|1408 Hours, November 4th, 2519
SIGMA Facility Medical Wing, URNA, Earth
"You've got five minutes."
Marco and Jack barged past the doctor as the door to the medical suite slid open. Having had to sit through a stern lecture on environmental safety from the World's Most Boring Man, the pair of eight year-olds barely concealed their relief as they rushed towards the hospital bed and the tiny figure in it. Beneath several layers of thick blankets and connected to half a dozen important monitoring devices was a young girl, her head barely peeking out over the covers. The two boys stopped by the bedside, glancing at each other with uncertainty as they pondered on how to proceed.
"I thought she'd be awake," Marco whispered, suddenly feeling nervous. "What do we do?"
The other boy sighed and drew up a chair, loudly scraping it across the white-tiled floor before setting it right by the bed. Jack hadn't spoken much since they'd gotten back, and seemed a little less full of himself than usual. Marco copied him and the two sat side-by-side, gazing at their unconscious friend in silence.
"Shoulda brought something." Jack muttered at last. "That's what you're supposed to do."
"What do you mean?"
"In hospitals. I remember- I think..." he trailed off for a moment, shaking his head suddenly. "Whatever."
Marco leant back in his chair, rocking on it. "I don't think Mack would've let us bring anything in."
"He was pretty mad. Not as mad as Roe though. Did you see how red his face was?"
"No. I couldn't look at him."
"Because I didn't want to laugh."
This got a snort of mirth from Jack, though his brief smile soon faded as he looked back towards the comatose Elena. Though neither of them would dare say this to Richard Mack, their chief trainer, everything had been Elena's idea from the start. As part of their physical fitness training, all twenty SPARTAN recruits in their class had been sent to a secluded nature reserve in the United Republic of North America's northern district, where they were expected to put the past few months of survival skills to good use in establishing a makeshift fortification and defending it once their drill instructors arrived several days later. After splitting into teams, everything had been going more or less as planned until Elena sidled up to Marco and Jack with one of her 'foolproof' ideas. Using their maps, the three would escape the confines of their training area to go exploring. With the nearest town just a few days away, she was sure that they could evade their instructors and gain some valuable escape-and-evasion knowledge first-hand while having fun at the same time.
"Hey, Marco," Jack nudged his friend. "Wake her up."
"I don't wanna wake her up. You do it."
"I'm not doing it," he pouted. "Anyway, you're the one who got her in trouble in the first place!"
Marco scowled, slowly turning red, but knew Jack was right. Everything going wrong had been his fault.
Just as planned, the trio had conveniently gone missing right before the 'attack' took place and headed south through the wilderness, living off what little they could find as they wandered through the chilly forests and abandoned fields. They were forced to hide more than once from a sudden Pelican flyby and managed to avoid more than one drone sweep, though their instructors were fast closing in when the weather took a turn for the worse. An incoming blizzard forced the Spartan trainees to change course, leading to a perilous descent through some rocky slopes. Though low on supplies and increasingly affected by the cold, they did not slow their pace until Marco misstepped on an icy patch mid-climb, falling some thirty feet into an icy river. Without hesitation, Elena had jumped in after him, helping Marco - a notoriously poor swimmer among their class - towards the distant shore while Jack dithered about on the other side. While Marco eventually made it, his comrade had been swept downstream and went missing for several hours. Caught in the open, it was then that a Pelican dropship swooped in and picked the two boys up.
"Hey," Marco leaned across the bed, his voice low. "Elena, it's us. Wake up."
Nothing. He moved a little closer, watching her take slow, steady breaths. For a moment he'd been worried that she might have died, though the abundance of scanners would have likely let them know if anything went wrong. Aware that Jack was watching him intently with arms folded, Marco tried again.
A skinny arm shot out from under the bedsheet and grabbed Marco's face, pinching both cheeks and holding him there before he could recoil. Elena's brown eyes were wide open, though they lost their hard edge when they met his. She let go, and cracked a smile.
"Your breath stinks," Elena remarked, her voice hoarse.
It had taken the search team the better part of seven hours to find the girl after she had been separated from Marco and Jack. While Lieutenant Colonel Mack had begun to chew the boys out with a speech that would have made most hardened drill instructors wince, his anger soon faded as they spread out to search for their missing trainee. She had crawled out of the river and made it some ways into a nearby forest before collapsing from cold, and would have likely perished if she hadn't been found shortly after. Any punishments had been postponed as they oversaw her transport back to the SIGMA facility, where Elena had remained for the past three days under constant observation. Only their constant pestering and a well-timed distraction from Mack that got program director Calvin Roe off their backs had allowed Jack and Marco the time to visit her.
"Feeling any better?" Jack pulled himself up onto the bed.
"I-" Elena began, only to break down into fit of hacking coughs. "I'll be fine soon. I promise."
Marco scratched the back of his recently-shorn head. "Sorry about what happened."
Elena was quiet for a few seconds, then shrugged. "It's fine."
With her casual dismissal, that was that. She lay back, still weakened from her ordeal. As they began to exchange small talk about recent events, Elena clutched Marco's left hand for support. He squeezed it gently, and held on as they continued their discussion. Jack's face twitched for a moment, but he said nothing of it. As tough as their training had been, nothing had ever truly frightened them until now. Even the worst of Doctor Roe's rants or Mack's barked orders paled in comparison to the gut-churning terror that had gripped the young Spartans at the thought of losing their best friend. For now, they would stand by and support her as she regained her strength together, as a team.