Thirty Six

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Earth spun on its axis before Gabby. As it had done for billions of years, and would for billions more. When humanity, despite all of their tenacity and innovation, was long gone but for dust and fossils, Earth would continue to turn on and on and on.

It was truly a beautiful, magnificent sight to behold.

"Do you miss Reach?"

On her left, tall and stalwart in his green and gold, John peered through the window.

"Sometimes," John offered. "Does it ever go away?"

The sort of pain he spoke of was universally known. Home. Family. Friends. That which had been lost and would never be regained.

"Sometimes." She pushed her hands into the pockets of her borrowed pants. "How do I look in UNSC gear?"

"I've been told black is slimming," he dryly replied.

"Flatterer. Speaking of colours, what particular shade of the rainbow do you think Rangi's face will turn when we rock up in Arbiters personal ship? Personally, I think he'll turn a nice shade of burgundy. Perhaps purple if he throws a wobbly."

"He's your family."

"Yeah." As they were alone, Gabby allowed herself to lean against John for a small while. "So, where are we touching down?"

"New York Spaceport."

Gabby made a funny, wheezing sound.

There was laughter in his voice. "I thought that might surprise you."

"We're going to NewYork? Once of the fashion capitals of the world? ThatNew York? Oh, my god. I'm going to New York."

"Breathe, Gabby."

Gabby did.

Even just being near New York, seeing it on the horizon, would be enough. For Gabby, who had dreamed of New York since she was barely taller than her mothers knee, just to be close was enough.

"Everyone prepare to brace," came Cortana's voice over the intercom, "we will be beginning our descent in five. Breaking atmosphere in ten."

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"Private Billson, ol' buddy, ol' pal. How are you?"

Billson sighed. The first noise Gabby had heard from her other than 'ma'am' and 'this way, ma'am'.

"Fine, ma'am."

Billson led Gabby to the rear docking port of The United Front. In a display and a celebration of returning heroes, the main disembarking ramp at the bow would berth the crew of The Spirit of Fire along with the people from the assembly.

"Miss Edwards?"

Locksley was jogging over, a few recognisable faces trailing after him. Gabby paused, Billson lingering at her shoulder.

"Nice disguise," Haze said. "New orders, Miss. We're your detail now."

Stevenson, with her fair hair pulled back into a low bun, handled the official exchange. Billson joined the rest of the disembarking crew.

"Is something wrong?" Gabby knew that Arbiter had asked her to subtly observe the members of Alpha and Omega that she was exposed to. She wasn't aware of this though.

"No," Locksley quietly replied, "they moved the press closer, is all."

"You're a bad liar," Gabby murmured, soft and only for him. She tugged on the brim of her cap nervously, wanting to hide her face from prying eyes. "They're worried he has friends down here, aren't they?"

It was visible, the internal battle Locksley fought to keep his shoulders from hunching. Social niceties didn't seem his forte. "Yes."

Fear racketed around within, but Gabby slapped on a weak smile. "Good thing I have you with me, then."

He chuckled.

The ramps lowered, sunlight bursting in the giant port. A storm of footsteps followed, the thunder of two hundred marines disembarking. Carefully, the humans of her detail arranged themselves around Gabby in a diamond formation. Stevenson stayed by Gabby's side.

Their presence was a comfort.

Besides, Gabby would be coming to know these people very well in the near future. Spending time with them was good.

Gabby blinked, and suddenly they had cleared the airfield and were in the barracks.

"Ah, the barracks, my home away from home." Yanks drew in a noisy breath, "I can smell socks, swear, and manliness. Honey, I'm home!"

"The kids don't recognise you anymore," someone from within hollered. "And dinner is ruined!"

With a saunter and a grin, Yanks split off with the rest of the male marines.

"Bunch of children," Stevenson grouched. "Women's bunks are up the hall. Come on."

"We aren't going straight for embassy?"

"Gotta wait for the crowds to die down and the press to disperse. Grab a bunk, we'll be here for a few hours."

Stevenson settled on a random bunk while the other marines headed for the showers. Gabby picked one of the bunks that didn't seem assigned to anyone and pulled a sketchbook out from her borrowed bag. She worked, distracting herself from being pointlessly nervous, and fleshed out some more refined sketches of the ornamental robes Arbiter and the other Sangheili favoured.

"I could really go for a beer."

Gabby peered over at Stevenson, who apparently was not as asleep as she appeared. "Ditto, mate."

"Ulys promised there would be some cold stuff waiting for us at the embassy. Ready?"

Gabby tucked the book away and shouldered the bag. "Lead on."

Yanks and Fender were waiting by a plain, black car. "Glasses, mum," Yanks passed a pair of aviators to Gabby and Stevenson.

Small as it was, putting on the glasses felt a little bit like having a whole new face. Gabby was unremarkable in appearance, and disguised as she was she blended in with the marines around her easily enough.

After a snappy argument about who would drive, they piled into the car and were off.

Gabby watched the New York skyline and dreamed.

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From the many images Arbiter had provided, Gabby knew instantly that the Sangheili guards posted on the embassy ground were wearing clan armour.

A picture was one thing. To be faced with burnished silver, chrome, and bronze clad figures that towered even over the tallest of humans, was entirely another.

"Wow." Gabby tried not to ogle as she passed through the garden and the statue-like figures the guards made. "There must be incredible armour smiths in the Sangheili."

"Ask Ulys about them," Stevenson snorted, a fondness curing her smile. "One of the few things that will get him to use more than five words to a sentence is smithing."

"Really?"

"Yeah. His clan has a line of smiths that goes back to ye' olden times."

They rolled into the lobby. Grand tapestries hung from the walls, elegant and artful hangings detailing what appeared to be paragons of Sangheili. Breathtaking, Gabby thought. Already she saw dozens of ways to incorporate the aesthetic into her designs.

"Few look upon the battle poems as you do."

"Is that what these are?" Gabby let her admiration show.

The Sangheili that approached wore robes of soft, slivery grey and had eyes the colour of old parchment. He nodded, once, and folded his hands together.

"They're beautiful. Can you tell me what they mean?"

"As I am the Keeper of Knowledge, one would expect that I were able to, no? Come, walk with me. Arbiter has yet to arrive."

Attached to the embassy was a small curation of Sangheili culture. A small piece of home for those that were homesick, and a small piece of culture for those from outside of it. Gabby listened with a thirst as the Keeper spoke of his culture, his history, his heritage.

"There is still much I myself am learning," he said as they stood before an artistic depiction of the Arbiter. It was not the Arbiter she knew however. "For instance, this is Tel' fotorre, the First Arbiter. In his time, this was a position of honour."

"As it was for centuries, until one Arbiter used his position to question the Covenant doctrine and the Prophets poisoned the title into one of disgrace."

"Arbiter," Gabby and the Keeper greeted in unison.

Coming to stand at their shoulders, Arbiter beheld the painting with reverence. "This was saved from what was named a holy purge."

Gabby saw this art, this scrap of history, and felt her determination rise to new levels.

"If you want to destroy a people," Gabby said with respect to whom she was speaking, "you destroy their history, their culture, their way of life. You break it apart and build it back up in your image."

It had happened on Earth. Many, many times. Before they had travelled to the stars and held them in their hands, humans had fought and fought and fought. Endless circles of war and peace that never seemed to end. At least, not until a greater enemy united them.

Gabby tried not to think about the Insurrectionists and how not days ago she'd worn a red fist over her heart.

"Well said, Gabriel."

"No need to dance around the facts," Gabby said, and then she balked. "I genuinely did not say that intentionally."

"And I believed that dealing with the UNSC Press Core was difficult." Arbiter angled his gaze down, met her own squarely. "Prospective dance instructors are being compiled as we speak." he gave pause, canting his head in a bird-like fashion as amusement warmed his deep dual-tone. "Are you aware that my kin refer to you as-"

"The Demon's Mate? Yes. Yes, I picked up on it after the fourth Sangheili said it to me." Gabby turned, quirking a brow and idly going, "You wouldn't happen to know where that started, now, do you, Arbiter?"

"Your suspicions areā€¦"

"Y-es?"

"Well placed." Arbiter chuckled, seemingly satisfied by her exasperated huff. "Come, there is much to discuss and not nearly enough time to do it in."