Hey faithful readers. Thanks for all the hits, reviews, and subscriptions. On the flip side, sorry for the lack of updates; life has been keeping me uber busy. I finally took the time to go through and do a quick edit of past material, though don't worry, no major changes... just a tad bit smoother and fewer errors.

Longest chapter yet... maybe that makes up for the wait? A little bit at least?

Six watched her feet as they dangled limply. Unfocused and what seemed like miles below the shuttle dock, was a darkened valley, patches of green foliage barely visible in the thick shadows created by the canyons wall. But she paid the ground little thought, watching instead the bands of dim orange light reflecting across her charcoal grey shins.

"Long drop."

She glanced over just long enough to see Carter settle down at her side, placing his helmet between them and leaning back on his palms.

"Pelican ETA?"

"Less than fifteen out."

She went back to watching the swaying of the boots below her, offering no reply.

The pair sat in silence as the light continued to grow.

Suddenly, One jolted forward, moving his elbows to his knees so that his leaning form matched hers. Unable to ignore the sharp motion, Six turned her helmeted head his way. He was looking at his gloved hands, thumbs fiddling in his lap. Unwilling to break the hush, she waited, but no words came. She had a pretty decent idea as to what this was about.

"I understood and understand the order, Sir."

Silence again.

"But do you forgive me for it?" he finally asked.

Six weighed the question for a moment. She let out an airy chuckle and returned her gaze to her feet. "For following orders and trying to make the heavy decisions? I don't think there's anything to forgive." She paused for a reaction, but received none. "I think I can appreciate the difficulty behind being responsible for a team of Spartans, Sir," she added quietly.

"Responsible," he repeated, cringing slightly. "You're one of those Spartans, Six. I'm responsible for you too. We've got to have each others' back out there. You had Kat's, but I didn't have yours, just like I... I didn't have Thom's."

Six didn't respond, mulling over his mention of her predecessor on the team. She'd been vaguely informed of the Spartan's death when she was first assigned to replace him.

"Kat remembered, though. I should've remembered too," he continued. "We've already lost one Noble Six too many. A Noble Five as well. I was afraid leaving her with you would add a Noble Two to the list."

"Sir, with all do respect, you can give it up," Six cut in. "We had and have a mission larger than any of us. I'm alive due to sheer luck. Sometimes, soldiers don't get back up. Any of us could fall in the blink of an eye. But the important thing is that the rest carry on, see it through. That's the only thing we've got left."

Carter finally nodded and took to his feet, scooping up his helmet and tucking it under an arm as his eyes stared down over the cliff. "Maybe," he offered. "But if that's all, if we can give up on our brothers and sisters that easily, is the life we lead really worth it?"

He turned and walked away, Alyss's ears tracing the receding sound of his hurried footsteps. She looked across the gorge, pondering the statement as crimson sunlight bled through the distant crags and peaks.

A moment after the Pelicans entered sight, Six's musings were interrupted by the coming of her companions. Rising, she turned and joined them, glancing around the group, returning a nod received from Jun. Her eyes rolled past Emile's unreadable visor, and settled upon flickering between the uncovered faces of Kat and the doctor.

"Dr. Halsey, Noble Three will escort you to Castle Base."

" I require no escort, Commander," the ONI scientist replied curtly.

Carter ignored her. "Jun, make sure nothing falls into enemy hands."

"I'll do what's necessary, sir," he replied slowly. "Good luck."

"You too, rifleman."

"Kat, Emile," Jun acknowledged. "Si- Alyss."

She gave him a small nod in response, watching as he backed away in seeming slow motion. Goodbyes were rarely offered between Spartans; there was always the unspoken assumption that there would be a return, and that it couldn't afford to be jinxed by lengthy partings. Yet, Six had the nagging feeling that she wouldn't be seeing the scout again, not any time soon. She backpedaled, finally tearing her eyes away from his form.

"I'll take it from here, Marine," Carter told the approaching pilot from their Pelican. "You're going with the other bird."

The scrawny man, jaw slightly ajar, realized he was being addressed and recovered quickly, nodding hurriedly. "Yes, sir." He dodged past the group, clearly fighting to not stare too obviously at the team of super-soldiers. A moment later, he vanished into the other Pelican. Its jets roared as their thrust increased, and soon the aircraft was floating away from the secluded landing pad.

The four remaining members of Noble made their way into their ride. Six cut in as One made for the cockpit. "Commander, I am a flight specialist."

He waved the comment away. "You're not the only one who can fly. Just keep the package safe." He slid through the opening and out of sight.

Turning back, she saw Emile sitting at the tail of the bird, legs dangling out and one hand loosely grasping a divot in the floor housing a hydraulic tire chock. Two had taken to a row of seats. Suddenly overwhelmed by a mix of nervous weariness, Six silently settled down opposite her, glancing around furtively behind the mirrored barrier of her visor.

Kat seemed relaxed, hands resting on armored thighs and head tilted backwards to rest against a steel wall. Six wondered if those hidden eyes were upon her, if beneath the cool blue armor her teammate was as uncertain as herself.

Reaching around with a gloved hand, her fingers drifted over the cylinder strapped across her lower back. It weighed no more than two pounds but felt 20 times that.

Six leaned forward and set her elbows on her knees, the scuffed steel floor filling her vision as she let her mind drift clear of all thought.

"Look who's snoring now."

The accent sounding in her helmet jerked Alyss from her reverie. She glanced up at Kat across the ship, a smile flitting across her features. Sitting up, she shot glance at Emile's back.

"Private channel," Two informed.

"So, this is how you guys talk behind my back. Hmm," Six teased, feigning enlightenment.

"Of course. Though, we don't really know enough to say too much on the subject," Kat replied easily.

"Well, then what do you say?" Six's gaze searched the mirrored surface hiding her teammate's face, suddenly feeling a need for an honest answer.

"Oh, just the typical gossip. Speculating as to what was under the black ink on your file, discussing why you always wear your helmet. We used to take bets on your name and why you never use it, but now that Halsey put an end to that one…" She left the sentence unfinished, half kidding, half prying.

Alyss looked away, turning her eyes to the harsh desert terrain floating off behind them. Part of her wished to proffer an earnest answer to every one of those topics, but a greater part deemed it time to cop out. "Well, that's not the flat-"

The ship jerked beneath their feet, suddenly careening as DOT's voice came blaring forth.

"Noble leader, please seek immediate medical attention. Noble leader, please respond."

Kat was on her feet and running into the cockpit before Six could even register what had just happened. Heaving herself onto her feet, Alyss grasped the netting along the ceiling for support, making her way through the unsteady bird in close pursuit.

"Please respond, Sierra 259. You are alarming me."

"Not sure how long she's gonna stay together. Skies are jammed up anyway." The commander, helmet discarded beside his chair and blood trickling from one lip, entered Six's view as she reached the door frame and clutched it for support. He turned, looking past Kat to her. "Gotta get you off her, Lieutenant."

"Sir," Kat began to interrupt, defiance thick in the word.

"You don't wanna hear it. Get the package to the Autumn," Carter ordered, looking again to Six. His eyes spoke of a nearly begging request.

Six's gaze flickered to Two. "It's done, sir," she replied, almost softly.

"Not yet it's not. Emile, Kat, go with her. It's a ground game now."

"It's been an honor, Sir," Emile said through his radio, the tones of his voice more earnest than Six could ever remember having witnessed before.

"Likewise. Six, that AI chose you. She made the right choice."

"Commander..." Kat began hoarsely.

"Kat." The pair paused for half a moment. "Get out of here."

Six watched Two's palm brush Carter's shoulder plate as the techie turned and went with her to join Emile at the back of the bird. The group stared down at the steep canyon walls below, waiting for the right moment.

"On my mark," Carter ordered. "Mark!"

Emile jumped, Kat on his heels and Six just behind her.

The soft rock ground against her metal armor as Six slammed into and slid down a sharp incline. She struggled to control her descent, but to nearly no avail, barely managing to monitor the rapid approach of the canyon floor. A moment later she was rolling across level ground, wincing with every bounce until she finally was able to regain her feet.

As soon as she was up, Kat jumped to business. "We've got a lot of ground to cover. Let's move." Her voice was tight and the reason for it was obvious. Six kept her mouth shut, falling in beside Emile as the group set off jogging down the canyon.

They clung to the riverbed for the better part of four hours, moving along its incline silently except for the occasional update or bit of guidance from their still-airborne commander. He'd somehow managed to keep the bird intact, and whatever his wounds were, they seemingly weren't enough to end a determined Spartan, or to stop him from providing a little air support. Six had to admit she was a touch impressed.

It was at the end of those few hours that the ground group reached the point where the ancient riverbed ducked underground. Kat, in the lead, let their pace grind down to a halt just outside.

"Commander, we've reached the caves, do you acknowledge?" Two radioed.

"Copy," Carter yelled. As his voice sounded out, Six could hear banshee fire roaring loudly in the background. "It seems we've reached the edge of an occupied region. I'm getting - " his voice cut out for a moment with the sound of a plasma rod canon firing. "I'm getting a lot of resistance. Not sure how long she'll hold together."

"Commander, don't waste yourself," Kat ordered, the edge of her voice almost hiding its concern.

No reply was received. Emile ducked into the darkened opening, reappearing a moment later and waving for the pair to follow. Letting the techie go first, Six brought up the rear.

The caves weren't as dark as she'd expected, the ancient river having worn holes in the ceiling every so often, permitting just enough light to flood in that night-vision was unnecessary. If Reach hadn't been invaded, if their Commander hadn't been flying around sponging up enemy fire outside, and if she hadn't been carrying the one bit of information that could save humanity, Six might have taken the time to consider her surroundings almost beautiful.

They trekked on, primarily upward, rushing through the enclosed space with no resistance. Still attempting to reestablish contact, the trio took turns radioing in for Carter on different frequencies every hour, despite the slim chance of the Covenant intercepting the transmissions and honing in on their location.

Not long after Kat announced they were nearing the surface and a UNSC outpost, Six felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. Something wasn't right here, and she'd been in enough bad situations to know better than to dismiss her gut feelings. Eyes darting and left hand reaching over her back, she pulled her DMR out of its field holster as Emile neared a corner up ahead.

"Guys, I think-" She cut herself short as her external microphones echoed her transmission. Both of her teammates dropped dead in their tracks, picking up the same sound. Someone, nearby, was picking up their radio transmissions.

Signaling for radio silence, Kat edged past Emile and towards the corner, Six on her heels. Six watched as Two leaned out, scanning what was ahead. To her amazement, rather than opening fire, Two suddenly activated her sprint enhancement and leapt out of sight. "Commander!"

"Commander?" Emile repeated questioningly, breezing past Six to follow.

Unable to shake her feeling, Six kept her DMR cradled in her hands before slowly stepping after them.

As she turned the corner, a cavern came into view, a large hole in the ceiling permitting light to filter down and illuminate the sandstone walls. It was against one of these walls, perhaps fifteen yards ahead of her, that Carter sat slumped, helmet tipped over beside him. Kat knelt in front of him, checking for a pulse, with Emile standing right beside her.

That explained who was broadcasting their transmissions, but nothing explained what Noble Leader was doing splayed out in the caves. Not quite entering the room, Six's gaze swept the area.

Kat removed her helmet and said something, and Emile moved towards the far opening, but Alyss hardly noticed. She had to find whatever it was that was setting off her senses.

She caught it, but just barely.

Just as Emile reached the doorway, a hulking, watery shape suddenly appeared beside him.

"Emile, left!" Six yelled frantically, firing off a round to illuminate the cloaked figure. The body of an Elite suddenly became outlined in a golden grid of energy and Emile's shotgun roared, but she wasn't paying attention to it anymore. Hitting her sprint enhancement, she let the DMR fall from her hands, pulling her knife from its sheathe on her chest plate. Two yards from Kat's still kneeling form, she leapt, empty hand leading and knife drawn back to strike.

Just as she'd thought, her leading hand struck against cold metal, another Elite appearing as she plowed through it. They fell, Alyss sending her knife's blade into the gap below its helmet before it could get its guard up. Feeling it go limp as they struck the ground, she released the hilt, rolling to her feet and pulling a magnum from her right thigh holster. She regained her bearings.

Kat was already up and firing, with Emile spraying the cave with shotgun bb's, illuminating three more looming forms. The three Spartans made short work of the cloakers, Two finishing the last with a double tap to the head.

Wordlessly, Six bent over and yanked her knife from the dead Elite's neck, wiping off as much of the blue liquid clinging to its blade as she could on the alien's few uncovered patches of skin. When she looked up, both Nobles were facing her. She froze awkwardly for a moment before looking to Kat.

"How is he?"

The question cracked the momentary freeze, and the techie snapped into motion. She scooped up her helmet and reequipped it before returning to Carter's side. "He's got a weak pulse," she answered, checking him over. "The right side of his chest is riddled with the equivalent of armor-piercing rounds and shrapnel. Medical systems are drained, but there's little to no bleeding left. Not that it would matter, since we have practically nothing to treat him with either way."

Emile cut in. "We need to move; we're sitting ducks and they know exactly where to find us." He looked at the commander, limp on the floor. "We can't afford dead weight."

Six nodded, shooting the briefest of glances at the darkening sky through the gaping hole in the ceiling. The setup was starkly familiar. She looked down at Kat, but her stance was unreadable. "He's not dead yet." Six herself didn't want to simply leave One, and she bet that Kat felt that tenfold. "And I don't want to leave him here for the Covies."

"What? Do you want us to drag him all the way to Aszod? He won't survive that, and neither will we with him slowing us down!" Emile argued bitterly. "I don't want to leave the guy, but let's look at the big picture here."

Six held up a hand. "I'm not saying take him to the shipyard. Just get him someplace a bit safer than this, so that…" she let the sentence hang, looking at Kat, not wanting to fill it in with the none-too-happy, realistic what-ifs.

Emile shrugged. "Alright. Well then, where do you-"

Kat stood. "The outpost. It's in another cave system not far from here, and we should check it out either way."

Nodding, Alyss picked up her DMR, slinging it onto her back and moving to grab Carter. Emile cut her off.

"I'm stronger than either of you. I'll take him."

Pride telling her to argue, Six's sense barely won out, and she backed down, watching as Emile holstered his shotgun and slung the down Noble over his shoulders.

"Six, take point. I'll take the rear," the lieutenant commander ordered. "I'll feed you directions. And keep it quiet. I don't want to wake up every damn alien along the way."

Within minutes they were moving again, Six was absorbed in scouting the path and keeping her teammates safe. Even with their new, several-hundred-pound burden, she knew that every step for every one of them felt a hell of a lot lighter.

Whew, not sure how I feel about the chapter, but hey, let's go with it.

Review responses! (felt like I should do this...)

GONEinAFlash - Thanks for the, uh, encouragement ;D.

APple Pie; Wolf; RamenKnight; Gundrium - Thanks for the different sort of encouragement! :)

Cozman10- Thanks for the steady supply of input. I know I'm not much of one for responses to review (I'm starting to kick myself in the ass for that), but I really appreciate your insight.

TkeleChoG- Thanks! I'm not sure... very much considering extending it past the campaign...

KrimzonGuard Bites BaronP- Heh, thanks. I know, right?

fallenaway- Pssht, thanks for leaving double reviews, dork :P