J is for Jersey

"Shepard," Barker drawled, "delivery for you."

Thena looked up from where she sat, curled up on her bunk, reading—the material was dry, and her bed warm, and that paired with the rain pattering against the window, she'd been fighting the urge to doze off for the better part of an hour now. The distraction was as welcome as it was unexpected, and she pushed to her feet and joined her roommate at the door to find a rain-damp man in Alliance regs pushing a dolly loaded with a single small crate.

She looked from the box to the man delivering it, and she supposed her confusion was evident, because he gave her a crisp nod and said, "Package for you, miss." He handed her a datapad and, more incongruously, a clipboard with a pen and several hard-copy forms.

"Yeah, I… see that. Who's it from?" she asked, taking the datapad first. One thumbprint and electronic signature later, she had the clipboard and was scrawling her name in four different spots on five different forms. She hadn't thought anyone used hard copies any more, but apparently the Alliance was… thorough. And possibly just as bloody-minded as everyone said. Hell, maybe the rumors about every form being submitted in triplicate weren't just rumors.

The look Barker gave her was a dry one. "Gonna go out on a limb and guess someone in the Alliance."

"Alliance Colonization, Department of Recovery," the man supplied, and if he saw the color drain from Thena's face—she felt it surely enough—he didn't acknowledge it. Instead, he rolled the crate into the room, sliding the box from the dolly when Thena indicated which bunk was hers and, nodding at both Barker and Thena, trundled the dolly out the door and down the corridor.

The door fell shut, and the room suddenly felt too small.

The crate was large and oblong, about three feet long, two feet wide, and another two feet deep. Sure enough, it was emblazoned with a label, bearing her name, her physical address, and a return address: Alliance Colonization Services, Dept. of Recovery.

Recovery.

Colonization services.

Recovery.

She barely registered Barker standing next to her, looking down at the box. She'd been Thena's roommate just as long as Renata had been, and she'd been abrasive as fuck-all for just as long as that. Barker was good people, down deep. Way, way down deep. The surface was, well… abrasive. And sometimes it took a while to dig far enough that you reached the good parts.

"Well? Are you going to open it?"

Abrasive and tactless.

"Later," Thena answered. Later, when everyone else was down in the dining hall or researching in the library. Later, when she could be alone, and face whatever the hell the Alliance had recovered without having to explain, without—

The door swung open as Renata and McTavish entered in a chaos of rain-soaked jackets and wet boots squeaking against damp floors. Renata swung her rucksack onto the bunk above Thena's.

"Should've come to the library with us," she said, gripping the upper bunk's frame and swinging down to sit on Thena's bunk with a bounce.

"Get a lot done?" she asked, barely pulling her attention from the crate.

"Nothing," she replied, squeezing the water from her hair.

"She's lying," McTavish said, hanging up her coat. "Cripes, Steve—you're getting water everywhere."

Renata waved away McTavish's complaints. "Almost nothing. You should've come. It was fun, considering it was— hey," she said, her attention swerving as she slid to the foot of Thena's bed, peering down. "…What's that?"

"Just came for Shepard," Barker replied with a shrug as she sat down and began pulling on her boots, before adding, somewhat accusatorially, "She's not opening it."

Something about the note in Barker's tone set Thena's teeth on edge. It's none of your fucking business, she wanted to say. But she didn't say that. She didn't say any of the things she wanted to say. Instead, she breathed slowly and bit down on the inside of her cheek until pain pushed back the urge to voice something regrettable. Don't piss where you sleep, Tyrrana would've told her. Unless, of course, you're a volus and have an internal filtration unit in your suit. Then piss wherever you want.

Thena missed Tyrrana so completely, so fiercely just then—the ache was sharp enough to make moisture prickle at her eyes.

"Why not?" Renata asked, hanging further over the foot of Thena's bunk. "Is it…" The words died in her friend's throat. She'd seen the return label. More than that, she knew what it meant. What it had to mean.

"It's nothing," Thena managed, but her chest felt too tight and her voice sounded funny to her own ears. It's nothing sounded more like it's everything.

"Where're you going, Barks?" Renata asked, casting a glance to Barker.

"For the hundredth goddamn time, don't call me that, Stevens," the other girl snapped, shrugging into her coat. "I'm going to the labs." Not that it's any of your business, her tone seemed to say.

When the door slammed behind Barker, McTavish let out a low whistle. "You know, it's no wonder she's in engineering."

"Why's that?" Thena asked dully, looking away from the crate.

McTavish hoisted herself up to her own bunk. "No need at all for anything resembling social skills." She settled back with a stack of datapads before setting a personal playlist on her omni-tool and snapping a pair of tiny earpieces in place. All Thena could hear was a soft, tinny whisper of music from McTavish's audio and the sound of rain drumming against the window.

"You okay?" Renata asked, keeping her voice low.

"Yeah. No. I-I don't…" She raked a hand through her hair and knelt on the floor. "Shit," she breathed, because she didn't know what else to say. She didn't know what else she could say. Her heart still pounded, and now her head ached, and all witty repartee was gone. "I didn't— I didn't think…"

Her friend sent the crate a dark look. "Took 'em long enough."

"I was on my own for a while," she reminded Renata, somehow feeling… resigned to it now. "They didn't know where to find me." Reaching out one hesitant hand, her fingertips brushed the top of the crate. "I'm… I'm back in the system now."

"You know, if you want to be alone, I can come up with something to get McTavish out of here. It's no big deal. You want privacy, we can make that happen."

"Steve," Thena said on an exhale. "It's fine. I'm fine."

Renata's look was hard, her brown eyes sharp. "I call bullshit on that."

Pressing the pads of her fingertips against her eyes, Thena muttered, "I'm as fine as I can be right now. Better?"

"Marginally."

With another sidelong glance up at McTavish, clearly lost in whatever she was reading, Thena crouched down and picked at the packing tape, finding one end and working her thumb underneath it until she pulled the whole strip away in one long, brown curlicue. Slowly, methodically, and refusing Renata's offer of a jackknife, Thena pulled the packing tape free and carefully pried open the crate's lid. A smooth foam packing insert protected the box's contents, but even with the foam insert in place, Thena could still smell the smoke. At that point she wasn't even completely sure she was actually smelling it, or if her brain was supplying too-vivid memories for the moment—the smell of burning prefab and crops mingled with the sharp, pungent stink of electronics overheating and bursting. The smell of burning bodies. Hair, clothes, everything burning.

She sucked in a breath and held it. Counted to ten.

Then she pulled the piece of foam free.

The crate's contents were hardly items of note, for all they were nestled into the box, protected by layers of packing foam. Three water-damaged books, blackened by soot—one of them her mother's copy of Odysseus, the other a book of French poetry, and the third a book of Grimm's tales in the original German. One antique, regulation wooden baseball bat. Several more items wrapped in paper, listed on an inventory sheet simply as "miscellaneous." The books and bat she could see, but the other items were shrouded, which meant she had to touch them, unwrap them, discover what had been found in the remains of her family's home.

"Holy shit," Renata breathed, looking at the bat. "They recovered that?"

"Wooden bat's not going to be any interest to someone picking over a colony for obvious valuables," she explained. "No matter how much of an antique it is."

"And yet I'm pretty sure my grampa would shank a guy for that bat."

Thena ran her hand over it, wondering where it had been recovered. Hadn't she had it in her hands as she'd run through the cornfield? Or had she dropped it before then, after the batarian shot Jason, after—

Troy, pulling her off the dead batarian, his head misshapen and bloody, clumps of brain matter clinging, sliding down the wood grain, falling, dripping to the floor.

…After.

"At least they cleaned it," she murmured under her breath, pulling the bat free from the box and setting it reverently on her bunk. The first of the wrapped packages was flat and wide. Not terribly heavy. Swallowing hard, she pulled the paper away, sheet after sheet. It almost put her in mind of Christmas mornings, torn paper and bows tossed and strewn about the family room, but Thena wasn't tearing, wasn't rushing—she wasn't even sure she wanted to know what it was at all. When the last sheet of soft grey paper came away, the first thing she saw was her own face. Younger—fifteen, maybe. Maybe fourteen. So very much younger, and smiling, and hoisted upon someone's shoulders. Jason's shoulders, she realized. She couldn't remember the occasion, exactly. A birthday, maybe, or some other holiday. It could even have been the last day of school or the first day of a vacation. Something significant enough to make three teenagers smile—genuine smiles, Thena's arms hooked around Jason's neck, Troy leaning against Jason, his pose nothing but over-the-top cockiness—for a silly family photo. Lemon trees filled the background, lush green boughs peppered with vibrant yellow fruit.

The picture itself was damaged—heat and water and exposure left it streaked and warped; the frame was blackened with streaks of soot or dirt, and the glass in the frame long had long since been discarded—and, working very, very carefully, Thena freed the picture from its frame, tossing the latter aside.

"You okay, Theen?" Renata asked quietly. She was holding a hand out, as if unsure whether any comfort would be welcomed. In truth, Thena wasn't sure she would've welcomed it. Everything felt too raw, too scraped over and cut open, and at this point she wasn't even sure she wanted to see what else was in the box.

"Not really," Thena answered dully. Her heart was pounding, her stomach wrenching, limbs flooding and tingling with adrenaline that had nowhere to go, no outlet to act on. She'd just been prolonging this, hadn't she — running and hiding and avoiding this for all that time. And here it was, caught up with her at last, forcing her to look at the past, touch it, smell it, accept it and move on.

A watch, Jason's, with its thick, utilitarian band and rugged—but heavily scratched—face. A "survival watch," he'd bragged, and she and Troy had rolled their eyes as Jason listed all the ways in which his watch was superior to an omni-tool. And now, as Thena looked at its scratched face, she caught herself trying not to think too hard about the irony of that. A survival watch. The time it kept was Mindoir's, but it was still running, still keeping, as far as Thena could tell, perfect time. Next she unwrapped an ugly, chipped figurine—a cartoony dog wearing sunglasses and gaudy swim trunks that was clearly a memento from somewhere, but Thena was damned if she could remember where or when. She was only certain it had been Troy's, because it was silly and ugly, and Troy had always loved the silliest, ugliest, kitschiest things.

Beneath that was a heavy envelope filled with random pieces of flotsam and jetsam that Thena couldn't identify all at once, and in a moment everything wavered, and damn it, she'd promised herself she wouldn't cry, wouldn't start, wouldn't cry, but there were things here, things she knew, things she recognized, things she'd touched and laughed after, and it wasn't right. Wasn't fair. And after so many years keeping a very strict mental distance where her family was concerned, thinking about them while never quite letting herself get lost and subsumed by memory and emotion, here it was. Here. In her hands, mocking her distance, daring her not to think about them now, when she held all that remained of them in a two-by-three foot box.

She folded the lid on the envelope closed—too much to process; too much, too much—and picked up the bottommost parcel. It was soft and flexible, and the paper began falling away almost as soon as she picked it up.

The material was dark, darker than it ought to have been, and stiff with age and neglect and exposure; it was frayed and peppered with holes, as if rodents had chewed on it in the intervening years. But there was no doubt of what it was. Not when she'd pulled the paper away and she held it up. Glaring at her under the harsh lights was Vancouver emblazoned in white—dingy grey, now—and one very familiar whale breaking out of a similarly familiar stylized C. A Canucks jersey.

No, she realized, her breath stopping, hands clenching as she turned it over and saw, against all comprehension, Shepard stitched into the back. Hers. Her Canucks jersey. Her birthday. The game they'd gone to. The trip to Earth. The last thing they'd done as a family before—

"Every fan needs one," Dad said, tossing her the piece of cloth, blue and white and green blurring in the air as he threw it, trading a grin with Mom when she caught it easily.

Mom nudged her as she held it up to herself. "Look at the back, sweetheart."

"Sweet," Troy breathed gazing enviously over the birthday gift. "When do I get to borrow it?"

"Fifth of never," she replied, twirling the jersey into a rope up and snapping it at him with it before pulling it over her head. "What do you think?" she asked with a twirl.

"Gotta say," Jason said, already wearing his jersey and pulling a cap down onto his head, "it matches your scar."

Before everything.

Renata's voice, worry making it strained and thin, her hand on Thena's arm. "Hey, Theen? Thena? Thena."

"I'm okay," she answered automatically, wondering just how long her friend had been saying her name. She looked up, blinking hard, trying to see the room—the room, and not her memories. Slowly, like pieces of a larger puzzle falling and clicking into place, she became aware of the sound of rain still falling, still pounding against the windows, turning the world on the other side of the glass into a watercolor of blacks, browns, and grays. She became aware of the room, of McTavish's omni-tool and the smell of wet jackets hanging to dry. Forcing her limbs into motion, Thena folded the jersey into fourths and put it back into the box, slowly returning every other item she'd pulled out. By the time she replaced the lid on the crate, her hands were barely shaking at all.

"You are not okay."

"No," she insisted, shaking her head. "I'm…" Thena brought her hands to her face, but before she could scrub away her tears, she saw how blackened her palms were, caught how strongly they smelled of smoke and age and decay, but smelled nothing of home, and she could still remember what home smelled like, could still remember orange blossoms and lemon trees and there were too many memories, too many images, too many thoughts and reactions and wishes and aches let loose all at once in her head. She was barely aware she'd scrambled to her feet at all until she was in the washroom, scrubbing her hands with soap under scalding water, hardly conscious of her tears but for the way each choking sob tore through her throat, bouncing back at her off the cold tile.

Renata's hand rubbed across her back as Thena scrubbed relentlessly at her hands, then as she folded herself forward, resting her elbows against the counter.

"I'm okay," she insisted, though when she inhaled, everything trembled.

"No, you're not."

"I was done with this," she ground out, wondering how badly it would hurt if she slammed a hand against the wall. A fist? She wanted to hit something, wanted it so desperately that her fingernails scraped against the countertop as she curled her hands into fists. "I was done. This part was supposed to be over. I'm tired of this. I don't want this anymore. Fuck crying, I'm tired of crying." Thena cringed. "And now I'm whining."

Then, somehow, they were sitting on the floor, backs braced against the door, keeping McTavish out, keeping Barker out, should she return. Thena couldn't quite figure out how they'd ended up down there, but Renata was patting her back, saying nothing until the storm of Thena's sobs and tears finally, finally subsided into congested sniffles and halfhearted hiccups.

"Better?" she asked. Thena shrugged, but didn't reply. "You know," she went on, as if she hadn't expected a response, "I read once that emotional tears have a different chemical from tears the body produces at any other time. Different from tears of pain, different from tears you get when someone's cutting onions—just different. And the reason why we cry when we're sad is because the chemicals in our brain are all out of whack, so we've gotta release that pressure and get all the levels back to normal."

Thena's expression must have been skeptical, because soon Renata's elbow was digging into her ribs. "I'm being serious, Theen."

"Ow, okay, fine," she replied, scrubbing her hands across her face. "You're being serious."

"And you know what?"

She sent Renata a curious look. "I have a feeling you're going to tell me."

"I haven't seen you cry in the, what, two—almost three?—years we've roomed together," she said quietly. And there was something else, a note of something in her voice. Grief, maybe. Though Thena suspected it was less grief for her family than grief for Thena herself. "Not once."

"I'm—"

"Okay?" Renata supplied. "So you keep saying. Over and over again. You're not okay, and it's okay if you're not okay. There's no statute of limitations on grieving, especially not when you've lost your whole family. You're tired of crying? Well that's too damned bad, because you're going to miss them, so let yourself miss them. You don't have to prove anything to the rest of us. It's okay. We already know you can kick our butts in hand to hand, and Barker still hasn't gotten it out of her craw that you got a better time than she did on speed drills." Renata smiled at Thena's watery chuckle, then patted her back. "You don't have to hold it all in, you know. Hell, you shouldn't. Bad things happen when you don't relieve those pressure valves, Theen." She paused, nudging again. "I bet even badass admirals cry sometimes."

"Yeah, let's ask Commander Harris that," Thena scoffed. "I'm sure sitting in a bathroom bawling's perfectly healthy."

"You doubt me?" Renata asked, pulling away and folding her arms. The look she gave Thena was an arch one as she reached up and poked an index finger against Thena's forehead. "How do you feel?"

"I feel like crap," she tossed back with a glare. "My head's pounding and my nose is stuffy," she answered, swatting Renata's hand away. But when her roommate's look darkened, Thena sighed and shook her head as all the fight drained out of her. She was tired now, and still felt… miserable, but the tense ache was gone, the wall-scratching feeling like she was lost with no hope of finding her way out. Thena felt… "A little better," she said, finally. "I think. I guess. Maybe."

"Thanks for the ringing endorsement." After a moment, Renata tipped her head back against the door and sighed. "What were they like?" she asked, hesitating over the words, over that path, as if the very words were loose ground that could give way just under her feet. "Your family. What were they like? Your… your dad liked baseball?"

The memories that had released themselves upon her in a torrent now surrounded Thena's mind, a series of glistening puddles. "My mom used to tell me… stories, when I was a kid. Never realized till later it was The Odyssey."

With a soft chuckle, Renata shook her head. "Thena, Jason, and Troy. I get it now. Cute."

"And… and my dad… made the best pancakes," she said, smiling faintly. "And he loved all Earth sports… except, maybe skyball." She smiled a little. "Called it a 'bastardized abomination of baseball.' He tried to teach us baseball and… he got really good at replacing windows."

"Hey, to be fair, skyball's kinda stupid," Renata relented. At Thena's querying look, she shrugged. "Then again, I like speed skating, so maybe don't look at me." Then, suddenly, Renata pushed to her feet, offering Thena a hand up. "Come on," she said, no room for argument in her tone, tugging the door open once Thena was on her feet, brushing her hands on her pants.

"Where?"

"I think we need to go out for pancakes."

Thena blinked. "You want… to go out for pancakes?"

"Well, I'm not making them for you," Renata retorted. "And then? Then… I think I need to convince you to buy yourself a new jersey." Her voice softened a little. "Nothing against your old one, of course. Just not sure it… fits you anymore."