W/N - I got caught up on work and family stuff and fell away from reading and writing for a month. I'm catching up now and have a load of back reading to do. I've also resumed writing on my DA:O fic, picking up in the Fade again.

I wanted to write this piece from a military perspective, using some modified traditions from the US and UK/Commonwealth to add flavor. I also found some inspiration from the song, Green Fields of France, that looks at WWI in 1916. If you get the chance, listen to Flowers of the Forest on YouTube. Very powerful. I took the liberty of adding a rank to the Systems Alliance structure. How can you have a military without a master chief? Perhaps it's my current Halo obsession.

Let's look at Kaidan Alenko's thoughts and please enjoy. All suggestions are welcome and appreciated.

Flowers of the Forest

France 2183

It had been a long time in coming, but Commander Claire Shepard had finally earned her rest. She had fought the good fight, stopped the rogue Spectre Saren, and helped to destroy Sovereign, saving both Council and Citadel. "You really deserve a rest," Lieutenant Commander Kaidan Alenko told her, "after all of the battles that you fought…all the lives that you saved." He made a snort and shook his head slowly. "Remember when Captain Anderson knocked Udina out? Of course you do. God, I'll never forget that. I wish we could have been there to see it."

He put his finger into his high, stiff uniform collar and pulled it looser. "I'll never get used to these dress blues, you know, all creases and starch. I even used Kiwi polish on the shoes this time though. You deserve the best, Claire." He looked down at the spit shine on his glossy black footwear. He'd spent a half hour getting them just right with a tin of water and cotton balls, rubbing the polish into the leather until he could about see his reflection.

"Hey, remember how you shined your shoes before you took command of the Normandy? No fake Corframs for you, no ma'am. Captain Anderson told me later how that was something that you really impressed him with. That really impressed me too, Shepard."

He blew out a long breath and put his finger to his mouth as if to speak again. But, his lip quivered and his hand shook for a moment before he forced his body to be still again. "I…I miss you, Shepard," he said to the beautifully polished blue steel casket that was covered in the azure and silver flag of the Systems Alliance. Another lost soul in another war to end all wars. He gulped down a hot, sour taste in his throat and bit down on his lip. It had been a long, long week and it seemed as if the nightmare would never end. He closed his eyes and visions of flames and explosions seared his mind's eye. Cold sweat beaded on his face.

Just when he thought he would break down under the mental assault of his recent memories, Kaidan felt a hand settle onto his shoulder and he turned with a start. "Cap…I mean Councilor Anderson."

David Anderson's face was somber and full of regret, his eyes betraying a broken heart. "I miss her too, Kaidan. I still can't believe it's true. Part of me still refuses to accept it though."

Kaidan balled his fists and looked away. He couldn't face the man who had been like a father to them all. "It was my fault. I shouldn't have left her. She went back to get Joker while I ran. How can I possibly tell her parents this? But, they have to know!"

"No, son, it's not your fault," Anderson said emphatically with a sweep of his hand. "I reviewed the tapes…she ordered you to get the crew off and you did just that. I know it hurts like hell and you think you'll never get through this, but trust me, you'll get through it. I've been there."

Kaidan shook his head. "I don't know. I remember when Jenkins died on Eden Prime, she was really broken up. She grieved for every member of the crew that we lost. She cried in my arms after Ash died. We just had Pressly's and twenty other crew members' funerals. This is a hundred times worse."

"I know, Kaidan, I know," Anderson said in a fatherly way, his deep baritone voice comforting in this terrible hour. "It will take time. Come, we have to go. We have our duty to her now." The councilor put his arm around Kaidan's shoulder and ushered him away from the empty casket as soldiers and marines came in and hoisted the heavy blue steel up by brass grips and carried it out of the mortuary onto the snow covered ground. Boots crunching on the layers of soft white flakes, they loaded the casket onto the limber and caisson, a wheeled cart that was designed to carry cannonballs in the military of days gone by. Kaidan winced as the casket made a thunk as it was laid down into the caisson and pushed into place, the sound coming like a stake in his heart. He could hear the snicker and tromp of hooves as horses were tethered to the carts. Behind the caisson, a single, black caparisoned horse, covered in a black mourning blanket, stood ready to escort the spirit of Claire Shepard to her final eternal rest.

Kaidan had been given a surviving pair of her boots just for this occasion. These, too, he had polished to perfection. They were made of worn brown leather with hard soles and she loved to wear them on rides when she was planetside. They still had her scent, her feel…her aura in them and Kaidan wished that he did not have to give them up. There were scant few mementos of her existence that he could hold onto and letting any go meant letting her go. Reluctantly, he placed the boots into the stirrups, facing backwards as he was instructed to do by the chaplain. "What's this mean, Captain? I've never been to a…service this high up."

"It's for the warrior who will never ride again and so she can look back on her friends and family one last time."

"I…yes, that makes sense," he said as men and women in finely pressed uniforms, representing the different services of the Alliance, took their places on either side of the caisson. Some wore deep blue, others, black, along with a few in maroon or crimson, all with ironed creases as sharp as razors.

One marine walked smartly to the head of the procession, squaring his corners with the precision of a surgeon. He was a burly man with a neck as thick as a bull, wearing the golden chevrons of a Master Operations Chief and more service ribbons on his chest than there were stars in the sky. The master chief was all spit and polish and looked as tough as nails, but Kaidan saw a tear run down the chief's face and fall off of his chin into the snow. Breath streaming in the chill, the chief snapped to and bellowed out, "Detail, ten-hut!" and dozens of boots clicked in unison.

A driver took his seat in the limber and tapped the lead horses with a crop as a lone drummer tapped out a long roll to begin the procession. Kaidan felt a growing numbness in his limbs that spread like a poison ivy through his body. Still, he forced his feet forward in lock step with those around him, his officer's saber rattling against his leg. He would not shame his fellow men and women by faltering now. As he inhaled the crisp winter air he could feel the cold stinging his nose and cheeks and settling deep within his lungs and heart. He looked up into the cloudy gray sky and watched the swirling flakes as he marched, lost in his own dark thoughts.

With rifles muzzles held down and to the rear, the procession moved slowly through gates of iron onto a field that was a garden of stone seeded with white crosses, Stars of David, crescent moons, wheels of righteousness, and a dozen other symbols that were carved in marble. A heavy silence lay over the area as the caisson rolled up to a platform. Kaidan could see a crowd now, some seated, some standing, all dressed in black. He could make out a turian with blue face paint and quarian wearing a black shawl. But, a striking middle-aged couple stood out – a woman with black hair, pulled back into a bun, wearing the sharp uniform of a Navy captain and a distinguished man in a black suit, woven of fine Italian silk – Hannah and John Michael Shepard, Claire's parents. They had just welcomed him into the family recently and now he could not bear to see them. Could they ever understand what happened on the Normandy that day? As the procession neared the crowd, he made eye contact with Hannah and he knew where Claire got her looks. She tried to give Kaidan a smile, but he had to look away, so heavy was his burden of guilt.

At the head of the caisson, the master chief drew and raised his NCO's saber. "Detail…halt! Pre…sent…Arms!" Across the field, right hands snapped up to meet the brims of caps as flags and guidons were dipped forward in a sign of respect for the fallen. As salutes were held a team of six rushed out and hoisted the casket from the caisson. Kaidan recognized Corporal Fredericks among them. Shepard always had a soft spot for the jarhead and he turned out to be a helluva marine. Something was different about the boy though – the ever present shit eating grin was gone from the happy-go-lucky kid's face. That day near Alchera when the Normandy was ambushed had changed everyone.

A gray-haired chaplain, dressed in pristine white with a purple sash, approached Kaidan and Councilor Anderson and extended his hand to them. "Councilor, commander, I am truly sorry. Please, follow me for the service," he said and strode past the ranks of saluting troops.

On instinct, born of years of service, Anderson fell into step with the chaplain and brought the tips of his right fingers to his temple, returning the salutes. The master chief cried out, "Order…Arms!" and swept his saber down and the hands of the group returned to their sides.

With heavy steps, Kaidan followed the two, walking just ahead of the casket. He looked back to see snowflakes melting on the casket and beading into water that ran down the metal into the snow. If only he hadn't left her. If only he'd been the one to get Joker. If only Joker had got up and left the damn helm when they all abandoned ship. If only she were still here to take his hand and tell him it was okay. If only….

The chaplain led them to a stand and podium while the casket team set the heavy steel on a mount over an open grave. The casket might have been empty, but it was about tradition and Commander Shepard deserved that much. Kaidan took a seat near the podium and looked down into the grave. The finality of seeing that pit was almost too much for him to bear right now and he began to feel the tinge of pain from an oncoming migraine. He took a deep breath and rubbed his temples as Doctor Chakwas had shown him and the pain receded into an uncomfortable tingle. He searched the gathering and was rewarded with making eye contact with her and she gave him a solemn nod. Adams sat next to her, his head down. They had just buried Pressly's empty casket and, in spite of their constant bickering, the two were thick as thieves when it came right down to it. Kaidan closed his eyes and, for a moment, he could hear Pressly's high pitched voice, complaining about something. He looked out into the crowd again and saw Admiral Kahoku's family along with three girls who looked an awful lot like Ashley Williams. He even thought he saw Conrad Verner.

Then, his eyes settled on Jeff Moreau, sitting on the other side of the doctor. For a moment there was a surge of anger and he balled his fists. Dammit, why didn't Joker just up and leave when ordered? If only he'd listened to Shepard. He didn't know if he could ever speak to the man again. Ash and Claire would tell him to forgive the helmsman, but it wasn't that easy. They weren't left behind to pick up the pieces of shattered dreams.

Kaidan's self pity was interrupted by a tall thin man sitting down next to them. "Admiral Hackett!" He was tempted to stand, but the admiral waved him off.

The admiral's gray hair framed a dignified patrician face, deeply lined with the many burdens and cares of the Alliance fleet. "I'm sorry about what you went through, commander. We'll get to the bottom of this, I assure you."

"I appreciate that, admiral. Whatever you need from me, I'm on board."

"That's good to hear, son. We'll need you. And, I'm very sorry about Claire. She exemplified all that humanity has to offer the galaxy," the admiral said as he tapped Kaidan on the knee. Then, he leaned around to speak to Councilor Anderson. "David," he whispered, just enough for Kaidan to hear. "I need to see you after. Alliance Intelligence thinks this was an inside job. Someone sold the Normandy out."

Kaidan's breath left him and it felt like a krogan had kicked him in the gut. A traitor? This was worse than he imagined. He was about to ask something about this when the chaplain took the podium and began to speak.

"If there is one thing that Commander Claire Shepard gave us all it was hope. Hope that one person could make a difference. Hope that humanity could take its place among the stars. Hope for a brighter future. And, in the words of Alexander Pope, hope springs eternal in the human breast. Let us bow our heads. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven."

Kaidan closed his eyes dutifully, but he could not put his mind at ease. The chaplain's words became like the hum of the mass effect core in his ears and the voice faded into the recesses of his troubled thoughts. Images of Claire, tumbling in space, flitted in and out. Her hand was stretched out to him, beckoning him for help, vents of oxygen streaming from her hardsuit. In spite of the chill, sweat beaded up on his forehead. Shepard gave her all for he and the crew and she died alone and terrified, gasping for air, crushed by the vacuum of space. He dug his fingers into his legs and realized that Joker was no more to blame than he was. The helmsman had been prepared to sacrifice all too. They were all heroes and they were all victims.

Then, the dark images of Claire brightened into the form of a living woman sitting besides him and taking his hand in hers. Surely, this was a hallucination, born of despair, but it felt so real. She gave him that sultry half smile of hers as her gray eyes lit up. "Rise up, my love, my fair one," she whispered, "and come away. For lo, the winter is past…." She stroked his cheek with the back of her hand and then faded back into oblivion. Now, he would only see her in his dreams.

A hot, moist sensation shot into Kaidan's cheeks and nose and he rubbed his sleeve across his eyes as the chaplain's words came back into focus.

"Then, shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."

The chaplain closed his leather bound Bible and backed away from the podium as the master chief stepped up to the casket. He raised his saber and seven marines brought antiquated rifles up to their chests. As one, they aimed their weapons of wood and iron to the gray sky and the crack of gunpowder tore the air, sending birds flying off towards the horizon. The marines slowly lowered their rifles to their sides and bowed their heads as a lone bugler sounded the somber notes to Taps and the Last Post.

As the final note trailed off into eternity, Kaidan stood and walked to the casket. He had been briefed on his duty and would not fail now. He joined the master chief and, together, they took the Alliance flag and began folding it into a tight triangle, which the chief handed to him. It would be his duty now and his alone. His knees wobbled and his feet felt like lead, but he soldiered on and made his way to Hannah and John Shepard. He remembered the funeral of Richard Jenkins and how Claire did not want to carry that burden. But, like Claire on that day, this was not about what Lieutenant Commander Kaidan Alenko wanted. This was about honor. This was about remembrance. He knelt in the snow and presented the flag to Hannah. He forced himself to look up into her eyes and expected to see anger, blame, or even disgust, but the soft look on her face told him that he was forgiven. She took the flag and grasped his hand, raising him up to stand with them.

"Thank you, Kaidan," was all she said. It was as if the weight of the world fell away from his shoulders. There was resilience in the human spirit and, perhaps one day, he would find it.

Then, he bowed and made his way to where Doctor Chakwas stood with the surviving crew. Her eyes were red and puffy, but Joker looked a wreck. His face was ashen and he hadn't shaved since that day near Alchera. Kaidan could tell that Jeff was avoiding his gaze and the boy bit his lip.

"Hey, Joker," Kaidan said and Joker turned to him, looking as if he were about to be hit. "It's okay, man. I don't blame you. What's done is done and all we can do now is to honor her memory and make this right."

Joker stopped for a second and then blew out a long breath with a pained chuckle. "I…uh…thanks, commander."

Kaidan's body took on a will of its own and he put his arms around Jeff who returned the embrace. "We'll get through this, Joker."

"I know…oww, watch the bones please."

This got a quiet laugh from the crew and they all joined hands as a piper began to play Flowers of the Forest, the harsh, but powerfully resonant notes dancing among the falling snow. As Claire's casket lowered into the ground of the now white fields of France, Kaidan took a deep breath and added his voice to the growing throng.

"Now they are mourning,
For all time lamenting,
The Flowers of the Forest
Are all withered away."

CODEX:

Kiwi Polish – favored type of shoe polish
Corframs – dress shoe that uses fake leather
Caisson – type of wagon that was used by old artillery units to supply the cannons
Caparisoned Horse – riderless horse that is outfitted in livery for state or military funerals
Star of David – Jewish headstone in this instance
Crescent Moon – Muslim headstone in this instance
Wheel of Righteousness – Buddhist headstone in this instance
NCO – Noncommissioned Officer
Taps – US military bugle call used for funerals and memorials
Last Post – UK/Commonwealth bugle call for the same
Flowers of the Forest – Scottish folk song used by the UK/Commonwealth military to honor fallen service members