Title: Steel and Temper
Warnings: language, violence, canonical character death
Pairings: John-117 x Cortana, various
Summary: Everyone is born with their soul mate's name on their wrist. John's not sure what to make of his. What kind of a name is "Cortana?"
A/N: I've been reading too many soul mate AUs lately. That's the only excuse I have for this. Merry Christmas!
When he was five years old, John looked up his soul mate's name. It was rather unique. Most people had names like Mary or David or Angelo – though he thought he saw a "Sharkeshia" once. He wasn't sure what to make of that, either.
The search engine he used told him that "Cortana" was a different spelling of a word for "short sword," but also the name of one such sword from legend. It bore the inscription "My name is Cortana, of the same steel and temper as Joyeuse and Durandal," both of whom were also legendary swords. John promptly went running to his mother because he didn't want his soul mate to be a sword! How would that even work!? The sword had been lost for a thousand years it seemed! Maybe he'd be the one to rediscover it?
His mother only laughed. "Your Cortana is probably named after the sword," she said, her teeth glittering as she grinned, "Maybe her mother wanted to give her a special name to help you find each other?"
But the text on his wrist was black, indicating that she had died. When he pointed that out, his mother added, "Or maybe she just hasn't been born yet, John. It run both ways. I'm sure she'll be born soon, and then the color of her name will match her eyes. What color do you think they'll be?"
"Blue!" John said immediately, "No, purple!"
His mother threw her head back and laughed.
None of the young Spartans were allowed to show the names of their soul mates. The moment they had arrived in the training camp on Reach, they had all been fitted with cloth bands that covered up the colored text on their wrists. It didn't even go in their files. They knew the names, but were no longer allowed to see them or speak them or otherwise acknowledge that they even had soul mates.
But it was unavoidable that they would learn each other's names, and realize that they matched up with the writing and color on their wrists. It was a subtle rebellion, the only one they were allowed. By the time they completed their training, the vast majority of the Spartans had found their soul mates.
But not John.
When the ONI personnel put them under anesthesia for the augmentation procedures, John lost consciousness almost immediately. He dreamed that he was lying at the bottom of a shallow sea, still able to feel the roll and tug of the surf. There was a hand in his, wam, slender, and feminine, but hard like it was made of steel. He squeezed, and she squeezed back. When he woke, he remembered nothing but a feeling of all-encompassing peace.
That peace was enough to keep him going through the long years of the Human-Covenant War. If he had even just a moment of down time, the Master Chief would take a deep breath and let it out slowly, remembering that peace and connection. It got him through every battle, every retreat, every time he couldn't save civilian lives from the ravages of the Covenant.
And then, after almost twenty-five years of warfare, his wrist began to itch. It was shortly after the S-II Program was formally revealed to the public. Blue Team had been recalled to serve as positive examples of the Spartans, and were being redeployed and outfitted with new armor on their way out. John was in his quarters at the time, alone, giving him the moment he needed to slip off the band around his wrist. The name there – "Cortana" – was changing from black to blue mixed with violet, meaning that she had just been born. He slipped the band back on and wondered if he would live to meet her, and what would happen if he did.
August 29, 2552. 0600 hours.
The Master Chief reported to the main firing range on Reach as ordered, a strange nervousness in his gut. The MPs barely bothered him, double-checking and triple-checking his credentials as he moved further onto the base. The operation to upgrade his neural lace didn't phase him, either, yet the feeling of anticipation grew. It wasn't until he was fully attired I the latest iteration of the MJOLNIR armor that the anxiety plateaued and came under control. He was in his armor. Nothing could touch him.
…except, apparently, his unexpected introduction to his soul mate.
"-I'd like to introduce you to Cortana."
John tensed a little, heart rate rising. An AI? His soul mate was an AI? He listened intently as Dr Halsey explained about the additional enhancements to his armor, including the memory processing layer that enabled him to carry a starship's AI. Cortana was the computer specialist that would be providing the Spartans with live intel on their mission. An AI hadn't occurred to him, because up until then they had no efficient means of toting one around with them.
At the doctor's direction, the Chief knelt to let her slot Cortana's memory matrix into his neural lace (and if that didn't sound like a tech-y version of one of the ODSTs' sex jokes, he didn't know what did). A wave of cold poured into his mind, but it was a good one, like jumping into pool on a hot summer day.
"Not a lot of room in here," said Cortana, "Hello, Master Chief."
How was he supposed to address her? Did she have a rank? He was pretty sure that blurting out, "I think you're my soul mate," would get her reassigned to another Spartan in order to avoid him being emotionally compromised. That wasn't something he was sure he wanted. Finally, he settled on a simple, "Hello, Cortana."
She hummed. "I'm detecting a high degree of cerebral cortex activity. You're not the muscle-bound automatons the press makes you out to be."
"Automaton? Interesting choice of words for an artificial intelligence."
"You must forgive Cortana, Master Chief," said Dr Halsey, "She is somewhat high-spirited. You may have to allow for behavioral quirks."
The other Spartans knew that something was up almost before he returned and boarded the Pillar of Autumn. They had always been damn near telepathic, and now was no different. After he finished stowing all of his other gear, he sat and began cleaning his weapons one by one. They didn't really need it – he always kept them fresh-from-the-factory pristine – but the familiar motions let him think while appearing too busy to interrupt. It fooled everyone but his siblings.
In a gesture that seemed unintentional to everyone but the Spartans, John brushed his wrist, where the name of his soul mate ran parallel to the vein in his wrist, hidden under the MJOLNIR armor and a strip of black gauze. The others understood without a word, and swiped their fingers across their helmets in their "Spartan smile," congratulating him.
But then Reach was being invaded by the Covenant, and there was no more time to talk. The Chief focused himself completely on his mission to smother the worry he felt for Cortana on the Pillar of Autumn. She was a capable AI, and could take care of herself. His team made it to the Circumference and destroyed its navigation database, and rescued a squad of Marines from the station, but at a cost: James-005 was lost in orbit after a stray needler round detonated his jetpack, and Linda-058 was declared clinically dead after being hit by multiple overcharged plasma bolts.
The Pillar of Autumn fled Reach for the coordinates Cortana set for them – and found the Covenant waiting for them near a mysterious ringworld known as Halo. Throughout every battle on the installation, John remained focused on his mission, but when he had downtime, he stared at the covered name on his wrist and debated if he should tell Cortana, and how.
And then the Flood emerged from where it had been stored deep inside the ring, overwhelming both Covenant and human defenses and infecting everything it could lay into. It spread, quickly, and kept the Spartan on the defensive the entire time, so much so that he could have wept for joy when the Pillar of Autumn's fusion reactors detonated, taking the ring – and by extension, the Flood – with them.
It wasn't until after he destroyed the Unyielding Hierophant and was bound for Earth that he noticed something… odd. He could feel Cortana even when she was out of his armor, sense her working and moving through the systems of the Gettysburg as she steered them home. With the tight quarters on the ship and virtually no space to speak privately, he dared not mention it to her, or ask if she felt it, too.
But it came in handy, though. When they returned to Earth with their entourage in tow, the two were taken away for separate debriefings. With their strange connection, he could sense her general location and emotional state. It enabled him to track her down later, when they were both assigned to the Cairo Orbital Platform.
Almost before he was finished speaking, the AI's hologram appeared above the pedestal on the observation deck. "Yes, Chief?"
He took a minute to study her. She was pretty, he supposed, or at least her avatar was. Could lines of code be pretty? To the right people, perhaps. But her appeal to him was in her function – he had never encountered a more useful being in his line of work, someone who completed him. In away, he guessed, he completed her, too. He was the who bore her to places she could not reach on her own, while she was the one who gave him access to intel and strategies he could not do on his own. They completed each other – they really were soulmates.
"If you've got time, could you help me find my soulmate?"
She drew back a little, and some indefinable emotion flickered over her face. It looked like she was angry, or sad, or a bit of both. He smiled internally, and was quietly grateful that the station techs had removed his armor. The Spartan unwrapped the gauze covering his wrist and displayed the text for her to see.
"What do you think?" he asked watching her avatar and the text change color with her emotions, "It should be pretty easy for an AI of your caliber, right? Can you help me?"
Cortana held her own right arm close to her body, the fingers of her left hand curled over the space where he knew his name to be. "Yes," she said, her voice a little choked up, "I'd be glad to help. It'll be done in a snap!" The AI beamed at him, and he smiled back.