05 July 2010 @ 12:29 pm
Under the Surface (4/5)  
 John was driving her crazy.

Not that he was doing it on purpose, of course. In fact, she doubted he realized he was doing anything out of the ordinary. But, that didn’t change the fact that Cortana found too many of her processes being dedicated to analyzing the Spartan’s actions towards her.

He wasn’t acting overtly different, she conceded. On their latest mission, Cortana’s first since she had been injured at Panama, he glanced at her .18 seconds longer than usual; his sentences were 3.1 words longer than average; he stood 4.5 inches closer to Cortana than he normally did. All of these subtle changes led Cortana to one overwhelming conclusion: her injuries at Panama affected John more than he had revealed.

But Cortana couldn’t exactly pinpoint why.

And that was unacceptable.

If he was any ordinary man, analyzing his behavior would be simple. His actions would reveal a longing for a deeper connection with her. But Cortana was not disillusioned with unfounded theories. She knew that anything, including his own life, was expendable in John’s mind when it came to the war against the Covenant.

Frustrated, she forced herself not to think of the Spartan and focus on the data she had managed to hack from the Cairo station. As she examined the data, she was inclined to believe that, somehow, the Covenant had managed to find various artifacts from the Forerunners and was using their technology to their advantage. But, Cortana noted with some satisfaction, if the UNSC were able to find and access more of these hubs, then they would be able to make huge strides in fighting the Covenant.

The doors to her lab slid apart, allowing John to walk inside and causing Cortana to be distracted by him. Again. She watched as he made it across the room to where she was sitting. “Find anything interesting?“ John asked, as he leaned close to her to look at the screen.

She was not going to analyze his actions!

“Maybe,“ she said noncommittally. “They’re definitely using Forerunner technology. They obviously found a way to use it to their advantage.”

“Then you should be able to do the same for the UNSC," John commented, not taking his eyes off the screen.

“Well, with a little time I should be able to, yes,” she said as she continued sifting through the data.

Several seconds passed while he continued to look at the screen. It didn’t seem to matter to him that the data was streaming faster than he could read. Or the fact that it was written in binary code.

Finally, Cortana had enough of his unusual behavior. She pushed away from the desk and turned to him. “What are you doing here, John?”

That caused him to look away from the screen. “I’m finding out what data you collected," he answered slowly, confused.

“Normally, you wait for my analysis until the debriefing," she pointed out.

She watched as John considered her reply. His jaw clinched several times as he figured out his response. If she hadn’t been so eager to hear his reply, she would have been amused by his discomfort at being put on the spot. Finally he replied, “Do you want me to leave?”

A part of her did, she admitted. If he wasn’t in the room then she wouldn’t be tempted to try to understand his recent actions towards her. But, the majority of her, the part of her that enjoyed the challenge of trying to unravel the mystery of John’s behavior, wanted him to stay.

“No,” she replied.  “Am I to assume this is to become normal for you now?”

“Do you want it to be?” he asked, not turning away from her gaze.

Suddenly, Cortana felt the conversation take a turn that she hadn’t been expecting. For some reason she had thought he would avoid the growing tension between them, not feed into it. He was a Spartan, personal attachments were not part of their lifestyle. His focus should be on the war against the Covenant, not on the relationship between the two of them. She should kindly, but firmly, remind him that they were assigned to work together, not get involved in a relationship that would undoubtedly be the most scrutinized relationship in all of the UNSC.

But, she admitted to herself, she enjoyed John’s company. She appreciated the extra attention he had given her. She relished how he allowed his guard to fall around her. She valued the exclusive relationship the two of them shared. It was in that moment that she realized she couldn’t deny him herself in the same way he couldn’t deny her himself. It was a relationship that had the potential of them becoming dangerously dependent on each other, if they already weren’t reliant upon each other for survival.

“John…” she started.

Before she could continue, he spoke. “Cortana.” He swallowed thickly. “I--”

To both of their surprise, she brought a finger up to his lips. “Don’t make a declaration, if you know you aren’t ready for it,” she said softly as she lowered her hand.

She was giving him an out. Just because the tension was getting thick and heavy didn’t mean that he needed to feel like he should say something that would irrevocably change their relationship. They could take all the time they needed.

One look in his eyes told Cortana he needed no more time. His decision had been made. As she took in his intense look, she noticed how, despite this being new territory for the two of them, he seemed strangely confident. She knew that he wasn‘t the type of person to second-guess his actions. Everything he did was deliberate and thought out.  She wondered how long ago he had made the decision to acknowledge –and accept – the feelings he had for her.

He reached around and cupped her jaw, softly rubbing over the scar that would never completely heal. She watched the pain appear in his eyes, knowing that he was reliving that moment where he found her nearly dead on the wreckage of the shot down Banshee.

“I always want to feel you,” he rumbled, looking in her eyes.

It wasn’t the most direct declaration of love, but Cortana understood exactly what he meant. She raised her hand again and rested her hand on his cheek. “You will,” she promised.

This time there was no question at the hint of a smile he flashed her as he leaned into her touch. He lifted up his hand and gently caressed her cheek before leaning into kiss her.

It was soft.

It was tentative.

It was perfect.

As Cortana’s eyelids fluttered shut, she marveled at the fact that, somehow, she had broken through the fortress John had built around his emotions.

They pulled apart with a slight pop. Her blue eyes opened and looked at his brown ones.  He was watching her, assessing her for her reaction.  It was strange for her to see his face, uncovered and exposed.  His eyes were dilated, his breath was shortened, his lips were slightly swollen.  

Cortana reached around his neck and ran her fingers through his short hair. His hand cupped her cheek, holding her close. She stood on her tiptoes, allowing herself to better reach his lips.  Her lips parted slightly as he lowered his mouth to hers. Her tongue slid over his lips, asking in an age-old way to grant her entrance.

Which he did.

Their tongues slid over each other, wrestled with each other. A breathless moan slipped from Cortana’s lips.  She pulled apart when breathing became a necessity.  John tilted her head slightly, exposing her scar before gently kissing her there.

As a man of action, she shouldn’t have been surprised that his kisses spoke more than he ever did.

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to protect you.

I never want to see you hurt again.

When he straightened, Cortana leaned against his neck, exhaling softly into it. “We should absolutely, under no circumstances, be doing this here,” she whispered. “Halsey could override the lockout codes at any time.”

“Do you want me to stop?”  The concern in his voice was evident.

She shook her head.  “No, don’t stop.” It was a demand and a plea.

This should feel more awkward, Cortana mused.  They were fellow soldiers who had fought alongside each other in some of the most intense recent battles the UNSC had recently seen.  The jump from friend to lover shouldn’t be this easy.

But it was.

And Cortana found herself unhesitatingly leaping forward.
 

John hadn’t expected for this to happen.

He had wanted to see how Cortana was doing, especially in light of the fact that they had just returned from their first major mission since her return to the Alpha Team, yes.  But he hadn’t expected for her to corner him on his growing, yet not entirely wanted feelings towards her.

They had a war to win, countless battles to fight.  And yet, the two of them were standing in the middle of her lab kissing each other with a passion that surprised the Spartan.  Suddenly, the soft hum John associated with Cortana because a loud roar as the intensity of her feelings came crashing into him.   It was a heady swirl of emotions, intense and unchecked; something John was unaccustomed to feeling.

He tangled his fingers in her hair, bringing her closer to him.  She tasted like coffee, he noted as she deepened the kiss.  He barely had time to enjoy the kiss when she suddenly pushed away from him, her eyes wide in shock.

He stumbled backwards at the impact, his mind reeling.

Maybe he has misread how far she wanted to go.

Maybe his inner solider was right, this was a mistake.

Maybe they had crossed a line that shouldn’t have been crossed.

“I’m sorry. I--”

There was fear in her eyes.  “It’s not you, John. It’s Reach. We’re under attack.”

She looked off in the distance as she often did when she was accessing massive amounts of data. “I don’t know how they did it, but somehow those bastards broke through the defense grid.”

John watched as she walked to her computer and tapped in several command codes. As he watched her, the communiqué from Lord Hood came through on his private comm, ordering Spartans to the ONI Sword Base.

She looked up at him, her face stricken. “I can’t locate Doctor Halsey,” she said, panic entering into her voice.

“She has to be on base somewhere,” John replied, trying to remain calm. Inwardly, he was raging. The Covenant had seized and conquered so many of the UNSC settlements over the past two decades. Taking Reach was almost too much to comprehend.

He looked at Cortana. Her jaw was set, determined. She had a score to settle with the Covenant too, he knew. She would never recover fully from the attack at Panama; the damage done to her matrix chip would never allow her to process data at her former speed. The implant in her leg caused her to limp slightly.

“You’re right,” she said, nodding her head slowly. “She’d lock down her lab at the first signs of an attack.”

“We need weapons,” he replied. They couldn’t walk around the infiltrated base unarmed.

“I’ve got it.” She reached in her desk and pulled out two pistols. She held out one to him. “It has to do for now.”

Her hair was still tousled from their earlier encounter, John noticed. As he reached for the gun with his right hand, his left straightened her hair.

“Things aren’t going to be awkward between us, are they?” she asked, sounding uncharacteristically unsure of herself.

“No,” John promised. Though conflict swirled in his mind, he would not allow what might have happened come between the two of them.  “We’ll…talk later.”

She nodded once before she led them out of her lab. “Be careful, John.  The comm grid is down.  From what I can tell, the Covenant are everywhere.”

His eyebrows furrowed. “You’re not coming to Sword Base?”

She shook her head. “I need to get to the lab and find Halsey. I can help her lock down any unsecured systems before the Covenant find them,” Cortana said. He watched as she frowned. “I need to find her, John.”

John hesitated for a second before nodding. He hated the idea of him and Cortana being separated during the attack, but he knew she would be able to take care of herself. “Meet back at the rendezvous point.”

Cortana nodded. “I will.”

As he made his way topside, a scene from hell greeted him. Smoke was coming from several of the main buildings. Hundreds of Grunts were storming the base as the soldiers tried, in vain, to hold their ground. John wished he had his armor with him as a plasma grenade arched over his head. He was losing valuable time having to make his way slowly to the rendezvous point.

He pressed himself against the wall as an Elite turned the corner.

He didn’t hesitate.

He fired in the back of his skull and watched as the Covenant solder fell to the ground. He grabbed the Elite’s weapons--a plasma pistol and the three grenades on his belt--then continued making his way to bunker across base.

An explosion came from the west, near the ONI labs. He refused to think about Cortana.

She would be fine.

He stepped out of the shadows and started making his way towards the bunker.  Suddenly, from behind him, the roar of a Warthog’s engine sounded.  He whipped around, his plasma pistol aimed at the driver of the car.

“It’s me, Chief!” Johnson shouted.  “Now get in the damn Warthog.”

John did as he was told.  Before he could fully sit down, Johnson floored it.  “Communication grid is down. Last thing I heard was from Keyes, ordering me to the Autumn.”

“I need to get to security bunker Delta,” John replied.

“Yeah, the captain told me,” Johnson said quietly.  “They want to try some kind of offense, but, look around, Chief, it’s already too late.”

John didn’t want to do as the sergeant had told him, but did anyway.  Smoke plumed from dozens of buildings, ruthless Elites were marching in and assassinating any unlucky solider that run out of bullets or luck.  “How did this happen?”

“Hell if I know.  I was in the barracks, trying to get the damn paperwork filed on time for once when I heard an explosion from the docking stations,” Johnson frowned.  

The rest of the ride was silent as they mourned and raged at the carnage taking place.  Johnson took the last turn sharply and stopped in front of the main security door.

“Good luck, Chief.”

“You too, Johnson.”

John pushed forward and sprinted for the security entrance as a half dozen Elites passed by, shooting any soldiers that were unlucky enough to be in the way of their plasma pistols. Quickly, after a retinal scan, he was allowed entrance into the room.

Inside, all of the Spartans, with the exclusion of the Noble Team, and Lord Hood was waiting for him.

“John!” Kelly said, relieved. “We didn’t think you were going to make it.”

“What are you talking about?”  He hated being out of the loop, especially in combat situations. Whatever happened, it was significant.  The Spartans didn’t get spooked for no reason.

Several of the Spartans exchanged glances with each other. “He doesn’t know,” Kelly muttered to Fred.

John tensed. He turned to Lord Hood who was looking at him regretfully.

“Master Chief, at 1030 hours Doctor Halsey issued a UNSC-wide message.”  He drew in a long breath. “As of today, she has deflected to the Covenant,” Lord Hood explained.

John felt like he got suckered punch. Doctor Halsey, the woman he considered to be like a surrogate mother, the one who had taught him and the other Spartans to keep their fight against the Covenant, had turned against the UNSC?

“And,” he paused as he looked directly in John’s eyes, “there are implications that Cortana might be involved as well.” He leaned over the desk. “Where is she, Chief? Where is Cortana?”

John swallowed thickly as he thought of her earlier panic when she was unable to find the doctor.

He closed his eyes briefly. “She’s looking for Halsey.”
 

Cortana turned the corner, aiming at the Grunt that had the misfortune of being in her way. With a quick shot to his skull, Cortana took care of the Covenant threat. The area was relatively empty. A random Grunt would show up every once in a while, but so far Cortana hadn’t encountered any Elites.

John’s luck must have rubbed off on her.

She made her way to the end of the hallway and accessed the security elevator. She stood to the side, ready to attack any Covenant that were waiting on the other side of the doors.

Fortunately, when the doors slid apart, three Spartans were on the other side.

She recognized Carter and Emile and assumed the other Spartan standing to the side was Thom’s replacement, Noble Six. But when she went to pull up the data, she was locked out of the UNSC system.

What was going on?

Carter took a step forward and pulled the gun out of her hand.

“What the hell is going on here?” Cortana demanded.

“We’re here to escort you off the base for questioning concerning the treason of Catherine Halsey,” Carter said, his voice cold.

They must have locked her out of the system sooner than she thought. Cortana had no data about Halsey or her alleged treason. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Admitting ignorance was difficult for Cortana.

Carter gripped her bicep roughly and walked her onto the elevator. “You’re coming with us.”

As the elevator doors slid shut, Cortana desperately tried to access any of the UNSC’s databases, but found herself completely locked out of the system. Whoever was in charge of data encryption knew what they were doing.

Not to be deterred, she kept pursuing through the encryption codes until she found a crack in the code.

It was a low priority system--temperature control in the mess hall--but it would be enough for her to get in. She quickly wormed her way through the system until she finally found the data she was looking for.

The elevator doors opening distracted her slightly. “Where are you taking me?”

None of them responded.

As they walked in the underground bunker, she pulled up the file and saw Halsey sitting at her desk, looking calm and poised as usual.

“This is Doctor Catherine Halsey, authorization number Omega51386Alpha29. I am recording this message to resign from my post in the UNSC and ONI effective immediately.” She pushed slightly back from her desk. “The data given to me by CTN 0452-9 has revealed to me the futile effort we are attempting to make against the Covenant. It is clear to me now what needs to be done. Do not bother looking for me. By the time you are watching this, I will be well-protected by Covenant forces.”

The video ended.

Cortana was reeling. Halsey had turned against the UNSC? Worse, she had implicated that Cortana was somehow involved in her decision to deflect to the Covenant.

What would John think?

She closed her eyes as she replayed her earlier conversation with him. Her first concern had been Halsey. That combined with the doctor’s words would make him question her loyalty to the UNSC. That she was not to be trusted.

She tried opening a comm channel to him, but was unsuccessful. Cortana had a strong feeling that Kat was behind the encryption codes.

She was roughly put in the back seat of the Warthog as Emile gunned it. They raced across the base. She watched in horror as smoke bellowed from various buildings on Reach. Corpses littered the ground, both UNSC forces and Covenant.

It was a massacre.

It took them twice as long to reach the hangar bays as they had to circumvent the damage done by the Covenant. Finally, they stopped in front of a familiar ship.

The Pillar of Autumn.

Keyes stood at the entrance bay, his face warn, his body tense.

Noble Six reached over and pulled Cortana out of the vehicle and brought her to Keyes.

“You too, sir?” she accused.

He flinched slightly. “My hands are tied, Cortana. The Autumn is going to escort you off base where you will be held in a classified location for questioning concerning your involvement in Halsey’s treason.”

“I am not involved,” she said, her eyes flashing.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. He took her from the Spartan and nodded. “Transfer complete. Now go give ‘em hell, Spartans.”

“Yes, sir,” they replied.

Cortana allowed herself to be led to a seldom used conference room. She took a seat as Keyes stood at the door frame, pulling out his pipe. “As Captain of the Autumn, I must inform you that you are being detained by ONI until you have been questioned and cleared of all wrong doing. Any attempt to escape will be seen as an act of treason.”

His voice softened slightly. “As your friend, I would suggest that you go along with their questions. The sooner they clear you, the sooner you can get out to fight.”

“I understand, sir.”

“Good luck, Cortana.”
 

Several hours later, the door opened. It was John, wearing his MJOLNIR armor. His face was covered by his gold visor, but Cortana could tell that, despite his earlier assurance, things between them were most definitely going to be awkward between the two of them.

“How long has Halsey been planning this?” he asked, his voice as firm as steel.

She amended her earlier observation; this wasn’t John standing in front of her.

This was Spartan-117.

Despite the fact that she was expecting for him to be suspicious of her, Cortana was livid. Cortana’s eyes narrowed and her blood raced through her veins. “You think I’m a traitor? That I knew what she was going to do?” she sputtered.

“I think she implicated you in her message.”

He was serious in his accusation.  He was not going to back down.

Cortana immediately shifted gears. He wasn’t her almost lover, her friend or her partner. He was her prosecutor. “Whatever plan she had is her own. I knew nothing about her deflection,” Cortana argued. “You know me better than that.”

John leaned over the table before slamming his fists down. The thump echoed throughout the room. Cortana, however, would not be intimidated.

He was emotional.

Too emotional.

Cortana had no doubt that their earlier actions had thrown off his normally controlled feelings. Then, the treason by Halsey and the attack on Reach was taking him close to his breaking point.

“Twenty-nine Spartans are dead, thousands of soldiers were killed.” He lowered his voice. “What’s your role in this?”

“My role, Chief, is to defeat the Covenant, same as yours.” She looked up at his visor, seeing her warped, defensive posture staring back at her. “I am not Halsey.”

“When did she first contact the Covenant?”

She leaned across the table, inches from his helmet. “I. Don’t. Know. Maybe she told you. You are her favorite,” she hissed before sitting back in her chair. “I did nothing wrong. I was with you when the attack started, remember?”

For a moment, John seemed to soften slightly.

“John--”

She had pushed too fast, too soon. He stiffened. “What we did, what we almost did,” he corrected. He shook his head. “I should have never--”

Cortana was not going to let him finish his sentence. “What? Allowed yourself to feel? To care about me?” She leaned forward. “You’re human.”

“I’m a Spartan.” He straightened up. “I allowed myself to lose focus on my objectives.”

“You couldn’t have known what Halsey was going to do. No one did.”

For a second, she wondered if he was going to accuse her of working with the doctor, but it seemed like, for now, he had moved past the accusations. “I should have never allowed my personal feelings to distract me from the war against the Covenant. It’s a mistake I won’t make again.” He turned around and walked to the door. “Ackerson is on his way to finish the questioning. When we get to the secure base, High Command has given orders for the shard to be removed from my neural lace.”

Cortana’s eyes widened. “You can’t do that. I’ll die.”

John hesitated by the door. “If they can’t figure out a way to remove it without killing you then Lord Hood has already ordered for it to remain.” He paused. “We need you alive to find Halsey,” he said before closing the door.
 

Three days later, Cortana was redeemed.

Her character had been investigated, her loyalty doubted. Questions about her allegiance to the UNSC and accusations about her conduct were hurled at her by Ackerson and his men. Her core processing code had been thoroughly examined line by line by the ONI officers.

Yes, she understood the UNSC’s need to make sure that she wasn’t affiliated to Halsey’s plans to join the Covenant. What she couldn’t get past was the hurls of charges thrown by people--Ackerson, especially--over the past 72 hours. It was as if all the missions she had been a part of suddenly had a question mark over their validity.

She had seen John once since they arrived on the secure base in Mexico City, when the techs attempted--and failed-- to remove the chip from his neural lace. He had been cold, distant. He believed the doctor’s prerecorded message rather than the words coming from Cortana.

In that moment, she hated Halsey.

Cortana knew how much he respected and trusted the doctor. It would be impossible for her to convince John that she had no idea what the doctor was planning.

No, she thought bitterly, he would have to come to that conclusion himself.

The door opened from behind her, pulling her from her thoughts. She crossed her legs as Lord Hood took a seat in front of her. “Have I passed all of your tests? Answered all of the questions to your satisfaction?” Her voice was harsh.

At least he had the decency to look contrite, Cortana thought.

“We had to be sure, Cortana. Despite what Ackerson may think, Halsey was by far the brightest mind in ONI. If there was anyone who could infiltrate an AI, it would be her,” the admiral said. “There are some who still don’t think you are to be trusted…” An image of a six and a half foot Spartan sprung in her mind. “But I am confident that you are not a plant of Halsey’s.”

Gaining the confidence of Hood was significant, Cortana knew. He was the most respected admiral in the fleet. If he trusted her, then others would soon follow.

He leaned back in his chair. “I’m reassigning you to Alpha Team.”

Cortana raised her eyebrows. “But John--the Master Chief is on that team. I don‘t think I have his vote of confidence yet,” she replied dryly.

He straightened his shoulders. “The Master Chief is a consummate solider. He will follow the orders given to him.” He sighed. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy for you, Cortana, but we need you on Alpha Team. Now more than ever. We need to find those databases before the Covenant do.”

She nodded. “Understood, sir.”

He stood up and held out his hand for her to shake. As she gripped it, he said, “Good luck. God knows we need it after Reach.”

Part 5: Full Circle