A/N: Almost eight years ago now I tossed around ideas for a (for shame!) MC/OC fic. I dismissed it: "Thyroid implants. Wouldn't work." Then I got into Six/Jorge.
First sentence borrowed from an earlier fic of mine. Thanks to Lady Laconia for beta'ing.
Warnings: Six/Jorge, vague Halsey/Keyes, rated T for very brief sensuality.
Love, Catharine knew, was endorphins, serotonin, and lots and lots of luck. So she reduced serotonin, rewired endorphins, rewound hormones, and distributed so much luck between them that maybe there wasn't enough left for the rest of the world—but all this was after the monsters came, so it didn't really matter.
She sat at her desk and tapped the side of her ONI identification card against the table. Tickticktick, plastic on wood-grained plastic. When Captain Keyes entered the room, his shoulder as straight as the creases on his uniform, the tapping entered her head. Her hands stilled.
He said, "So. The Spartan Three project."
She met the furrows between his eyes. "Why wasn't I told, captain?"
He shrugged. "The head of ONI was keeping secrets from its tail. You know the spooks."
Catharine pursed her lips and looked down at the table, letting the ID card slide from her fingers. Taptaptap. Her own face blinked back at her. Was she really that wrinkled?
She shook her head. "ONI let me know that Beta-Five existed so that I wouldn't wonder what they were doing. I should have known better."
He said nothing.
She said, "More children to kill for us. And I have had so many."
Taptaptap. Catharine remembered that Keyes was far off in space, and that their children had long been scattered—Miranda, serving; Cortana and Kalmiya, slowly being formed out of strings of data; John, waging his lucky war. Jorge, out on Reach with those Threes. Serving with them, even though they were not hers—she had not given permission for their lives to be given away. She had never seen their faces.
Some of them, yes—Carter, the picture of a soldier. His subordinate Kat, who…thinking on her own would be a merit in many battles. This was not one of them.
But Catharine could not picture Carter young.
Dot, too, she had not made—had not written the code or given the name. Dot and the Threes were not in Halsey's hierarchy, although Jorge and Kurt were in theirs. That was important; Halsey filed it away.
She looked around her office, empty and ice-blue, and looked again at the paperwork on the table that had made her tired enough to start imagining, and made her want to get away from herself so much that she took her ID and looked at her face as if it were a stranger—
Noble Team's dossiers. Her unknown children that she could learn about, as long as they all had the time. Each of them was a little mystery—a human packed somewhere beneath metal and muscle. She just needed to find them, but wasn't sure she could afford to.
The first time she observed Noble Six had been in the halls of Sword Base—the other Threes filed out and Jorge and Six trailed behind, until the younger Spartan turned to leave Catharine alone with her almost-child. Catharine had read the body signals taken by the gel pressed tightly against Six's skin. Pheromones, endorphins strengthening by a fraction of a percent, her body fighting its bounds. It was as if she felt captured in herself even with all that room to move, caught behind blue ion fields built by her superiors—
Six was not so different from the AIs, ensconced in themselves, waiting for rampancy with age and experience and love.
Noble Six did not concern herself much with Jorge's fondess for Halsey: she had a war to win, and there were more important things to think about. Worrying about emotion was for human soldiers; Spartans thought in numbers. They reasoned in distances, in reinforcements, in rounds per minute. Twos and threes.
Jorge and Six met on the ramparts of Sword Base, silent. Six thought of the unwritten sounds in Sara Sorvad's name. She thought of civilian casualty numbers, casually mentioned—Dot's voice fluting through the thousands. She thought of Spartan strength and force-per-inch and neural lace.
Jorge bent to touch his forehead against hers and she buried her face against his neck, her lips brushing the soft skin almost by accident.
She said, "I missed you."
It had been two days and one night.
He said, "I know."
Perimeters. Guard stations and swipe cards; rotating shifts. Because Spartans were housed communally, Six and Jorge left the base for the cliffsides, for the Reach-dark dirt wet with dew.
Nerve transduction. Fabrications. There were platinum pellets fixed between the columns of muscle in their necks. She found the scar at the top of his spine that waited for the neural interface to go in. It was the place where his synapses spoke to his armor and it was the source of the little yellow dot that meant friendly and it was a rough ridge under her tongue.
Spine-deep ache. Reaction times.
Catharine talked to both of them, like children.
"I've debriefed your entire team, Noble Six. I know about Kat's theft; I know how Jun feels about Thom. I know you give more free range to your emotions than some of us would like."
Catharine was, as far as she knew, the only one who had noticed.
Six sat on a too-small chair in Catharine's office, still armored inside an armored building. Six said, "That's the phrase, ma'am."
Catharine stood and circled Six, examining the small plates along her spine and the large ones over her shoulders. "Was that something your former commander allowed you, Lieutenant?" She had read the files. Colonel Evan Stern. Assigned one Spartan Three on loan from the Saber Project for at least a year's campaign.
Six said, "I did my duty, ma'am." No inflection.
Catharine continued her circle. She needed to know all of the Nobles; she might need to write their epitaphs. She turned to face Six, and folded her arms.
"That will be all, Noble."
"Ma'am." Six nodded, and left.
The changes were even more fractional in Jorge's lifesigns, but Catharine called him on a private channel when Noble was close enough to Sword Base for a tightbeam to travel through the air without any scatter.
She said, "You've grown close to the team's newest member."
There was more snap in Catharine's voice than she expected. How long had it been since someone had called her by her name-
"I want you to stay focused, Spartan. The Covenant are massing and a false move could lose us this world. What is it you could possibly feel for her?"
Silence in which she hoped he was wondering what the alternative to focus was.
She leaned back in her chair and glowered at the office door. Would it help or hurt, for the Spartans to pretend to be human?
There were no pictures on Catharine Halsey's desk.
No—it would only make the losses worse. It would only make another Jun.
Catharine decided to wait and see whether anyone else would notice or the war would care, but soon after that it didn't matter anymore.
It wasn't unusual for news of deaths among the Spartans to be so cursory. "We all do, ma'am." There would be time for graves and memorials and mourning later. It would be the same one day for Kurt, or John, or any of the others.
Still, as Catharine stood in her ice-blue bunker about to set her last, luckiest child in motion, she thought someone should be mourning. But she couldn't see the Spartans' faces, and Catharine didn't have time.
She unsealed the little half-spark Cortana, its edges hissing. Carried it like an Olympic torch to place it in black glove-scaled hands twice the size of hers. "Take it, lieutenant. She has made her choice." And Catharine wondered: Why Six? Why this one who failed? Would it have been Jorge? What does my daughter Cortana look for in humanity's savior?
(Later, she would understand that Noble Six, like John, was lucky.)
"I have it."
And Noble Six hesitated, because she liked to surprise people, and because all of Noble was watching, and because Jun was standing with his arms crossed—
Or, maybe, Catharine could never know why Six clipped Cortana to her back reverently, as gently as if the metal tube were a baby, and unsealed her helmet.
It became a hollow thing in her hands and Six looked at Catharine with glister-green eyes.
Catharine wondered what she wanted. "You will do this, Aislinn, no matter who you lose," she said, looking up at the face with its little white scars like Six would know that this was as close as she was going to get—
Noble Six said nothing. She was thinking of the way Jorge had taken his mask off before he died and wondering what it meant that she wanted the same gesture now. Halsey had not been optimistic, but this was not Six's death speech.
Catharine said, "You were not made to feel, Spartan, you were made to act. I will not go so far as to call these feelings a mistake—maybe mine, but not yours. You won't only set them aside, Noble Six. You will understand that you have not had them. Do you understand?"
Nerve transduction. Reaction times.
Somewhere, Halsey's honorific had gone missing. Six said, "I understand."
And this was true.