A/N: This is for LadyLaconia. She wrote "Operation Christmas", this wonderful funny Reach story, and I liked it so much that I nearly wrote fanfic for her fanfic. Instead, I wrote this. It's not in the "Operation Christmas" timeline because I didn't want to get in the way of her story, but it features a similar situation and pretty much the same characters, including emo!Jun. Pairings include implied Carter/Kat and not-at-all-implied Jorge/Six. The other "Operation Christmas" pairings are assumed but not included.
The poem isn't mine, although I reworded it a little. Except the third stanza is. The first two were online, and I can provide the link if you really want.
Reach: One Must Descend From Somewhere
This was not the beginning. A beginning, maybe—the phrase "it started" could be applied. It started with Jun standing in the snow, thinking about Thom, shuffling his feet. The beginning, though—that was back months ago, with the crunch of the dirt as Thom hauled the bomb off the ground. Jun saw Kat fall and Thom take her place far too quickly for anything to stop them.
Or the beginning was years ago, with Jun taking the little white pills that everyone else had with their meals, off the gray plastic tray and onto his back teeth, crush the tangy, wet pulp of the proscribed chemical diet, Spartans down table rows licking the augmentations off their lips and complaining. Tastes like cardboard. Tastes like MREs. Tastes like—
There was snow, cold on his face, and skin prickling at his knees. In MJOLNIR he couldn't feel this, but he hadn't gotten armored just to stand and watch the storm come. A marine in a guard booth to his right kept looking nervously at him, his thoughts almost as readable as if projected on a screen. Is this allowed? Is he going to go anywhere? Do I detain a Spartan?
Jun was not sure what he was looking for, but he found it in the open space between the mountains and the fortress. He found a little of it in the space between the snowflakes.
This is not the beginning. It isn't even where Jun's story starts. It might, though, be the start of something else.
It started with Jorge and Carter talking about war games. These were one of Carter's topics. The commander of Noble Team only had so many things he cared to talk about. At the top of the list was whatever mission he was currently on, with the war games he had gone through in training coming second. The third topic was Kat, but Six had only gotten him to open up about that one on a very long, very rainy watch.
Rain did strange things to the mind when it meant you were cooped up for hours, all dressed up with nowhere to go. On that night, Noble Team had stayed under cover in a makeshift marine base because the storm was so torrential that it crippled MJOLNIR and Covenant technology alike. A ship had cruised over in the darkness, and marines tipped turret guns up to watch it pass. But no shots or transport beams had come down, and they had tracked the ship as far as the computers could watch it. That night Six had done a lot of talking to Carter and a lot of talking to Jorge. The former concerned Kat. The latter concerned everything from what Jorge had in fact done to Halsey's armor to how best to cook a moa burger over a space heater.
Two days later, Carter and Kat only thought their relationship was hidden from the rest of the team, Six and Jorge weren't even bothering to hide theirs, and Noble Team had gotten back to Sword Base in time to be given official downtime of a day at least. Blackout conditions kept anything from moving outside. The UNSC hunkered down like a turtle—a heavily armed, securely fortified turtle that was really, really glad to have an excuse for a break.
The invasion had unofficially ceased. Most marines remained on active duty. Noble Team, though, were the only Spartans assigned to the area and the only force that had been serving without relief for the entire invasion. They were given official 'shore-leave-except-you-can't-actually-leave'. They had the run of the base, provided they were fit to mobilize within a day.
Therefore, Six had showered and changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt, did what she could to make her hair fluffy instead of helmet-shaped, and settled down for some serious relaxation.
For Spartans, of course, the emphasis was still on serious. Six carried her helmet under her arm as she entered the wide rec room. The helmet had gotten dented and scraped, but the wax-sided cloth in her other hand would take care of it with a bit of concentrated scrubbing. This little bit of progress felt like exactly what she needed at the moment.
The rec room was split into two halves. The side closer to the door and farther from the small, horizontal bank of windows contained mats and equipment for practice sparring. The side closer to the windows had a short, prickly carpeted floor, one long, pale blue couch, and a card table around which was arrayed another couch and two folding chairs. This was where Carter and Jorge were sitting, and this was the conversation Six walked in on.
"…Echo Team told Katana Team that they'd flank them, and then of course we flanked in the opposite direction and caught both of them between the cliffs and the flag. We walked off with it while they tried to figure out what to do and decided not to fight each other," Carter said. He looked up with a contented expression. "Hey, Six."
"Commander. Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all."
She sat on the couch, placing her helmet in front of her on the table. The autumn orange looked incongruous with her gray shirt and dark green pants.
Jorge gave her her real name. "Aislinn."
She smiled at him. "So. What are we talking about?"
Jorge said, "Carter's company."
Carter nodded. Six sat back and listened as Carter told of the same kind of team games that she remembered from Beta Company. Strategy, factions; the occasional, surprisingly funny moment. She shifted to the edge of the couch, leaning her elbows on her legs. Carter's story wasn't different from what Spartans and marines usually bantered about, and she knew that no one could really win a training exercise. But Carter's voice took to it and kept it from becoming too familiar. He was good at getting people to pay attention.
The story ended with Carter's team succeeding, but not without losses. Just like real life (or maybe it was the other way around).
Carter folded his arms and was back in commander mode.
Six said, "This was good, commander. You should tell stories more often."
Carter looked...sheepish? "I don't have too many."
"Well, it was good."
Jorge asked him, "Who trained you?"
Carter looked confused. "To tell stories?"
"No," Jorge grumbled. "On Onyx."
He was referring to Alpha Company, Carter's team.
"Kurt Ambrose oversaw us like he did most of the Threes."
Jorge nodded. A handful of seconds passed. Six looked at Jorge, remembering when she saw Kurt standing on front of the future Threes in his MJOLNIR armor. He had been the first Spartan she had ever seen. "Did you know him?"
"I did." He leaned back comfortably in to the couch, looking almost asleep. "There were three hundred of us. We all knew each other. Argued a lot."
"He survived training us," Carter said. "I admit, we hated him sometimes."
Across the room, the door opened. "Is it story time?" Emile strutted in with Kat following him. He glared across the room as if accusing the others of leaving him out of something. Carter waved.
Six had seen Emile a few times before without his helmet. A UNSC t-shirt and belted, baggy pants emphasized the impression that Emile was all angles. His hips were thin and square, his shoulders broad and square. Even his lips, where the dark skin of his face faded to tan gums, were sharply defined and angular. His expression tended to make Six forget that he was skinnier than the other Spartan men. Emile looked at you like he was about to pull the leaf-shaped knife holstered at his side—and he was never without the knife.
Kat almost pushed into the room behind him. "Emile didn't take all his pills as a child. Turned out a little odd."
"Trust me, Kat, I've got all the right chemicals." Emile stalked to the second chair. He gestured at his own chest. "This is just quality personality here. Speaking of odd, where's Jun?"
Six shifted to the edge of her seat, her knee bumping against the card table. Carter said, "I saw him outside almost half an hour ago."
Kat sat down on the couch between Six and Jorge. Carter met her eyes briefly as she spoke. "Out in this weather?"
"Jun likes his space," said Carter.
Kat tilted her head at him. "You know something, commander?"
"Yeah. Don't worry about it. Jun is fine."
Six wondered what Jun was thinking right now, and whether he could feel the snow through his armor. She wondered if he was seeing the base from the mountains arrayed like jagged teeth around it, and planning a hypothetical attack just in case, just for something easy to do. There were probably marines watching him, keeping track.
Emile shrugged. "He can take it. Kat told me it was storytime. What're we doing in here?"
Kat said, "I told you that I left these two-" indicating with her flesh arm Carter and Jorge- "talking about training."
"Yeah. So, let's hear it. I'm bored. Haven't killed somethin' in a while."
Six furrowed her brow and counted on her fingers. "It's been eight hours since we fought off the last of the Covvies in the mountains."
"Told you. A while."
"Fine," Six said. "I've got a story."
The team looked at her, calm and quiet.
She said, "When I was a kid, my parents took me out for a walk in snow like this. It was almost up to my knees; I was three or four years old. I saw a marine walking a dog down the street. I don't know if it was his or somebody else's or part of some program. But as a kid I liked it. I remember asking my mom what the dog's name was." She shrugged, smiled sheepishly. "That's it. That's the story." Kat and Carter laughed softly. "Look," Six continued, "I realized that story didn't have a point halfway through."
Emile huffed, looking unhappy.
Six glared. "We can't all have Carter's mad skills. Sorry."
Carter said, "You missed your chance, Emile. Next time..."
Kat said, "Did you ever see the marine again?"
Six shrugged and sat back against the couch, realizing how silly she looked. Why had she wanted to tell that story anyway? It had felt so important, because the snow was falling outside and she had time to think. "I don't know. Next thing I remember, I got recruited."
Emile huffed again. They all knew that recruited meant rescued from the attack that killed her parents. "Great story," he said sarcastically.
Kat pointed at Emile. "Have you got one?"
"Do I look like the wordy type?" He spread his hands.
Two thirds of Noble Team stared at him.
Emile gritted his teeth and said, "Two Grunts walk into a bar..."
"One must descend from some place."
"What?" Emile stared at Jorge, who had quietly interrupted.
The older Spartan shook his head. "Sorry. I just remembered."
"You wanna tell the story?" Emile demanded.
Jorge raised a hand, waving Emile to go on.
"No, no, I'm not gonna get in the way. Big man wants to say somethin' to the group, he oughta feel included."
The silence growled.
Jorge said, "Just something I picked up. It's a Magyarorszag story, about the beginning of the world."
Carter said, "Well let's hear it."
"I'm curious about the Grunts," Kat said.
Emile tapped his knife against his knee. "I'll tell you later."
Jorge waited for anyone else to protest. When they didn't, he began. "It's just a little thing."
It was poetry, really. Six leaned back and found her eyes drifting shut, not because she was tired but because she wanted to focus on the words and the voice.
"One must descend from somewhere. Everything must begin someplace.
"The sun god swam, rocked by the waves, he gathered his strength, for a long time.
After taking deep breaths he submerged into the blue depths, diving deeper,
into the darkness, slowly releasing air that popped on the surface
of the rolling sea. His talons hit the bottom
of the sea, into its sand. He took some of it into his beak
and like an arrow, rose to the top of the water with it.
"From the surface of the sea bed, he brought up the sleeping eyes,
small silver white seeds. The sleeping eyes awoke,
the sleepy eyes opened and grew up and became living beings.
"Flew Turul the falcon to the tree of life and arranged the soul of the unborn with her talons.
She made the priests to bear children who see visions, and the sun shone behind her
upon living beings."
Jorge paused. He said, "That's what I remember."
The Spartans sat in silence for a short while. Carter nodded. Emile said, "I liked mine better."
Kat folded her arms. "It was pretty. Do you believe in that?"
Jorge shook his head. "Just stories." "Yeah, that's great." Emile stood up. "I can't sit still this long. Going to the firing range with me?"
"Because I told you I would," Kat replied.
"And because you want to hear the joke."
"Right. I'm heading over there, commander." She looked at Carter.
He said, "You don't need my permission."
"I wasn't asking it." Kat stood and turned to go, Emile following her. Six watched for Carter's reaction as Jorge stretched out on the couch next to her. Carter gave the all-clear sign, fingers out and thumb tucked against his palm. Without looking back, Kat gave it too.
Carter sighed, and then resumed his normal, businesslike demeanor. "I'm going to go find Jun." He stood up. "Don't mind Emile."
Jorge said, "We don't."
Six watched Carter go, her gaze following the same trajectory as that of her helmet's visor. The room filled with the gray silence of its sterile walls. She looked over at Jorge, who appeared almost asleep after his long speech. The words echoed in her head: eyes and seeds and the sea.
She shifted over to sit next to the older Spartan, taking Kat's place. He looked up at her, and reached a hand out to take hers and stroke his thumb along her knuckles. She shifted closer, focused on the warmth of him and on the thin trace-lines of scars that she could see following the lines of his forearms. Augmentation scars, pale and measured scientifically straight. Both of the Spartans were pale compared to the marines, their skin gel-soft over solid muscle where it was not textured with lines. He drew her closer until she lay down beside him. She traced little circles across his chest with her fingertips, covering the dark gray eagle symbol of the UNSC.
"It's like Turul."
He laughed softly. "A little."
She looked up at him, noting the stress lines wrinkling his forehead above his half-lidded, dark eyes. "Do you miss…?"
"Ah, Six, none of it's really mine anyway. I don't remember it from when I was a kid. The words wouldn't leave, and I worked on 'em. But all of this is just stories. Ain't like somebody told 'em to me."
"But you tell them to us."
"Yeah. It passes the time." He leaned back and sighed, and she lay her head against his shoulder.
The room was quiet and almost without temperature. Six stretched her long legs along the couch, gently pushing at Jorge's bent knees. She reached out to touch the skin above his eyes, trying to smooth the harsh lines. He closed his eyes and got an arm around her waist to draw her closer, both of them settling comfortably against the couch. A single loop from the chain of her dog tags slipped from under her t-shirt and pooled against his collar.
(Days later they would huddle together under the Reach-dark earth and she would curl her fingers open and closed over the mess of scars roughening his left shoulder. She would say nothing and press her lips against the scars. She would say, "I'll do it. I'll go instead." Because the bomb wasn't going to work, it wasn't made for this, and he knew that. And he would bend to kiss her on the top of the head and say "No…Six,look… I got all these scars before you got your first suit of armor. It's better off being my time." And she would not care that she had more time left, because they all had exactly the same amount of time left: the time until the Solace was destroyed and the skies were clear, and then they would have Reach back. Except Reach was his world, and he needed it the most.)
Six looked up at the snow outside, thick flakes falling silently across the windows. She had her own memories of winters past, before her parents had died. They had Christmases then, and she had been human enough to fall in the snow and laugh while her parents picked her up.
If she went back there now, one of her strides would cover four or five of the wobbling steps she took as a child.
She sat up and picked her helmet off the table. "Smile."
She took photos with the same technology that was used for recon, and saved them to keep for herself. When she had taken a few of Jorge and the snowy windows behind him, she started to take the helmet off.
"Wait," he said, and sat up to kiss the curved, orange jaw plate. Six held still and content.
(Days later she would sit in the smoky night next to Kat's makeshift funeral cairn and open the pictures. She didn't want anyone else to see her face behind the mask when she looked at him, asking his picture whether he was okay now and where the snow had gone.)
This was not the beginning. This was long after, when time had been parsed into starts. It was the middle of the story for Six, and near the end of the story for Jorge.
It was a start for Jun.
Jun's story started with Carter knocking on the inside of a door.
With enhanced senses the sniper turned to see his commander looking through the wire mesh of the foot-square window, knocking like the storm was Jun's home and Carter needed permission to come in and visit. Jun waved him forward.
Within minutes, the storm turned the shoulders of his gray shirt white. They stood in silence for a while.
Carter said, "You should come inside, Jun." No need to say that it was cold.
The sniper said, "Don't worry. I'll be fine."
"You'll be frozen."
Jun turned around, looked at the marine on guard. Looked at Carter. "I don't want to be the last one. Thom died and we replaced him. Everyone could be replaced. I don't want to see that."
"You want us to die before you?"
"I don't mean that."
"Well explain what you mean, Jun, because that's what it sounded like to me."
"Forget it, commander. I'm sorry."
This wasn't Spartan-like at all. Carter tipped his head at Jun. "You talk too much."
"I think too much. Stupid snow siege, I get all antsy."
"You should relax."
"That's hard enough to do."
Carter looked at him, didn't know what to say, shrugged. "Will you be ready to move tomorrow?"
"Yes sir. Always ready to get out." Carter folded his arms and stood next to him.
"So." Kat first off a pistol shot into the holographic battleground of the range. "How's the joke end?"
"Oh," Emile replied. "I dunno."
"Two Grunts walk into a bar, and..."
"Howabout two Grunts walk into a grenade? That'd be funny."
"Not good enough, Emile."
Six sat close beside Jorge as he held her helmet in his lap and cleaned the visor with the cloth she had brought. He recited the mythology and she repeated it, trying to memorize the lines.
Carter and Jun watched the snow fall.
"Two Grunts walk into a bar. One says, "I'll have one of those," and points to the bartender."
Kat took one hand off her pistol and looked at Emile with a raised eyebrow. The firing range was small and empty except for them.
Emile said, "Cause, you know, they say the Covvies eat people."
"Come on! Six didn't even finish her story."
"Her story had a dog in it. It was cute."
Six moved down the hallway with her helmet under one arm, the fingers of her other hand brushing at Jorge's palm.
"So one Grunt says to the other, 'Is it hot in here.'" Emile had given up on having inflection. The orange light from the holograms lit up one side of his face. "And the other one says, 'A talking Grunt'!" There was a pause. "No?"
Kat didn't even look at him. "No."
"But I'll let you stop. I've had enough."
Emile shook his head, sighed, and shot a flurry of bursts into the range.
Jun said, "There'll be a full moon tonight. Visibility will go up."
Carter said, "That's right." Evening was falling.
Emile glared sidelong at Kat. In a lull in the shooting, he spoke. "Do you have a story? It's your turn."
Kat said, "I've got plenty."
She rotated her shoulder, flexing the mechanical arm-piece attached to it without either of her hands wavering on her gun. "I'll tell you later."
"What, at the next giant snowstorm?"
Carter felt the cold push at his face and arms. He crunched through the snow back toward the base and opened the door, letting a rectangle of yellow light fall onto the pristine white. Jun turned and looked at him. Carter cocked his head, silently asking whether the sniper was going to come in. Snowflakes blew into the base and melted into tiny, gray spots of water as soon as they touched the floor.
Jun hesitated, his eyes firmly set beside the reaching arrow tattoos. Then he followed Carter inside.