Thena frowned and peered under her bunk; she wasn't looking for anything particular, but a last compulsive sweep for stray datapads or shoes, or anything beyond the random missing button or the occasional stray hair tie didn't feel like the worst idea. The room was bare; Barker had left on the earliest transport she could, headed home to New Mexico for time with her family before shipping out. McTavish had left the day before, headed out to Toronto to spend that time with her fiancé. Her own flight out wasn't until much later that evening, which left her far too much time to poke around the room that had been hers—part hers, anyway—the last four years. It was now entirely too bare—the bunks were stripped, the desks and shelves were cleared, the closets eerily empty. Thena had opened the windows to let in some light and air—their things were gone, but dust remained—but the midmorning light only served to accentuate how very empty the room was without Barker's boots by the door, or McTavish's sprawl of datapads covering every inch of her desk. The tiny bathroom they'd shared was equally empty, the stall shower no longer decorated with Renata's underwear, which she'd insisted on hanging to dry, much to Barker's continued annoyance (or possibly because of Barker's continued annoyance, which had always been Thena's personal theory).
"I am pretty sure there's nothing under there but dust bunnies." Renata stood above her, leaning lazily against the stripped bunks, arms folded, an equally lazy grin at her lips.
Thena peered over her shoulder at her. "I'm just checking."
Her friend only rolled her eyes and nudged her toe against Thena's knee, but the grin didn't budge. "For the fifth time, I'm sure. By the by, I got our stuff shipped off to my folks' place." Renata's parents owned a cattle ranch in Montana (a vocation Renata gleefully intended to avoid for as long as humanly possible), and her friend had assured Thena there was more than enough room to store anything that didn't fit in Thena's footlocker. Thena, not wanting to take advantage of Tyrrana's limited space, had accepted the offer.
"And you're sure they don't mind?"
"Please," Renata said with a snort. "They love you. We could switch me out with you and they'd be thankful."
"I very much doubt that," Thena chuckled, peering once more under the bed.
"I don't. And for the last time," she said, nudging Thena's knee again, "you got everything. Quit worrying and tell me your plans for leave."
"Nothing special," Thena replied, straightening and running a hand through her hair; bits of fluff and dust floated down and light streaming from now-curtainless windows caught the motes as they floated midair. "The Citadel for a couple weeks. Ray's left an open invite to visit Nebraska."
"Time to meet the family?" she teased with a wink, but Thena shook her head. The grin turned into something more pensive as she sank down on the edge of the bunk. The springs gave a long, forlorn squeak. "Ah. So the off-again, on-again went… off again, again?"
She wrinkled her nose, thinking about this. "I think we're better friends than anything else." And as she said the words, Thena felt the thrum of truth to them, plucked deep in her soul. She liked Ray, she liked spending time with Ray, but extending anything beyond friendship… well, there were too many reasons not to go there, not the least of which were their respective deployments. He was remaining planetside for the time being, and she… was not.
"Do you think you'll go, then? For the cornfields?"
"I haven't decided yet. I guess it could be fun," she replied thoughtfully. "And it has been a while since I've seen cornfields." And it would likely be a longer while before she saw them again.
"Can't say as I've ever had the pleasure," Renata replied, bouncing lightly on the mattress, a veritable tangle of energy that had no proper outlet. "But you ever want to see cows, I'm your girl. God, I will be so glad never to have to sleep on this thing ever again," she said, reaching up for the metal bracings and swinging herself to her feet. "So where're you staying on the Citadel?"
Blowing a lock of hair away from her forehead, Thena sat back on her heels. "Just with a friend," she said evenly. It had been a no-brainer that she'd spend these weeks with Tyrrana; she didn't have an overabundance of other options available, and… Thena missed her. "Why so curious?"
Batting her eyes with entirely false innocence, she replied, "Who says I'm curious?"
"You're asking a lot of questions for someone who isn't curious."
"Hmph. So suspicious, Theeny-beany."
"It's not me being suspicious when you're acting suspiciously, and please don't call me that."
Then, with a laugh, Renata dropped to her knees, and leaned in entirely too close, a gleam in her eyes and a manic grin at her lips. "Fine. Try this on for size: I know something you don't know."
That suspicious tendency Renata had just commented on flared to full force as Thena looked up, narrowing her eyes warily. There was absolutely nothing about those words, or the way her friend had phrased them, that left Thena feeling even remotely reassured. "Steve?" she asked on a drawl. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything, jeez. I just." Her smile got even wider. "I have a surprise."
She blinked once. "A surprise."
"For you, dummy." And at Thena's look, which she knew was puzzled, had to be puzzled because she was, Renata leaned back and sat cross-legged on the floor. "So maybe I took a few liberties and maybe I planned a last hurrah before we get thrown to opposite ends of the galaxy."
"We're both going to Arcturus, that's hardly opposite ends of the—wait. What kinds of liberties?" Thena asked, the suspicion in her tone not lightening an iota.
Still looking entirely too satisfied with herself, Renata grinned and tipped her head back, addressing the ceiling. "It is entirely possible," she said airily, "that my folks maybe booked a suite in a hotel on the Presidium for a week. Very swish. So I thought, maybe, if it was okay with your turian friend—"
"You mean the turian you were talking to at the commissioning ceremony isn't this mysterious friend you're going to stay with?"
"How the hell did you—"
"Theen. You do not have the hugest social calendar. Basic deduction skills, I have them."
"I…" Thena began, but she didn't know what to say. Hadn't known what to say for a while now. "Steve, Tyrrana's…"
Huffing a little, Renata broke in with, "Do I look like I care that you're buds with a bird?"
Thena had to admit she did not.
"So listen," Renata pressed on, "It's week after next. I figure we can gorge ourselves on room service, maybe check out Silversun Strip and try not to look like total rubes doing it. You ever try sushi?"
"Me either. We can gawk. And I mean—I don't want to horn in on your visit, even though that… looks a whole lot like what I'm doing, I admit, but I kind of…" Wincing a little, she bit her bottom lip, worrying it between her teeth. "I knew if I told you about what I wanted to do, you'd try to talk me out of it. And you're… you're my best friend, okay? And we're at the end of an era here. And God knows we haven't exactly had a whole lot of time to party, what with exams and PT and trials and all. And I thought… one last hurrah for the roomies, without Barker bitching at us over every damn little thing. So…" Renata placed her hands on her knees, her fingers drumming in a restless rhythm. "Did I screw up?"
Thena didn't know what to say to that. Granted, she was staying with Tyrrana primarily because she didn't have anywhere else to stay before deployment. All the same, she was looking forward to the visit. And if she didn't take Ray up on his offer to see Nebraska, then she could still get two weeks with Tyrrana, interspersed with a week with Steve.
There were worse ideas.
"Just how swish are we talking?"
"The hotel? Oh, it's the swishiest."
The shelter looked so much… smaller than she remembered it. Not the Citadel, though—that was still larger than Thena could wrap her head around. But as she made her way away from rapid transit, step after step taking her through alleyways and side-streets, a route ingrained in her like a tattoo, Thena felt as if she were a too-large Alice trying to squeeze through a tiny door. She moved through the crowds, ever mindful of her footlocker, of bumping into people—and even more mindful of anyone bumping into her; pickpockets on the Citadel were numerous—until she turned a painfully familiar corner and caught sight of her destination.
Her heart gave a sudden, hard pound, lurching and sticking in her throat. Thena remembered all too clearly the first night she'd come here, thin and hungry and full to overflowing with grief and anger and the sort of weariness no sixteen year-old should ever have to shoulder. If she were any other newly-commissioned graduate fresh out of the Academy right now, she'd be going home, to spend the last few weeks before deployment with family and loved ones. And with that thought, a hollowness Thena had thought herself long past dug itself once again into her chest leaving her cold.
She didn't even have graves to visit.
Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep breath and let it out again. She took several more, until the hollow sensation slowly started filling in again, and the sudden burn of unshed tears subsided. She didn't have the family she was born to, that much was true, but she also wasn't alone or friendless. She had… something like a family. Tyrrana and Jevia were like a pair of hardass aunts who took precisely no shit from anyone, and Renata was… well, if not like the sister she'd never had, Steve was definitely like a cousin that always managed to get her hip deep in trouble. She had people who cared about her now, and that was a damn sight more than she'd had six years ago.
Straightening her spine and shoving her shoulders back, Thena crossed the pedway and strode straight through the front doors, catching Tyrrana standing by the door to the back storage area.
"The prodigal has returned," she said with a grin, dropping her bag.
Tyrrana snorted, one mandible flicking out in a crooked smirk. "Oh, was that today?"
From the back room came Jevia's voice. "Don't believe her for a second. She's been checking the clock every ten minutes since your transport was supposed to arrive."
"Spirits, did you have to tell her, Jev?"
"I warned you that you were being insufferable." With that, Jevia came to the door, what looked like the inner guts of a tactical cloak in her hands, and nodded at Thena. "You grew," she said, blinking.
Thena chuckled and came forward to give Tyranna a quick hug. "Yeah. Bad habit we humans have."
"It's a relief," Jevia said, reaching up to yank Thena's braid. "I didn't have the first damned idea how you'd fire a gun without the recoil knocking you flat on your ass."
The week Thena spent with Tyrrana was the furthest thing from relaxing, but all the same it was a return to a familiar routine, and one Thena… had found herself missing, just a little. She'd certainly missed Tyrrana (and even the taciturn Jevia), and being welcomed as a friend as opposed to a responsibility (or worse, an annoyance, and Thena was certain she'd been that on occasion) was strange but nice.
Tyrrana had set up a cot for her in the modest apartment above the shelter, which she and Jevia shared, and Thena spent most of the week helping the two of them with the shelter, which was infinitely different from staying there (and in other ways it wasn't terribly different at all; Thena broke up three fights in as many nights). There were new faces, and fewer humans than had stayed here in her day—Nevvar had died in the ducts not long after Thena left for Earth, and Jerry had been picked up by C-Sec and sent off the station to a juvenile work colony soon thereafter. Carlos, so far as anyone knew, went back home, but mostly the kids she'd known and taken up with had simply… vanished. Even more disconcerting than that was when Thena went to check the mailbox she'd set up for the rest of the kids, transferring what few credits she could save up from her tiny scholarship stipend.
It was entirely untouched, unopened since her departure. Every single credit remained.
Later that night, with the mailbox—and attached credits—weighing heavily on her, Thena went up to the shelter's rooftop, staring out at the lights of the lower wards. Her solitude lasted for a few hours before the rooftop hatch opened; she could tell by the flanged grunt that it was Tyrrana, come looking for her. The soft clink of glass told Thena she hadn't come empty-handed.
"Please don't tell me that's asari gin," she said dryly, looking over her shoulder at Tyrrana.
"Not after that hangover, kid," she tossed back easily, handing Thena a bottle of dual-chiral beer. "You know, I'd had no idea humans could get that sick."
"Me neither," Thena replied on a humorless chuckle as she twisted off the cap, "and I was the human getting sick."
They sat together in companionable silence a few moments, leaving Thena wondering exactly when Tyrrana was going to—
"So, how come you've sequestered yourself up here the better part of three hours?"
There it was. Thena shot her a sidelong glance, took a long pull from her beer and shrugged. "Nice view?"
"Bullshit," Tyrrana retorted amiably.
She was right; the view was shit. Always had been.
With a grimace, Thena ran one hand over her head, fingers trailing down the ridges of her braid until she reached the end. "I've been naive as hell, haven't I?" she asked, rubbing her thumb over the bottle's smooth lip.
"Naive?" asked Tyrrana, cocking a browplate at her.
Thena's shoulders lifted in a helpless, frustrated shrug. "I thought I could help them."
"What makes you so sure you weren't a help?" The question was phrased lightly as Tyrrana began scratching the label off the beer bottle.
"Nobody'd touched the mailbox since I left. Not once."
She fell silent a moment, still scraping away at the label. "You gave the code to Nevvar, right?" At Thena's nod, Tyrrana let out a long sigh and shook her head. "He probably didn't have any chance to give it over to anyone else before… well. Before."
Thena closed her eyes. Goddamn Nevvar. God damn him. What the hell'd he been thinking? He knew better than to get so close to the fucking ducts. Unless the Keepers had changed the layout, but still… still. He knew better. She'd tried to make sure he'd known better. Thena drew in a tired breath and let it out slowly, then took a long drink from the bottle. "So what should I do now?"
"Ahh," Tyrrana breathed, then knocked back the rest of her beer. "Because now you're wondering if you should take all those credits back or do a little good with 'em." She looked down at her empty bottle. "Shit. I should've brought more of these." She grimaced. "I'm bad at these kinds of conversations."
Tilting the bottle back again, Thena swallowed the last gulp of her beer, which was slowly going warm. "Why, because you'd tell me to take the money and run?"
"Probably. On the first try."
Thena snorted. "And the second?"
"I'd tell you, Thena, that you can only do what you can do. You can't make people accept help, no matter how badly they may need it." On Thena's skeptical look, Tyrrana set down the bottle with a clink and gave her a long, hard, calculating look. "You did what you could for them. Deep down, you know that."
She opened her mouth to argue, but didn't get very far. "Tyrr—"
"No. You're still allowed to take care of yourself, kid. Don't forget that."
"Take care of yourself, Thena Shepard. Go and hang out with your academy buddy next week. Make some memories. Eat too much, drink too much, laugh too much. Go lose some money betting on varren racing. Be young. You're in a career now that can chew you up and suck you dry if you're not careful. So be careful. And have some damned fun, okay?"
"That an order?"
Tyrrana chuckled and shook her head. "If it's got to be."
The hotel was indeed, in Renata's words, swish.
Truth be told, a not-too-terribly-small part of Thena missed Tyrrana's place, missed the noise on Zakera, missed Jevia's constant tinkering and Tyrrana's… damn near everything about Tyrrana. That same part of her didn't feel at all at home at The Presidium Grand, with its Thessian marble lobby and its thick carpeting and its silent elevators and its heated pool. She'd felt self-conscious and grubby at first, arriving with Renata—who'd been equally grubby—both of them gripping their battered footlockers and trying not to stare. Renata, who'd managed never to leave planetside until now, and Thena, who'd never reached this side of the Citadel until now.
They'd done a very bad job of not staring.
Particularly when Renata kept telling Thena random pieces of trivia about the building and its furnishings in a decidedly unquiet stage-whisper. Every single time they passed underneath the lobby's enormous crystal chandelier, Renata reminded her, in that same stage-whisper, that each piece was painstakingly hand-cut by a single volus master craftsman over ten years.
By the tenth recitation, Thena didn't bother trying to hide her laughter. By the twentieth, she began to suspect the hotel staff of plotting to throw them out.
Insofar as the Presidium's amusements went, neither young woman found themselves bored. At Renata's insistence, Thena enjoyed her first pedicure—the hotel spa was a high-ceilinged, multi-windowed affair that afforded one of the most breathtaking views Thena had ever seen. She and Renata barely spoke, enveloped by enormous chairs upholstered in butter-soft leather, staring out at the Presidium in all its glory; skycars whirred back and forth against a white, windowed backdrop, the vehicles moving almost faster than Thena could track with her eyes. It was a marvel of sleek, quiet synchronicity, one she could barely believe could exist so close to the other wards, like the shiny, polished side of an otherwise scratched coin.
By the end of the week, they were meandering aimlessly past restaurants and nightclubs, finally settling at a table near an open-air cafe. Renata stretched her legs out, admiring her purple-painted toes a moment before leaning back in her chair and shooting a grin over to Thena.
"What do you think—will Arcturus Station be a cake walk after this or what?"
Thena shot her an amused look. "If by 'cake walk' you mean this week's given me a renewed appreciation for soft beds and showers that actually run hot, then yeah."
"That's totally what I meant."
"Anyway, Arcturus is probably The Presidium Grand, compared to onboard crew quarters."
Renata smiled a little, but sadly. They were traveling to Arcturus together, since neither had been stationed planetside, but from there neither of them had the first idea what their assignments would be from there. Renata had expressed a hope to be assigned on the SSV Logan, but Thena had no—or was trying very hard to keep herself from having any—expectations whatsoever. Truth be told, she'd barely thought about Arcturus or her eventual deployment these last two weeks, which was the whole damned point of leave in the first place. Her eyebrows furrowed together in a frown as she looked across the table at Renata—one of the best friends she'd made since… since, and she realized suddenly, sharply, how badly she'd miss that camaraderie once it was gone.
"Oh. Oh, you're looking sentimental," Renata said, planting both hands on the table and pushing to her feet. "We need alcohol, now. No melancholy sentimental crap on my watch, okay?"
In under ten minutes, Renata was carrying a shopping bag that swayed and clinked with chilled beer bottles.
She grinned, waggling her eyebrows at Thena. "We can drink it off the balcony and see if we get in trouble for flicking the bottle caps at skycars."
Captain Vakarian hovered in Thena's memory like a particularly foreboding ghost and she barely managed to keep from shuddering. "Maybe not."
"You've got a better idea, I suppose?"
She considered it. For several very long moments, Thena continued considering it.
"You go into a fugue state or something?"
"No, I… no. I'm good. I just had an idea."
"A good place for drinking? Lay on, MacDuff, and damned be him who first cries 'Hold! Enough!'" She then looked down at the bag, tilting her head in thought. "Well. No saying 'enough' before we've had three apiece, I suppose."
To her credit, Renata didn't balk when she stepped off rapid transit. She also didn't balk as Thena led the way through narrow alleys and along crowded, neglected pedways.
"All right," she said, finally, when Thena took them down a narrow path between buildings that smelled heavily of something fried, "I'll bite. Where're we going?"
Thena stopped when they reached another pedway, and nodded at the building across the way. "That's the turian shelter."
She swallowed hard, never pulling her gaze from the front door. It was early in the evening—people didn't start trickling into Tyrrana's place until much later—and she could see Tyrrana looking down at her omni-tool, gesturing wildly at whoever she was talking to. "So I told you I was… kind of on my own for a while. After Mindoir."
She shrugged, trying to keep the movement fluid and careless. As if this moment didn't matter. As if she weren't keenly aware that she was opening herself up to scrutiny—or worse, judgment. "And I, uh, stayed here."
"You stayed at the… turian shelter?" she asked, her tone revealing nothing but curiosity. "But what about—"
"HabCapsules made me sick. Claustrophobic. I couldn't breathe in them."
"Oh. But… but turians are dextro. Aren't they?"
"I didn't eat the food."
"And… Tyrrana let me stay."
"Tyrrana. That's who came to graduation?" At Thena's nod, Renata looked suddenly thoughtful. "She's important to you?"
"Yeah," Thena managed through the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat. Sweat prickled along her spine and slid downwards, but she stayed perfectly still, watching her friend out of the corner of her eye. "She… she kept me out of trouble. Talked me into joining the Alliance." She taught me responsibility. She taught me consequences. She taught me to stand up for myself. I don't doubt she's half the reason I'm even here right now. "She's… yeah." Thena stopped, clearing her throat. "She is."
"And she won't mind if we just… barge in? I thought turians were supposed to be more uptight than that."
Whoever Tyrrana had been talking to, the conversation was apparently over, and she caught sight of Thena through the front window and gave a wave, beckoning her over, mandibles flicking out in a grin that was, by now, as welcome as it was familiar.
"You know…I don't think she'll mind."
Renata slapped Thena so hard on the back that she stumbled forward a step. "Then let's do this thing. I think it's time for me to hear some embarrassing stories about your misspent youth, Theeny-bean."
"Fine. But for the love of everything holy, don't tell Tyrrana you call me that."
"I make no promises alcohol might break later."