Dr. Halsey took a deep breath and looked into her daughter's face, the face that so resembled her own yet had obvious traces of Jacob's in it. "I'm sorry," she said calmly, holding back her emotions; years of carefully maintaining a professional mask made it easy, but it was hard at the same time. "Sorry for not being a better mother; sorry for never being there when you needed me; sorry for… well, a lot of things." She crossed her arms, mirroring Miranda's posture, and sighed. Suddenly she felt… old.

"You make it sound so easy, being sorry," Miranda remarked, neither condemning nor accepting the apology. "What does 'sorry' mean when you say it, anyway?"

Halsey was quiet for a moment, then looked away. "It means I'm ashamed of myself, really," she said softly. "What is all I've done worth when I can't even face my own daughter without feeling like a failure?"

Miranda blinked rapidly. She uncrossed her arms, shifted her weight, then took a step toward Halsey. "You're not a fail—"

"Miranda, I have failed you. It's obvious enough, isn't it?" Halsey gave a humorless laugh. "Perhaps I have succeeded in my scientific endeavors, but have I been a good parent? No. I've been a lousy, distracted quasi-parent. Maybe not even that."

Miranda was silent for a few moments, absorbing her mother's words. Then she took another step forward. "Maybe… maybe I've been a lousy daughter, too," she admitted quietly. "How are you supposed to come closer to a daughter who won't even listen?"

"You are stubborn," Halsey mused, "Like your father when he was—"

"Like you," Miranda corrected, now at arm's length from Halsey. "Dad may be hardheaded, but let's face it, we're two bumps on a log."

"Perhaps." Halsey appeared flustered, almost nervous now. "Miranda—"

"Mom," Miranda said gently, the icy look leaving her eyes, "Just… shut up, okay?" With that, she embraced her mother for the first time in nearly twenty years. Halsey stiffened, then put her arms around her daughter, speechless.

"Merry Christmas, Mom," Miranda said, smiling despite the wet sheen that had formed in her eyes.

Halsey didn't respond. The words wouldn't come.

Miranda had told her to shut up, after all.

Elsewhere…

And so it was that the ODSTs and Marines began singing Christmas carols and everyone except them thought it prudent to leave the table and evacuate into the nearby rooms. Dare managed to sneak away, leaving Buck, Dutch, Mickey, Romeo and one flustered Rookie to their madness. Well, the Rookie wasn't actually singing; he was sinking down in his chair, hoping he could get low enough to slip under the table, crawl to the far end, and make a dash for the hallway, thus escaping his predicament. But no. Mickey and Romeo grabbed him by each shoulder and forced him to join in the chorus of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"… only it came out as "Fishmas" but no one seemed to notice.

In the rec room, which appeared warm and inviting what with the tree and decorations and all, Colonel Holland sipped at his glass of champagne while watching as the Spartans settled down. Carter sat in one of the chairs while Kat stood off to the side, resting her robotic elbow on his shoulder. Emile plunked down in a chair, exhaled heartily, then attempted to grab Rosenda as she sauntered by. She slapped him on the wrist and kept on walking, while Emile just sat back and enjoyed the view with a crafty smirk. Holland raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Could it be that Noble's Spartans were forming relationships with one another? He glanced down at his drink. Or was it just the champagne getting to him? He shrugged and took another sip, choosing not to care.

Six was rubbing her afflicted eyes and hunting for meds, going down one of the winding hallways in search of relief. When she passed by one of the rooms, she balked, remaining perfectly still so as not to be spotted. Miranda Keyes and Dr. Halsey were… hugging. And was Miranda crying? Six couldn't tell from this angle, but it suddenly clicked that from the side, Miranda and Halsey were very, very similar. So similar they could be blood relatives… or… was it possible…?

She walked backwards, careful not to alert the two to her presence. Whatever was going on, she didn't want to disturb it. So she made her way to the rec room, where all the Spartans had gathered. Jorge was taking up space by the "hearth," leaning against the wall and watching as Emile told a very animated story about the time he'd assassinated an Elite with a dinner fork. While Jun debated the veracity of the tale with Rosenda, claiming the alloy used to make forks couldn't possibly have punctured through the Elite's neck sheathing, Six slipped behind Carter's chair and sat down on an ottoman, announcing her presence with a sniffle.

From the mess hall drifted the somewhat wavering tune of "O Holy Night," punctuated by a hiccup that sounded like it belonged to Mickey.

Presently Dr. Halsey and Miranda joined the group in the rec room. Jacob's eyes lit up when he saw Halsey, and she went over to sit beside him while Miranda remained standing and half-smiled, looking happy for the first time that evening. Holland, whose tongue had been loosened considerably by the champagne, was now actively arguing the possibility that the fork could have pierced through the Elite's neck armor depending on whether it was stainless steel or not. Jorge, who had grown bored with the entire conversation (which was now an all-out debate), moved closer to Six and gave her a knowing nudge. "Not feeling so great, are ya?" he asked somewhat sadly.

"I've had better days," Six replied, her voice still nasally. She mustered a smile. "You?"

"Stuffed," Jorge admitted, grinning. "If that's Christmas dinner, it's a good thing it only comes once a year, or we'd all get soft."

"It's going to be hard to go back to eating MREs after being exposed to all that," Kat agreed, having overhead Jorge's statement. She smirked, then the smirk vanished as she sensed a presence behind her. "Emile, what are you doing?"

The assault specialist smiled sadistically, shaking a ball of leaves and berries with glee. "Guess what I found!" he said in a sing-song voice, like a psychotic killer.

Kat recognized the parasitic vine clipping he was dangling above her and Carter and cocked an eyebrow. "Noble Four, what do you propose I do with that?" she asked.

"It's not what you do with it, it's what you do under it," Emile said sweetly. He held it up higher when Kat tried to swipe it and shook his head. "You people are savages. Ain't you ever heard of 'kissin' under the mistletoe' before?"

"That doesn't apply here. Now put it down," Carter grunted.

But Kat had a glint of mischief in her eyes—the kind of glint she got when she was messing around in top-ranking ONI officials' personal emails, for example. "No, Commander, I think we should abide by this long-standing and noble Christmas tradition," she purred, bending over. Before Carter could protest again, she kissed him square on the mouth, drawing it out as long and as passionately as possible, then drew herself back up and glanced coyly at Emile. "You were saying?"

Emile looked one part astounded and two parts amused. Meanwhile several brain cells gasped for vital air and suffocated inside Dr. Halsey's cranium, and she resisted the urge to point and gape like a beached fish. Holland choked on his champagne, while Dare looked slightly mortified and Carter… well, Carter just blinked like he'd been flash-banged and cleared his throat, trying to shake off the awkward moment.

"WOO!" Chips Dubbo yelled, raising both fists high in the air. "Score!" Stacker promptly whacked him on the back of the head.

Jorge couldn't help laughing, and Six's grin threatened to reach her ears. "Finally," the older Spartan muttered in mock exasperation, giving Six's shoulder a slight squeeze.

An hour later…

After all the excitement was over, things began to die down. The ODSTs, all of whom were soused except the Rookie, launched into war stories while sitting on the floor, and Stacker had to chase all of his Marines out so they could tend to their duties. Colonel Holland joined in the war stories, and Emile and Rosenda disappeared down the hallway. Kat sat on Carter's lap while he held her waist and rested the side of his head against her left shoulder, eyes half-lidded in contentment. They were quiet, enjoying the brief interlude of peace and each others' warmth.

Jun had actually struck up a conversation with the newly-cheerful Miranda Keyes, and they were sitting side by side one of the padded benches, while Jacob and Halsey stood nearby, clasping hands discreetly.

"Are you happy now, Commander?" Kat whispered, tapping his arm with her robotic hand.

Carter just emitted a possessive huff and smiled into her shoulder. "Why wouldn't I be?" he whispered back, his grip around her waist increasing a fraction. "I have everything I could want, right here."

"You're greedy," Kat said in mock reproof, then smirked. "Lucky for you, I don't have a problem with it."

"What about you?"

Kat jerked her head slightly at his question, then a faint, rueful smile played on her lips. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Don't give me any of that crap."

"All right then." She sighed. "A lot has happened to us as a team—to me—" She raised her artificial arm, looked at it, then lowered it again. "—but right now, I wouldn't trade this moment for any of it. I wouldn't want any of it back if it meant giving up what I'm feeling now."

Carter was silent for a moment, then raised one hand and ran it down her back, right where the mechanisms of her cybernetic arm fused with the flesh of her shoulder. "Hearing you say that… makes me feel honored to be with you, Kat. And I mean that. You have my word as a Spartan."

"I don't want your word as a Spartan," Kat accused, touching a finger to the Commander's mouth. "I want your word as a man. My man."

"So be it, then," Carter murmured. He forced Kat's hands to clasp on her lap, then covered them with his own.

Kat's eyes glazed over briefly and she blinked rapidly, some color rising on her cheeks. But she settled back down, content to savor what time she had left to cherish what had been done and said.

Doctor Halsey noticed that Six had dozed off with her head on Jorge's shoulder, the both of them situated in one of the larger seats. Jorge could have been sleeping, but his eyes remained opened as slits, ever vigilant. The blonde Spartan-III, usually so rigid and sharp, was slumped over, one hand folded across her waist as her chest rose and fell slowly. It was easy for Halsey to imagine her as a child like this, while the gray creeping into Jorge's hairline made the image of his six-year-old face more difficult to recall, though it would forever be burned into her memory, like all seventy-four of the other trainees' faces were.

Thinking about the Spartans sobered her mood and she gave a little sigh. Jacob noticed the slight dip in her mood and squeezed her hand a bit. She looked up, took in his still-handsome features and calm eyes, and forced the discomfort down. Then she looked over at Miranda, who was laughing quietly at some joke Jun had told. Seeing her estranged daughter smiling lifted the burden on her heart more than a little.

Buck, who had somehow managed to stay less drunk than the other members of his squad (excluding the Rookie), staggered over to Dare and leaned against the wall, attempting to retain his dignity even though his equilibrium was practically moot. The little red Christmas bow was still in his hair. "So, uh-um, Caaaptain," the Gunny said, slinging an affectionate but ill-coordinated arm across the ONI agent's shoulders, "Any chance you'd uh, like to, uuuuh… join us for another round of Christmas carols? We need somebody to pitch the set, 'cause Mickey always hits it too high…"

"You mean set the pitch," Dare corrected. She cocked her head, then reached up and picked the bow out of Buck's hair. When she held it in front of his face, he frowned and tried to focus on it. She tossed it aside and sighed, forcing a grin. "What could it hurt? And besides, you need a copilot. Wouldn't want you running into any corners… or off any platforms. I need you in mint condition for this upcoming op."

"Gee, thanks," Buck replied, somewhat sarcastically. Then he grinned. "Y'know what, Cap'n, you're not the cold, hard chunk of flint most people think you are."

Dare blinked once, the smile on her face quickly growing to resemble bared teeth, but she bore the unintended insult well, digging her nails into Buck's shoulder as they walked out of the room. "That's very kind of you, Gunny," she said mincingly, her words veiling a threat.

Meanwhile Six stirred in her sleep and opened her eyes, jerked awake by the sound of wind howling outside, which was barely noticeable to the normal humans, but quite bothersome to Spartans. As soon as her brain had gathered the information that she was in no danger, her eyes drifted shut again and she turned her head, though the simple black wool of Jorge's dress jacket offered little comfort. The sound of his heartbeat, sturdy and calm, was enough to lull her back to sleep. It was like being in some sort of warm, agreeable bed, one that she was loath to leave anytime soon.

"Everything all right?" Jorge asked.

"Everything's just fine," Six mumbled, smiling. "Merry Christmas, Jorge."

"Boldog Karácsonyt, Aislinn," came the rumbling reply, and the arm around her shoulders tightened.

Her smile widened and she burrowed in deeper. As she drifted off to sleep, one thought crossed her mind. This… is the best Christmas I have ever had.

-Author's Note: This should have come earlier, but my computer ate the initial draft and I had to rewrite it.

Also, there will be another chapter or two. Christmas Day is important too! :D And there are some things I've left unresolved. What is Doc Halsey's present gonna be? Who gets their tongue stuck to a pole? And... will there me moar guests? Stay tuned and find out!