Aethtya called things like she saw them. She wasn't good at pulling punches, and she'd never had the knack for mincing words. She was famous for speaking her mind, in certain circles. Or infamous, depending on who you talked to. Benezia had always… Well, with the benefit of hindsight, Aethyta had to figure she'd always found it equal parts amusing and infuriating. But you got to a point in your life where it just wasn't worth beating around the damn bush. Better to know where you stood. Where everyone stood. Why bother with ambiguity? It just caused problems in the end.
But when the kid said "This is all my fault, isn't it?" she hesitated, weighing her words carefully.
Liara was her youngest. The youngest of fou- three, now. Barely more than a babe in arms in the greater scheme of things. And that was her mother in there, being put back together after having had some sort of an... episode. Details about exactly had happened were light on the ground - the fucking Justicar and her brat had been and gone before Aethyta had arrived - but it sounded an awful lot like what had happened the day that particular pair had arrived, only worse.
In a way, it could be seen as Liara's fault, she supposed. The whole thing with thawing Benezia out had been her idea. But she'd only wanted her mother back. That was natural. Hell, Aethyta'd been about Liara's age when her own parents had offed each other. There had been times, particularly in that first, horrible century, when Aethyta thought she'd give anything, do anything to have them back, consequences be damned.
Knowing that, knowing at least some of what had happened to Benezia, Aethyta should have had the sense to put the breaks on thawing her out, at least until things were better. Until they had more time. Aethyta was supposed to be, well, not wise, because she'd met plenty of people who were living proof that surviving a thousand years wasn't any guarantee of common sense, but she should at least be experienced enough to predict a true shitstorm before it hit.
So, why hadn't she? Why hadn't she stopped, for once in her life, and thought about what would happen next? Consequences, repercussions, all that. It wasn't like she was incapable of it. But she'd been hurt and shocked and so angry with both of them for lying to her.
Anger was easy. But it was dumb as fuck too, most of the time. Made you say stupid shit. Made you do stupid shit.
Guilt set itself as a hard rock in her chest, a roiling storm in her gut. Had that helped set this off? Even if Aethyta'd never loosed the blow, the threat of it had been there. Hell, grabbing her had been enough, really, hadn't it? Benezia's eyes had rolled back up on her head and she'd kind of, gone away again, for a few seconds. Until Aethyta had kissed her, in that drunken, stupid way that made everything seem like a good idea.
Benezia had said that she'd understood, then, that she knew Aethyta was hurting, that she'd even forgiven her for her actions. But it wouldn't be the first time Nezzy had lied and said that something Aethyta had said or done didn't bother her as much as it really did.
Hindsight, again, suggested that too much of their relationship had been built on lies like that. Benezia, and the amused smiles and tolerance that hid frustration and anger at Aethyta's militancy. Aethyta's own frustration and anger and resentment at always playing the number two, and the laughter she used to chase those thoughts away. Agreeing to downplay their relationship in public, but wondering, in the dark of night, if secrecy wasn't for politics but because some part of Benezia was ashamed of letting a roughneck like Aethyta capture her heart, share her bed, father her only child.
"It's not your fault, kid," Aethyta said slowly. "And even if it was, it'd be a lot more mine than yours."
Liara came to an abrupt halt in her pacing. She placed her hand against the door leading further into the medical centre, as if she could feel whatever was happening on the other side through it. After a few seconds more, she let her hand drop and turned back to face Aethyta. Her shoulders were slumped, the good side of her face lined with far too much worry for someone her age.
"Bringing her here was my idea," Liar said quietly, shaking her head. "My... thoughtlessness. I would have done it even if you weren't here."
Aethyta sighed and ran her hands over her crests.
"And I'm the one who brought Samara here," Liara continued, starting to pace again, her body tense, movements tight. "And I haven't been there for her, like I promised I'd be. I-"
"Siddown, kid," Aethyta interrupted, patting the spot on the bench next to her.
The firmer command was reluctantly obeyed, and Liara took up the seat beside her, folding her hands in her lap, hunching in on herself to stare down at them. Aethyta studied her in profile for a long, silent minute, noting the dark circle beneath her eye and the grey undertone to her skin, concealed by an inexpertly applied layer of foundation. Stress lines and fine scars marred her otherwise unmarked brow and cheek, drawing her mouth as taut on the good side as the bad.
She really was a stubborn little dumbass like her father, wasn't she? Prone to running headlong into her next big battle with no plan except what she made up on the fly. Prone to picking fights with the high and mighty, to not knowing her place. But her mother's daughter too, with her mother's big heart, and her mother's belief that capability brought responsibility.
"If this is anyone's fault," Aethyta said, inwardly surprised by how firm and authoritative she'd managed to make her voice, "it's the Reapers. Not yours. Not mine. Not hers. Theirs. They were the ones that fucked with her head. They were the ones who did all... this," she waved vaguely around the doctor's little office and its battered desk and stash of salvaged supplies, as if they could see through the walls to the devastation beyond. "Not you."
When Liara didn't make any move to acknowledge her, Aethyta reached over and cupped her chin, applying pressure until Liara was forced to turn her head and meet her eyes. Aethyta took care to be gentle in both touch and voice. She'd seen the supressed winces at sharp movements, and could see, now, the tears that threatened. Up this close, she could see, too, the fine detail of the scarring, all the little peaks and valleys of it, and the lines of transparent tape holding the patch in place over an empty socket.
"Ok, so you and me haven't been helping her out as much as we could've," Aethyta admitted, feeling as much as hearing her voice choke up a little. "And yeah, maybe we should've left her be in stasis for a few more years, until things got properly settled here. But we can't change any of that. What's done is done. We can only decide that we're gonna do things differently going forward. Do things better. Blaming yourself for what happened ain't gonna help with that at all."
"You don't understand," Liara said and shook her head, brushing Aethyta's hand away.
"So, help me then."
Liara folded her hands in her lap for a time, silent and staring at them, before returning her focus to Aethyta.
"I could have stopped all this from happening," she whispered and then looked away again. "We had a chance to end the war before Thessia fell. And I messed it up."
Aethyta said nothing, sitting, watching as the kid ran her good hand over her bad, rubbing almost absently at the rough, scarred skin, circling the shiny tips of the shortened knuckles. Aethyta had learned the art of silence early on, and mastered it when tending bar. There was a knack for spotting when someone needed to spill their guts to a handy, non-judgemental stranger, and Liara had all the signs. Aethyta couldn't be the stranger bit, not to her own daughter, but she could at least provide the ear.
It only took a few minutes to wait her out.
"There was... an artefact," Liara said slowly, as if the words were coming from a great distance away. "Here, in Armali. In the Grand Temple of Athame. It was supposed to provide us with details on the Catalyst, for the Crucible. We arrived to recover it the very day the Reapers invaded.
"It was… a nightmare. More husks and brutes than I've seen anywhere outside of Hammer. The Armali Council had done so little to prepare. Civilians were dying by the thousand every minute, and our forces were being decimated. Maybe they thought we'd have more warning, or that the Reapers were too busy with the other races, but-"
She stopped abruptly, a flash of anger, or maybe contempt, crossing her face.
"We eventually fought our way through to the Temple. It was just me, Shepard and Javik by the end. Javik, the Prothean we found on New Eden. When we got into the temple-"
Liara stopped abruptly again. This time though, she looked up at Aethyta, her eye wide and worried.
"You can't tell anyone this," she said, earnestly. "I need your word."
Aethyta bit back her initial, sarcastic response. Secrets had been her stock in trade for almost half her life now, since before Liara T'Soni had even been a twinkle in her mother's eye. But this wasn't about Aethyta's own ego. Reassurance was the order of the day. And anyway, what could be so bad, in a temple?
But, then again, it'd have to be something big, if you'd be willing to risk the galaxy's only surviving Prothean on recovering it.
Especially when you were building a giant Prothean doomsday weapon from ancient plans and were desperate for translators.
Shepard had risked the galaxy's last Prothean in a hot zone, and taken little miss Prothean fangirl along for the ride. To a temple, of all places. But priestesses were good at keeping secrets, for generation after generation, weren't they? Benezia'd said so herself, and she should have known. They eventually turned things into ritual, and ritual was almost never questioned. You do something long enough, and you forget why you were doing it in the first place, just that it needs to be done. And you don't question it.
Liara was watching her with concern when Aethyta looked back up at her.
"Was it a beacon?" Aethyta asked before she could second-guess her instincts. "Working Prothean tech?"
"In the statue of Athame herself," Liara confirmed, then added accusingly, "You knew?!"
Aethyta shook her head quickly, not missing the burgeoning look of betrayal replacing Liara's surprise.
"No. I didn't know. But you hang around long enough, you hear things," she replied, thinking back. "Lot of old, old rumours conspiracy nuts get their rocks off to. You'd've heard a few yourself, I bet. 'High Command has a black-ops breeding programme to try to make asari who can meld across rooms'. 'A cabal of Matriarchs have got a three-thousand year plan to take over the galaxy by fucking.
She paused and continued more quietly, for emphasis.
"There's a working Prothean beacon somewhere on the homeworld.'" She shrugged. "I never really gave it much thought until now."
Aethyta thought about it, now. A Prothean beacon. Hidden in a statue in what, if she remembered rightly, was once one of the holiest places on Thessia, if you were that way inclined. Hidden in plain sight.
But that's what you'd do, wouldn't you, with a secret that large? That old? Build some sort of a construct around it. No, wait, you wouldn't build it deliberately. It'd grow naturally, like it did with the hanar. A beacon, even only a partially functioning one, could really warp a culture. A religion or two would grow up around this artefact of the gods - and Protheans would be gods, to ancient asari - and grow strong.
Now, everybody knew that if you touched a working beacon unprepared and you stood a better than ninety-nine percent chance of having your brain completely fried. But, maybe, just maybe, if you learned to prepare your mind in the right way, you could have a 'divine revelation' instead and pull some useful ideas out of the thing. Temples to Athame had been centres of learning, back in the day. And religion would actually be just the thing to pass along the tools needed to have those revelations, all the meditation and reflection and junk. Benezia's mind had always be so neat and orderly, her sense of self strong-
"It's not a conspiracy theory," Liara was saying, earnestly. "It's real."
"I'm not doubting you," she replied, even as her mind raced with the implications.
How long had Benezia known? Not when they'd met, Aethyta was sure, even though she'd been working on her great treatise at that stage.
"Then do you realise what it means? Our history is a lie!" Liara got to her feet, propelled back into motion. "The Protheans interfered with our development. They experimented on us! And then, when they left us, we used the beacon to advance! And we concealed that from-"
But hadn't Nezzie had a kind of funny turn back around, oh, what their sixtieth anniversary? She'd gone to Armali for a series of meetings with the Councillor and a dozen other bigwigs while Aethyta herself was out cleaning up some mess or another for High Command in the Terminus. And when they'd both gotten home, Benezia had been... withdrawn. Moody. And when they'd made love, there'd been a new wall in Benezia's mind, and a profound and odd sense of loss, a grief that had never quite gone away. She'd refused to talk about it at all, which had only ended up upsetting Aethyta, because they'd been bonded, damnit, and burdens were supposed to be shared.
They'd had their first really big fight sometime around then too, hadn't they?
"-all of our achievements as a species!" Liara continued, clearly warming to her tirade. "We'll never know what we did for ourselves-"
Yeah, the kid had a right to be mad. But she was mad, but for all the wrong reasons. Who cared if their people had used Prothean tech to get a leg up? That wasn't the issue. How many priestesses before Benezia had their faith stripped from them by a hidden, ugly truth?
"- and we'll -"
Her interjection visibly drew the kid up short.
"'So'? What do you mean, 'so'!?"
Aethyta rolled her eyes.
"Pretty much every species used Prothean tech to get ahead," she said. "The turians did it. Pretty sure the salarians did too. Everybody knows that the hanar did, and the elcor couldn't even have made it off their planet without that catchment of eezo they found. Hell, even your humans wouldn't have been here if it weren't for that archive on Marsh or whatever it's called."
"But they were all honest about it! We lied and said we'd done it on our own!"
"You really think that the other species were all completely, utterly, one hundred and ten percent honest about what the old tech found?" Aethyta had to laugh, unable to keep the bitter edge from it. "Come on kid. Every government has its secrets. Then they hire people like me to steal them from each other."
"We're supposed to be better than that!"
"In what universe?"
"This one! It's against the laws we helped write! Unsanctioned possession of Prothean technology-"
"-is all kinds of illegal. Yeah, I know, I know. But that's why you get into a position where you get to make and enforce the rules in the first place. And if it helps us keep a step ahead of everyone else, well..."
And when Liara stared at her like she'd grown two heads, she sighed. That's what it was to be young, wasn't it? Idealism not yet fettered by hundreds of years of learning that the universe wasn't good, let alone fair. No use arguing with that.
Aethyta pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Look, we can fight about this later. What happened once you found the beacon?"
Liara scowled at her, and then deflated, all at once. Her shoulders, squared for the argument, fell inwards, and she took the seat beside Aethyta again.
"Cerberus had some sort of tracking system on-board the Normandy that the Alliance hadn't been able to find during the retrofit. They actually beat us to the beacon, but they didn't know what they were looking for once they got there. Their best agent, Kai Leng, hid in the Temple and waited until we'd activated it before attacking us.
"I was distracted. I just… couldn't get it out of my head." Her good hand clenched into a fist in her lap, one as tight as her grimace. "So much of what'd I'd believed about our people was... wrong. Lies. And Javik kept goading me and goading me in that voice of his. I sometimes think he was just happy to see someone feel as lost as he was. And part of me was - hah! - I was worried about destroying the artefacts in the temple. As if they actually still meant something.
"Between all of that, I let myself get into a position where Leng could take out Javik and me at once, which bought him enough time enough to call in his air support. They fired rockets and the floor collapsed. Shepard fell through.
"When I got back to my feet, I could see Leng leaving with the information from the beacon. I could have stopped him. Leng was always over-confident, and he thought we were all down for the count. One stasis field would have been enough. The gunship couldn't have fired without hitting Leng, and Javik could have come in from the side and killed him, or at least stolen the VI back. But all I could think about was Shepard. I could see her clinging to the side of the chasm. I... I had to save her.
"So I let Leng get away. Instead of ending the war, I let it drag on for almost two more months. Billions of people died because I made the wrong call." Liara's voice cracked and broke. "Billions of our people died, because I couldn't bear to lose Shepard again. And Thessia became... this.
The promised tears began to fall, hot and fast.
"Hey. Hey now," Aethyta said, drawing her daughter into a hug. Liara didn't resist, turning instead to bury her face in Aethyta's shoulder.
Muffled, Liara's voice quavered; Aethyta could hear her fighting for self-control and losing.
"Shepard always said that the war was bigger than one person. She was right. If I hadn't been so stupid and selfish-"
"You're not selfish," Aethyta interrupted firmly. "And you sure as hell aren't stupid."
"Then why do I keep making the same mistakes? Not just with Shepard, but with Mother and Feron and-"
Aethyta sighed and laid her cheek against Liara's brow. Liara trembled in her embrace, linking her own arms around Aethyta's waist.
What did you say to something like that? To a kid who'd had the fate of the galaxy resting on her shoulders? And she had to be worried sick, Liara, behind those tears. For a lover - her first at that - that she'd left behind on a hospital bed and spoke of like she was afraid she was already dead. For a mother, who she'd nearly lost already. Worried enough to seek comfort from an absent father, someone she wouldn't have known from a hole in the ground even a year before.
A thousand years old, and Aethyta was lost for words.
She tried anyway.
"Caring for people's not a bad thing, kiddo," she said carefully. "And wanting to keep the people you do care about alive doesn't make you stupid. It might make you do the odd stupid thing but-"
She stopped abruptly. That wasn't going to be a productive line of thought. She tried again.
"Liara, I learned a long time ago that you can't spend your time obsessing about might-have-beens. You say you coulda stopped that Leng bastard. Well, maybe you could've. But maybe the gunship woulda opened fire, anyway, even if it meant hitting Leng. Hell, if the data was that important, that's what I woulda done, if I were the pilot. Or maybe Leng would've overpowered you and the Prothean, even if you got the jump on him. He must've been one hell of a fighter to take the three of you on alone. Maybe you would've died instead, and Shepard too. And then what would have happened? We'd all be dead right now, that's what. Reaper chow."
"But nothing. You can't know which way the other cards would've fallen if you'd played the hand you were dealt a bit differently. You made a hard call in a bad situation, and the fact that we're sitting here having this talk tells me it was the right one."
Liara pulled away, finally, scrubbing at her eye.
"But with Mother-"
"You know I was about your age when my parents killed each other."
"I'd... heard that, yes."
"I tell most people about the bender I went on because of it. My inheritance was my dad's shotgun and what was left of my mom's savings after covering dad's gambling debts. Blew it all having one big, decade-long party. Ended up in a lotta gutters. Was lucky I didn't end up in a morgue instead.
"But the point I'm trying to make here is that, when they died, I'd have given anything to have them back. Or stop them from doing it in the first place. I just didn't have the means."
She cleared her throat, which had gotten unreasonably thick again. Even now, it still hurt. 900 years of knowing that... well, that the fact that they'd fought on different sides of a stupid war centuries before she'd been born had been more important to them than she was.
"Hell, I'd probably even do it now, but that'd be just to bash their damn skulls together for being so fucking stupid."
Liara took one of her hands in her own and squeezed it.
Liara's eye was completely dry by the time the door opened to admit the doctor, a midnight-blue matron with stripes of white banding her crests. An intricate bonding tattoo of the same colour adorned her left wrist, spiralling down the back of her hand.
Liara found her feet quickly, Aethyta only a fraction of a second behind. The matron glanced her over briefly before returning her attention to Liara.
"Doctor T'Soni," she said, and there was a long story of fatigue behind it. "I'd hoped we'd have a chance to talk again under better circumstances."
"As did I. Doctor, this is Aethyta, my father. Benezia's bondmate."
The doctor looked Aethyta over without any evidence of real interest, and dismissed her with a small shrug.
"Fine," she replied shortly. "Matriarch Aethyta, I'm Doctor Isthi Il'Danta. I normally specialise in infectious diseases but," she smiled, an expression utterly devoid of humour, and threw herself down in the chair behind the desk, "just lately I've had to broaden my horizons."
She could have been Queen Queirezia for all Aethyta cared.
"It's just Aethyta. So, what's the deal here, doc?"
"I was actually hoping you could tell me," Il'Danta said. She pulled a battered datapad from the clutter on the desk and held a stylus poised expectantly above it.
"What do you mean?" Liara replied, confusion evident in her expression. "You treated her."
"What I've done is sealed up the worst of the lacerations with celerisin and medigel. I've set her wrist and stabilised her sternum, and I was even able to go in and repair most of the damage to her trachea and larynx - but I wouldn't expect her to be giving any more lengthy speeches anytime soon. Pity, because she was always an interesting one to listen to. Had a real way with words."
She paused and gave another minute shrug.
"The rest I've cleaned, but it'll have to heal on its own. We're too short on supplies.
"But even," she continued, her eyes hard as she looked between Aethyta and Liara, "if I did have everything necessary to treat all of her injuries, I'm still left with the question of why she has them in the first place. Respected matriarchs, in my experience, do not randomly attack Justicars while experiencing what sounds like some sort of a persecution delusion."
"What do you mean, a 'persecution delusion'?" Aethyta asked, her heart sinking.
"Justicar Samara said," here Il'Danta glanced down at the datapad again, "that Benezia was acting irrationally and seemed to believe that Samara was helping an unnamed entity hold her captive. Her primarily desire appeared to be escaping."
"Oh," Liara said quietly. She sank slowly back down onto her seat. "On Noveria, when Mother was fighting the indoctrination, she described it as being trapped."
"Honestly, I thought 'indoctrination' was just Alliance 'watch your neighbour' propaganda," Il'Danta replied. "It's real?"
"As real as the Reapers themselves," Liara continued, holding Il'Danta's gaze. "And the damage it does is real. If it goes on long enough, it can destroy minds completely. We encountered salarians on Virmire who were little more than husks after just a few weeks of exposure."
"I see. And how long was your mother exposed?"
"I don't know. Months, at least. Possibly years."
"Years?" Aethyta interrupted, horrified.
"It's hard to pinpoint when she was first exposed," Liara said, looking at her guiltily. "I think it must have been before she decided to go and try to guide Saren away from his destructive path."
"You just said those salarians were husks after just a few weeks!"
"Saren was exposed for more than a decade, as far as we could work out, and retained most of his faculties right up until the end. He convinced Soveriegn that he was more useful as an intelligent agent than a shell, so it tried to limit the damage. I think it was the same with Benezia. I thought... I thought that, because of that, and because she broke free for a while, she'd be alright."
When the doctor spoke again, her voice was almost gentle.
"Are there any treatments?"
The kid shook her head, and Aethyta's heart sank another little bit.
"Not that I'm aware of. It was almost impossible to detect until it was too late."
"Do you have any data, then? Studies? Anything at all I can use as a reference?"
"Some. A neuroscientist worked for Saren studying indoctrination, and was given conditional amnesty by High Command. I have some of her research. Unfortunately, she became indoctrinated herself and destroyed much of her own work before-" Liara stopped abruptly.
"Before?" Aethyta prompted, although she was pretty certain she already knew the answer.
"Before she killed herself," Liara confirmed quietly. "And several others."
The door opened then, before Aethyta could properly let that sink in. The kid's guard, Aurelia slid in, closing it quickly behind her.
"Doctor T'Soni," she said, allowing only the barest of respectful nods in the direction of Aethyta and the Il'Danta. "You need to come quickly. They're calling a Forum."
"I think they can get along without me, given the circumstances," Liara said primly. "My mother is badly injured."
"With all due respect, it can't," Aurelia said. "It's about your mother. They were actually going to hold it without you."
Liara was on her feet in a hot second.
Aurelia took a step backwards, raising her hands up defensively.
"Um, yes. From what I can tell they're, er, um, Rada and Liviana are saying that - and I'm sure they're not right - that she's a traitor and-"
It was Aethyta's turn to round on the girl.
"She's not a fucking traitor," she growled.
"I'm just repeating what they're saying! I don't believe it! But, um," Aurelia squeezed her eyes shut, wincing, and continued in an almighty rush, "they're also saying that she should be removed from the camp."
"What?" This time the doctor was up on her feet, leaning over onto her desk. "She's in no condition to be moved."
"I'm sorry! I thought you'd want to know what they're saying! They want her and the demon girl gone."
Aethyta forced her fists to unclench, with effort. No good shooting the messenger. However much she might want to. She'd have to save it all up until she ran into this Rada and Liviana. As if they didn't already have enough problems, without people going around and spreading rumours.
Beside her, Liara took a deep breath and let it back out again.
"You're right. I did need to know," she said, calmly. "Thank you. Goddess!" She touched her bad hand to her forehead. "Do you think they'll get enough to call a vote?"
"Everyone's talking about what happened," Aurelia replied cautiously.
"I guess that's a 'yes', then."
The younger maiden nodded.
"They're gathering down by what's left of greenhouses."
They left in a blur, leaving Aethyta alone in the office with Il'Danta. Liara hadn't asked for Aethyta to go with her, and Aethyta hadn't offered. The last thing they needed was for her to go and run her mouth, as she tended to do when she was angry, or to haul off and hit someone, no matter how much certain parties would deserve it. That Liara evidentially agreed with this particular self-assessment rankled a lot less than it probably should have.
Il'Danta reclaimed her chair, eying her warily.
"What about you?" she asked. "Do you know anything about indoctrination?"
"About as much as you," Aethyta said. "You think that's what it was?"
"I can't say. I've got no baseline for what it looks like. Is it mind control? Is it some kind of neural programming?" Il'Danta shrugged. "I don't even know if it's supposed to persist without having Reapers around."
She paused, evidently deep in thought, and drummed her fingers on her desk.
"I do wonder though. All of the abominations they created seemed to either go inert or go mad once that wave of whatever it was passed through. That would suggest that whatever was controlling them stopped."
"If it's not indoctrination, what is it?"
"It's been a long time since I did a psych rotation, but my initial thinking was that it's some kind of trauma response. Matron Falere reported that Benezia appeared lucid but distracted and disorientated immediately prior to the episode. Her actions during it certainly sound consistent with an episode of psychosis. Has she had any other periods where her mental state seemed to be altered? Where she had heightened or absent emotion? Unusual irritation? Sleep disturbance? Depression?"
If Aethyta's heart could sink any lower, it'd be halfway to Thessia's core. There answer to all of that was a resounding yes. Psychosis sounded almost as bad as indoctrination did.
"Yeah," Aethyta admitted. "She had a couple of what I think were flashback things, not too long after we got here. I thought they'd stopped as she got more settled in and got over the stasis shocl. She's been sleeping too much. And, uh, well, we had a kind of an argument, the other night. For part of it, she was kind of there, but not, if you know what I mean."
Il'Danta's eyes narrowed.
"How was this 'argument' resolved?" she asked, the quotation marks slotting neatly around the word.
The back of Aethyta's neck felt hot with shame, complementing the nauseous feeling in the back of her throat. Still, she couldn't bring herself to describe what had happened.
"We're still on speaking terms, if that's what you mean."
Il'Danta drummed her fingers on her desk again.
"Hmm. I suppose you'll want to see her."
"And you are on good terms?"
"I think so. Good enough."
"I suppose a familiar face won't hurt if she wakes up. I'm not expecting that for several more hours though."
"I can wait."
"Down the corridor, at the very end. In the meantime, I need to do some reading, and take a shower, and have a nap." The doctor smiled humourlessly. "Not necessarily in that order."
Aethyta left the doctor in her office and made her way down the ward beyond it, down between two rows of tiny 'rooms' sectioned off from the otherwise open space by curtains. Some were open as she walked by. In one, a trio of girls, one of them missing both legs from the knee, looked up at her over the tile game laid out on the end of the bed. In another, a teal-skinned matron paced a small circle as she fed a squirming cobalt infant from a bottle, humming an old, old nursing song that made Aethyta's heart clench the instant she recognised it as one she'd sung to her own girls.
Her heart clenched again when she found Benezia, at the end of the ward in a larger 'room' made smaller by the addition of a proper hospital bed and a fair amount of medical equipment. She was in the last of the four, out cold, some sort of a drip in her arm and a breathing mask on her face. Behind the mask she was pale as fresh ice, save where her skin was mottled with bruises, blending into the shadows that were her fading tattoos. Angry purple lines, shining unnaturally behind their coating of medigel, cut across her face, while bandages hid much of her arms. Her throat, though, was worst of all, one big bruise that extended down past where her skin disappeared under the flimsy surgical gown. There was an unhealthy wheeze to her breathing behind the mask, even though the back of the bed was so high she was practically sitting upright in it.
Aethyta dragged a chair over and sat. After a second, she started to reach out to take a hand between her own - that's what you did at times like this, wasn't it? - but immediately thought better of it: those elegant, nimble fingers had fared no better than the rest of her, really, bound and splinted. Instead she found Benezia's wrist, and the pulse point there. Her skin was cooler to the touch than it should have been, but her pulse, at least, was steady, if a bit faint. That was something, Aethyta supposed, even if, in all honesty, she'd seen better looking corpses.
"Shit, Nezzie. I hope she looks at least as bad as you do."
That didn't seem all that likely, though, given that the fucking Justicar and her brat had walked out of here under their own power before anyone had sense enough to send for Aethyta. The Justicar had beaten Nezzie to within an inch of her life and left her here for other people to patch up. Typical.
It was then that the thought occurred to her, so absurd but so equally true so that she had to laugh with it.
"Hell, you know, there was a time when I'd've paid good money to see you go up against a Justicar. Lotta people would've. Tell me, next time, and I'll sell tickets."
Benezia didn't reply, but she did stir, her fingers twitching and her breathing picking up a fraction. A minute or so later, her eyes fluttered open and Aethyta found herself holding her breath, uncertain as to who was coming back to her: her Benezia, or the asari who'd fought a Justicar and brought down a building ontop of herself. Who might still be indoctrinated, or lost all of her marbles. She let it out again when Benezia fixed her with a gaze that was glazed, half-lidded and filled with puzzled recognition. Her arm twitched an inch or so in Aethyta's direction.
"'thy..?" she croaked.
"Hey babe," Aethyta replied, unable to stop the tug of a smile at the old nickname.
She had to wince, though, at the inanity of the question that followed:
"How're you feeling?"
Benezia closed her eyes again and settled back against the bed. She was quiet so long that Aethyta started to wonder if she'd gone back to sleep.
"Thirsty," she said eventually, heavily.
"I'll see what I can do."
Aethyta found a sealed water bottle in small cabinet opposite the bed and helped her drink from it, small sips, each accompanied by a wince. When the bottle was half empty, Nezzie closed her eyes again and shifted uncomfortably, breath fogging the breathing mask.
"I know babe. You got banged up pretty bad."
Nezzie shifted again and raised a hand hesitantly to her brow, frowning when it encountered a sealed cut. She opened her eyes again and lowered her hand to look at it, bandaged across the palm, and then the other, likewise bound, the tips of her fingers and nails all jagged and torn. Defensive wounds. Puzzlement turned quickly to confusion, and then went straight through into concern as she found the drip in her wrist. Full-blown panic bloomed seconds later at the bandages on her arms, her chest, the mask.
Shit. And she even wasn't supposed to be awake for hours yet. The doctor was probably off hitting the showers.
"Hey. Hey, hey, hey," Aethyta said quickly as Benezia started to tremble. "It's ok. You're safe now."
Panic was a reaction she'd seen before from someone waking up in a hospital bed dozens of times before, but never one she'd expected from Benezia. Usually it was some young merc or another, fresh from the battlefield, beginning to realise that there was less of her left at the end of a firefight than there'd been at the start. Aethyta'd even been through it herself, the first time she'd been shot, certain she was going to die. Shock could set in all too quickly.
"It's ok," she repeated soothingly. "It's all over. You're safe now. You're going to be alright."
Il'Danta was suddenly at her side, taking in the bed's monitor at a glance before turning her attention to Benezia herself.
"Matriarch, you're in a medical clinic. Nothing here can hurt you. We're here to help."
Benezia ignored them both, pressing a hand to the bruise that was her throat. The wheeze underlying her breathing took on a threatening rasp, each inhalation come more quickly, sounding more and more forced.
"Nezzie, babe, I need you to calm down," she said with a firm calm she didn't feel herself. "You took a good knock to the throat, that's all. It's a bit hard to breathe, I know, but you'll make it worse if you try too hard."
"Slow, deep breaths," Il'Danta affirmed. "In through your nose."
When Benezia still showed no sign of paying them attention, Il'Danta touched a hand to Aethyta's shoulder and canted her head towards her ear.
"I'm going to get some artasipan," she said, sotto voce. "Keep trying to calm her down. I don't want to put her back under if we can avoid it. We're too short on supplies, and it'll only depress her breathing."
Aethyta nodded, and ducked her head to try to catch Benezia's eyes.
"Slow, deep breaths. You'll feel better."
"Come on, breathe with me."
"In and out, nice and slow. It'll come."
Benezia's only response was another strained gasp. Her back arched, fingers twisting in the bedsheets as she struggled to inhale again, and Aethyta felt her own panic start to rise. Her lips were already starting to turn black. And all Aethyta had to help her with were words.
But the words, as Benezia had always said, could rock stars from their orbits. Benezia had said a lot of things like that, and believed them too. The right words at the right time could change history.
"You showed me something, once," she said quickly as inspiration struck, moving to sit on the edge of the bed. She wet her lips. "You told me you used it as a focus when you were having trouble meditating. There's a place where there's a spring, right? Clear water welling up from the deep earth."
She closed her eyes as she said it, casting her mind back almost two centuries, to a languid morning spent in the household's small siari shrine. Benezia had made love to her there for hours, reverently, like it was some kind of sacrament, which Aethyta had kind of supposed it was, given the context. Later, Benezia had held the link between them open and shown her this. It had always stuck with Aethyta, on some level - not just the memory itself but Benezia's sense of serenity, of utter contentment.
"It wells upwards, through layers and layers of rock and soil," she continued more confidently, letting her voice fall into a soothing rhythm. "All the way up from the darkness and into the sun. Can you see it?"
"The spring rises until it fills a lake. It's a small one, maybe, but it's cool here. Calm. Quiet. When you close your eyes, you can feel the sun, warm on your skin. It smells of... grass, and rain, and springtime. Flowers and things. When you open your eyes, you can see how green it all is. The water's so clear you can see every grain of sand under it. You can hear the wind, and the birds and the animals in the trees. They come here to drink, deep, and long, and fearless."
She paused, opening her eyes to find Benezia watching her, calmer now, fighting for control.
"The water is life," Nezzie rasped, closing her eyes. She took in and let out a slow, shuddering breath.
"And we all drink from the same source," Aethyta completed for her.
Aethyta sat back, and this time did cover one of Benezia's hands with her own, waiting silently as Nezzie continued to rein in her breathing. After another few minutes, Benezia opened her eyes and focused on her.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"It's ok. Always a bit of a start to wake up in a hospital bed."
"Benezia," Il'Danta's cool voice almost made Aethyta start, "do you know where you are?"
Nezzie blinked and looked around the room.
"A… medical facility," she rasped. "On Thessia. A refugee camp."
Il'Danta nodded, and brought up something on her omni and added a quick note to it.
"Can you tell me your full name?"
"No middle or secondary names?"
"No. My mother had ten."
Benezia managed a smile for a fraction of a second, and a wave relief washed over Aethyta, strong enough to make her glad she was already sitting. That was an old, old joke.
Il'Danta smiled in return, though it didn't quite touch her eyes,
"I wish my mother had been so wise: I have seven." She turned towards Aethyta. "Could you excuse us for a few minutes please, Matriarch?"
Aethyta glanced at Benezia, who nodded, almost imperceptibly. She stepped out of the 'room', letting Il'Danta drag the curtain closed behind them for a bit of privacy. The remnants of adrenaline left her feeling slightly shaky, and the wall she found a few steps further down the corridor was a relief to lean against. She ran her hand over her head, her crests, and let out a long, slow breath, ignoring the stares of the girls over the top of their game.
That could have gone better. Could have gone worse, too, admittedly. Benezia at least seemed to be Benezia, if confused and completely unaccustomed to a bad injury. Or five. But she could joke, and smile, and remember something from a better time-
Goddess, if that memory of the spring didn't bring everything else back with it. They'd had some really good times together, before things went south. Not just the sex – though admittedly that had been absolutely fantastic – but everything else that went with being bonded to someone for more than a century. Lazing together beside the pool or the beach. Giving each other crap when their skyball teams played each other. Benezia's terrible but well-meaning attempts to cook. Making out like maidens in the back of the skycar, in the janitor's closet at the theatre, in the gardens, and more.
Aethyta didn't know how long she waited before Il'Danta ducked through the curtain. Long enough for the girls to lose interest in her and focus on their game. She straightened as the doctor approached.
"She's stable, and doesn't appear to be a threat to anyone or herself. As for an official diagnosis, as I said, I need to do some reading. And find a neural scanner from somewhere. She'll need to be here under observation for a while."
"Well, she doesn't look like she's going anywhere under her own power for a bit."
"Mm. At any rate, I'm going to go and have that shower before today's next crisis arrives." She extended her arm and touched her omni to Aethyta's, syncing their contacts. "Call me immediately if there's any change."
Il'Danta left without another word, her shoes squeaking slightly as she made her way back down the corridor. Aethyta watched her go before ducking back through the curtain, into Benezia's room. Nezzie's eyes were closed when she entered, but they opened quickly at the scrape of Aethyta's chair, and fixed on her.
"Liara..?" Benezia rasped.
"The kid got, uh, dragged off to some other emergency, but she'll be back as soon as she can."
Aehyta was suddenly thankful that Liara had been called away. She wouldn't've needed to see all of this.
"She wanted to be here," she added.
"Tell her… I'm sorry. Promised I'd do work. Review... proposal."
"'sure she'll forgive you in the circumstances."
Benezia closed her eyes again and grunted softly, a pained sound, accompanied by an uncomfortable shift. She let out a long, slow breath.
"Why, Aethyta," she asked, deliberately, each word pointed as an arrow, "are you here?"
"I, uh... Huh."
Aethyta wet her lips. Even now, she couldn't bring herself to say the words. She shrugged instead.
"I kinda thought that'd be obvious."
"You shouldn't be."
For the third time in half an hour, a cold hand grabbed at Aethyta's heart.
"If you don't want me to be here," she managed after an uncomfortable silence, "I'll find someone else to sit with you until the kid gets here. I just thought..."
Thought what? That she had to make sure for herself that Benezia was still alive and more or less ok? That Benezia might want to see a friendly face when she woke up? That Nezzie might welcome her being here after what she did the other night? That Aethyta's brief nostalgia trip in the corridor would somehow be infectious?
"Never mind," she said. "I'll find someone. You just... You just rest up."
She started to stand, only for Benezia to reach clumsily towards her, the movement prompting a hiss of pain.
"No. Stay. Please.
Benezia dropped her eyes when Aethyta tried to meet them.
"That is… if you wish."
She sat back down.
"I'm sorry," Nezzie said.
"It's not. I..." Nezzie took another long, slow breath, as if to steady herself. Her expression, her eyes were haunted. "I hurt Falere, didn't I?"
"The de- the ardat-yakshi?"
"Yes. And her mother."
Aethyta didn't see any point in lying about it.
"Yeah. But not that bad, 'far as I know. She walked outta here with the Justicar before I even got here. They'll be fine."
"I think… I think I thought… She was…" Benezia frowned, her attention directed inwards. "She was in my way. I was… trying to kill her."
"Well, I wouldn't give up my day job if I were you."
Benezia gave her a look of undisguised hurt and, for the first time in a very, very long time, Aethyta found herself utterly mortified by something that had come out of her own mouth. She had not meant to say that out loud. Hell, she hadn't even meant to think it.
"I didn't mean that," she said quickly, hoping she only sounded half as flustered as she felt. Goddess above she needed to be smarter than this. "I only meant that, well... You weren't yourself, and they're both ok-"
"No. I wasn't."
Benezia shivered and drew her arms in as close to her body.
"Hey-" Aethyta began, but Benezia cut her off.
"I wasn't myself," she whispered hoarsely. "You have no understanding of what that means."
Benezia wasn't shivering now, but trembling. Her eyes caught and held Aethyta's though, afraid, even hinting at desperation.
"Tell me then," she said. "What does it mean?"
Benezia remained silent, save for the persistent wheeze each time she inhaled, the almost imperceptible chatter of her teeth. Aethyta scooted her chair a closer still to the bed and placed her hand atop the blanket, not touching but close enough to Nezzie's body that Benezia could take it easily if she wanted to.
"Show me, maybe?"
That got an immediate reaction.
"No," Benezia coughed, and turned away from her. "No. No, no, no. I couldn't. You couldn't."
"Talk to me then," she begged, not sure what else she could do. "Please. I can't help you if I don't know what's wrong."
When Benezia turned back to face her, there were tears streaking her cheeks. But her tone was cold, angry.
"Why are you here?" she whispered hoarsely. "To gloat?"
"What?!" Aethyta snapped, more than a little taken aback. "Gloat? Why in right red hells would I want to gloat?"
"I left you."
Oh. She was pretty sure she could see where this was going. Hadn't expected a lunge straight for the throat though, none of Benezia's usual subtlety.
"Yeah," she said, not quite able to supress a wince. "You did. A hundred and eleven years ago. But who's counting?"
"I hurt you."
There wasn't really any point in denying it.
"Yep," Aethyta said, trying to keep her tone light. "You broke my damn heart. Worse'n Oppa fucking Amalos when I was eighty."
"I took our daughter."
"I kept her from you. Even when you begged to meet her."
"She didn't even know your name."
"For more than a hundred years."
Benezia held her gaze, something of the old determination there behind the tears.
"Why are you here then?" she asked slowly, voice cracking. "You should hate me."
"You know what?" Aethyta sat back in her chair, crossing her arms across her chest. "I tried. "I really did. Gave it a damn good shot for a full century. Maybe more. I mean, you left me, Nezzie. Without a fucking word. Without telling me why aside from poxy little note. And then I tried to hate you again, when we thawed you out. And you know what all that trying and hating's gotten me? Sweet. Fuck. All. 'cept maybe some hangovers I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.
She sighed and ran her hand over her crests. She wasn't the best at this emotional shit. But sometimes it needed to be done.
"I, uh... My baby girl..." She swallowed, hard, against the sudden lump in her throat. "One of my girls is dead, Nezzie. Went out like a hero, but, damnit!"
She brought her fist down on the side of the bed, prompting a wince from Benezia.
"Sorry. I mean, look: I promised I'd be there for all three of 'em. And I fucked it up and Zara's dead. We won't even have a damn body to bury. Never will. I fucked up there. But I think that makes the other promises I made even more important. I promised you I'd stand by your side, whatever came. You leaving me broke our bonding, but it didn't break that. If I can't keep that promise too, what fucking good am I?"
Benezia looked at her, puzzled, sad.
"You were released from that promise a long time ago. You owe me nothing."
"You released me, maybe. But I was the one who swore."
Benezia's eyes searched her face for a long moment, before she turned away, closing her eyes again. But her hand found Aethyta's and took it, hesitantly.
"I never did deserve you."
"And I always was a soft touch." Aethyta smiled. "Talk to me."
Just like Liara, it took a few minutes for Benezia to find the need and the words to speak. It wasn't hard to wait her out.
"I think-" she began, and coughed, hard; it looked as painful as it sounded. When the fit had passed, she whispered: "Please, some water."
Aethyta found the bottle again helped her drink the rest of it, a little at a time. When it was empty, she carefully clipped the breathing mask back into place, sat back down and found Benezia's hand again.
Another few minutes passed. Out in the corridor, there was a burst of childish laughter.
"I think..." Nezzie said quietly, looking not at Aethyta, but at some point beyond the curtains. "I think I died on Noveria. I just didn't know it."
She stopped as abruptly as she'd started, swallowing hard, while what remained of Aethyta's heart crumbled.
"Babe-" she began, trying to find something, any word of reassurance.
"Perhaps not in body, but-"
Benezia stopped again and made a frustrated sound, clearly irked by her inability to articulate her thoughts. Aethyta knew the sound of old, and knew better than to chime in. In another time, another place, she might have, offering suggestion after deliberately unhelpful suggestion until Nezzie's amusement won out over her annoyance.
"The world seems unreal at times," Nezzie continued eventually, letting her head fall forward so she was looking down at her lap. "As though I am a ghost, or... in a dream I can't wake from. Dream logic. I think things, I do things that, when I am awake, make no sense.
"And I know it makes no sense."
She looked up, meeting Aethyta's eyes for the first time since she'd started talking. There was something plaintive in her gaze, and something almost pleading.
"Sometimes. Part of me. Wanting to stop, but I can't make myself wake up. Again."
A few times, when she was younger, Aethyta'd experienced the bloodrage or Kurinth's Kiss or whatever you wanted to call it for herself, a few times. The purple haze had descended, and she'd kind of found herself kinda looking over her own shoulder, giving her body advice while it methodically and ruthlessly went about slaughtering whoever or whatever was unfortunate enough to get in her way. They were like cutouts, or VIs like you'd find in an Arena. Obstacles. Things.
Nothing would seem particularly odd about it while it was happening, but the spell would eventually break and the heaviness of the world would come rushing back at her. She'd sag to her knees, exhausted, covered with gore and with a shotgun so hot it burned to the tough. Triumphant, but equally terrified at the thought of it happening again. That the next time it did, that calm, mechanical precision would be pointed in the wrong direction.
"Is that what happened today?"
"Today I was reading. Reading. Letters."
Benezia coughed, but waved away the offer of more water.
"It was easier at the start. Then and now. It hurt, yes, but pain can be endured. Or avoided. Even embraced. I learned how to. And even when Sovereign took my... Took-"
Nezzie closed her eyes and drew in another ragged breath, turning her head away.
"When it took my mind and my body from me, it was my choice to... step back into the dream. Be an observer in my own body. Watching as I... did things. Terrible things. Things I knew I would be ashamed of. But knowing I could step forward and end it.
She was trembling again, eyes welling over in that way your body cried for you, sometimes, when you didn't have the energy left to do it properly of your own accord.
"This has no end. How can it? I don't even know why it starts. Sometimes I don't even know when it starts." Her voice wavered, growing more distraught by the second. "It's only when wake that I realise all that came before was a feverdream. Then I wake again, and realise that was a dream too. Dreams within dreams. This could be another."
What would it be like, to have to doubt everything you saw or heard or, hell, even thought? Knowing all the while that you were slowly losing it. Or having something alien in your head, twisting everything you did until you were unrecognisable to everyone around you? And having to watch?
It might be enough to break someone, Aethyta thought. Maybe even enough to break someone like Benezia, who'd always had an incredible level of control, and immutable sense of self.
Maybe especially someone like her.
"This isn't a dream, babe," she assured her gently, resisting the urge to squeeze the fragile hand in hers. "Much as I'd like it to be."
"How can you know that? How can I? I can't. I-"
"I know 'cause I know," Aethyta said simply. "You and me. Right here, right now."
"I wish I could believe you."
"You can," she said fervently. "I wouldn't lie to you. Not about something like this."
"You wouldn't." The misery in her voice flashed over into outright fear. "It might. It's cruel, Aethy. It hates us so much. Death is too good for us."
'It'? Sovereign. Had to be.
"Sovereign's dead. It's dead, and all of it's buddies are dead, and their corpses are being dumped inside stars. They can't hurt you anymore. Or anyone else."
"What if it's not gone? What if this… this is another lie? I don't want to go back. I can't go back. I don't… have the strength."
"I think I can prove this is real," Aethyta said. "If you'll let me."
It was a longshot, given Benezia's earlier reaction to the suggestion, but she had to try something before she worked herself back up again.
"You know me," she continued. "You know my mind, better than anyone. I don't think even a Reaper could fake that."
"No. I can't. You'd see."
"I won't see anything you don't want me to see. I never went looking when we were together, and I ain't about to start now."
"What if it's contagious?"
She carefully reached out a hand to cup Nezzie's cheek around the breather, drawing her head up so that their eyes met. Her skin was clammy to the touch and sticky with medigel, devoid of the softness Aethyta remembered. She could feel the fine tremors racing beneath her hand.
"I'll risk it."
"I just want it to stop, 'thy," Nezzie whispered. "I'm so tired of it all. I just want it to stop. But I don't want to hurt you too."
"Then trust me again. Just this once. Let me show you."
Benezia's eyes held hers for a long, wary moment. Then she reached out a hand to mirror Aethyta's touch against her cheek, the bandages rough against Aethyta's skin. Aethyta covered it with one of her own, firmly enough to hold it in place but not so tightly Nezzie couldn't pull away if she wanted to.
They'd never needed words before. But she couldn't just barge in, not here, not now.
"Relax, close your eyes," she began, and made an effort to do the same, taking in and letting out a long, slow breath, trying to remember the next phrase in the sequence a lot of the siarists used. She'd heard it often enough. "Let go of your physical shell. Reach out to grab the threa-"
Aethyta didn't have time to think before Benezia's eyes flashed to black, pulling her roughly into the meld. She had a fleeting impression of her, of her mind, fractured and defenceless as a child's but still beautiful, before a wall of thought and feeling slammed into her, raw, uncensored, uncontrolled.
So tired. So achingly weary down to her very marrow. She just wanted to sleep and never wake up. So easy to do it. Her chest, her throat ached with each breath. Her pulse pounded in her temples, throbbing behind her eyes. Even her arms, her legs, her fingers added their own sharp protests at the slightest movement. All she had to do was stop fighting, and the pain would go. It would end.
Would it, though? She was supposed to be here, if this was real.
She couldn't stop. Not yet. She'd promised to try, one last time. To wait for her. She was supposed to be here! Fleeting impression, familiar - her? No. Alone. She was alone. The promise had been a lie. She had wanted to believe, so badly, and it was another lie. She should have known. It was so cruel.
Weight on her chest, pressing down, heavier, heavier. Hard to breathe. Tingling numbness in her fingers, her toes. She couldn't see! Drowning in darkness. Pain. Fire in her arms, her legs, worse every second. Needles behind her eyes, driving up into her skull.
Couldn't breathe! Something on her face. Needles in her arm. Things crawling in her blood. Lines of tight fire erupting across her skin, bones creaking, cracking, shifting. It had found her. Turning her. It was turning her! Turning her into one of those things! It had found her. It had found her! Had to get away! Had to stop!
Sudden, sharp pain in her cheek, the taste of blood in her mouth-
The reflex, drilled into Aethyta back when she'd first caught the attention of High Command, was just enough to break her out of the feedback loop. Awareness of her own body returned to her in a sickening, heavy rush and a shuddering gasp that filled starving lungs. Distantly she felt Benezia's hand yank away, saw it begin scrabbling at the drip line, clawing at the breathing mask, her back arching up off the bed.
Aethyta had just enough presence of mind to keep physical contact and stop herself from breaking the link between them entirely. She couldn't leave Nezzie. Not like this. Not feeling so alone and damn well terrified to her very core.
But she could take a moment to think, for once in her life, holding back enough of herself that the raw, uncensored onslaught of Benezia's thoughts and feelings diminished to something she was aware of but not acutely part of. Think. She needed a touchstone. Something calming. Something that they would both know. Something only they would know.
When she closed her eyes again and reached back out, Aethyta held the memory of the lake before her, laden with as much detail as she could remember - the sights, the sounds, the smells, the warmth of sun on skin and, above all else, the sense of calm contentment. She felt Benezia's distress surge forward as the meld deepened, the raw power of a matriarch without any of the control threatening to overwhelm her again. Aethyta pushed back against it as firmly as she dared, holding the lake, the calm in the forefront of her mind.
For another long moment, they hung in balance, poised at the point of equilibrium, Aethyta unwilling to push forward any further, Benezia unable. Then Aethyta felt a flicker of recognition and desperation from Nezzie before she and the memory were seized in an iron grip and pulled in. There wasn't any point to resisting it, even if she'd wanted to; Benezia had always been stronger than her here. The construct strengthened, grew deeper, the colours richer, the sounds and smells sharper until, with a familiar lurch, Benezia's half of the memory clicked into place, and they were both back, standing by the lakeshore.
Benezia tilted her face and hands up towards the sun, eyes closed, and breathed in deep. Aethyta watched her with a fond smile on her face.
"So, where are we?" she asked.
"Nowhere that exists," Benezia said, letting her hands and head drop. "I started building it as an exercise when I was in service to Matriarch Innai."
It was always difficult keeping track of the myriad of people Benezia had studied under or worked for. It'd never helped that Aethyta really only saw most of them at funerals.
"Innai was the... ambassador, right?" she hazarded.
"A priestess. She was in the twilight of her life when she took me into her household," Benezia replied, feeling her heart grow a little sadder at the memory of Innai's life and loss. "I was one of her last pupils."
She took a few steps through the soft grass down to the edge of the lake, beckoning for Aethyta to join her. The shorter asari did, and they wandered down along the shore, hand in hand, footsteps trailing behind them in the soft sand.
"It's rather taken on rather a life of its own since then," Benezia continued. "I find new detail every time I return."
"Come here often?"
"Not as often as I once did. Usually only if I need a few moment's peace and nothing else is working."
"It seems nice."
"I've always find it calming. Of course, that's entirely the point."
The lake dissolved and they were back together in the shrine, entwined on the divan beneath the curtained window. The last remnants of the joining lingered between them as a heightened awareness of each other. It took a few seconds of repositioning until they were both certain the other was comfortable and that neither was going to fall off the narrow surface again; Aethyta reached over and down, feeling around on the floor until she found her jacket, pulling it over them as best she could. It wasn't cold, exactly, but it wasn't half as warm in here as it'd seemed a little while ago.
"And that will have to do for meditation today, I suppose," Benezia sighed, pressing another kiss to the side of Aethyta's neck. Honestly speaking, she found herself hard-pressed to regret the way the morning had turned out; in any event, she'd had a strong suspicion Aethyta's request for 'private instruction' had an ulterior motive, and prepared accordingly.
"Hey, I'm not the one who got all handsy," Aethyta replied, running her hand down Nezzie's bare back for emphasis. "That was all you."
"Your posture was poor." She gently poked Aethyta's side for emphasis. "Good form is important."
"You've got a good form, alright."
Aethyta's wandering fingers found one of the dimples in the small of Nezzie's back and occupied themselves tracing small circles over and around it. If she lived to be two thousand, she would never get sick of them, Aethyta swore, or of the curve of her hips, the smooth length of her legs, her magnificent ass-
"Enough of that," Benezia said, unable to keep all of the amusement from her voice.
"You sure?" Aethyta's hand wandered a little lower still, voice dropping to match it, and she felt as much as heard Nezzie's little gasp. "'more'n happy to return the favour."
For a long moment, Benezia was sorely tempted, especially Aethyta pulled away enough to give her that wicked smirk, the one that never failed to make her stomach flutter. But still, mindful that the day was already well advanced, she said:
"Is that a 'I'm sure you can stop'" Aethyta purred, making one last roll of the dice, "or a 'I'm sure can can ravish me right here 'n now?"
Benezia rolled her eyes, and firmly relocated Aethyta's hand to a less risky area. Sometimes she was quite certain that if Aethy' had her way, they'd never leave the bedroom. Or wear clothes.
"That was a 'I'm quite sure you can ravish me later'. I have things to do today that-"
"-don't involve you screaming my name?" Aethyta half-shrugged when Nezzie bit her shoulder lightly in protest. "Eh, fine, suit yourself. Just don't say I didn't offer."
"I could never, I'm sure."
Aethyta sighed and shifted carefully, drawing Nezzie a little more tightly against her. Sometimes it was nice to simply be with someone, to feel their skin against yours or listen to them breathe, slow and deep and sleepy. Maybe it wasn't the sort of meditation that Benezia preferred, but it worked well enough for Aethyta. She closed her eyes, and let her mind drift...
When she opened them again, it was to find herself back in the overcrowded room, Nezzie watching her, exhausted, but calmer.
Her hand moved weakly in Aethyta's direction. Aethyta covered it, bandages and all, with her own, and returned Nezzie's fragile smile.
Seconds later, Benezia was asleep.
A/N: Please direct any reports of flying pigs to air traffic control. But I didn't think it was fair, to you loyal readers, to leave it at the last chapter. Much love!