A is for Aftermath

There's blood on Thena's hands.

It's dried into the crevices alongside her nails, under her nails. There's dirt, too, but that'll wash. The rest, she isn't so sure. The soap she's been given is meant to smell like lemons, but too synthetic, too wrong to smell like real lemons.

She knows the smell of lemons, knows the scent of the groves carried along the breeze blowing in through the kitchen window.

A tall woman wearing an Alliance uniform escorts her to a stark white washroom, waiting outside as Thena, armed with the synthetic-smelling soap and a change of clothes, closes herself within. Every muscle in her body is stiff, and every movement aches; it's a cold, deep ache, further down than her bones, sinking into every atom and molecule. The Alliance marine — Lieutenant Something — said a shower "might help."

Thena doubts it, doubts anything will "help." But she nods and locks the door, then strips her clothes from her body, trying not to look too closely at the dark red-brown stains and splotches in the fabric. But each stain is a memory burned into her mind.

Dad's blood on her hands, soaking into her pants as she kneels, feeling his neck for a pulse that wasn't there. Jason, shot, his warm blood spraying across her torso in the instant before he crumples. The batarian that killed her brother, droplets spattering everywhere as she swings the baseball bat first into his gut, then down across his head. Mom's blood on Troy's hands as he clutches at her body, screaming at her to wake up.

Everything aches and everything's numb — some distant, still-functioning part of Thena's brain tells her she can't be both; she ignores it and turns the water as hot as it can possibly go, until steam fills the small room, fogging the mirror. She doesn't realize until it's clouded over how thankful she is for that. She's not ready to see herself, isn't sure she'll ever be ready for that; she knows she's still the same girl who woke up yesterday morning—was it only yesterday morning? She isn't sure anymore how long has passed since… since everything—with parents and brothers and friends and teachers. Thena remembers it, though it feels so incredibly long ago, that she woke up to Dad's pancakes and sausage (and no one in the house could eat breakfast sausage without Dad waxing nostalgic over Earth's pork products and varren just didn't cut it, not really — that morning was no exception).

Days that ended in nights full of fire and death and blood had no business starting out so mundane.

A hard shudder wracks through her as she stands beneath the streaming water; she's too cold, too numb, and for a moment she's certain it's the heat of the shower causing things to crack and fissure inside. She gasps, and it's a broken, wounded sound, too loud for the small room. It bounces off the tile and she clutches harder at herself, sobs coming more violently now as the rational part of her brain reminds her of the soap and washcloth and towel waiting for her. But she can only stand there, steaming water sluicing down her body, turning her skin pink, pooling at her feet in a dingy puddle before swirling down the drain.

They're gone. They're all gone.

It hurts.

The water is still hot, still driving like needles into her skin by the time she's finished crying, and though Thena's throat is raw and her body still aches, her hands are soon reaching for the soap and the washcloth. Soon she is slowly working away the grit, the dirt, the sweat, and, above all, the blood from her skin. The water pooling and swirling by her feet gets dirtier before it gets any cleaner.

Her brain wants to work, wants to make the connections and figure out what happened; maybe she missed something, maybe she was mistaken, maybe she dreamt it all, maybe she was just wrong — a huge, horrible misunderstanding, and nobody's really dead at all. Maybe she's just crazy and dreaming, this isn't really happening, and all she has to do is wake up. She wants to wake up, wants it so badly, but she knows she's awake; she knows that though the distance between two points always has been and always will be a straight line, she can't really grasp the reality of that just yet.

They're all gone.

Dad's pancakes. Mom's books. Jason's swagger. Troy's hockey stick. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.

She turns off the water with a jerk and the resultant silence is sharp, stark, like the washroom. It takes effort, more than she wants to expend, but she dries off and dresses—the pants and shoes fit, but the shirt is a little long in the sleeves, and she has to roll them up. Despite the shower, despite the clothes, she can still smell smoke: it's on her skin, it's in her hair, it's burned into her nose.

She hates the smell of smoke.

With an angry swipe, Thena wipes the steam away from the mirror, but it fogs up again almost immediately, giving her only a glimpse of herself; her skin is too pale, her eyes too wide. Traumatized, she thinks, filing that image of herself away, thinking of the girl in the reflection as someone else. It's easier that way — that wasn't her in the mirror, because she doesn't look like that. The girl she saw looked… broken. That's not her.

Closing her eyes, she combs her fingers through her heavy, wet hair, first segmenting and then braiding the length. When she realizes she hasn't got anything to tie the end off with, her eyes fall to the pile of filthy clothing she stripped from herself. It's torn and bloody and unwearable. It's probably going straight into the incinerators anyway. Crouching down, she tears a strip of fabric from her sleeve and winds it around the end of her braid, tying it into a tight knot. Then she gathers it all up, wrapping her clothes in the towel. Studiously, she keeps her mind carefully away from the blood soaked into her clothes. The memories already live too vibrantly in her mind, showing themselves to her every time she closes her eyes. It seems suddenly, vitally important that she control what she lets herself think about.

The door looks far larger and more imposing than it should. Thena hesitates a moment before opening it and stepping out into a hallway every bit as bare as the washroom. Lieutenant Something is still standing there, waiting for her.

"…Sorry if you were waiting long," she mumbles, shifting the damp bundle in her arms.

"Don't worry about it," she replies, smoothly taking the bundle. They walk a few steps before the woman (officer? Is a lieutenant an officer? She isn't sure) gives her a sidelong glance. "So…" she begins, and there's hesitation in her tone, but also something else, something Thena can't quite define or pinpoint just then, "are you… did that… um." The lieutenant stops suddenly and Thena follows. "Listen," she says, bringing her voice down to a low pitch. "Nothing I can ask you is going to be easy. I know you aren't all right and I know you don't feel better. I know I don't know — can't know — how you're feeling. But I have to ask you: how are you doing?"

It's the last thing Thena expects, this woman speaking to her like she's an adult. She looks down at her hands to find there's still blood beneath her nails before she tightens them into fists. "I don't know," she answers honestly. "I…" Everything tightens and trembles inside and there's a moment she can't speak, can't even breathe, because she just wants it all to never have happened in the first place. But it has. "It happened," she hears herself saying, and there's the whisper of a question in her words, maybe because she so desperately wants to be wrong about everything she saw and smelled and heard. She wants to be wrong about the blood under her nails, about all of it.

The lieutenant nods slowly, lips pressing firmly into a thin line. "Yeah. It did." She hesitates again before saying, "I'm not going to blow smoke up your—" catching herself suddenly, she continues, "in your ear and tell you everything's gonna work out rosy. But I'll tell you this: what happens next, what you do with this, how it shapes you — and it's gonna shape you — all of that's in your court. You couldn't stop the raid, you couldn't stop what happened — but what happens next is your choice. The person you're going to be, that's still up to you. It's going to be hard, but no matter what, nobody can take that away from you; that's always going to be your choice."

She nods slowly, letting the words sink in — really listening, and that feels new, the listening, because too many people have been speaking at her or about her rather than to her, but the lieutenant—she looks at the woman's armor briefly; her name's Blanchard—is speaking to her, directly to her, in a no-bullshit tone that resonates deep in Thena's skull. She swallows hard and nods. It's something else to focus on for now; thinking about yesterday and the day before and the day before that is hard. Thinking about tomorrow, and the day after… that feels like something she can do for now.

"So," Lieutenant Blanchard says, folding her arms and rocking back on her heels, "how are you doing?"

"Not good," answers Thena honestly. Blanchard nods, unsurprised, and Thena says as much.

"Lost my dad at Shanxi," she says. "Lost my mom in a bottle couple years later."

She doesn't know what to say to that, and the only word that forms is, "Oh."

Blanchard nods. "Yeah. Trust me, it's rough. But…" her words trail off, and she looks like she's warring with what to say next. "But the rough times make you who you are. Whether you're going to be weak or strong — that's not something you decide when you're sleeping in a soft bed."

The words make a sort of sense to her when nothing else does and she nods as they begin walking again. She doesn't want to be weak, doesn't want to crumble and break — she is all she has left. If the only way her family can exist is within her, then it only makes sense for her to be strong. If she breaks, they'll vanish forever. And though she wants her parents right now, her father's arms tight around her, her mother's hand resting on the crown of her head, both of them telling her it's going to be all right, she cannot have that — she can only have the memory of it.

Whether they live on in her memory or vanish is up to her. For them to live on, she has to be strong. She understands that now.

"What… what's going to happen next?" she asks. She's not sure she really wants to know the answer, because that implies something is next, and she's not sure she's ready for there to be a "next," but moving forward sort of depends on there being a next step, and Thena fulfilling it. And then another. So even though she doesn't want to know what's next, doesn't want to do what's next, she's asking anyway.

"Well," Blanchard says, "a lot of people are going to ask you a lot of questions. And you're going to have to answer them best you can. We've got temporary quarters set up for you, so when you want to sleep, when you're ready, you can sleep. You want to eat, you can eat." She tilts her head, narrowing her eyes at Thena. "You should probably eat. Try, at least. But… questions first. Lots of questions. There are a few more doctors lined up for you to talk to, too."

"To make sure I'm not crazy," she says quietly.

"Hell, we all know you're not crazy, Thena. But the suits say you've got to talk to doctors, so you should probably go along with them. Sometimes people ask you to do asinine things for what turn out to be pretty good reasons." The sidelong look she gives Thena says a lot more than words could hope to say; it's a look that says, That means don't fuck with the shrinks, either.

"Okay." She's answering both the spoken words and the unspoken ones.

#

Several days and countless interviews and psych evaluations later, she's seen Blanchard at least once every day. The sight of her reminds Thena of things she might otherwise forget, especially after conversations with psychiatrists that always delve too deep and always leave her insides feeling raw and scraped over. There are sessions when she doesn't want to talk, doesn't want to tell, doesn't want to remember, and she hates anyone for asking just as much as she hates herself for not wanting to answer in the first place.

Finally she finds herself in a plush office, while an embassy representative argues in hushed tones with an Alliance representative.

Not hushed enough.

Thena pretends not to hear, pretends not to listen, concentrating on her nails. The dried blood is finally gone. But then she hears the words foster care followed shortly by Bad PR if a Mindoir survivor goes to an orphanage, and Thena goes suddenly cold and rigid.

…what happens next, what you do with this, how it shapes you — and it's gonna shape you — all of that's in your court.

She might be an orphan, nothing she can do will change that now, but she does not want this. She doesn't want to be shuttled off to somewhere else, a place she doesn't know with circumstances she can't control. She levers herself out of the chair, muttering about needing to use the washroom. The embassy rep waves her off, and soon Thena's walking purposefully down the corridor, heart pounding, hands sweaty. She doesn't know where she's going — only where she's not.

The ball's in her court, now.