It really was as plain as the nose on her face.
Thena knew what they all saw when they looked at her, because she saw it too. First she saw it in their eyes, in creased foreheads and worried frowns. Then, later, she saw it in her own mirror, once she was allowed a mirror—standard operating procedure forbade it at first—the reflection that showed a too pale, too thin face. But more than that, tension lingered in the set of her mouth, lurked in the blue of her eyes. She scarcely recognized herself anymore; the image reflected in front of her resembled nothing of the person she knew—she remembered—herself to be. This person was someone else, someone different. She was someone who made doctors frown and tap out cryptic notes to themselves on their omni-tools.
Category Six. It was possible, wasn't it? Probable, even. Other soldiers, better soldiers than she had been pushed over that ledge before, hadn't they? For Thena to think she was somehow immune to it was nothing short of sheer arrogance. Hell, she could practically feel the line beneath her feet, that balance wavering between solid ground and nothing at all, like a tightrope with no net below.
Then again, going crazy had the potential to be a nice change. Reality had done her no favors, so maybe it was time to check out. Give the world a cheerful single-digit salute and check the hell out, always particularly tempting on the mornings she woke up to the roar of fire in her ears and the stench of smoke and burning bodies in her nostrils, or the nights she jerked awake in the dark, unable to tell dream from reality from memory. Some nights she and Renata ran through endless cornfields; other nights Jason or Troy or Mom or Dad died in her arms inside a cramped tank. Bad days started with mornings she couldn't tell nightmare from memory.
Today was a bad day.
Thena stalked down a series of bland hallways, took an elevator down, cut across vast lobby to yet another wing, another elevator, more hallways. Until she reached a quiet corridor ending with a bland door that hissed open to reveal a plush waiting room. Yet another in a series of appointments she was meant to keep. And she did, grudgingly. Never waiting, but pacing. Walking the length of the room, one end to the other, over and over again.
Thena never missed an appointment. Even on the bad days. She was a model patient—a soldier used to following orders, even if those orders involved conversations she didn't want to have revealing secrets she didn't want to share. But she showed up. She conversed. She shared. That's probably what they'd say after she went Category Six. They'd say, That Thena Shepard—hell of a patient, never missed an appointment. Shame about her. Thought she was supposed to be some kind of survivor or something.
She really hated that word. Survivor.
Being a survivor sucked. It was nothing but being left a mess, a huge mess, with no choice but to clean it up, all the while telling yourself you ought to feel lucky for having this shit to deal with at all. But if Thena's feelings on the matter were any indication, luck was the last emotion survivors tended to feel, preceded occasionally by guilt, anger, resentment, or exhaustion.
She was tired of being a survivor.
First she'd been The Mindoir Survivor, and now she was The Akuze Survivor. But for all these monikers were probably meant to be a compliment, a testament to a collection of abstract qualities Thena didn't give a damn about, the words were stale. Meaningless. "Survivor" wasn't a badge of honor; it was a noose, a weight, a scarlet fucking letter. Through an accident, through nothing more significant than chance, Thena managed to avoid getting killed twice in her life. Not so impressive when you realized all survivors really ever had to do was not get killed. Survival guaranteed no glory for the living; nothing ended just because you'd lived through it, because after the carnage, after the wreckage, after the bodies have been tallied up, survivors are left with no choice but to learn how to live again, how to be again.
Thena didn't want to play that role anymore, didn't want to carry that weight, wear that letter. So far as she was concerned, Thena Shepard was no survivor. And survival could go fuck itself.
Not quite the way to avoid Category Six, Shepard, came the bitter reminder from deep inside her skull. Survivors survive. You survived, ergo you are a survivor. Like it or not. So act like one.
Calling her in, Doc Reyes took one look at Thena's stormy expression and invited her to take a seat in the same deep leather armchair she'd sat in for weeks on end—no long couches like they always showed in the vids, thank God. She tolerated Reyes' niceties, the genial exchange of greetings and small talk because none of it ever lasted long.
"Your latest round of screens indicate no real change in your frontal or temporal lobes," Reyes explained with very little preamble, pulling up a projection on her omni-tool. "I'm concerned the scans aren't showing us more improvement."
Thena's physical injuries had healed in good time, but her brain scans had shown irregular activity from the start, which had been enough to keep her from being released for active duty. Eighteen weeks now, and though her scans were fluctuating, they weren't fluctuating in the right direction—the temporal and frontal lobes were demonstrating unusual activity, still, goddammit—and Reyes wasn't going to sign off on anything until Thena's scans were clean.
"Sorry," she said, forcing her eyes open and dragging them up to look the doctor in the eye.
"No need to apologize," the doctor said briskly, closing the projection and dimming the tool. "But it may be time to reevaluate your treatment strategy."
Thena wasn't so sure about that; it seemed there were too many people she owed apologies, most if not all of them dead. Treatment strategies weren't going to change that. Four months since the clusterfuck on Akuze. Four months. Four months to get over it. Four months to pull her big-girl pants up and move the fuck on already. But no. No, she was stuck here, with bullshit nightmares and memories closing in on her, rising like ghosts all around. And she was supposed to talk about it.
"I'm wondering, Thena," Reyes began, clasping her hands and leaning forward in her chair, resting her elbows on her knees and fixing Thena with a look of concern, of compassion so genuine it hurt. "I'm wondering if you've given any more thought to the exposure therapy program we talked about."
The doctor's eyebrows lifted. "And?"
She shifted in her seat, crossing one leg over the other. "Answer's still no."
Reyes' program was a method of virtual reality therapy, designed to place someone dealing with some textbook trauma back into the thick of the trauma for reasons likely having to do with gaining strength over a memory by facing that memory. It was Thena's humble and private opinion that anyone who thought facing down a thresher maw voluntarily was any sort of good idea might've been in need of therapy herself.
Reyes let the matter drop for the moment, but Thena knew it'd be surfacing again, like the virtual maw she was so determined to avoid.
"I'd like you to reconsider. The success rate with the VR exposure programs is impres—"
The doctor pressed her lips together, which was about as much frustration as she ever let show. "I realize I can't force you to acquiesce to the treatment, but I'm concerned you're doing yourself more damage than good. We can pinpoint problem areas with the screens, but therapy and relaxation techniques can only address part of the problem." She paused, dark eyes fixed on Thena. "Rejecting my recommendations won't get you back in the field any sooner."
"You said yourself the exposure therapy's not guaranteed," Thena argued, shaking her head. "Give me a guarantee and I'll think about it. Until then, I'll do any other damn thing you want."
Reyes pursed her lips, then looked down at the datapad in her lap. The silence was just long enough that Thena had begun to wonder exactly what she'd said to put such a thoughtful expression on the doctor's face. "All right. According to your files, you've still seen no visitors since arriving on Arcturus," she said. "Why is that?"
Theen. You do not have the hugest social calendar. Basic deduction skills, I have them.
A lump formed in her throat, but Thena shrugged one shoulder, gritting her teeth to shove back the memory. "I'm here for treatment, not shore leave."
"It's a long time to be off the grid," said Reyes lightly.
What could she say? She'd received messages from Philips and McTavish and even Barker, all of them asking about her, wanting to help, each offering their own different brands of support. They'd all expressed interest in coming to see her, but Thena had deflected, given them excuse after excuse after excuse until slowly the messages stopped appearing in her inbox. So no, she hadn't had any visitors. Tyrrana wrote, and Thena even replied—but Tyrrana didn't know about Akuze. Or if she did, she didn't know Thena'd been deployed on Akuze. All of Tyrrana's messages were her standard fare, from what mod Jevia had hobbled together out of spare parts, to Zakera gossip, to what annoying thing the now-Commander Vakarian had done recently (As if his plates weren't already swollen enough, she'd written Thena). They were the closest thing she had to letters from home and they were normal. And normal was not anything she was willing to sacrifice right now.
"I'm not off the grid," she finally riposted. "Everyone in the Alliance knows were to find me."
"And your friends?" Reyes didn't ask about family; the woman had done her homework from the start.
"My friends have better things to do with their time than come coddle me over a few nightmares."
"All of your friends?" she asked, placing peculiar emphasis on "all."
Thena leaned forward, almost mirroring the doctor's posture, but for the way her own hands were gripping her knees, thumbs settling in along the ridge of her kneecap. "I have a small circle of friends. Sorry if it means there isn't an entourage coming to check up on me when I go off the grid for a couple months."
All right, maybe more than a couple of months.
Doc Reyes shot her an unreadable look, leaving Thena with the feeling she was thinking along the same track. "Maintaining healthy personal relationships isn't…quite the same thing as expecting your friends cater to your every whim. The people in your life want to care about you. Let them." She looked down at the datapad again, falling silent for several long seconds before saying, "You mentioned the turian woman before. Tyrrana?"
"Tell me more about her."
Thena blinked. "She's a turian."
"Yes, you said as much. What else?"
And she's the best friend I've got right now, and I don't think I could take her pity so I'm not telling her any of the shit that went down, and as long as she doesn't ask about what I'm doing, I can keep not-telling her anything.
Hell of a thing, realizing your best friend was the one you were keeping all the secrets from.
"She… runs the turian shelter on the Citadel," Thena explained, turning her gaze down to her hands as her fingers twisted around each other. She picked at a cuticle until it stung and blood crept up through the torn strip of skin. "Tough as nails and a hell of a teacher. Never took any of my crap." She smiled at the distant memory of a secondhand omni-tool and liquor sweeter than ripe pears, then added, "Generous. Kind. A good listener. She… she's—I don't know what it was she did back when she was with the Hierarchy, but she's always been able to kick me in the rear with perspective."
Reyes was tilting her head, eyeing Thena speculatively. "Do you… think she'd be willing to come to the station?"
Thena's mouth went suddenly, horribly dry. "No," she finally managed, with a weak shake of her head. "No. I don't think she would."
I hope she wouldn't.
Arcturus Station glided into view as the tiny transport circled around before coming in to dock, which it did with a deep, metallic clank. Honestly, flight and landing protocols were so similar, even across species lines, it could have been any transport in the galaxy to any station in the galaxy, but for the fact that it wasn't any station, and Tyrrana was currently the only non-human on the entire transport. She would likely be the only non-human on the whole station, which was knowledge enough to make every instinct Tyrrana possessed prickle under her plates until they itched with Get the hell out. And that was one hell of a hard instinct to fight.
On the other hand, it wasn't every day a turian got an invitation onto Arcturus. Granted, the invitation had come in the form of a too-formal, stiffly-worded message that sounded nothing at all like the young woman she'd come to know over the last seven years. She'd accepted, but not without inquiries of her own, mostly along the lines of what strings did you pull to make this happen, kiddo? But Thena, instead of laughing off Tyrrana's concerns and questions as paranoid—which, all right, fair point—clammed up, turning entirely too evasive for Tyrrana's peace of mind. The more Thena evaded and deflected, the more Tyrrana's attendant paranoia reared its ugly and entirely-too-inquisitive-for-its-own-good head.
One hacking program later—her best work, really; the sort of thing Blackwatch would've salivated over and Narius would've killed her over—she'd learned the details, though Tyrrana found herself wishing she hadn't. The Alliance medical files spread open under her hands like overripe lavaya fruit, laying bare every last one of Thena Shepard's medical scans and treatment reports, surgeries and psychiatric notes.
She and Narius had heard about Akuze months before, and how things had gone so astonishingly sideways—it'd been on all the news kiosks all around the Citadel. A whole unit wiped out, save one, whose name was being withheld. The fact there'd been a survivor at all was a surprise; thresher maws didn't have a reputation for leaving anything behind, much less survivors. As they took in the news, as various bulletins and reports shot across the kiosk screens, neither sibling voiced their concerns to the other. Neither had to. Tyrrana knew exactly how long it had been since she'd heard from her charge—long enough to wonder.
It'd been a real party, the two of them trying to act as though they weren't paying attention to every last news brief, waiting for word and knowing if the worst had happened, they'd find out when the Alliance released the names of the deceased.
Tyrrana, finding herself at a loss—a situation to which she was wholly unaccustomed—had sent light, trivial messages to Thena, never sure they'd ever be seen, let alone answered. She talked about everything but thresher-maw-destroyed colonies, hoping she'd get a reply, but always prepared for the possibility she wouldn't. Ever.
Then the night came when Tyrrana's omni-tool chimed with an incoming message and upon seeing Thena's name in her inbox, Tyrrana let out the breath she'd been holding since that first Alliance news brief.
But then days turned into weeks turned into months, and gradually Tyrrana began to notice how… frequently Thena wrote. Her replies to Tyrrana's messages, which had usually been spaced out a few days when she was on deployment, often came within twenty-four hours. She hadn't even been as faithful a correspondent when she'd been a cadet. But still the messages came, talking about the sorts of nonspecific things soldiers talk about when bitching about cold food and hard beds got old, so Tyrrana had tried to ignore that first little spark of uneasiness, though it hadn't ever really gone away.
And now she knew why.
She unfolded herself from the too small seat—her spurs were aching—grabbed her duffel from the overhead storage and sauntered off the transport, doing what was, in her opinion, a fantastic job of ignoring just how many humans were gaping at her just then.
Citadel aside, most space stations—particularly those used by the military—were pretty similar. Oh, there were differences here and there—wider or taller passageways, different signs on the walls—but by and large, military minds tended not differ overmuch when it came to architecture and design. As such, a strange wash of nostalgia and annoyance washed over Tyrrana as she stepped through the gate, moving from transport to station. It even smelled right, scrubbed, recirculated air mingling with the faintest hint of gun oil and the faint electronic scent of most things tech. If not for all the humans staring at her, she probably would've felt right at home.
She scanned the area as the other passengers dispersed. Some were met by colleagues and squaddies, while others wasted no time heading off to parts unknown. Tyrrana took a few steps, pushing down the faint stab of something that was most assuredly not worry when she didn't catch sight of Thena immediately.
Slinging her duffel onto her shoulder, Tyrrana pulled up her omni-tool, preparatory to messaging the kid and telling her to get her ass down to the docking bay, when her eye caught a figure about seven, maybe eight meters away, watching her.
Tyrrana lowered her arm, omni-tool forgotten.
The night they'd met wasn't one easily put out of mind, not for her anyway—not as if she had dozens of homeless human kids coming into her place looking for a bed. Hell, most human kids were scared witless of turians in general, and very few of her kind were willing to disabuse anyone—kids included—of that notion. She wasn't an expert on reading human expressions, but there'd been something in the kid's eyes, in the hunch of her shoulders, something that spoke to Tyrrana, that conveyed so fluently the type of hell she'd been through so far.
If Thena's pain at sixteen had been evident, what she was going through now was positively eloquent. The woman she'd been her last visit to the Citadel, at the Alliance commissioning ceremony, the night they'd sat on the shelter's roof discussing her future like a pair of adults rather than a struggling, frustrated child and her mentor—that woman was gone, and in her place was someone who wore her face, wore her skin like an ill-fitting suit.
Thena's hair, that ever-present curtain of blue-black, was not, as Tyrrana had originally thought, pulled back and away from her face. Her hair was gone. Just… gone, cut so short that tiny pieces stuck and curled upward, leaving Thena's face looking harder and more angular and…too unlike her. She looked wrong, and the longer Tyrrana stared, the more tiny details stuck out: her face was too thin, her eyes too hollow, her posture too hunched and tight and angry.
She doesn't want me here, came the sharp realization. Her stomach gave a sudden lurch as she took several steps, closing some of the distance between them. As she did, Thena's arms tightened across her body, clutching herself in something far too protective and wary to be a hug.
"Nice place you've got here," Tyrrana said, deciding to ignore every last signal Thena was broadcasting her way. "Figure it's only fair, right? You're always the one darkening my doorstep, after all."
If any of the tension eased away from Thena's face, was an infinitesimal amount, leaving more hollows and shadows than it erased. "I didn't think you'd come."
I hoped you wouldn't come, was what Tyrrana heard in Thena's tone, saw in her gaze. That prickling under her plates she'd felt first setting eyes on Arcturus Station was nothing to this. Something was definitely not-right in Thena Shepard's corner of the galaxy, and she didn't want to tell Tyrrana about it.
Foreknowledge was one hell of a handy thing.
Their walk to Thena's quarters was a long one, and it did not go unobserved by Tyrrana that they were moving away from the standard-issue military and administrative areas with their own unique scents and sounds, and into a quieter level of the station, with hushed conversations and a faintly antiseptic smell. Neither of them commented on it as Thena led Tyrrana down one hallway and then another, stopping at a door and handing her a key code.
"They put you next door to me," she said, jerking her chin at the next room over.
"Nowhere better," Tyrrana said cheerfully, punching in the key code. The doors opened with a rush of air and she stepped inside, turning on the lights. "How 'bout you keep me company while I unpack?"
Thena's hesitation spoke volumes. Finally, she swallowed hard and nodded, following Tyrrana in and letting the door slide shut behind her.
She dropped her duffel at the same time she dropped all pretense. Pulling her omni-tool out, Tyrrana ran her favorite anti-surveillance program—Jevia had written it and then augmented it—and once she was satisfied, she turned and faced Thena.
"Talk to me, kid."
"That was the chilliest welcome this side of Noveria, okay? I'm here because you asked me, but I'm pretty sure you don't actually want me here. Don't think I haven't noticed that. So spill it."
"It's… complicated," she admitted, the words sounding as if they were being torn from her.
Cocking a browplate but still playing her cards close to her chest, Tyrrana asked, "Complicated like you being in a hospital wing?"
She considered it no victory when Thena flinched.
"Yeah," she said finally, her voice low and hoarse. "Complicated like that."
Knowing the situation because she'd read Thena's medical file from start to finish was one thing. It was the difference between theoretical and practical knowledge. Faced with words on a screen was bad enough; being forced to look Thena in the eye—knowing what she'd done, good intentions or not, was an enormous breach of trust—was far worse. The prickling under Tyrrana's plates got worse as more suspicions and deductions all slithered out of the ether, each one more unpleasant than the last.
"All right then. Let's have it," she said. "Tell me."
First Thena sat. And then she told.
Tyrrana didn't interrupt, didn't say a single word while Thena spoke. She listened, scarcely breathing. Even when Thena finally fell silent, when the story was over, Tyrrana didn't speak. All the foreknowledge in the world couldn't have prepared her for that.
"So what do we do about it?" Tyrrana managed, once her voice came back.
Thena only stared, looking up as Tyrrana stood. "We?"
"This isn't your—"
"Don't you dare tell me this isn't my problem, Shepard," barked Tyrrana, striding from one end of the room to the other. "I've known you for too long and I know you've worked too hard to get where you are. You clawed your way up from the ducts, kiddo. So, what, you're just going to give up? Take a discharge? No. I don't believe that. Not for one second." She stood over Thena, staring down into her face, searching through shadows and ghosts and should-have-dones until the young woman's jaw tightened minutely. A glimmer of defiance, but only a glimmer. A small victory, but she'd take it.
"You weren't there," she ground out through gritted teeth. "You don't—"
"Oh, maybe I wasn't on Akuze," Tyrrana answered with a wave of her hand, "but don't think for a second I've never been where you are right now. A mission goes sideways through no fault of your own? That's one of the hardest things to accept—trust me, I know. Just like I know you don't want me here." She dropped into a crouch and stared hard into Thena's eyes, never so relieved in all her life that humans couldn't interpret subvocals. "Just like I know you are completely shit out of luck on that score, because I am staying for as long as you need me, kid. So get used to it."
It wasn't what Thena had expected to hear—that much was evident; the outer edges of her anger had melted away into shock. Tyrrana could hardly blame her; that wasn't what Tyrrana had intended to say, and yet… she meant every word of it.
"You want to get cleared for active duty?" Tyrrana asked her. After a long moment, Thena gave a tiny, determined nod. Determination was a hell of a good place to start. She could work with determination. She could work with anger, too—it just had to be channeled properly. "It's not going to be easy. You're probably going to hate me when it's over."
"Doubt that," Thena said.
"I'll remind you you said that," she replied with a chuckle. The mirth, though, was short lived; as she reached up one hand and ran it over Thena's head, the gesture striking her as so incongruously maternal, and yet appropriate all the same.
"I cut it," Thena supplied, touching one short curl self-consciously.
"I could tell."
"You got knocked on your ass. Hard. And that's a hell of a thing, to find yourself knocked down like that. Believe me, I know," she told Thena, letting her hand drop. "And this isn't the last time it's gonna happen—probably the last thing you want to hear right now, but know this: every time you pick yourself up, you make yourself stronger."
"That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger?"
Tyrrana nodded. "Something like that. And the stronger you make yourself, the harder you are to knock down."