I is for Insight

"Oh, come off it, Philips," Thena said, gesturing at him with a french fry. "The First Contact War was a monumental fuck up of the first degree."

The mess hall was a chaos of noise around them, cadets settling in for lunch even as some hurried off to class, PT, or training ops. The table was technically only big enough for two, but she, Renata Stevens, and Ray Philips were crowded around the small corner table, datapads and food trays covering every inch of usable surface. The conversation had started out with the three of them drilling each other on an upcoming exam, but had been well and truly derailed early on.

Philips leaned forward, crossing his forearms on the table. "And I'm not saying it wasn't."

"We all know war sucks," she said flatly. "So a war you didn't expect to start sucks even worse. All I'm saying is maybe we should've been a little more careful."

"Ounce of prevention, pound of cure, Philips," Renata Stevens intoned.

Thena lifted her hand in a sweeping gesture at Renata. "Thank you, Steve."

"Share a room with you as long as I have, I'm bound to pick up something," Renata replied, taking a long drink of water.

But Philips would not be deterred. He was relentless as hell, even when he was hip deep in an argument—hell, especially when he was hip deep in an argument, no matter which side of the debate he found himself on. It unnerved Thena just how much she liked that.

"There was no way we could have known we were breaking any laws."

"No, we assumed we weren't." Thena rolled her eyes, going on to say, "Assumed—hell, I think half the problem was that humanity assumed we were alone in our little corner of the universe to begin with." Thena plucked up a french-fry and pointed it at Philips. "Think about the old-world explorers who crossed oceans to travel from one continent to the other and just assumed there wouldn't be other people there. Because that's what their intel told them."

"Didn't end well for them," Renata said, stealing one of Thena's fries. She looked up in time to catch Thena's glare and shrugged. "What? I don't want them getting cold. Cuisine this fine deserves to be eaten, not gestured with." She stole another fry.

"Okay, yeah," Thena relented, turning her attention back to Philips. "Like she said, it didn't end well for them." She dragged the fry through ketchup and popped it in her mouth. "Meaning they usually died horribly. Because they fucking assumed. Thousands of years of exploratory experience and we can't learn one simple lesson?"

"People can only make decisions based on the information they've been given," Philips argued, and damn if he wasn't like a dog with a bone over this. They both agreed that the First Contact War had been an avoidable conflict, but their opinions on how the conflict might've been avoided couldn't have been any more different.

"Fair enough," Thena replied, "but don't tell me that the 'best information' they had meant it was an acceptable strategy to run pell-mell through space, turning on every mass relay we could find, like a kid hyped up on sugar running through the house switching the lights off and on."

"Thanks, Theen," Renata said with a smirk. "I'm now picturing Jon Grissom running with scissors."

With ease born of practice, Thena ignored Renata. "Philips, all I'm saying is that all species have history, and there's none of us making new mistakes. We just get too full of ourselves, and think they're new mistakes. The situations aren't new, they're just bigger, with shinier tech, but we've all been making the same screw ups since time began. Sometimes war is unavoidable, and sometimes you stumble into it ass-first. And over the years humanity's done more than it's fair share of stumbling. The First Contact War was a fuck up of assumptions and ignorance on both sides."

Philips drained his own water and leaned back in his chair, pushing a hand through his hair. "It could have been avoided, Shep. That's all I'm saying."

"And I'm agreeing with you. But I can't help but notice that whenever someone says, 'it could've been avoided,' what they usually mean 'the turians should've negotiated.'"

"Are you saying they shouldn't have been expected to?" he challenged, grey eyes flashing.

Steadfastly ignoring both Philips' grey eyes and they way they turned steely when he leaned forward like that—damn—Thena reached down to discover her french fries were gone, leaving her nothing more to gesture with. "I'm saying that humanity and turian societies are fundamentally different, and both sides were unaware of their respective differences, acting on instinct, and those fundamental societal differences—"

"Are going to make us late for Callahan's Strategy and Policy class," Renata broke in, sliding her datapad away and pushing back from the table. "C'mon, Theen," she said, shouldering her bag. "Show Nebraska a little mercy, why don't you? Or the next training op you run together, your sniper's gonna let you bite it."

"You should know me better than that, Stevens," Philips groused, pushing away from the table. "Shep would have my ass if I left her out to twist in the wind." And with that, he gave them both a wave and ambled out of the mess hall.

Once he was gone, Renata elbowed Thena and gave her a slantwise look, grinning. "Boy's got it bad."

"And you're delusional," Thena snorted. "Maybe more than usual. Come on."

They made their way out of the mess hall, carefully navigating tables and chairs, to say nothing of other cadets, and, thankfully, Renata didn't say anything more about it. Until they were outside, at least.

"I have it on good authority," she told Thena, as the two of them walked briskly across the campus, "Nebraska's got two tickets to a hockey game Friday night."

"Yeah?" she replied, her pace never slowing.

"And I've heard he's gonna ask you if you want to go with him."

Thena stopped short, eyes going wide as her heart thumped hard in her chest and enough adrenaline seeped into her veins to make her hands tingle. "And just where did you hear any of this?"

Renata took a few more steps before realizing Thena wasn't behind her. She slowed and turned, offering a shrug. "So, maybe it's possible I could've been the one to tell him you like hockey. Because it's possible he could've asked."

"You're joking," she said, but could not quite stop the blush creeping up to warm her cheeks.

"No," Renata replied, tilting her head. "I tend to save the jokes for when they actually have punchlines, and what is your problem with this? Nebraska's a nice guy. And don't think I haven't noticed you mooning."

"I do not moon," she mumbled, feeling her face burn.

"Totally mooning. Although I admit you do it with class and subtlety—oh, and blushing. Totally with the blushing, which is adorable, let me just say. But it's still mooning. Funny, I didn't think you were the type who went for redheads."

"It's auburn," Thena corrected her automatically. Then she let out a vivid swear and started up a stairway, taking the steps two at a time. To her chagrin, Renata had no difficulty maintaining that kind of pace.

"But you aren't mooning. Right. Anyway, what's the harm? Either way, you get to see a hockey game with someone whose company you don't hate. I'm failing to see the problem here."

How could she explain the problem without, well, explaining the problem? "It's been a while since I've been… out. With someone. Like that."

"So it's been a while since you've been out with a guy. Big deal."

"Years, Steve," she said as they reached the auditorium. "Years since I've been on any sort of date."

"How many years?" Renata asked as the door opened.

Thena shrugged. She was a few months from twenty now, which meant upwards of four years, which didn't seem like a huge span of time under ordinary circumstances. Under these circumstances, however… "Enough," she answered, slinking into a seat and pulling free her datapad. From the corner of her eye, she saw that Renata was far from satisfied, but Callahan was not a forgiving instructor, and her Strategy and Policies seminar was easily one of the most challenging in Thena's schedule this term. Whatever Renata wanted to know would have to wait.

Much to Thena's relief, Renata dropped the subject. It remained dropped as they parted ways while Renata went to her class on comparative multi-species politics, and Thena to a class on the history of unconventional warfare, and did not rise again through PT and training ops exercises, where she saw Philips, who did not behave in the least little bit like he had anything to discuss with her beyond the op—and they weren't even on the same squad, which Thena could not help but view as a blessing.

It wasn't until Thena had returned to the barracks to shower and change before dinner that Renata broached the subject again. Moving far too damned quietly, her reflection appeared behind Thena as she stood in front of the mirror, binding her hair back into a long braid.

"How many years, Theen?"

Biting back a curse and a groan, Thena shook her head, her fingers deftly twining the long segments of hair. "Since I was, like. Sixteen. Maybe before then."

"So?"

"I don't have the first idea how to… to talk to someone like Philips, Steve." She braided a few moments longer, then waved a hand. "I don't mean— I can talk to him, sure. But… I don't— I don't know. The one on one thing. The… conversation thing."

"Just how much talking are you expecting to do at a hockey game?" Renata asked folding her arms. "I've seen you when the Canucks play. There is no conversation. Yelling. Swearing. Throwing things. But conversation? Not so much." The tipped her head to the side, twining her red ponytail around one finger. "Besides, why do you think I told Nebraska you like hockey? It'll be an easy date. Just… show up and scream your bloody lungs out for whoever the hell you want to win. Chrissakes, Thena, you're going to be fine. And even if you do have to talk to him? It's just conversation," her roommate said slowly, enunciating every syllable. "It's what people do. They talk. Talk to him. You talk to him every day anyway, right?"

Thena grimaced. "Yeah, about differing guerrilla tactics and to what effect they were used at Shanxi, or the best way to assemble and disassemble the Naginata."

Renata smirked. "And now I'm wondering why I didn't just suggest he take you down to the shooting range."

The grimace didn't budge. "Right, because we don't already do that every damn day."

"I don't know what to tell you, Theen," Renata said on a sigh. "Just… be you. I like you. Hell, Barker likes you, and Barker doesn't like anyone. Just… talk. And hell, Theen, I know you can talk. Ask him about Nebraska. Tell him about where you grew up."

Thena's stomach lurched, and she winced as she tugged too hard at a section of hair, swearing under her breath at the sharp pull against against her scalp. Behind her, Renata leaned against the white tile wall and pursed her lips, frowning at Thena in the mirror. The frown, however, lasted longer than Thena might've expected, and without any additional commentary.

"What's wrong?"

Renata didn't reply right away. Instead, she folded her arms, fingertips gripping either elbow, and watched Thena wrangle her hair back into a plait, which she then pinned to her scalp. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Fact check your next essay for Tactics?" she asked lightly. In the mirror, Renata's expression didn't change.

"Well. That, yeah. But—what's this really about? You never… Thena, just now, when I told you to talk to Philips about where you grew up, I swear to god, you went whiter than I ever saw you." She paused. "Why?"

Thena turned around, bracing the small of her back against the cold countertop, letting it bite almost painfully into the curve of her spine. "So what do you want to know?"

"In the almost-two years I've known you, you've never once mentioned your… your family or your home or…" she gestured, helplessly. "Why?"

Thena looked down at her hands. She'd picked the skin away from the side of her thumbnail, almost to the point it had started bleeding. Frowning, she smoothed the pad of her index finger over the ragged patch of raw skin. "I grew up on Mindoir," she said quietly.

Renata blinked once. "You grew up on…" the words trailed off into silence, and that silence made Thena's stomach churn. "Oh. Oh."

"So, yeah," she said, ignoring that second Oh and everything it didn't say. "I know a little about farms. And I had… I had brothers and my mother was a teacher and my dad… my dad was a horticultural engineer. He, uh. He…if there were plants or crops that wouldn't grow, he… he hybridized them, crossed them with indigenous species." She forced her eyes up. "But I—I can't tell him that, Steve."

"Why the hell not?" she asked, suddenly indignant.

"I don't want people to… to be weird about it." More to the point, she didn't want to talk about or have to explain the two years that followed, either. "I don't want… sympathy. I just… I don't want anyone treating me different because of what happened."

"Am I being weird about it? Right now," she said. "You told me just now. Am I being weird?"

"No, but you're you." And with a weak smile, Thena shrugged one shoulder. "Weird's an anticipated part of the equation when I'm dealing with you."

"Yeah," she said with a snort, "I'm me. And it's me that's telling you you're being stupid about this. No one's saying you've gotta bare your heart or anything, but newsflash, Theen. We're your friends. We give a shit about you. And if Ray Philips is an asshole, or he gets weird over anything, or gives you creepy sympathy that pisses you off, or—I don't know—treats you like a leper, believe it when I tell you I will straighten his corn-fed ass right the hell out." She paused. "But I don't think he will."

###

The night was clear as the thick crowd of fans, disappointed and elated alike, streamed out of the arena, some to private parking garages, others to waiting skycars, and still others to public shuttles and rapid transport. The shuttle was crowded beyond comprehension, but still the quickest means of transport between the arena and the Academy campus.

"Stevens said you liked hockey," remarked Philips—no, Ray. Ray, she reminded herself; calling him Philips on a date was too weird. Granted, it hadn't stopped her from tripping over what to call him a few times. It would've been embarrassing if he hadn't been wrestling with the same problem. "She didn't say you lived, breathed, and bled it."

Shrugging and sending him a crooked grin, Thena replied, "She probably didn't want to scare you."

He snorted at that and shook his head. "Fat chance of that. You've gotta see my family get together over Cornhusker games. Trust me, you'd fit right in."

"Cornhuskers— that's the college team, right?" she asked, fighting down the warmth that had surged up in her chest at you'd fit right in.

"Yeah. We're more about football than hockey—"

"No one's perfect," she murmured, sliding the words in as she nudged him with her elbow.

"Oh, ha ha," he replied, nudging her back. "It's still a big deal, though."

They fell into step with each other, neither one caring very much whether they caught the shuttle or had to wait for the next one, when Ray asked, "Do you watch football at all?"

"Not really. A lot of the college games didn't broadcast to the colony." At his curious look, Thena bit her bottom lip, her hesitation lasting barely a second before she explained, "I'm… from Mindoir. We, uh… we got some sports broadcasts, but the schedule for it was… kind of erratic."

"You're from…" He stopped and blinked. Then he blinked again. "Oh. Shit. I didn't realize…"

"It's… it's—don't worry about it. I don't… there's a reason I don't bring it up. I don't like talking about it."

"No, I don't blame you." He grimaced, then chanced what looked a great deal like a contrite look at her. "Did I completely just step in it?"

"I… think you'll survive."

###

When Thena opened the door to the barracks, it was to find Renata sitting on the bottom bunk—her bunk—the gentle glow of a datapad lighting the contours of her face.

"You're late," she said, without looking up.

"Missed the first shuttle," Thena replied, shrugging out of her coat and draping it over a chair. "And are you actually waiting up for me?"

"You really think I was going to miss hearing all about this?" Renata's grin was sudden and broad, and she set the datapad aside, drawing her legs up and patting the mattress. "Go on. Sit. Tell me everything."

"You're inviting me to sit on my own bed," Thena observed, but sat, pulling her legs up so she was sitting cross-legged. "And I suppose the only way to get my own bed back is by sating your unhealthy desire for juicy gossip?"

Renata's grin widened. "Bingo. Who won?"

This time it was Thena's turn to grin. "Canucks."

"Thank god," Renata said, tipping her head back. "I know how you can get after they lose, and I didn't want to subject anyone to that. Okay, so did your… jubilant screaming and swearing scare him off?"

"He at no point ran for his life or went in search of higher ground, so I'm pretty sure I didn't terrify him."

Renata's next question was couched in humor and softened by the smile at her lips. "And did you guys talk at all, or was it all frothing at the mouth and shouted obscenities at the refs?" But Thena knew what she was really asking.

"There was talking." There'd been quite a bit of talking, as it happened. The wait between shuttles had not been a short one.

"And?"

And it had been good. Really good. Good enough that there was talk of other places they could go and other things they could do. Talking, as it turned out, had not been one of Thena's shortcomings, for all her nerves and trepidation.

"And," Thena finally drawled out, "I was being kind of dumb and maybe a little paranoid and yes, Steve, you were right. Is that what you were waiting to hear?"

"It'll do. And you know saying 'you were right' is always a good touch, Theen."

"Hell, Steve, why else do you think I said it?"