The Reef, as always, spread out across the expanse of space before her eyes as she paid close attention to the two Awoken fighters escorting her jumpship, as it were. The controls of the Regulus-class NS22 responded deftly to her touch as she banked around another piece of debris, her 'escorts' never straying far. This was her second visit to the home of the Awoken. And it still seemed they regarded outsiders with barely-concealed xenophobia.
She's saying you owe us, Guardian.
Ah, the Queen's brother. Definitely an interesting character. The Titan had expected to be ambushed by him at some point or another upon leaving for Mars in search of the Black Garden. Much to her disappointment/relief, nothing of the sort had happened – on one hand, feeding the antagonistic man a knuckle sandwich would've been a great stress relief. On the other hand, a diplomatic incident between the Last City and the Reefborn Awoken was the last thing they needed, what with the Fallen and Hive encroaching upon their defences.
Thus, she had covered up her indignation and left with all the quiet dignity and grace she could muster.
And now, not even a week after she'd destroyed the Black Garden's heart, she'd received a message from the Reef explaining that the Queen was cashing in her favour, to put it simply. With no small amount of irritation, she'd left for Reef, seething quietly as the NLS drive charged – she was a Guardian. A Titan! She'd been bludgeoned, shot, bitten stabbed, blown up more times than she could count - the least she could do was ask for a little respect. But, if her interactions with the Reefborn were anything to go by, the Awoken would only treat their own kin with some semblance of cordiality – those Awoken that left for Earth were no longer welcomed back.
"So, any idea what the Queen is after?" The hovering Ghost at her side piped up, breaking the silence that had lasted ever since the jumpship's engines rumbled into life back on the Tower.
"Sadly, no. The message was very short and only instructed to come here as soon as possible, so it must be something of great importance."
"Fair enough. I still don't like this. Almost feels like a trap."
"We've walked in our fair share of ambushes and traps, Ghost, and then some. I think we can handle another one."
"A fair point. Just hope you know we've got nothing in the way of support all the way out here. If everything goes to hell, it'll do so in a fancy paper hat, and we'll be on our own."
"Just like old times, then?"
"Just like old times."
Just as before, a pair of female guards escorted her to the throne room – so far, she'd seen only Awoken women as guards. Matriarchy seemed to be in season among the Reefborn. No wonder the Queen's brother was so set on establishing himself in their society.
And, just as before, the man himself met her, simmering with barely-concealed hostility.
"Ah, we meet again, Guardian. I trust you are here to answer my sister's summons, yes?"
"You should know by now that I hold my promises." She replied levelly, keeping her tone neutral, even though the Awoken's arrogant manner threatened to drive her mad. "The Queen helped me reach the Black Garden. I am here to return the favour."
"Are all humans as misguidedly honor-bound as you, Guardian?" He chuckled sardonically, continuing to speak before the woman had any chance to retort. "A servant will come along soon and take you to the Queen's chambers." His contemptuous gaze turned cold as he glared at her. "I hope I do not have to remind you to watch your manners. My sister has been very secretive regarding the purpose of your visit, so it'd be in your best interests to be courteous towards her." Without further ado, he left, his footsteps echoing long after he was gone.
"Do you think he was born scowling like that?" Ghost piped up, flashing into existence as it slowly began to drift about, never straying far from the Titan.
"Wouldn't surprise me." The woman responded, brushing a stray lock of her dark blonde hair behind her ear. Humming to herself quietly, she began to pace around the throne room, her dark blue eyes examining anything that caught her attention, though her gaze never lingered on anything for more than a few seconds.
As promised, the servant - a young Awoken male - arrived a minute later, wordlessly motioning for her to follow him. She complied, her heavy footsteps echoing in the hallways, drawing the glares of many a guard – the weight of her armour was sure to leave more than a couple of dents in the floor panels.
Once more, she was stuck between a rock and a hard place – figuratively speaking.
The Queen wanted to meet her, alright. But she also wanted for the Titan to dine with her. And, seeing as armour isn't proper formal apparel, she'd been escorted to a suite and presented with several dresses to choose from.
Thus, her dilemma – she didn't want to risk offending the Queen, but neither did she want to wear a damned dress. And Ghost wasn't much help, either, citing that improving the lukewarm politic relationship with the Reef was paramount.
"I can't even remember the last time I didn't have my armour on..." She grumbled to herself as she wriggled out from the skin-tight bodysuit the armour plates were attached to, leaving her clad in simple undergarments.
"Probably because this is the first time you've taken your armour off in its entirety." Ghost piped up as he transmatted the pieces to the jumpship. "You're as pale as a ghost." The AI chuckled dryly at its own joke.
"That was bad and you should feel bad." The woman grumbled to herself as she turned to face the dresses arranged before her, indecisively eyeing them. "Which one should I pick?"
"Don't ask me, I know nothing about fashion. Just choose one at random, I guess."
"Easy for you to say..." She grumbled again, before snatching up a sapphire blue one and quickly slipping it on, fidgeting as she felt the fabric against her skin. "It feels weird."
"Might have something to do with the fact you've never worn anything else than armour. Well, go and meet the Queen, see what she's called us here for. I'll wait at the ship."
"Wait, you're not coming with?"
"Nope. Apparently, whatever she's got to say is only for you to hear, Guardian. Don't worry, I'll keep an eye out for anything that might seem fishy."
"What's a fish got to do with anything?"
"It's an old Earth metaphor."
"What's it mean, then?"
"Don't you have a dinner to go to?"
The ornate doors closed behind her, leaving her alone in the exquisite room. A table was set up near a wide window that granted a breathtaking view. A number of dishes and cutlery were arranged on the table's surface, though her host was nowhere to be seen. Slowly, internally cursing whichever dim being had invented the high-heeled shoes she now wore, she walked over to the window, silently gazing outside. Though outwardly as calm as ever, her mind was stirring – what was the Queen playing at this time? She'd been more approving of her quest, unlike her brother. Yet the Titan was no less wary of her motives...
"I must say, the dress suits you, Guardian." A smooth voice alerted her and the Titan spun around, crackling arcs of lightning gathering around her fist before she squashed the instinctive response to an ambush.
The Awoken Queen seemed to have materialised from nowhere, standing a couple of metres away, clad in a purple, form-fitting dress flecked with gold stripes. Her intense, cyan-blue eyes were still as unreadable as ever. "Relax, Guardian. It was not my intent to startle you, though I suppose that eventually, one sees enemies everywhere."
"It is nothing, Your Grace. As you said, I was merely startled." The charge dissipated as the Titan bowed slightly, eliciting a small smile from the Queen. "May I ask why did you request my presence?"
The Awoken woman gestured towards the table, the motion slow and refined. "Please, sit down. My servants will arrive shortly with our food. We will talk after the meal, if that does not inconvene you."
"Not at all, Your Grace." She sat down, her eyes straying over to the other woman, noticing her swaying hips – a commendable tactic, to distract the Guardian from the topic she'd tried to raise.
Not that it was in any way effective, no sir.
"So, what has happened since we last spoke? I do not have an efficient means of keeping an eye on whatever's happening on other worlds, though I trust my emissary's service at the Tower has been satisfactory."
"Petra Venj? Yes, she serves well, and the rewards she gives for bounties carried out are well worth the effort."
"That is good to hear, Guardian. How does your City fare now, with the Black Garden's Heart rendered harmless?"
"There is much talk of reclaiming outlying territories outside of the Wall. The Traveller heals with every passing day, and the Speaker is confident it will awaken in the near future. With their Kell dead, the Fallen are too busy fighting each other to harass the City and the Hive are just as leaderless. The Vex are still warring with the Cabal, and the cryptarchs say that the transformation of Venus has halted. Things are looking up for Earth. There is hope that when Darkness returns, we will be ready for it."
"I imagine that the City's populace is heartened by such news." The Queen spoke, keeping her tone neutral and polite. She was about to continue when the doors to the room opened, letting in a pair of servants that pushed in a pair of hovercarts. With practised movements, they placed several trays on the table before departing quietly.
The Queen smiled a congenial smile before speaking. "Let it never be said that I do not treat my guests well. Please, enjoy this meal with me. Then, we shall talk."
The Titan nodded, and examined the foods arranged before her. "So, what should I try first?"
"It's your choice, Guardian. All are equally delicious, in my opinion." The Queen responded, taking a bit of everything. Her guest followed suit a moment later and silence set in as they ate, though both would sneak a peek ever so often, silently gauging each other.
"Now, I imagine you have more than a few questions to ask, Guardian." The Queen spoke up once the meal was finished. She stood up and motioned for the Titan to follow. The human did so, trailing after the Awoken into a lavishly-decorated room that was mainly occupied by a very big bed. The Queen immediately sat down on the bed's edge, crossing her legs as she eyed the human woman standing a couple of metres away.
"Imagine my surprise when a lone jumpship arrives in the Reef, bold as you will, requesting an audience with me. The Reefborn have few visitors, if any, and most of those hide their motives behind veils of deceit and oily handshakes. But you..." The Queen stood up, slowly walking over to the Titan, her gaze having lost none of its intensity. "You are something different. You declare that you are on a quest that is tauntamount to suicide – to destroy the Heart of the Black Garden. To that end, not only do you defeat a Vex Gate Lord, but also manage to accomplish your objectives, and live to tell the tale." The Queen slowly circled around her guest, the Awoken's fingers briefly brushing against her shoulder. "It is refreshing to see someone who has the strength and drive to do what they promised to do. Far too many times have I been disappointed by weak, simpering fools who eagerly make far-fetched promises, and forget them just as readily."
"Your Grace, we both know that all-out flattery will get neither of us anywhere. What is it you're trying to tell?" The Titan interrupted, turning her head to meet the other woman's gaze – and for the briefest moment, she saw hesitation and anxiety in the Queen's eyes. But only for a moment.
"I find you desirable. Incredibly so. Not merely as an ally, political or not, but as much more..." The Queen exhaled breathily, her fingers trailing along the other woman's cheek. "There are many self-appointed nobles among the Reefborn who would love to have the Queen as their lover. Unfortunately, their interests are mainly self-serving and I find myself intrigued by you, Guardian."
"I find myself attracted to you. You have the drive, determination, confidence to emerge ever victorious, despite the opposition. You have the mind and heart that none of the Reef's so-called nobles could ever dream to possess, no matter how much they tried. I find it odd that none would already vie for your affections."
"You'll have to run that by me one more time, Your Grace."
The Awoken took a step back, brow furrowed in surprise. "Surely you know what romantic feelings mean, Guardian."
The Titan let out a dry, humourless chuckle. "I don't even know my own name. I don't know how I died, or who I was before my death. All I know is that I am a Guardian, brought back to life to defend what remains of humanity against a relentless, merciless foe. From the moment I arrived at the Last City, it's been Guardian this, Guardian that – an endless fight against enemies more numerous and vicious than us."
Her eyes haunted, the Titan walked over to a window, gazing out into the void of space. The meal we had just minutes earlier? That was the first time I'd actually had taste of actual food – before today, my diet has consisted entirely of non-perishable rations. This dress you so generously lent to me? The first actual piece of clothing I've worn. War is all I know. If you need something destroyed, I'm there to do it. You need a diplomatic dispute settled peacefully? I'd just end up making a mess of it."
Quietly, the Queen gazed at the solitary woman – were it anyone else, she would have pounced upon the opportunity to exploit a weakness so carelessly exposed. This time, however, she could not find it in herself to be so callous. The Guardian had been anything but a liar with her – the least she could do was return the favour.
Her expression solemn, she made her way over to the human and laid a reassuring hand upon her shoulder. "That is another appealing quality of yours – you know your limits. You know that you aren't all-powerful. You aren't overconfident in your abilities to the point of nauseating arrogance, but neither are you an all-out defeatist. From what you have divulged to me so far, you are in need of someone to confide in. I am willing to offer that, and much more. All I ask is for a chance to prove that my intentions are not selfish."
"And how do you intend to do that, pray tell?" The Titan responded, her voice curt and quiet as she turned to face the Queen.
In response, she let out a brief chuckle, slowly leaning closer, her eyes firmly focused on the human's. "Like so..."