Vancouver looked so much larger than she remembered it, and she wasn't even on the ground yet.
"Looking a little green around the gills there, Shepard."
Thena looked askance at Lieutenant-Commander Anderson. Her hesitation lasted barely a breath before she joked weakly, "It's a good thing nobody told me this was going to be easy, sir."
"There's just a few people down there who want to talk to you."
"Having trouble buying it?"
Thena shrugged, but gave no answer beyond that—and despite the answer she didn't give, Anderson gave a grunt of acknowledgement and understanding.
As Captain Vakarian had assured her, Anderson had been perfectly discreet. He was a solid, no-nonsense man whose dark eyes had sized her up shrewdly the moment she introduced herself—hell of a poker face on that man, and she wondered how well he'd do pitted against Tyrrana in a game of Skyllian Five; probably not very well, because no one played well against Tyrrana—but his eyebrows lifted, betraying his surprise the moment she said the words "Mindoir survivor." And now, as he sat in the seat beside her, following her gaze out the tiny window, he said, "This isn't Arcturus, and you're not on trial here, remember."
"I know," she said again, but it was impossible to keep from squirming. Anderson noticed. Of course he did.
"You've got to admit, Shepard, not a lot of people can pull off what you did. Hiding from the Alliance for two years, right under their noses?" He looked out the window again and shook his head. "There are going to be questions. There usually are when someone pulls something… unexpected. It's not half the circus it could be."
"Hell, can't say I'd want the fanfare either. You didn't want to be found. I do understand that much. And now something's changed your mind."
She drew in a deep breath, held it a moment, then exhaled slowly through her nose as she looked down at her hands. Her nails were bitten nearly to the quick. There was a hangnail on her middle finger; she picked at it until it bled, until the right words came to her. "I've been hiding long enough," Thena finally said, her voice low. "Before… before, all I knew was that I didn't want to go where someone else told me, and I didn't want to live with a bunch of strangers just because somebody else decided it." Granted, there was the small fact that she'd been living with strangers for the better part of two years, but that was different. Thena wasn't sure how it was different, or how to explain that it was, only that it was. That had been something she chose. Repercussions of her own that she had to live with, one way or another. That's how it was different.
"That was before. What about now?"
"It's high time I grew up," she said with a shrug. "I couldn't keep doing what I was doing, and for a lot of reasons. I…" Thena looked out the window again, then back to Anderson, and down again to her hands. "I…" But the words wouldn't come, and she shook her head, mumbling, "This probably sounds stupid, but… I want—I want their deaths to… mean something, and… and for that to happen, I have to see what I can make out of myself first." Once more she pulled her gaze up to meet Anderson's. "Did you know, I—" The words wouldn't come for a moment; they hovered, lodged in her throat, until she pushed them forward. "My little brother died so I could escape — so I could live. It's time to do something with that life."
Anderson's shrewdness and curiosity vanished, and nothing but clarity remained. "And you thought it's a hell of a lot better to do that when you're ready than to fake it when you're not?"
"Something like that, sir."
"That doesn't sound stupid at all."
Vancouver grew larger as the shuttle drew closer, and Thena's ears popped as the pressure in the cabin shifted. She grimaced, rubbing her right ear against her shoulder, still watching the window as the craft settled over the Alliance facility, which was far larger—and, if she were going to be honest, more intimidating—than she'd even imagined.
"So," Anderson began, grunting a little as the shuttle landed, "what do you think are the chances you'll give an answer half that eloquent when someone else asks you?"
Thena considered this, looking again at her hands, her bloodied fingernail.
"With respect, sir, I think it'll be a miracle if I don't throw up."
Anderson fell quiet, turning over her reply a moment. "If nothing else, that'd change the subject."
The room was surprisingly large, with high, vaulted ceilings, and windows that stretched from the polished floor to those very high ceilings. The committee that had been organized to… greet her formed a semicircle around a vast table, its dark wood-grain streaking stylishly across the tabletop. There were eight of them, case workers that had been assigned to Mindoir survivors, psychiatrists, an "education specialist and coordinator," and perhaps most worryingly, a man who'd been introduced as an "Alliance public-relations liaison." It wasn't so much the introduction itself, but the dark expression that had settled on Anderson's face in response.
First, they'd wanted confirmation she was who she said she was. The biotag scan she'd undergone on the Citadel wasn't confirmation enough; she had to submit to several more scans checking both her biotag and her DNA itself. Once it was determined Thena was who she said she was, quiet bemusement settled over the large room. They all stared at her, as if they couldn't quite puzzle out how she'd come to be there. And maybe that was a fair question; the circumstances that had brought here here weren't normal ones. And she doubted it'd go over well if she'd said, "Well, the turian C-Sec captain encouraged me to examine my career options beyond professional loiterer and scavenger." Her reasons—her real reasons—went deeper than that, anyway. Maybe she just looked too normal to them. Maybe they were surprised she'd survived two years without the Alliance's help. Maybe they were surprised she'd survived at all.
The head psychiatrist, a neatly pressed redheaded woman with a brisk manner, and a vaguely British accent, asked her, "Why did you avoid the Alliance for the past two years, Miss Shepard?"
The question made her blink, and she realized belatedly that she'd done a lousy job of hiding her surprise. All right, so maybe they weren't wondering how, but why. But the why was almost a worse question to ask. Why would you refuse our assistance? The why of it implied she was dumb, or foolish, or… or deficient somehow. Why seemed to suggest she hadn't known what she was doing.
"Why?" she echoed?
Neatly-Pressed nodded. "Do you disagree such a decision might be indicative of impaired judgment, given the trauma you'd been through? Perhaps a misplaced fear of—"
"I knew what I was doing," Thena countered, her voice startlingly clear in the large room. "I may have been… grieving, but I knew what I was doing. I was perfectly aware of the choice I was making. Don't make it sound like I wasn't." She glanced around her, realizing she was surrounded by shocked expressions, save one: Anderson looked… pleased. Proud, almost. Maybe.
One supportive face was all she needed.
"I'm not going to say I screwed up and that I'm sorry I ran away, because I'm not." She looked around; most of the faces registering shock were now looking… confused. Disapproving. Concerned.
She didn't want their concern.
"Did you know I didn't get to say goodbye to any of my family? None of them knew I was going to make it out safely. None of them knew I was going to survive. None of them know it—or can know it—now. So I'm sorry," she said, her voice too sharp, too loud and harsh, the room's acoustics doing precisely squat to conceal the rawness of her emotions. "I'm sorry if I didn't jump at the chance to be placed in a foster home. I didn't want to be be stuck into a family of strangers. You're asking me why I avoided the Alliance for two years? That's why. Batarians took my family away, and the Alliance wanted to give me a new one that I never asked for and didn't want. Fact is, I would rather've been on my own than have a family of strangers forced on me."
And then the burst of adrenaline that had fueled her words ebbed away, leaving her with the shaky realization that she'd really and truly given voice to ideas and thoughts that had been growing inside her for the past two years. Words she'd frequently thought but never said. It was exhilarating. It was terrifying.
Suddenly, Thena felt like she might actually throw up.
Her outburst spurred the discussion on; the rest of the meeting reviewed her options, if she was indeed serious about joining the Alliance—
"I can't see how Shepard here might be anything but serious about that," interjected Anderson.
The education specialist—a short, squat man with wispy blond hair—cleared his throat and tapped rapidly at his datapad. "Well. There are steps to be taken, of course. Provided Miss Shepard is, er, as you seem to think, Lieutenan-Commander Anderson, serious—"
"I am," Thena said, clearly.
"Yes. Well. If you are serious, miss," said Short-and-Squat, and Thena was coming to hate the way the man said serious, heaping it with sneering condescension that too many adults seemed to manage so easily, "there are steps to be taken and—and protocol to be followed to reintegrate you into the system. There is also the matter of your missing schooling, which will delay any—"
"I believe Shepard is eligible for the A2ET program," Anderson interjected again, and in a tone that seemed almost to dare the other man to argue with him.
Neatly-Pressed exchanged a dubious look with Short and Squat, and shook her head, saying, "That is a very specialized program—"
"A program that allows eligible candidates to demonstrate a sufficient knowledge base for admission into the Academy," said Anderson. "I know what the program is; I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't."
Neatly-Pressed sniffed and inclined her head. "Miss Shepard will have to agree to a battery of psychological evaluations, first. She must be deemed fit for the program and consequential Alliance recruitment."
Anderson shot Thena a perfectly readable look, and Thena stepped forward, lifting her chin and making no effort to hide her defiance as she said, "I don't have anything to hide. I've done harder things in the past two years than prove I'm not crazy."
"Very well then, Miss Shepard," Neatly-Pressed said. "You are excused while this committee works out the particulars."
Anderson led her to a small courtyard, lined with benches and immaculately tended gardens in raised stone flowerbeds.
"You didn't throw up, I noticed," he pointed out.
"Or pass out. Or do anything else stupid and embarrassing," she replied, sitting heavily upon one of the benches, then slouching forward and resting her elbows on her knees. The sore hangnail was throbbing now. Everything was throbbing, not the least of which was her head. "What was that thing you said?" she asked, squinting up at Anderson. "A2-something?"
"It's an accelerated college preparedness program. Usually it's saved for recruits wanting early admission into the Academy. High enough test scores mean they're ready for the level of work expected from them." He sat at the other end of the bench. "Best subject in school?"
"History," she answered promptly. "Did pretty well in behavioral sciences, math…"
"You should be able to test out of those without too much trouble. Worst?"
She made a face. "Physics."
"So we won't be placing you in a flight program," he said with a chuckle. "It's not going to be easy, but I think you'll be able to do this."
Thena looked at her hangnail, then curled that hand into a fist, hiding the reddened fingertip. "What if I can't?"
"That part's up to you, but if you're serious about joining up—and I'm convinced you are—it's either this, or making up the classes you've missed in a more… traditional setting, on more traditional timeframe."
He nodded. "A2ET is harder, but you'll get results without spinning your wheels."
The quarters were small and plain, but with a wide window that looked out over Vancouver. Thena stood in front of that window, hardly able to believe she was here at all. The lateness of the hour and the exhaustion seeping into her bones, leaving her body feeling stiff, her limbs heavy — all of it was enough to reassure her that she was in fact here, and she had in fact spent a majority of her day either in conference with the committee, or waiting outside while the committee was in conference without her.
Anderson's motion that she be enrolled in the A2ET program was accepted, but on the condition that Thena underwent a thorough psychological and physical evaluation. She would remain at the installment for a week, after which point a decision would be made, one way or the other.
The city twinkled under a nearly-dark sky and Thena sighed, resting her forehead against the cool window. For the first time in a long time, she was alone and truly felt alone. Her quarters were small but quiet—Zakera Ward had never been quiet—and there was no one on the complex that counted as a friend. For all that Anderson was clearly an ally, he was too far in a position of authority to be a friend.
She wondered what time it was on the Citadel.
Soon her omni-tool's glow lit the small room, and Thena tapped rapidly against the holo-interface.
MESSAGE SENT: 4 APR 72: 21.07
FROM: . .CN114690002
Hi. Made it to Earth. Late here.
MESSAGE RECD: 4 APR 72: 21.25
How's it going?
MESSAGE SENT: 4 APR 72: 21.45
FROM: . .CN114690002
Been in conference w/committee all day. Tired.
MESSAGE RECD: 4 APR 72: 22.10
MESSAGE SENT: 4 APR 72: 22.27
FROM: . .CN114690002
Got a week of psych evals to prove I'm sane & have been conditionally approved for accelerated ed. program.
MESSAGE RECD: 4 APR 72: 22.48
The condition being that you pass the psych eval?
MESSAGE SENT: 4 APR 72: 22.56
FROM: . .CN114690002
MESSAGE RECD: 4 APR 72: 23.14
How're you holding up?
MESSAGE SENT: 4 APR 72: 23.30
FROM: . .CN114690002
Tired. Angry. Frustrated. Pretty sure I'm still sane, though.
MESSAGE RECD: 4 APR 72: 23.52
That's probably the sanest reaction, under the circumstances.
You're gonna be great. Give 'em hell.
MESSAGE SENT: 5 APR 72: 00.11
FROM: . .CN114690002
Miss you guys.
MESSAGE RECD: 5 APR 72: 00.29
Of course you do. You're not missing much. Same ol' same ol'.
Vakarian says hi.
MESSAGE SENT: 5 APR 72: 00.40
FROM: . .CN114690002
Ha ha. Very funny. Good thing I'm sane. I'd have to be crazy to believe that.
MESSAGE RECD: 5 APR 72: 00.53
Get some sleep, Thena. You need to sound not-crazy in the morning.
And maybe a few of the foreseeable mornings.
"So do you want the bad news or the good news first?" Tyrrana asked, shutting down her omni-tool and leaning back in her chair.
"How bad is the bad news?" Narius inquired, holding the bottle of brandy over Tyrrana's glass.
"How 'bout you pour, and I'll tell you when to stop."
"Not the most accurate scale, but…" Frowning, Narius let the liquid splash into Tyrrana's glass. By the time she told him to stop, he'd poured about two fingers of the liquor. "So it's bad," he said, pouring himself the same amount, "but not dire."
"No, not dire," she said on a sigh. But her tone seemed to say not yet. Tyrrana didn't pick up her drink right away, choosing instead to turn the glass around in circles between her fingers, looking troubled. That in itself was troubling; his sister was not typically a worrier.
"Are you going to tell me?"
The glass stopped its circular path. "Evidently she's going to have to prove to the Alliance that she's… fit for recruitment. Even making up her schooling is contingent on her passing an evaluation."
Narius frowned. That didn't seem too terribly unfair. If she'd been out of the system for two years, it was better for her superiors to understand her capabilities and qualifications before attempting to prepare her for a military life or any sort of specialization beyond that. "What kind of evaluation?" he asked, taking a drink.
Tyrrana's mandibles tightened as she tapped one talon against the rim of the glass. "Psychological," she said, taking no care at all to conceal the irritation from her tone. Her subharmonics screamed with bitterness, but she downed her entire drink before Narius could comment on it. "A week's worth of psychological evaluations."
That made Narius sputter. "Spirits, a week? A week's worth of psych evals? You've got to be kidding me. Blackwatch doesn't even conduct a week's worth of evals on its recruitment candidates."
Her eyes darkened as she nodded, pouring herself a second drink. "Tell me about it. She's conditionally approved for an accelerated education program, but—"
"But only if she passes her evaluation."
"Exactly. And that, brother dear," Tyrrana intoned, taking a generous swig of brandy, "is why you're the detective."
"It's ridiculous, even by human standards," he groused. "I can understand a physical, and even a psych eval—singular—if only to establish a benchmark before reintegrating her. But this? This is absurd that she should have to jump through…" Narius noticed his sister giving him a strangely ponderous look. "What?" he asked, aggravation resonating in his subvocal tones.
"…Nothing," Tyrrana drawled out after far too long a pause.
"That isn't a nothing expression you're wearing."
"Well, excuse me for noticing," she stated primly, "but you're surprisingly displeased about this."
"Absurd. Ridiculous. Yes, I heard. You're just getting a bit… tetchy, is all." She paused. "Over a human." She paused again, maddeningly. "One you wanted to send back to the Alliance, as I recall it."
"And now you're being ridiculous," Narius retorted, draining his glass. Tyrrana refilled it almost immediately.
"Do you think there's a chance she'll fail? Is that what you're afraid of?"
"Not in the least," he answered without hesitation. After taking a drink, he asked his sister, "What about you?"
"Well. Maybe," Tyrrana replied, holding her glass up and tilting it, watching the liquid move slowly back and forth. "Maybe," she said again. "She'd have a problem if we hadn't intervened first."
Narius chuckled despite himself. Quite like Tyrrana to take that kind of credit. "So," he began, taking another swallow of brandy, "how do you think it'll play out?"
Tyrrana's grin was sudden. Sharp. Fierce. "Oh, I'm sure she'll be herself. That's all she'll have to be." She tilted her head, amber eyes far too sharp as she watched him. "What about you? And no fibbing—you know I'll know if you try."
Narius considered his words carefully before draining his glass. "What do I think?" he echoed rhetorically. After a moment, he allowed himself a grin that was perhaps not as sharp or fierce as his sister's, but a grin all the same. "I think she's going to make them wish they'd never doubted her."