Author's Notes: If you haven't read "The Fall of Reach" (and why haven't you?), then this story isn't going to make much sense at all. This takes place after the MJOLNIR ARMOR test on Reach, before Chapter 28. I'd love to hear what you think.

0630 Hours, August 29, 2552/UNSC Military Reservation 01478-B, planet Reach

"They weren't playing fair," Cortana said angrily, her voice filling the Chief's ears.

John watched as the recovery team slowly made their way to him, side-stepping the damage the SkyHawk made with its 50mm cannons. He heard them gasp as they approached the enormous crater created by the Scorpion missile.

He didn't like to be reminded how close he had come to losing.

"Neither do the Covenant," he replied evenly, ignoring the pain roaring through his body.

Cortana remained silent as the recovery team finally approached. As soon as the Chief was loaded onto the gurney, she spoke again, "You could have been killed. I could have been destroyed."

"But we made it," came his simple reply.

"So that's it?" The Chief could hear the disbelief in her voice.

"Well, yes," he answered, slightly confused. They had won. Ackerson and the others at the ONI who didn't think he was up for the challenge lost.

For him, that was enough.

But, that wasn't the case for the fiery AI.

Before she could continue their conversation, the techs ran a medical scanner over John's body. Interested in the data, Cortana quickly hacked into the medical databanks and pulled up the Chief's status. To no surprise, the list of injuries was quite long.

Bruised kidney. Internal bleeding. Ruptured spleen. Torn Achilles' heal. Significant blood loss due to multiple lacerations.

He was lucky to be alive.

Quickly, the recovery team led the Chief into the Prep and Recovery area. Gingerly, they stood him up so they could remove his armor. Before the techs began to take off the pieces, John reached around and popped the matrix chip from his helmet.

Instantly, the familiar warmth flooded his mind.

One of the techs took the chip and popped it into holographic interface next to him as another reached over and removed his helmet.

Moments later, the violet, semi-translucent image of Cortana appeared.

The Chief didn't know what Cortana's appearance would be; he had seen AIs take countless forms over the years. When he saw her crossing her arms with her lips pursed, there was something tantalizingly familiar about her. He watched her as she took a couple of steps forward, still unable to figure out why her form seemed so recognizable. When Doctor Halsey walked into the room with an identical pose, it clicked in the Master Chief's mind.

Cortana looked like a younger version of Doctor Halsey.

The AI, for her part, was carefully watching the techs as they began removing each piece of the armor, revealing the skin-tight bodysuit. Through it, Cortana could see where the gel packs had burst. She could feel her coloring change, once again irate at the ONI and their "test".

Carefully, the techs peeled back the biosuit, revealing the depths of his injuries which were carefully hidden under his armor. Dark bruises covered his right collar bone; his skin was shredded where the armor crushed against him from the blast of the missile attack. Cortana knew the extent of his injuries, of course, but to see his body covered in blood, ripped apart, was something she wasn't prepared for.

To the side of her, Dr. Halsey gasped softly.

Cortana faced the doctor, frowning. "You knew about this?" she asked defensively.

Halsey turned away from John to look at the hologram. "I knew they planned to use live rounds, yes, but none of the rest. Colonel Ackerson is the one to thank for that," she replied.

Relieved that Halsey wasn't behind the worst of the test, Cortana relaxed slightly. "I could arrange a bit of payback," she offered. All ready, her subroutines had come up with several possibilities.

"No," Halsey quickly interjected. "You monitor John's life signs while I prepare the operating room for him." Her voice left no room for argument.

The Chief, now clothed in paper scrubs, lay on the gurney. Doctor Halsey leaned down to his ear. "You did well, John." She suppressed the urge to reach out to him, knowing he would be uncomfortable with the gesture. "Cortana will watch over you now." Halsey stood up and led her techs out of the room.

Cortana turned to the Spartan. "How are you feeling, Chief?"

"Like a Scorpion missile nearly killed me," he answered dryly.

She raised her eyebrows. "Dr. Halsey forgot to mention you have a sense of humor," she said playfully.

He didn't respond to her comment, instead turning slightly to the holographic readout of his vital signs. "My injuries…are they going to delay the mission?"

Cortana shook her head as she processed the data. "No. The internal bleeding will be easy to stop. Your ankle and sides will be sore for a few hours, but it's nothing you shouldn't be able to handle."

"And the armor?"

"If Dr. Halsey and her team work non-stop, it will be fully repaired late tonight," she answered.

He winced as he turned to her, studying her for a second. "And you?"

Cortana paused, surprised by his question. For some reason, the Chief's concern almost embarrassed her. "I am operating within normal parameters." Softly she added, "Thank you."

With a curt nod, he lay back down. Several quiet minutes passed with Cortana watching his vital signs carefully. She looked up as she heard footsteps approaching.

"All right. John, we're ready for you," Halsey said, nodding to the techs.

When they pushed John into the next room, Halsey turned to Cortana. "Do you think you can still do it? Can you watch him die?"

Cortana turned to her, appearing to lean against the Chief's helmet. "Yes, I can. But I pity any Covenant who try to get in our way."