Chapter 40

November 11, 2552, 0335 Hours, Tricode Village, Mare Erythraeum region, planet Mars

"Alissa, you got anything?" Terrell yelled despite being on comms and firing another burst from his GPMG cutting down a Brute and three Jackals trying to press in.

"No, I got nothing," the sniper replied tensely firing off a round that slammed into the forehead of a Brute who'd been aiming a Spiker at them. She panned her scope again around her field of vision knowing the outcome would be the same. They were completely cut off.

"I guess that's it then," the African American Spartan declared with resignation while laying down a field of fire that scattered a group of Grunts trying to form up for an assault, "this is it."

"It looks like it," the usually fiery teen replied peacefully.

"Hey, Alissa."

"What?"

"If it's my time I'm glad I'm here with you."

Alissa felt her heart gripped by the comment and knew what he meant. The anger that had fuelled her for so many years and drove her to become a Spartan had been replaced by something far more powerful- a love for her teammates.

"Hey, me too, Terrell," she answered with a serenity she'd never experienced before. "I wouldn't want it any other way."

An unexpected explosion punctured the bubble of their resignation. Coming out of the darkness like an armoured juggernaut Mike threw grenades and walked Assault Rifle fire cutting a path like a scythe through wheat to work his way towards the beleaguered Spartans position. Terrell and Alissa had to do a double take to ensure their eyes weren't deceiving them. Their team leader had come for them

"Come on, we're getting out of here," Mike called out as he came onto their position. He pivoted to the right to lay a sustained burst of armor-piercing rounds into a Brute trying to press in.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Alissa asked incredulously.

"Yea, what about the others?" Terrell added, joining Mike's fire.

"They're well on their way and out of the kill zone," the Lone Wolf answered

"But you came back for us," Alissa stated emphatically, frozen by the unexpected development. "You were free and clear."

"I don't leave anyone behind when I have a say in it," Mike countered, slapping in a fresh mag then tossing a grenade to scatter a group of Skirmishers forming up.

"Then let's get out of here!" Terrell broke in, needing no other encouragement.

Mike had done a quick assessment of the Covenant positions on his way to the beleaguered Spartans and even as he'd spoken to them continued to assess their options. While the position the trio held was strong and defensible it was ultimately a death trap as Covenant forces began to concentrate. They needed to move right away. The seasoned combat veteran found a seam that would allow them to break out.

"We stay tight. Alissa, on my butt and look for targets of opportunity. Terrell, cover our rear and take out anything we miss," Mike ordered. "We're going to punch out and move fast."

"Wolf Pack!" the two teens responded with determination.

"Let's go!" Mike yelled the adrenaline coursing.

The trio shot out of their defensive position like an arrow catching the Covenant forces circling them off guard. With Mike leading the way and his Mjolnir armor blocking any return fire they were able to break out on the run with no harm. Once out of the tightening ring the humans became the aggressors running and gunning through the streets of the town. A squad of Grunts pushing into the battle were scattered as the armoured Spartans surged right through them, a purple-blue armoured Brute captain's command was caught in its throat mid-roar as a 114mm round from Alissa's sniper rifle slammed his mouth shut. She then nimbly switched to her Magnum pistol and three shots barked out at a Jackal who'd come out from between two buildings sending it tumbling.

Despite running and firing from the hip Terrell walked fire up and down their line of advance keeping any other foes on their heels. Mike threw two grenades at a pair of Brutes charging in while deftly shifting his fire to the balcony of a building to their side shredding a Jackal who'd fired a Beam Rifle at him. Though the ionized particle slammed into the Spartan's chest plate his shielding held up.

The trio of Spartans had broken the cordon and moved out of the main concentration of Covenant forces in the center of the town.

"This way," Mike ordered as they ran towards the edge of Tricode Village.

Rounding the corner first Mike was slammed by three rounds in succession of superheated plasma dropping his shield in half.

"Plasma cannon!" he yelled as the pom pom pom of the direct-energy support weapon made the call redundant.

The others flattened against a building and Terrell covered their rear as a group of Jackals fanned out to begin to snipe at them. The sound of roaring Brutes on the periphery revealed the Jiralhanae were now organizing a concerted effort to envelope the humans seeking to escape.

Mike peaked around the corner and the cannon opened up again sending colourful bolts of plasma screaming past him. Adding to the din were two fragmentation grenades that landed nearby from a Brute Shot. The Lone Wolf had also caught the fact that not only was there the Plasma Cannon blocking their way but also at least a half dozen Brutes in good defensive position.

"This ways blocked!" Mike called out. "We need another exit."

"Where we've come from is all filled up," Terrell answered, letting loose a burst from his GPMG to scatter a group of Grunts being set up to charge.

"What now?" Alissa asked, growing anxiety evident in her voice. "The Brutes seem to be starting to pen us in."

"I don't know," Mike confessed. Checking his HUD anew he saw nothing but thickening red splotches encircling them. "I'm sorry I dragged you guys into this."

"Whatever," Alissa retorted. "No one drags me anywhere. I'm here because I wanted to be."

"Roger that," Terrell confirmed.

Now's as good as any time to die," the feisty female declared, switching from her Magnum back to the Sniper Rifle.

"We're not done yet," Mike declared emptying the remainder of a mag into the head of a Brute who'd tried to charge out from between two buildings opposite their position. Slapping in a fresh mag he added, "But if it's out time let's make it count."

"Wolf Pack!" the other two shouted in unison.

An explosion where the Plasma Cannon was caused a pause in the action. Mike looked to where they'd been blocked to see a Pelican fly low through the cloud of smoke to launch another HE Anvil-II Air-to-Surface missile at a Wraith that had been brought up to their rear to support the Covenant's attack on the Spartans.

The Pelican flared to land but then deftly turned 90 degrees as a pair of Banshee Ground Support Aircraft swooped in to attack the dropship. Its M370 Autocannon erupted in an orange fireball as armor-piercing rounds lit up the night sky shredding the first Banshee that had come in aggressively. The second attacker rolled away from the fire but the Pelican's pilot expertly walked the fire of its chin gun over until it connected with the Covenant fighter trying to reset to attack. It erupted as the flurry of rounds connected with the ship's plasma core causing it to explode in a spectacular colored ball of flame.

Wasting no time the Pelican pilot nimbly dropped down as its rear ramp simultaneously opened. The trapped Spartans needed no invitation.

"Come on, let's get out of here!" Mike yelled as he pushed Alissa and then Terrell past him towards the Dropship. He covered the rear, blocking a dozen Needler rounds and plasma bolts before falling back himself.

Too late the Brutes tried to adjust their tightening noose. By the time they were able to bring their force to bear the Pelican was in the air and knifing into the darkness of night. Those that exposed themselves were cut down by a barrage of fire from Matt firing the heavy machine gun from the bay door.

And just like that, the humans were free of the city and flying free towards New Harmony.

"This is Kilo 3-20 to New Harmony Spaceport Control," the Pelican pilot called out on an open channel, "we are enroute, request hold of transport for our arrival."

There was no response and the pilot wondered if there was anyone left on the other end of the line. Still, they'd accomplished their task and nothing could be done until they reached the last port open to the UNSC.

Mike returned to the troop bay and could see Melanie working on Adam to keep him stabilized, but from the appearance of things he looked like he'd make it. Natalia was assisting her which gave the Spartan a warm feeling he couldn't quite explain. Though they couldn't talk right away he knew they would. He looked instead as Matt greeted Terrell and Alissa warmly and they returned the gesture, all of them exchanging hugs as he returned from the ramp machine gun now that it was closed. Maia came over to sit beside the burly assaulter and Mike reminded himself he'd have to talk to them about what was going on.

But not today.

Instead Mike sat back and looked appreciatively at what was before him, reflecting back on the idea of legacies. Though the outcome on Mars seemed the same as Reach and he thought about Noble Team, it felt different. Despite the fact it seemed like they might not get off planet somehow that didn't bother him or even cause any anxiety. They were all together, even if they didn't make a transport and were stuck; he believed they'd figure something out. He removed his helmet and gulped in the stale air in the transport but it was invigorating to him as Natalia looked over and allowed her gaze to rest upon him, unapologetic and constant. He held the stare and the two smiled knowingly at each other.

Yes, in the end, as long as he was together with Natalia and his team they'd be okay

The sun was high in the sky by the time the Pelican flew towards the outskirts of New Harmony. Mike went from the troop bay up to the cockpit to take in the sight. He could hardly believe that he'd last been in the metropolis only two months earlier. It felt like a lifetime. But then so much had gone on during that time. He'd been reunited with Natalia, he'd picked, then formed, a new team which he'd ultimately took into combat, had discovered Melanie was alive, and all of them were in the back of the transport winging likely to a frustrating conclusion. He thought back a few months before to his last stand on Reach. All of Noble Team was dead and he'd sung his death song facing overwhelming odds, ready to die. Then Jun had swooped in to rescue him and the fatalism of his circumstance was put on hold.

Much had changed.

Mike didn't want to die; he very much wanted to live. He wanted to explore what love truly meant with Natalia, he wanted to grow in his relationship with the Wolf Pack and Melanie.

Yet that was likely to be denied him and they would all die on Mars, a testimony to his selfish folly at taking his team to rescue Natalia. Still, Mike reminded himself, it wasn't folly, it was something he had to do. He'd made a pledge and it was within his control. He would die, as everyone does eventually, and for Mike Nantz he wanted to do it with a measure of control for the longest time he'd thought didn't exist as a Spartan. He was a man and not a machine, with feelings and choices, able to forge his destiny.

And he wasn't alone.

"What do you think?" Mike asked the pilot as they swooped over the abandoned city.

"We'll know in a couple of minutes," the pilot responded, not taking her eyes off of the space elevator that defined the city's port, "but it doesn't lot good. We're way past our deadline and there's no comms or traffic on the ground or air."

"Sorry," was all Mike could say, embarrassed by the frank assessment.

"Don't be," the pilot replied quickly. "I wanted to come. It was a good shot. And for what it's worth, I'm glad you got your lady out."

"Thanks, that means a lot," Mike said with emotion in his voice.

The pilot said nothing but nodded her head in agreement, face masked behind the helmet's visor that was down.

Mike smiled and felt a warmth come over him anew despite the seeming bleakness of the situation. Again, someone had gone above and beyond for him. He was glad he was in community with his fellow warriors and had a sense of 'family'. While he lamented now all the years as the 'Lone Wolf' he was glad at least in the end he'd been able to experience family.

And suddenly it looked like it was going to last a little while longer.

Coming into view of the New Harmony Spaceport Mike's heart leapt at the sight of a lone transport still on the dock and a group of armor clad ODSTs ringing it. Steam was coming out of the thrusters showing it was spooling up to leave but it was still there. Despite being overdue by nearly three hours they were still there.

"Guys," Mike called over the comms, "there's still a ship in dock. We're going to get out of here!"

The whoop from the back heard despite the roar of the Pelican's engine as it flared to land told him the message had been received loud and clear.

Minutes later the passengers of the dropship moved towards the transport whose engines were coming to life to take off. Waiting for them was Gunny MacGregor and several of the Wolverines.

"You're late," the ODST NCO deadpanned.

Yea, sorry Gunny," Mike answered, avoiding eye contact, touched anew by what had happened.

"Better late than never lad," MacGregor declared reaching out to shake his hand. Then seeing Natalia who had tears in her eyes and a smile that lit up the pad added, "Good to see you again lass."

Natalia was overcome by the moment as the reality sunk in. She went to the grizzled combat veteran and gave him a crushing hug. "Thank you!"

"All right then me lass," MacGregor responded to the gesture in embarrassment. "On the transport with ye." Then turning to Mike added, "We had to threaten to shoot the pilot," he said with a shrug, "but after your pilot radioed you were on your way, it wasn't such a bad wait, was it lads?"

"Aye Aye," the other ODSTs from the Wolverines responded genuinely.

"Thanks Gunny," was all Mike could get out, fearing he'd lose control of his emotions, overwhelmed anew by the scene.

"Ach," MacGregor spat back, embarrassed by his own emotions. "Let's get off this rock."

The transport ship with a frigate as escort broke out of orbit with no trouble. The Covenant had no cordon of any organized sort, seeming to have shifted interest elsewhere and so the passengers could relax for the time being on their return trip to Earth.

Adam was in the ship's infirmary and the doctor had declared he'd be okay given time which allowed the rest of the team to relax.

"Out of the frying pan, into the fire," Matt said to no one in particular as the team relaxed in a common area.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Alissa shot back.

"We're heading to Earth but there's a fight going on there just as bad as this one," the burly teen stated but without aggression," maybe even worse," he added with a shrug.

"Yea, but Earth's different, we can win that one," Terrell interjected optimistically.

"You want to believe that, go ahead," Matt shot back but without any malice.

"It doesn't matter," Alissa declared.

"Why doesn't it matter?" Maia asked genuinely, sitting beside Matt, their bodies touching.

"Because we're together and if we're together then whatever happens doesn't matter," the team's sniper said emphatically. She'd been on her Smoothers throughout this mission and no longer felt they were a cage but rather a release so she could be who she was beginning to see who she truly was. The aggression was still there, that was natural to her personality, but the anger was gone, replaced with a new resolve that burned hotter than her anger ever had.

Matt snorted but said," You're right." He looked over at Maia and added, "as long as we're together, it doesn't matter. We take it one day at a time, because we're family."

"We're family," Alissa restated.

"We're family," Maia echoed softly.

"We're family, Terrell declared, giving all a friendly hug.

Though Mike hadn't heard the conversation with the rest of the team he knew the sentiment. He and Natalia were alone in another part of the ship after he'd spent time with the other Spartans. The trip back to Earth was long enough so there'd be more time for them to debrief. The maturing leader wanted the teens to have time to blow off steam without their commander around, besides, he wanted to spend some time alone with Natalia.

For her part Natalia was happy for the quiet time as well. She'd gone from the shock of capture and interrogation to the conviction she was going to die then from the elation of rescue to the horrific idea Mike would die or be left behind in order to rescue his other teammates. It had been too much for the woman used to privilege to process. Natalia had been happy to assist Melanie, who's dynamic of relationship she didn't even want to consider at this point, helping Adam because it kept her busy. Other than several long and overt stares with Mike they'd had no connection during the Pelican ride to New Harmony.

The pair now sat alone in an empty briefing room, sitting side-by-side on a bench against the wall. Mike was happy to be out of Mjolnir armor while Natalia was still in her uniform that was showing the wear of the past few days. There'd been few words exchanged since they`d gotten on the last transport out though everyone around them seemed happy they were together despite the effort to get to this point. Unsure what to say, spontaneously, a more primal instinct took over and as they turned and their eyes locked each hungrily dived towards the others and their lips met in a ravenous kiss. Mouths open and tongues thrashing each seemed to try to consume the other as they almost seemed to battle for supremacy but this was a contest with no losers and both went deeper into the passion they felt and now unleashed. Each grabbed the other, pulling into a tighter embrace seeking to become as one. Neither knew how long they'd been lost in the embrace before they came up for air.

"Phew, you took my breath away," Natalia commented, lightly stroking the scar on his jaw.

"I'm sorry," Mike apologized pulling back as the old insecurity returned.

"No silly, that was a good thing," she replied, sliding over to snuggle in beside him. "Thank you again for coming to save me."

Mike enjoyed the sensation of her toned body tight into his and felt a tingle all over. He sighed in contentment. "I told you, I wouldn't leave you. We've gone through hell to be together. I'd do anything for you."

Natalia's body convulsed as she tried to stifle a sob.

"Are you okay?" Mike asked in near panic reacting to the emotion. "Did I hurt you?"

"No, quite the opposite." The joy-filled yet emotionally raw woman pulled away to turn so he could see her radiant but tear-filled face. "I've never felt so loved or secure before. Please know you mean the world to me and I'd do anything for you too. Anything, I mean it," she emphasized.

"And you're a Misriah so that means something," Mike shot back playfully which caused the passionate woman's eyes to flare.

"You know it!" Natalia responded with conviction but a glowing smile lit up her face.

"I'm just glad we got there in time." Mike's contentment gave way though to a note of regret which caused Natalia to sit up in concern for the man she loved. "I just wish we could have saved the others like Ackerson too."

"Me too," she replied, taking his hand and stroking it comfortingly. "But you did everything you could. It was nearly over for me too."

"I'm glad it wasn't," he replied, enjoying the feeling of her touching his body. "But why were you spared?" he asked, the tactician creeping into the moment.

"I think because I was ONI," Natalia replied, wincing at the sensation of the Brute's hot breath and spittle on her face as she was interrogated. "They kept asking me about research we were doing but I didn't know anything about it."

"Well thank God for that," Mike said. Seeing her becoming upset by the thought he took her hand into his. "So where do we go from here?" It felt good to be out of his armor and being able to press up against the woman.

"I'm not sure, what do you think?" Natalia replied putting her head against his chest, settling down instantly.

"You're the relationship expert, not me," he countered playfully.

"Jerk," she shot back with a laugh, punching him in the arm. "Hardly that as we've seen in the past few months."

"You found me here on Mars and came for me," Mike reminded her of when she'd first angled to travel to the planet.

"And you came and found me when you'd been ordered not to."

Mike opened his mouth to deny it but she put a finger on his lips to silence him.

"I talked to Gunny MacGregor and he told me everything," Natalia told him. "And that means everything to me. I don't know what's going to happen when we get back to Earth but I will NEVER allow anything to come between us again and a Misriah never breaks a pledge."

"I can believe it," Mike responded, kissing her red streaked blond hair. She snuggled tighter into his embrace. "There's a lot of things I can't control but I can control where my heart and focus are and it's fixed on you. We'll just take it one day at a time and enjoy what we have and not stress what we don't."

Despite the ongoing risk of the war the woman felt safe and secure with the man. The fatigue of the past few days and lack of sleep were catching up despite the intimacy of the moment. Her head became heavy on his chest and the rhythmic hum of the ship was mesmerizing.

"So what do you think?" Mike asked the woman who was now breathing heavily on his chest. "Tali?" he asked.

The woman was in a deep sleep and snoring slightly.

The power of the simple act was not lost on the Spartan. Natalia Misriah was a fighter and for her to allow herself to be in such a vulnerable state spoke more than her words about how she felt about him.

For Mike Nantz the future ahead was scary not just for the war which seemed to have no happy end but also for this relationship. They loved each other, was that enough? What would happen to them? He decided to not worry about that for the moment. They were together and loved each other regardless of what happened. Adam was stabilized and would be okay. The rest of the team were healthy and they'd survived the total conquest of the planet. They were more than just a group of Spartans, they were family, they had each other and knew it. No, this wasn't Reach despite the outcome and he wasn't that man. Things were going to okay. Making sure she rested comfortably on his chest Mike sighed with a deep contentment, closed him own eyes and allowed sleep to come as well.

November 11, 2552, 0700 Hours, CSS-class Battlecruiser Furious Redemption, in orbit over planet Mars

"There was an attack on our compound," Mygaeum whispered in Lepidus' ear as the shipmaster settled into his seat. "It appears as if at least one of the human prisoners escaped."

The burly Brute shrugged his shoulders apathetically. "It is of no matter, my friend, we have what we need and soon none will be able to touch us. When we acquire the Key we will dictate our destiny."

The chieftain's clansman smiled and nodded his shaggy head enthusiastically.

Secretly the cagey Jiralhanae shipmaster was livid at the report but his tactical mind kept him from showing it. His rival Castor was now discredited for his failures against the human defenders allowing him to be elevated to a place of prominence in the Prophet of Truth's command structure. More importantly, his own initial alignment with the Prophet of Regret seemed to be forgotten by the arrogant San'Shyuum. Truth's belief he had absolute control and loyalty from all those in his command would be his undoing once the ambitious Brute recovered this powerful artefact. He cared nothing for the gods since he believed they cared nothing for him but if projected devotion would put him in a place of control he could be as devote as the next.

No, he wasn't going to allow the inconvenience of one last, desperate, human action take from the moment. Not when he was this close to achieving total power.

"Brothers," Lepidus stood up and roared to those on the command deck of his ship, "we head for Earth to claim our prize and then these usurpers will be ground under our feet! Take us out of orbit."

November 11, 2552, 1610 Hours, Upstate New York, United States, planet Earth

Everything tasted like sawdust to Spanner Misriah and it wasn't the fact he continued to be sequestered in his personal bunker. He had every luxury available to him and a personal chef to prepare whatever his fancy dictated. Yet the finest, most choice meat was gristle that stuck in the back of his throat. Despite his wealth and power nothing had meaning to him anymore. The Commerce Department continued their inquiry into his business operations of late but they could do their investigation, they could fine him, he no longer cared. Nothing had value to the no longer focused businessman anymore. Too late did he realize where his true wealth lay.

He'd give it all away for another chance.

Spanner's device warbled to remind him life was still going on. Few had his personal number so that stirred him from the growing lethargy consuming him. Absently grabbing it he looked at the number and didn't recognize it. He could see it was a relayed off-planet call but his foggy mind couldn't make it out. His first instinct told him to ignore it but something said he shouldn't.

"Hello?" he answered dully.

"Daddy? It's me, Tali. We're coming home."

END

[Author's Note: I will be taking a hiatus from writing on Fan Fiction as I return to commercial writing endeavors. But rest assured I will be back to finish the Halo Wolf trilogy. Thank you to those who have been reading and enjoying my story, without you I wouldn't be doing this. A special thanks to 1-1 Marines, Cannonfodder43 and Shadowbellator.94 who've been faithful readers. I appreciate all of your encouragement and support. May this story inspire you to reach beyond your own perceived limits and seek the life available to you despite the odds.]