Postmortem: The Shape of Things to Come

August 30th, 2553

The ground didn't feel right without a few solid inches of armor between the flat of her foot and the concrete driveway. Jennifer had spent so many months encased in her armor that she felt physically diminished without it. And now? Now she had to narrow her eyes against the flashes of lightning as she stepped out of the car. She could feel her eardrums reverberate with every roll of thunder as the United Earth Government aide hurried forward from the shelter of the office, a clipboard hovering over her perfect curls. Jennifer actually thought that her own hair might be getting wet.

So this was Earth. Or rather Earth as it should have been. Without the Covenant. Without the war. An Earth she had never seen before. Might never see ever, given that the plains on either side of the road she had driven along had been pit-marked with craters. So what? They all wore their scars.

"If you'll follow me, ma'am," offered the aide, her perky, can-do attitude only slightly dampened by the downpour.

Jennifer followed the aide down a hallway lined with offices like glass boxes, caught glimmers of her reflection here and there as the woman chattered away: cargo pants that there slightly too short around the ankles as if she was waiting for the flood, ha, funny, a men's long-sleeved button-down since there weren't many designers catering to female Spartan proportions, her hair, for once, sensibly pulled back. She was still getting used to seeing her face on a daily basis, was discovering new freckles splattered across her cheekbones and forehead every morning. But she wasn't here to inspect herself.

"Of course, we appreciate any thoughts you might have on the enterprise as a whole," the aide was saying and Jennifer tore herself back to the moment at hand, "and we would be so honored to include your part in the achievement, should you agree. But our timeline is tight. We hope to unveil the completed project at the end of August. The memorial, of course."

She made herself smile politely. She hoped it didn't look completely like a wince. "And after the memorial?"

"Given the securement of funds," the aide answered, "we hope to dispatch a survey team to Reach to evaluate the surface's damage by November. Of this year."

They took a sharp left and came face to face with the largest set of doors yet. No glass walls. The aide pressed her hand against a wall sensor until it lit up green. The doors slid open, offering up entire to a pitch black sphere of a room.

"Will you be attending?" the aide inquired. She activated the dim floor lights, just enough to make out the first row of seats, but then checked herself. "The memorial, I mean. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we would be honored by your presence. Ma'am."

Jennifer didn't know when she had become a 'ma'am' but she wasn't sure she liked it. "We'll see," she answered after a long pause. "I haven't made up my mind yet."

Again, the aide checked herself. "No worries," she said with a lame little wave of her hand, and Jennifer couldn't remember a time there hadn't been cause to worry. Maybe this woman realized that because she flushed and added, "I'll just… I'll leave you to it."

She offered Jennifer a small remote from her pocket, something like sympathy etched across her face. Jennifer didn't want her sympathy, anyone's sympathy, but she might as well take the remote. So she did, and allowed the aide to retreat back into the hallway and leave Jennifer alone in the artificial twilight.

Or so she assumed. No sooner had Jennifer begun to fiddle with the device's buttons did a familiar voice ring out, "'We'll see'?"

Jennifer jumped, then took a quick three-sixty of the room. Night vision had made her lazy, but she could still spot a darker shadow stained against the darkness, pinpoint the origin of the next set of echoed words: "'I haven't made up my mind yet'?"

"Well, hell, Jun," she answered, faking annoyance. "What did you say to her?"

The sniper pushed off from where he leaned against the wall, descended the stadium steps two at a time until he stepped into the light. It was as weird to see Jun in civvies as it was for Jennifer to wear them, but that didn't stop her from scowling at him as if they were both in full armor, comfortable in their complete selves.

"Same as you," Jun answered, "more or less. You taking a play from my book?"

"Part of your curriculum, is it?" she countered. "How are your students, teacher?"

He chuckled, looking like an embarrassed dad. The last few months had given Jennifer the chance to identify people who didn't live and breathe war. "Alive," he answered. "I hope. How are your targets, commando?"

"Dead," Jennifer replied, unable to resist adding: "I know."

Jun laughed again, but Jennifer only grimaced. It was sometimes difficult to find the humor in the return to her old post, but it had been a necessary sacrifice. She had to do what she did so that Jun could do what he did. So that Jun's trainees wouldn't have to do what either of them had done or, worse, what the rest of their team had done.

"You guys were my team," she volunteered, and then shrugged. "First, last, and only."

"Mine too," he replied, suddenly sober. "Hey." Gently, he reached out and rested a hand upon her shoulder, warm through the thin material of her shirt. Jennifer had to blink. Coming from the typically reserved Jun, it might as well have been a bear hug. He nodded to the remote in her hand. "Let's make sure they got them right, yeah?"

Right. That was what they were here for. Someone finally wanting their opinion on something. She looked down at the remote in her grip as if she had forgotten it was there (she had never forgotten), lifted the device, and clicked Noble Team back to life.

If only it was that simple.

Still, it was jarring when the projector hummed and the center podium lit up with five familiar figures in Spartan armor. They stood perhaps a foot taller than Jennifer and Jun, but the difference was negligible from a few yards away. If she narrowed her eyes, let her vision blur out the reflected light and ignore the outlines of the seats across the chamber, it was almost… almost something. Something that put pressure at the back of her throat and behind her eyelids, something that commanded her to speak and stole away her voice all at once. Something…

"Huh." The sound caught somewhere along the roof of her mouth. She wasn't sure what it was supposed to have been before it hit some kind of roadblock, but Jun was looking at her as if he expected her to say something further. So Jennifer came up with something. Did what was expected. Old habits die hard.

"What did they need us for?" She reached up as if to brush the back of her hand against Kat's flickering visor, but stopped. "Plenty of people can tell them what our armor looks like."

"That's not what." Jun reached out with two hands, did what she couldn't, let his fingertips spread, highlight the space in front of Kat's helmet. The monument wavered before its pixels offered up something new: Kat's image, bare-faced in three-quarter profile, frozen in an expression that suggested both inquisitive analysis and purpose.

But Jun's activation hadn't been beginner's luck. Jennifer glanced at her former comrade sideways. "How long have you been in here?"

"Long enough. Look." He pointed as text began to scroll through midair: neat little letters marching across the darkness. "They even wrote us little poems. Cute, right? Even if it doesn't rhyme. That's just lazy."

She rolled her eyes. "Not every poem has to rhyme, Jun." Still, she scanned the lines and snorted. "'True genius of Noble'. I don't think there was much competition."

"Class of her own," Jun agreed, but his eyes were on Kat's portrait, not the text. "I don't remember her having that many scars."

"I," Jennifer hesitated, "I didn't think she had that much time to earn them. Said it was her first glassing. But then again, she lost her arm before I even met her. Pretty big scar."

"Never complained about it," the sniper remarked, eyes distant as if marking a shot a thousand klicks off. "Not once. I used to forget it was there. Or not there."

A slight but deliberate gesture dispelled both portrait and 'poem'. Jennifer cleared her throat of something that wasn't physically there. "What do they call you?"

Jun chuckled. "You're not gonna like it."

A moment and a hand motion later and Jennifer was scowling at the scrolling text. "They're saying you took the first shot?" she demanded. "So not accurate. I shot first. First contact. Jackal. Roof. Visegrad. Me."

"I don't know," Jun remarked with a smirk. "Does the shot count if you missed? Because I think you missed."

She made a face and huffed like a woman half her age. "Technicalities." Jennifer jabbed a finger at the visor in Jun's portrait. "Why did you get to wear a helmet?"

"By request," he answered shortly in the way that meant he didn't want a follow up question.

So, naturally, Jennifer followed up. "Why? I mean," she nudged his shoulder with hers, "what's the point of that fancy artwork if you're just gonna cover it up?"

"Students," he answered with that same deliberate briefness. "Strangers on the street. I don't know where they're putting this thing. I don't want…" Jun sighed, pressed his fingers against his temple, against the arrows. "I don't want people seeing me," he muttered. "Congratulating me. For something I didn't do. The rest of them, they…"

Jennifer understood. They might as well have been back in that sliver of a cave carved into Menachite Mountain, she understood so well. Standing on that platform when the the energy sword ran Emile through. Dragging Kat's deadweight across the courtyard. Landing in the desert like just another bit of scrap metal torn free from the Long Night of Solace. She might as well have been standing on the ledge above Carter's grave again, she understood so well. She understood completely.

Now it was her turn to rest her hand upon his shoulder. "Don't blame yourself for living. You followed an order. It just happened to take you away from the action. Not your choice."

"An order the commander meant to give you," Jun countered bleakly. "Except the fancy AI took a liking to you before he could."

"And I'm here, aren't I?" She shrugged. "It is what it is." He didn't respond. She tried again. "Maybe Halsey and I would have bickered the entire flight and I would have gotten distracted and we'd have both died. Mission failure. Everything failure. Humanity dead."

And maybe Jun could have sniped some weak point on the Scarab, sent it crashing down into the canyon so that Carter didn't have to crash down with it. And then maybe he could have shot down that Elite from the platform, doubled down on heroism where I always folded. Jun had never said anything to suggest that he might have been able to save Carter and Emile, had their places been swapped, but she didn't know if he thought it. Probably had. She did, sometimes.

A swipe of Jun's hand simultaneously shrugged Jennifer's hand from his shoulder and dismissed his flickering portrait. She winced, but stepped aside. Circling the monument, she locked onto the red eyes of Emile's etched helmet like a mirror image. Raising her hand, she conjured up the close-up… and was met with another scratched up skull.

"Not sure if there were enough images on file to do an accurate likeness," Jun commented from somewhere behind her. "But you saw him."

"I saw him," she echoed, remembering the too-casual burial she had been forced to give him, how she had been forced to raid his tomb not a week later. "I remember." Her gaze drifted away from the face of death she knew so well, then zeroed in on another point of interest. "And I seem to remember that he carried his knife on his left, not his right. Seriously?"

"Should we tell them?"

Jennifer hesitated, remembered all of the times he had polished the blade, sharpened the edge, offered the weapon to Kat with the warning, don't cut yourself. And then she remembered how he looked down at the energy blade thrust through his chest, only to yank his own blade from its home and return the favor. She shook her head. "No. You wouldn't be able to see it if they swapped it. And I think he'd want it to be seen."

Don't cut yourself. As timely a warning as ever. Because Jennifer wasn't ready for what came next, for the face that sliced her open from jugular to belly. The face she had last seen inches from her visor as he carried her across an empty hangar with the friendly reminder to lock her armor and pushed her through the barrier to fall back down to Reach, propelled by the force of the slipspace rupture that took his life.

We made it count, she said to Jorge's battle-weathered face, his mouth parted in a challenge, his brow furrowed with determination and resolve. That's what you told me to tell them to do. And they took it to heart. Maybe a little too well.

Maybe she had assumed that the first grief had been overwhelmed by the grief that came after. Drowned out by Kat's doom at the hands of sheer bad luck and then smothered by the one-two sucker punch of Carter's sacrifice and Emile's final struggle, back to back. Or maybe she had thought that she had buried it out in the desert, that nine days of mourning would have been enough to put to rest the fundamentally unselfish soldier who had whistled a song to her about being free as if it were a promise that, one day, she could be free too.

Now, face to face with her first friend and her first loss, Jennifer realized that mourning was not likely to ever end, not completely. That it was going to hover somewhere in the back of her psyche, wait until the quiet moments when there was nothing to shoot or no one to sass, and then try to swallow her whole. She could be free of many things. But maybe not of this.

But that still didn't prepare her for what came next. If Jorge's portrait robbed Jennifer of her voice, Carter's profile stole away her very thought process.

It was as if some emotional parasite had latched onto a mental vein, leeching away all cognitive thought, until all that remained was Jennifer's empty husk and a pretty projection that was not enough. And those words: all of those pretty words, blurring before her eyes, and yet all she could think of to say was:

"I don't remember him pointing at anything like that."

"Maybe you don't," replied Jun, his voice rougher than usual, "but that's probably because if he'd tried to point at you, you'd have tried to break his fingers."

Maybe that was supposed to be funny, maybe that might have been true, once, but now Jennifer could barely manage a grimace. That, and nothing more: not when she was confronted with the the indentation between Carter's mouth and chin, the criss-crossed scars etched beneath his left eye, his brow furrowed the way it used to when she had said or done something to deliberately provoke him and they both knew it. His hand, extended just so in that way she had never seen before, two fingers pointing straight forward: in command… or in accusation.

I tried, Jennifer told him, told that psychic on the side of the road, told herself. I tried to do everything right. I should have had no regrets. But when it came down to it, I was on the ground and you were in the air and I couldn't save you. No matter how hard I tried. No matter how much I wanted to. And I wanted to. I wanted to save you more than I wanted to save myself. Her mouth twisted downward. But why would I ever get what I want?

She wasn't sure how long she stood still in silence. But it must have been longer than she thought because Jun was saying, "Take your time. Meet you outside." and she was nodding because what they had needed, what they all had needed, she and Carter and everyone else, was more time. She couldn't get it then. She'd take it now.

The hiss of the doors opening announced the influx of ambient light from the hallway. It cast a brief glare across the projections before they slid closed behind Jun. In that brief interruption, Jennifer's eyes locked onto one line in his epithet, writes by someone who couldn't have known him but had by chance landed on a truth anyway: If not for his leadership on Reach, all would have been lost.

"What do you do when you think you're losing?"

"We didn't lose," Jennifer whispered as if she had heard him, as if he could hear her. "Carter, we didn't lose. Well," she huffed a bitter laugh, "maybe we did, you and I. But there are other Carters, and there are other Jennifers. Maybe we lost so they can win. Whatever the cost—"

No matter how high the cost, echoed the inscription some lines below, and that was probably as good an sign as she was going to get.

There were other words scattered throughout: fortitude, defiant, unbreakable will, steadfast resolution, sentiments that got him but didn't get him. Cliches that couldn't quite cover the way he had openly admitted to reading her file, or the way he would tell Emile to mind his language and then swear a half-moment later. How she had told him that she hated him, but four days later he was sitting on a log next to her and taking his helmet off at her request. When she had shouted at him but he had listened to her about her parents and then echoed her grief with his own. That time he had let her walk away from him across a landing platform when she needed him to let her go, but had argued with her over a bloody sink about her hair when she had needed that too. But Jennifer doubted that whatever UEG PR person who had written this up wanted to take notes from her.

The way her dog tags had tangled with his that night before the return to Sword Base.

She closed her eyes, felt her head tip back as if he were still around to seize the opportunity. I wish that you were here. I really do. I really do. You don't understand how much I do. Then, almost as if out of nowhere:

You don't have to do anything else before you can listen to him.

The Covenant had collapsed. Humanity's numbers had been halved. But the Flood was neutralized… they thought. They hoped. There were planets gone dark that needed to be checked on, colonies that needed to be rebuilt. Babies to be made, Jennifer thought with a quick smirk. There were likely still pockets of Covenant loyalists looking to stir up trouble. There was still so much about the Forerunners that they didn't understand. And there would likely always be Insurrectionists transforming their complaints into violent action. But the twenty-eight year storm, her lifetime plus two years, was over. Jennifer had no immediate mission to see through: ordered by command or ordained by herself. There were no targets to shoot down: physical, mental, or emotional. This was the end of her list. This was it.

Jennifer felt her right hand reach cross to her opposite arm. Her palm brushed the device coiled around her wrist, the unique patterns stamped across her palms summoning up a holographic interface whose light competed with the projected monument's. But not for long. Just enough time to find a file, key in a code, synch the the audio to her earpiece, and let it buffer. She wasn't in the mood for interruptions: not when she dragged a chair forward from the empty audience and sat down. She shut off the screen, closed her eyes, let the world drop dead, and listened.

Noble Team's faithful AI had recorded it all: the hum of the Pelican's engine, stuttering like skipped heartbeats, the screeching war cry of the enemy craft in hot pursuit, the wet splatter of plasma and the hiss of resulting corrosion, the thump-thump of crates knocked to the floor by a barrel roll, no doubt tumbling out of the open hangar bay like jettisoned cargo. And, over it all, the constant beat of Carter's breathing like the rhythm of a drum on this soundtrack to sacrifice.

"Noble Leader," Dot was still saying, just as Jennifer had once imagined she had, "please take this seriously. I am detecting multiple occurrences of internal damage. You require immediate medical attention."

"Don't waste your breath, Dot," Carter replied, weary of the world and soon to be gone from it. "Not gonna happen. Sorry."

"I repeat," the AI retorted, every syllable the angry aunt, "you are alarming me."

"Well, you're alarming me," he returned with that dry humor in the face of despair she knew so well: just another thing the UEG couldn't stick on a plaque. "Ground update, Dot. Give me some good news."

"Noble Four and Six are making good progress toward the pick-up. Their signal became distorted upon their entry into a cavern complex, but I expect them to resurface at any moment." A brief pause followed, cut through with gunfire, then: "They have resurfaced. But their point of exit…"

"I see it." A long pause this time, and Jennifer tried to remember where she had been, what she had been doing, let the sunset-colored spindles of stone creep up on the corners of her interior vision. The sky had been grey through that window between the rocks, and she had thought that she could see a way out. But Carter, she knew now, knew too well, had been able to see things she could not. "Well, fuck."

"I recommend that Noble Four and Six wait for the Scarab to move on."

"They can't wait, Dot. Keyes and the Autumn can't wait. That thing strapped to Jen's back can't wait. Earth can't wait." Silence again, colored by the sound of the wind whistling through the cracks of the cockpit's glass. For a moment, it was as if she was there with him, the breeze brushing against her nose, drying the blood caked across her forehead. "So I can't wait either."

"Noble Leader, please clarify your course of action."

Another brief silence. It couldn't possibly have taken this long, and yet it couldn't possibly have happened this quickly. Jennifer bit down on the inside of her mouth as she heard Carter ignore Dot's request, mutter instead: "Oh, God, she's gonna hate this. She's gonna hate this, she's gonna hate this, she's gonna hate me." And Jennifer thought he was talking about Dot, until she heard the:"Again."

There was barely enough time for her to rewind, to remember how she had told him one early morning that she had hated him, before Jennifer heard the telltale click of a comms channel opening up. She knew what it sounded like. She knew what it meant. "Noble."

"Noble," Carter repeated, and she saw the sky darken with the word and the thunder rumble a reply just as it had before. "You got a…" Click. There had been a pause here before; now Carter filled in the gap, rapid-fire fast and for his ears alone: "You're-gonna-hate-me-so-much-Jen." Click. "Situation," he finished.

"Mother…" Emile breathed over the channel, just another ghost in the shell. Jennifer had never considered requesting aid from the ghost of her mother, but now she wondered why she had never tried. Maybe it might have made some strange, inexplicable, unprovable difference. What she would have done for a difference, any difference, right no. "Sir, I… I don't know how we're gonna get past that thing."

Carter sighed: still so weary of the world and still so soon to leave it, caught on this audio log as if trapped within some terrible time loop, and Jennifer, listening, with him. "You can't," he exhaled, then remembered to turn on the channel -click -remembered to sound more certain, more steady, all those words the monument had assigned him. "You can't. Not without help."

Then, click, just to himself, Dot, and now Jennifer by some twist of fatal fate: "Two for one. Two lives for one. As good a deal as I'm gonna get. Come on," he whispered, to himself, his bird, or both."Come on. Come on."

"Commander, you don't have the firepower!" Emile shouted words that Jennifer wished had come from her throat, but she couldn't take her silence back. She couldn't take any of it back.

"Come on. Come on," he was still muttering and she realized now that he was talking to the Scarab, egging it on, challenging its gaze to focus on him, its cannon to stop changing from blue to green. "Don't look at her. Look at me. Look at me." There was a smattering of bullets like rain against a tin roof, and he exhaled. "There you go." Once again, the comm channel clicked open. "I've got the mass."

"Sold copy," Emile answered and, even now, Jennifer could feel him reach for her, phantom fingers brushing against her upper arm. "Hit 'em hard, boss," he said, rat-a-tat fast, and Jennifer remembered wondering why he had stammered the words out so quick.

She had had plenty of time to wonder since then, and she had wondered her way into thinking that it had been some unspoken communication between Emile and Carter: some shorthand that said: Jennifer is being an idiot and refusing to move so if you're gonna make it count you gotta make it count now. She had refused to move. She had been an idiot, stared up at the sky as if a bystander with her hands tied could change the outcome, as if her thoughts that had refused to become words could grow wings and fly up to intercept his course.

But it turned out that Carter's thoughts had done what hers could not. Arguably. He had kept his channel closed, after all, and if a tree falls in a forest and there's no one around to hear it—

Jennifer was hearing it now. Better late than never. And it also turned out that he had a lot to say and he was saying it fast: syllables sounding on top of each other like words written on a page with no spaces between them.

"Turns out I'm no good at this either." Sharp laugh. Hiss of pain. "Don't hate me for this, Jen. I don't want to think about you hating me for this. Damn it." Anther indrawn breath. "I'm a shit pilot. You're not. You can fly anything. You can fly your way out of anything."

She took a shuddering breath and thought she heard him echo it. "Fly your way out of this," Carter commanded with a cutting gasp of a chuckle. "I mean it, Jen. Get off of Reach. Don't go down with the ship. That psychic didn't know shit about regrets. This isn't it. You're gonna be okay. You're gonna be okay, Jen. Promise."

The Pelican's engine was revving up. Jennifer knew what that meant, especially when she heard the telltale click. "You're on your own, Noble," Carter told them and then clicked the channel back shut. "I mean it, Jen. You're gonna be okay. You're gonna live. It might not be easy," he continued, echoed the words she remembered from the brief calm between the storm of Viery and the tempest of the Long Night, "but it's gonna be worth it. I promise you. Living is going to be worth it."

Jennifer heard her own voice, strangled and scared, crackle across the channel, drowning out the click, as if the woman she had been then was now a ghost among the ghosts: "Carter, don't."

"Carter out," he said and Jennifer yanked out her earpiece because the woman she was now already knew how this story ended. How it ended, perhaps, but not everything that had been said on the way there. Bu now she knew. Now she knew.

She opened her eyes. Standing up, she faced the projected portrait one more time, her gaze locked on ice blue eyes that couldn't look back. But it was going to have to be enough.

"I flew my way out," Jennifer told any ghost that might be listening: Carter, Jorge, Emile, Kat, her parents, Marie from training, countless UNSC troopers, everyone she had lost before winter began, everyone she had lost since. But she chose to narrow her focus onto the one projected directly in front of her. "You weren't a shit pilot until you decided to fly directly into a Scarab, but it… counted. You made it count."

Her hand reached up of its own will, fingers curling as if she could cup his jaw against the palm of her hand. The portrait was, of course, as transparent as the phantom she addressed. "I don't hate you," Jennifer told him, but hated the way her voice cracked on the last word. "I hate what this world made you and our team have to do to save it, but I don't hate you. I'm…" She sucked in a harsh breath, searched for the right word. "Grateful. I'm so grateful."

Jennifer let her fingers fall, allowed her arm to drop back to her side. "And you're right," she admitted. "I'm okay. I'm okay, Carter. And as for living?" She forced a smirk, lifted both shoulders in a shrug. "It's not too bad, so far. But," again, her stupid voice caught, "I've got a lot to live up to. We'll see if I measure up. If I'm worth it. But, right now, I think that I'll just settle for being okay."

It took all she had to reach out and dispel the profile: let Carter's portrait fade into thin air and all the pretty words with it. It took a lot more to raise the remote and click Reach's ghosts away. But Carter's words followed her out of the projection room, down the glass corridors, and past the reception desk where she silently deposited the remote and kept walking.

A handheld communicator rested in Jun's palm, but the sniper's eyes were on the rain as he leaned up against the building. "Hey," he offered, glancing at the screen then turning it off as Jennifer approached. "There's a shooting range down the road. Want to give all the wannabe hotshot civvies a run for their money?"

She hesitated, then shook her head. "I don't really feel like shooting anything right now."

"Understandable." He pocketed his device, stood up straight, and stretched. "Make up your mind?" Off of her look of confusion, Jun clarified, "About joining the team?"

"You mean the memorial. 'Remember Reach.'" Jun shrugged. Jennifer considered it, then shook her head. "No. Not yet."

"What do you mean 'not yet'?"

"I mean that they can add me later. When I'm not around to cringe over whatever PR poetry they write up about me." Jun laughed, but Jennifer wasn't finished. "And I mean 'not yet.' It's not over. I'm not over. I've got things to do."

Again, he laughed. "Things to do?" Jun asked her. "Like what?"

"I dunno," she shrugged back at him. "Maybe I'll decide I want to scare the shit out of some recruits, like you. Maybe I'll think about moving up in the chain of command, make a career out of it. Maybe I'll retire early and plant some flowers. I don't know yet. All I know is that it's not over. I'm not finished."

Jun wrinkled his nose. "I can't picture you planting flowers."

"You don't know that." She crinkled her own nose back at him. "I could surprise you. I could surprise you all."

He chuckled all the way back to the car, and his smirk stuck in place as the doors sealed shut. Buckling the seatbelt neither of them would have bothered with had they been wearing armor, Jun rattled off a list of local ways to waste time that did not involve guns. But all of his well-meant suggestions settled into a comfortable hum as Jennifer gazed through the rain-splattered windshield.

Across the lot, there were blurred figures on the other side of the office's wall-to-wall windows, crowded together in the waiting room, hands clasping and unclasping in warm greeting. A lanky man with a confident swagger and a jaw jutting out in friendly defiance. A young woman with a pixie cut argued with him, but something about the tilt to her head and the hand on her slim hip suggested something other than true anger. A broad-shouldered man took up two folding chairs, flipped through business cards like a poker deck. And then a door opened to admit a tall man with a military haircut whose presence called the rest to attention… and the vision was complete.

It wasn't them, obviously. But it looked like them. It could have been them. In another world. Jennifer would have to settle for that. And it wasn't so terrible, giving them the moment of memory she would have denied herself in the Pelican lifting off toward Visegrad a year ago to the day. They were important.

"…Hey, sorry," Jun's voice broke back through. "I know that's probably not your speed—"

"No," Jennifer said, tearing her gaze away and back to him, "it's okay." She quickly buckled herself in, flipped on the engine. "We're okay." Taking a deep breath, she braced both hands on the wheel and looked at him. "It's all okay. Let's go."

Dear Readers,

Happy Pillar of Autumn Day! It has been approximately seven years, 41 chapters, 163,073 words, and 109,276 views since I began this story in June of 2011. I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to all of my reviewers, followers, and those who have added Winterbirth to their favorites. Your support pushed me forward to (finally) complete this story. In particular, I would like to recognize all of my reviewers as of 8/30/18:

BlitzenFalke, N Jas J, iLuminescent, Major Mike Powell III, Lightan117, skywalker05, Nocturna99, Wolf, Assassin Aisha, Pieisthebomb, Qwertyu, Zach young, YrUstaring, Epic Pie, Sierra156, OmgItsPizza, Tera, firerwolf, Spazway2, Asap, Invader-ZIM-Queen, Nevvarchive, SpartanGoddess, Ayane458, Kelborn Ordo, Ragecandy, fc, SayzerSmiles, Mar, Zuraka, Kirasoul, WOLFxVSlayer667, authorinprogress97, to lazy to log in, TheLadyAssassin4678, spooningthemoon, chrysanthemum00, Keaton Hawke, Kaywre3n, Terminazor, MasterofTacos, AraelDranoth, Tobeno10, XGlacierskyx, Archangel's Blade, BadWeather Girl, Okay, GuntherRiechwald, 1, Mondlichtvogel, AlkaD-KtK, Armin, Mikayla FireBane, Viv, Sand X302, theshyshark, Vegan Bunny, Caver Floyd, lovefuryANDpassion, BloodWolf2661, OneEyedGhoul, Das-Sonderbare-Kind, penml, SarcasticSarcasm, Nivans, Chibi-Liz05, WolfAssassin369, custardcake, Beep, Sheity-Williams, Phoenix-Rising29, Acriym, MightBeGone, DannyPhantom619, Aggiefan15, Ultra Rodimus, ArctechTypes, djleif090, Maridia, halogirl117pr, Oserix, JapaneseOptics, and 11 guests.

I am considering writing a companion piece, with specific moments of Winterbirth told from Carter's POV, should there be interest. It would be posted separately from this story. I also have two other projects set in the Dragon Age and Fallout New Vegas universes (Rebels in the North and The Vicious Kind). That being said, fan fiction takes a backseat priority to my original work. I've spent a lot of time playing in other people's sandboxes when I have my own to build. But please let me know your thoughts about the conclusion of Reach: Winterbirth. I am going to miss this story, but I am also glad that it is finally complete.

Many thanks,