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To Those We Left Behind

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Jack hovered over her kids night and day, and didn't lose a single one until they got to Earth. It was like the relay all over again; she knew as soon as they hit the dirt that she'd lose people, like it or not. She wasn't Shepard. She couldn't lead a bunch of misfits into a suicide mission and come out squeaky fucking clean. The kids knew it, too, and everyone had convinced themselves on the ride down that they were more than ready to die.

All lies, of course, but that didn't make it any easier.

The first to go was Prangley. She'd made him her second just weeks before... the kid wasn't the best biotic, but he was a damned good leader, a natural one, like someone else she could name. They'd split into two groups. Prangley lead the other team along a route she'd thought would be safer, but that was the biggest fucking mistake she'd made all year. They ended up getting swarmed by brutes, and Prangley died for his team. He got a hero's death. Like someone else she could name.

She lost several more kids rushing to Prangley's position, and Rodriguez took a hit to the face that nearly did her in as well. Although Jack would never admit it aloud, Rodriguez turned out to be the best biotic on either team, and Jack couldn't afford any more losses. She pulled back, leaving Prangley's body to the Reapers, and took the rest of the kids to a nearby compound. Rodriguez fell into a coma that she wouldn't shake for weeks. Two of the other kids died of infection, and a third bled to death out a stupid lack of medigel.

In the end, they were a sorry bunch, but the Alliance had long ago declared them heroes, and Jack was told her kids saved a lot of lives, especially in their final hours. It wasn't a comfort. Jack didn't give a shit about medals or honor or being the ray of hope for a few dozen soldiers. The only thing Jack cared about, the only thing she used to care about, was survival. For herself... and her children.

She'd wanted them in support roles. That would have been safer. They could have handled that. She told Shepard she wanted them in support roles, too—but the fucking bastard didn't listen. Had to believe in them. Had to put them in harm's way for the good of the war effort, making the hard decisions so that she didn't have to.

A hero to the end, as they say, which in her opinion, was just stupid.

And now, months after the fighting stopped in a galactic burst of green energy, Jack once again stood on the crew deck of the Normandy. She hovered a hand over Shepard's name, and cursed it. Loudly.

To her left, Rodriguez, half her face still scarred and twisted, frowned at her.

“You're cussing a hero, ma'am.”

“Yeah, but I knew the fucker.”

“Which is why we're here.”

It wasn't a question, but there was something lingering in the silence afterward that led Jack to look back at her. Rodriguez was staring at Jack with those razor-sharp eyes, clearly wanting to say something out of line, something that was only ever meant to be said between friends, or... whatever the hell they were, now. But though the fighting had stopped and the war officially ended, there was still too much protocol between them. Rodriguez didn't dare dig too deeply below Jack's surface layers, and Jack wasn't sure if she was disappointed or not.

Like many things these days, it was fucking awkward, and Jack didn't know what to do with it. So she sighed and bobbed her head in vague affirmation, not really sure what she was agreeing to. “Yeah,” she said, to Rodriguez. “That's why we're here.”

Jack stood at the wall for a long time, long enough for Rodriguez to get bored and wander off to the mess hall. Jack could hear her flirting with one of the staff, which made Jack jerk just a little with some weird flare of emotion... an emotion that wasn't jealousy, because Jack didn't get jealous. She wasn't that kind of chick.

She took a deep breath and hovered a finger over Thane's name, then Mordin's. She stared a long time at the letters of Legion's name, trying to puzzle it out and getting no where. She eventually drifted back to Shepard again, glaring at it.

Just like Prangley. Taking one for the galaxy.

“So. You must be Jack.”

She didn't recognize the voice, but as she turned, she knew that face. It was the same face that snarled and spat at Shepard back on Horizon, all that time ago, angrily demanding why a dead Alliance hero was alive, and wearing the Cerberus emblem.

Privately, she'd sympathized.

“And you must be Kaidan.”

He jerked his shoulders, a sad little motion, like the fight had been kicked out of him recently. “In the flesh,” he said. Kaidan tried to focus on her, but his gaze gradually shifted to the left, and landed back on Shepard's name. She turned to look at it too, and found herself scowling again.

“Heard you two were close,” she fished, carefully.

“We were,” he said.

“I see. I'm... sorry.”

He glanced at her then, curious at the tone. She winced—never was good at hiding in plain sight. “So, uh, were you two--”

“Once,” she cut in, because Kaidan's eyes were deep and dark and beautiful, and she had just enough heart to not break his. She owed Shepard that much. “It was casual. Release of stress, I guess you could say. He was... more like a brother, in the end.” A brother that she wanted toss into a wall, on occasion, but that's family for you... or so Jack had come to learn.

“Ah.”

Thing was, she wasn't the only fling that dark year hunting the Collectors. She knew now that Shepard had been at his wits end, back then, lost, angry and drifting in the chaos just like her, and just like her, grabbing at ass whenever the opportunity arose. She got that; sex had a way of helping you forget about your problems, and Shepard had plenty of them. He'd gotten into Kelly's pants, too, and a few dancers on Omega. He'd even made moves on Samara, though she clearly rejected him, which left a little dark cloud over his head for weeks. And she was pretty sure something had been going on with Aria, although that was a bit shady...

Anyway, if it was one thing Jack had learned over the last year and a half, it was restraint. She took one look at Kaidan's big sad eyes, and kept her mouth shut.

She attempted to shift topic, but it was still real fucking awkward. “I heard they're building a huge memorial in London.”

“Yeah,” Kaidan said. “I was asked to... be there.”

A lot of my kids are being put on the wall underneath his statue. I was asked to go too, but I told them to go fuck themselves. “I'll probably head back to Grissom,” she said instead. “I'm still an instructor. Got responsibilities now, apparently.”

Kaidan perked up then, for the first time since she'd met him. A light entered his eyes, and he nodded. “I heard about that. I've got students too. Biotics, like yours. I need to return to them, but... Alliance won't let me back in until I take some time off.”

“Enforced leave of absence?”

Kaylee Sanders tried to put Jack on vacation after they buried what kids they could find, but she wouldn't have it. There was still work to be done, and only so many hands left to do it. Sanders needed her.

“Yeah,” Kaidan said. “Something like that.”

And there it was, the return of that dark cloud sucking every last bit of happiness out of him. He stared long and hard at Shepard's name again, and Jack glanced at it, before returning to Kaidan. She was glad she hadn't fallen for the bastard. Not if this is what became of you in the aftermath.

“You know,” she started, then broke off, hesitant for the first time in her life. She didn't know if there was a line here that shouldn't be crossed, and things were so fragile already. But she took a breath, and went on with it anyway. “You could come with me, back to Grissom. You've already got experience. I think Sanders could use you.”

Kaidan mulled it over, then gave her a tiny nod. Not an agreement, exactly, but not a refusal either. “I'll think about it,” he said.

“Good.” Shepard was a bastard, but he'd hate to leave you so fucking miserable. I know I would. “Joker's got my contact info. Just tell him to give me a buzz if you're interested, okay?” Awkwardly, she stepped back from the wall, from Kaidan and his eternal mourning, from the name that changed her life, and the others that she was surprised to find herself mourning, too.

She made it to the elevator, before Kaidan turned back to her, and gave her a broken little smile.

“Jack. Thanks.”

She wasn't sure what he was thanking her for; all she'd done was give him an offer that technically wasn't within her power to do so. But instead of asking, she just nodded.

“You bet,” she said, lamely.

She punched the button to the main floor. By the time the elevator doors closed, Kaidan was gone.