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Author's Note: For vorchagirl. Hon, I wish there were a million of you.
"Winter has always been desolate here." - Shepard and James. What lingers after the war.
"They call it a ghost forest," she says, standing with her back to the trees, just at the edge of the brush, her gaze raking over the coast before her. Bree Shepard looks out across the long stretch of ancient, barnacled tree stumps littering the fog-touched sand, the soft waves of the Pacific lapping at the shoreline. It is barely morning, and brief flutters of light break across the dense grey, illuminating shallow pools along the sand between the rotted stumps.
It goes on farther than she can see, and somehow, that is a comfort.
James comes up behind her, huffing from the exertion of their trek through the forest. "Please, on all that is holy, would you finally tell me exactly why we hiked all the way out to the ass-end of nowhere?"
Shepard turns to him, her smile close-lipped but tender. Her own chest heaves with exhaustion. "I needed to see."
James braces his hands along his knees and pants, head hung momentarily while he gathers himself. His breath is a wisp of puffed air in front of his face and he sniffles softly in the winter cold before standing straight and raising a brow her way. "Needed to see what?" he asks, exasperated.
Her smile lilts, her gaze shifting out across the grey sand.
Shepard is familiar with desolation. It has been the constant in her life for too long now. It is too close a companion, too intimate of company. She stands at the coast of her hometown and wonders how she has become so accustomed to winter. The chill in her bones. The stark, cloud-strewn skies. The barren branches.
In her dreams, the leafs still fall.
They never stop falling.
Shepard swallows back that hollow sense of home and licks her lips, stepping forward. James watches her walk silently along the sand – her steps purposeful and slow – before he moves to follow her at a distance. Her blonde hair, held tight in a ponytail, is oddly dulled in the light of early dawn. But her shoulders are still broad and her spine is still straight and nothing else has ever struck him quite so much as the image of her back in the ghostly fog of the coast, harrowing snags of rock all around her, the lulling sound of the tide lingering at the edges of his mind.
James stops beside such an outcropping, a large, cylindrical rock reaching to about chest height, jaggedly broken off at the top. But no – not a rock. He reaches up to touch the decaying thing, the brittle feel of saltwater saturating it, like hard, coarse ash trailing through his fingers. He blinks in realization.
"They were trees once."
James blinks, looking up at Shepard's voice, and he finds her watching him from up ahead. Wisps of fog gather around their boots and sift out to sea. James narrows his brows, hooking a thumb back in the direction they came from. "You mean like that forest we just came through?"
She nods. "Sitka spruce trees."
"Huh." He turns his narrowed gaze to the drowned stump before him. "And you grew up here?"
Shepard turns to move past another stump, her figure out of sight momentarily as she trails a hand along the rotted wood. "Yeah. Up in Neskowin."
James peeks around his stump to catch a glimpse of her in the grey. "So what happened here?"
Shepard winds in and out of the forest of rotted stumps, raising her voice to be heard over the waves not far away. "Over two thousand years ago, a massive earthquake hit this region and sunk the forest beneath the water. But mudslides covered the dirt and preserved the soil, so that even as tidal waves crashed along the shore and decimated the forest, these trees – their roots – remained. They lasted the storm."
Shepard wades through the shallow pools, the water barely covering the tops of her boots, as she traverses the sand around the dead coastal forest. "They were buried for centuries, until the winter of 1997, when extreme storms swept away the sand and exposed the stumps. And they've not been buried again since." Her voice pierces the fog with a hollow resignation. "They're dead. No doubt about that. But…they're still here."
James looks back at the rotted, barnacled stump before him, a light touch of tawny brown slowly becoming recognizable through the slow-filtering light. He leans over to look inside the hollow stump. "Dios," he spits beneath his breath, jumping slightly and then calming, looking back up to Shepard as he points down into the small pool trapped inside the hollow sitka. "There's fucking crabs in this thing."
Coming back through the deadened forest of stumps, Shepard stops at his small expel of a curse, hooking an arm around one exceptionally narrow stump to hold her weight as she swings around it to glance at him. She chuckles softly in response. "They're just waiting for the high tide to carry them back out to sea."
James looks around at the half-sunken stumps protruding from the sand, some only to his knees, others taller even than him. "Is that anytime soon?"
Shepard swings back around the stump to the other side. "Not in winter." She looks out to the sea, not far off now.
"But the tide will come in?" he asks almost nervously.
Shepard stills with her profile to him, her lips pursed in thought, fingers lingering on a long-lost root. "The tide always comes in," she near whispers.
James narrows his eyes at the sound, barely hearing it. He steps toward her. "Lola?"
But she is lost somewhere between the sand and the sea, between the fog and the dawn and the millennia it took to bury such a memory. She is lost in the knowledge that even then, the Reapers dwelled in steady sleep.
And humans were blissful in their ignorance.
If only for a time.
Her fingers curl into the salt-soaked wood, breaking bark beneath her fingernails. James makes it to her just as she finds her voice. "Through everything, this place still stands. My home still stands." She doesn't know whether it is regret or relief that blooms in her chest. She hasn't felt either one for such a long, long time.
James' hand finds its place on her shoulder and he sighs beside her, his breath puffing out into the air to join the dense fog.
Winter has always been desolate here.
The gentle waves lap at their boots, their feet heavy in the sand.
"I thought you didn't want to come back home." He says it softly, carefully.
She hesitates, and then, "Not at first."
James cocks his head at her, his hand sliding from her shoulder. He cups his palms before his mouth, blowing hot air into them. "What's changed?"
She looks at him then. She looks at him like he should know. "Everything's changed."
And everything has. The war is won and they've survived but everything – everything they ever knew, or thought they knew – has changed. Because it's never so easy as being the last one standing. Because this is just the beginning and she doesn't know if she's ready for it and off in the distance, if she looks hard enough for it – if she quells the desperate breath in her chest and squints long into the fog and blinks only when the cold has brought the stinging wetness to her eyes – she can see the wreckage of a Reaper off the Oregon shore, half-submerged in saltwater not unlike her tears.
Everything has changed because things that should have remained are no more, and things she was ready to release have lingered far longer than she can bear.
She thinks of Mordin and Ashley and Thane. She thinks of all that should still be, but isn't.
And she thinks of all that she was ready to lose, but remains.
She thinks of James.
She thinks of James.
And she wonders how through it all, the close calls with reaperized forces and the near-fatal blasts on the Normandy and that one surreal moment when she had held his bleeding face in her palms and whispered her goodbyes (because she was sure it was the end – she was sure and she was wrong), she wonders how this one thing – this one, desperate, ardent plea of hers – was answered.
She wonders how she ever made it home to the man she loves.
"I needed to see," she whispers again, this time a tremulous quake to her voice.
James stills in his warming attempts, his hands falling from his mouth as he looks at her. He stares unblinkingly at her, watching as her eyes gleam with unshed tears (tears he knows will stay unshed because part of loving Commander Shepard meant knowing she wasted tears on no one – least of all herself).
Her mouth opens, and then closes. The fog rolls in around their knees and hers are shaking without her knowing.
The tide always comes in. It always comes in, and yet…
"I needed to know that some things last," she admits, her lip pulled tight between her teeth when she finishes. Her hands curl into the front of his jacket as she anchors herself to him.
Before he knows what he is doing, his hands are cupping her cold cheeks and pulling her face to his, pressing his lips to hers in an earnest, frantic rush of reassurance. She sighs into the kiss, and his fingers inch into her hair.
Winter has never felt so warm.
"I'm right here," he breathes against her lips, when he finally breaks from her, panting. "I will always be here."
And for the first time since she awoke in an Alliance hospital wing, the first inklings of peace whispering their way into her world, the first steady thrum of victory lighting in her bones when she saw a horizon plagued with downed, burned-out Reapers – Shepard believes it.
The war is over.
The war is over and yet – some things last.
This. Him. Them.
Some things last.
Her fingers curl tighter into his jacket as she pulls him back to her, as she kisses him with all the self-possession of one who has lived through it, survived, endured.
The breath of the living. It lingers yet in her bones.
They call it a ghost forest.
But there are no more ghosts to be found here.