. I sit. I survey.”

“You can’t dance for shit, Aria.” Nyreen was leaning forward, the club’s lights catching at the sharp lines and grooves of her face even as it soaked into the folds of her cloak. Her eyes were bright. She tapped on her own knee with one talon. “So you hide up here. Wise. A leader needs her dignity—”

“—if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself in trouble, Nyreen.”

Another soft laugh. “I’ll try harder,” she said, reaching out to take Aria’s arm with a scornful rumble for Anto and new-recruit Grizz as they readied weapons on instinct. “Since I like your trouble. Dance with me.”

Aria’s lips twitched. “Back off, boys,” she said, nodding to the batarians and getting to her feet. Nyreen did not let go. “I can handle this.”

A sub-vocal mutter. “Here’s hoping.”

Aria only smirked, tugging her wrist free to run both hands down to the turian’s waist, laughing as Nyreen shuddered and groaned.

“Did you ever think,” Aria murmured, pressing her lips to another patch of smooth, unplated skin by Nyreen’s ear, enjoying the stretch she had to make to reach it, “That I’ve simply done all the dances?” She let her thumb trace a lazy circle over her partner’s hip, and grinned as Nyreen arched forward, whining low in her throat.

Nyreen’s eyes were closed, hips canting as Aria continued to touch—one palm pressed to her waist, fingers curling up; the other still sketching circles, teasing through fabric into skin. But Nyreen’s words were clear.

“Not with me, you haven’t.”

***

Turians were spare. Delicate, attenuated bodies, for all their crests and cowls and the ridiculous height of them. Nyreen, splayed out on a bed, was all limbs and noise, scorched metal and salt. She cried out, voice splitting and shuddering and reforming as Aria pressed her tongue to the boarder of plate and flesh at her waist, her hand slipping between Nyreen’s legs as she swelled and opened and shook.

Nyreen’s hand closed around the back of Aria’s neck, her fingers long and strong enough that a talon pricked the side of her throat. Aria laughed, her own fingers crooked and careful and deep, because the turian would be nervous, later. She would see the cuts in Aria’s skin, hear the rasp in her voice, and it would make her stammer and look away. But for now, Nyreen was open and generously selfish, and the risk and recklessness of it made Aria ache.

 

GOZU DISTRICT – 2170

“It’s risky,” Aria said, while Nyreen paced by the window of the apartment she’d slowly made her own, complete with tripwires and two-way mirrors. “Reckless.”

“But not stupid,” said Nyreen. “The red sand trade is getting out of control.”

“That’s what it does.”

“Don’t be cute,” Nyreen snapped. “This station works under the illusion of anarchy.”

“I’ve had kids grow up and die before you were born, sweetheart,” Aria said, a headache sending spikes up the back of her neck and fracturing across her temples. “Skip the philosophy.”

“Do you,” Nyreen said, all clashing close-tones and clenched jaw, “Want to control a powerful, dangerous substance, not not? Don’t answer that.”

Aria folded her arms, but she waited.

“People are fighting over this shit, and it is killing them. If you claim now, then that will stop.”

“And you’d head that claim?” Aria stepped in front of the pacing turian, stance wide, gaze level. “Knowing that I’d still sell the stuff? Because I will, Kandros.”

Nyreen closed her eyes. “What is it that humans say? ‘Better the evil you know?’”

Aria grinned. “Sweetheart,” she said. “That may be the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“Stop calling me that! And…I was serious.”

“Kandros, you are always serious.”

“I—I care,” Nyreen said, looking down at her hands. “About this place. And so do you. And that’s always worked.”

There a hint of a question the last words. Aria sighed. “One day, your habit of letting your weakness bleed out for anyone to hear is going to get you killed.”

Nyreen shrugged, the gesture hard to catch in her armor. “I can live with that.”

“…Fucking turians.”

Nyreen laughed, stance softening, catching up Aria’s hands in hers. “You like that part.”

“I am no longer taking part in this conversation.”

“I’ll get those criminals back under your control,” Nyreen said. “And I have something for you.”

“Should I be frightened?”

“Aria—”

“—Go on,” Aria said, curious in spite of herself. “Show me.”

Nyreen’s apartment was modest. A careful, near-delicate use of space, with drawers showing up in unexpected places in the walls. The turian moved to one now, far up and narrow, at her own head height. She pressed a combination, and it slid out with a faint, protesting whine. Aria watched, head canted to the side, as Nyreen reached in and drew out something soft, and white.

Leather—synth? Hard to tell—gleamed dim overhead lights.

As Nyreen let the fabric pool over her hands, Aria saw that it was a jacket, cropped and finely stitched, a familiar earth-Greek symbol emblazoned on its back.

“What's this, Nyreen?”

Another laugh, soft and exasperated and deep enough that Aria was half sure she felt it through the floor. “I know asari eyes don’t have anything on turian, but really—”

“—Really, why this?”

“Because leaders need symbols.”

“I have Patriarch!”

Nyreen snorted. “This is considerably more portable.”

Aria stepped forward, fingers brushing the large, wide omega. “You expect me to wear this?”

“No.”

“Liar. Do you think it’ll fit?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nyreen said diffidently. “I have a fair idea of your measurements.”

Aria grinned, enjoying the aching pull of it, enjoying Nyreen’s nerves and the feel of the jacket against her hands. “No promises,” she said. “But I think you should help me try it on.”

“I—”

Shaking her head, still smiling, Aria turned her back the taller figure, and laughed in delight as Nyreen gripped her with one hand and used the other to tear carefully down the back of her old shirt.

***

“I think,” Aria said afterward, standing by Nyreen’s mirror while the turian still sprawled across the bed, “That I like this jacket.”

“Good,” Nyreen mumbled. “Suits you, my song.”

What was that?”

“Aria,” said Nyreen, joints crackling in a mix of pops and chimes as she stretched. “Like the music—”

“—You know, Nyreen, half the reason I left Thessia was so I could avoid extraneous opera references.”

Nyreen laughed. “You asari did name a planet after a soprano.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“I like arias,” Nyreen said. “They’re all terribly dramatic.”

“You would,” Aria muttered. But she turned, and found that she was dropping a kiss just by her friend’s temple. “Thank you,” she said. “For the gift. But still no promises.”

“I don’t expect them,” Nyreen said, one hand reaching up to cup Aria’s face.

 

AFTERLIFE – 2175

“I don’t expect them to be any trouble, Aria.”

When Liselle smiled, people stepped back. She was teeth and energy and everything Aria had taught her to be. But she wasn’t smiling now. When she looked her mother, she was serious and wide-eyed, violet markings showing up black under the club’s strobing, red lights.

“If they are,” Aria said, “It won’t be for long.”

The maiden sighed. “You never let me have any fun.”

Aria felt her mouth twitch. “You have all kinds of fun. But if they touch you—”

“—if I let a couple of angry Talons cut me up over a few kilos of red sand and some territory, I deserve what I get, and you know it. You wanted someone discreet in on this job, and I’m the best you’ve got.”

Liselle shrugged, beginning to smile. “And Nyreen likes the Talons just a bit too much to be useful. They’re all so very… turian.”

“Keeping tabs on my people, Liselle?”

Aria's daughter, over 150 and still prone to adolescent eye-rolls, sighed dramatically. “Oh, like you don’t know who I’m sleeping with before I do half the time. Do I get to meet this one? Ten years is a long time on her span.”

“You have met her,” Aria said coolly. “You’ve worked with her.”

“And in all that time we’ve never been introduced, moth—mmph.”

Aria covered Liselle’s mouth with one hand. “Remember where you are, sparks. No words. No risks.”

Liselle sighed, shoulders slumping. “Fine, Aria,” she muttered, the words muffled against her mother’s palm, felt more than heard.

“Another ten years,” Aria said, withdrawing her hand and briefly cupping Liselle’s cheek. “If, by some laughing trick of the fucking Goddess, things are still stand, then I’ll introduce you.”

Liselle laughed, sharp and quick and bright as her old childhood endearment. “You do care,” she said, eyes narrowed and far too merry for comfort. “I wonder if she’s guessed.”

“We are not having this conversation.”

 

GOZU DISTRICT – 2180

“We are not having this conversation.”

Nyreen’s apartment grew dingier and smaller with every emptied draw and piled up bag. Aria glared, imagining the small space filling up with her annoyance, despising herself, suddenly, for all the years spent here, instead of her own home ground.

“We’ve been having this conversation for years,” Nyreen spat. “You just haven’t listened.”

“Conscience? Now?” the asari rolled her eyes. “You’ve enjoyed killing every criminal thug you can lay your hands on, sweetheart.”

She paused, letting ice creep into her tone, knowing Nyreen would pick up every hard inflection.

“The Talons are so scared of you, Lieutenant, that you practically have a pocket gang,” Aria continued. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

Nyreen shuddered. “That’s…that’s the problem,” she said.

“What? Enjoyment?” Aria stared at her, watching in slow horror as the turian let off a long, low hum of distress. “Fucking turians—”

“—Don’t say it,” Nyreen snapped. “I have to do this.”

“Just so we’re clear,” Aria said. “You care about Omega so much—and you enjoy your work so much—that you have to leave. Of course. It makes perfect sense.”

“You,” Nyreen whispered.

“Excuse me?”

“I have to leave you.” Nyreen stepped forward, reaching out and down to cup Aria’s shoulder, white leather crumpling under the touch.

“So you say,” Aria said, voice soft and precise. “Elaborate.”

“My song,” Nyreen said, almost gently, as she stepped away. “You are the biggest criminal thug of all.”

Aria laughed. She laughed hard, and she laughed raw, her hands falling to her knees, shoulders shaking. “I,” she said, the pattern made by her words filling her mouth, “Am Omega.”

“Not all of it,” Nyreen said, and then the air between them was acrid and thick with biotics, the turian’s shields buckling as a lash caught her from the side, and then she was sprawling while Aria stared down at her in a mix of hurt and disgust that burned in her throat.

“Well,” Aria said, extending a hand. “You have been perfectly clear.”

Nyreen stared at her, long and level, before taking it, grip shifting to Aria’s upper arm as she clambered back to her feet.

“If I may,” Aria said, the stilted, formal words settling like ice everywhere Nyreen’s flesh met plate. “I would like to offer some clarity of my own.”

“I—”

“—Humour me.”

Aria’s eyes were fixed on hers, the markings between her brows shifting as frowned. She did not release Nyreen’s arm, did not smile as the Nyreen lowered her head to rest her forehead against her lover’s in a final, weary farewell.

Instead, Aria concentrated. Her body throbbed with a new, faint charge as she let herself slip and fade and search, until she could touch the edges of things.

Her eyes were wide and dark. It did not take long before she felt the patterns of the turian’s mind brush her own, wary and raw.

Years together, and the two of them never melded. Nyreen had never asked, and it was not an intimacy easily offered. Now, they stood together and were caught up in the jagged, aching mess of noise that made up the other’s distress, until neither could forgive the other for it.

 

PRIVATE ROOMS, AFTERLIFE – 2183

“Aria, sit down.”

“Fuck off.”

Humour me,” said Omega’s Patriarch, while Aria T’Loak stalked his room.

“You do care.” The words were cool, and carefully spaced. Aria was proud of that, through the rush of tiny noises that had come up to meet her, all from her own body. She felt her own breath and the scratch of cloth on skin, the beat of blood in her ears. The small, sucking scrape of sound that came with every blink. “I’d never have guessed.”

The korgan looked at her steadily, though his armored head ducked down as she met his eyes, two centuries of deference showing in the movement.

“You guess plenty,” Patriarch rumbled. “And if you go back out there looking like someone’s tried to strangle you with your own insides, people are going to talk.”

“My daughter’s throat was cut in a human’s bed,” Aria said. “A human in my employ.”

“And when you find the killer,” Patriarch said, “I want his bloody liver. And a hand. Still attached, so he can feel all the little bones breaking.”

Aria shuddered. “You have no right to anything—”

“—you think I don’t know that, T’Loak?” Patriarch did not pace, but the asari watched him hunch forward, submissive posture fading out into the start of a charge.

“That’s why I’m asking,” he said, breathing hard. “Asking nicely, even, because if you don’t think I know that little girl was also mine, then you’ve gone soft.”

He grunted. “Plus, you’re here.”

“And I don’t know why,” Aria said.

Patriarch laughed. The sound was closer to a growl. “You want better comfort, go find that turian piece of yours who ran off a few years back.”

“Funny.”

“I always liked her,” Patrarch mused. “Good shot, for a turian. Always had time for me.”

 

BASE CAMP – OMEGA, 2186

“’You appear to still be a good shot’, Aria? Really? Spirits!

Nyreen’s voice was low, muffled by her hood, but the sound still seemed to strip all air from the room. Bray glowered at them from a safe difference, while Commander Shepard appeared to be annoying Aria’s tech experts at the other end of the hub.

“It’s the only reason why I don’t kill you where you stand,” Aria ground out.

The turian tilted her head, considering. “That’s a reason.”

“Right now,” Aria snapped, “It’s the one that counts, so you’d better not miss.”

“It’s…” Nyreen swallowed. “Be careful,” she said. “A lot of good people have been hurt already, and I don’t trust the Commander.”

She shifted restlessly, picking at her own clothing. “You’re still wearing the jacket,” she said, the non-sequiter jarring and familiar and, for the space of those words, very young.

Aria closed her eyes.

“I trust Commander Shepard not to hide from me while I’m stripped of my home, so our working relationship is off to a good start,” she said. “That, and she’s a good shot.”

“Aria—”

“—Don’t,” Aria said. “Don’t you dare.”

 

GOZU DISTRICT – OMEGA, 2186

Don’t. Don’t you dare.

Small words. Hard words. Words that couldn’t come, as Nyreen flung herself into the seething, screaming Adjutants, with a shout that rung with despair and terror and a horrible, sliding note of self-sacrificial-satisfaction that made Aria want to break the world.

The explosion was fierce and bright and, for a few seconds, it glared with Nyreen’s biotics; a dazzling show that reeked of ozone and guttered out as she died.

Don’t. Don’t you dare.

Nyreen Kandros always dared.

Following Commander Shepard through the screaming ruins of her own home, Aria let the thought repeat in silent, angry elegy.

 art by maxxiedemon, 2014

GOZU DISTRICT – 2165

Nyreen laughed, stunned, as Aria shifted in her arms. Her body felt cool, and softer than she expected; her hands sure and slow as they traced carapace and skin; her lips grazing Nyreen’s throat so the turian felt it when she smiled.

“Should I stop, sweetheart?”

Don’t call me that. Nyreen was sure those were the words she meant to say, but a growl slipped out instead.

“Don’t,” she gasped. “Don’t you dare.”

Kissing was simple. It was an extension of the day, of the fight; the echo of old and new longing, shaped into something sweet.