Christmas for Sigma Team.
|1714 Hours, December 25th, 2557
London, United Kingdom, Earth
"Although it's been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you..."
As the last notes of the ancient song tinkled from the radio's speakers, Marco-035 reclined in the armchair and tried to relax. In spite of all his years moving from planet to planet and dealing with just about everything a world could throw at him, everything about this situation seemed utterly alien to the Spartan. In the corner of the living room sat a pine tree, hacked off at the trunk and adorned with sparkling tinsel, bright baubles and multi-coloured lights that they had spent a painstaking amount of time setting up just a few days ago.
For the first time in over forty years, Marco was going to spend Christmas with family.
Ducking through the kitchen door with two glasses in one hand and a bottle of gold-coloured drink in the other, Michael Wade met his brother's gaze and smiled warmly, fully aware of his discomfort. Decades of separation hadn't hampered his efforts to include Marco in his family life, military deployments and innumerable secrecy regulations be damned. He set the glasses down on a nearby coffee table and poured a generous amount of what the Spartan correctly assumed was whiskey into each one.
"You drink, don't you?" he asked, holding up one of the glasses. "I mean, you're allowed-"
"Yeah." Marco took one.
Michael heaved a sigh of relief, and lowered himself in the seat next to Marco as yet another song began to play on the radio. A former Marine, he'd seen some of the worst fighting the Human-Covenant War had to offer before settling down in its aftermath to raise a family in what everyone hoped was a new, more peaceful galaxy. The two sat in silence for some time, simply enjoying the moment and draining their glasses. Michael finished his, and chuckled to himself as he looked towards the tree.
"Think Kate liked her gifts?" he gestured towards the small mountain of wrapping paper strewn about its base.
Marco shrugged; he'd never been much good at small talk. "Probably."
"She liked yours."
"Think so? I wasn't sure she would."
"Oh sure, what six year-old girl doesn't want an action figure of her uncle?"
At this, the Spartan could only shrug once more. After informing Michael he and his fellow Spartans in Sigma Team had been given two weeks of leave until the new year, he'd received an invitation to visit them on Earth he just couldn't refuse. What had begun as a three-day visit had ended up as a commitment to remain with them over Christmas. He'd immediately begun shopping around for something—anything—to buy his family, and with some help from his old friend Elena-071 had procured gifts for Michael and the others.
As it turned out, they had gotten him something too.
"Well," Michael continued, "She thinks the world of you, you know? She was the one who chose your gift."
"Ah, that makes sense."
In stark contrast to his usual array of drab, featureless uniforms and plain civilian outfits, Marco's current attire included a Christmas sweater; a woollen red and green affair striped with snowflakes, stockings, trees and reindeer. He'd accepted it graciously from his smiling niece, fully aware he could never be seen wearing it outside of this house and that despite their best efforts at getting the largest one they could, it was still a little too small for him.
"Don't like it?" Michael barely hid a grin.
"It's lovely," he lied harder than he'd ever lied before. "Melissa okay with the dinner?"
"Yeah, Turkey's almost done. I was helping out, but apparently you don't try and boil roast potatoes. Who knew?"
"Not much of a chef, then?"
"You live on a diet that's almost exclusively MRE's for ten years and try to be a good cook."
"Come on Mikey, you're a retired old man now; plenty of time to learn."
"I'm a decorated veteran, thank you very much," Michael replied with false pompousness. "I think I've earned a rest."
"Oh, my heart goes out to you, you poor soul."
Michael's smirk faded, as it so often did when it came to Marco's own life. He had long since been sworn to absolute secrecy over the details of his older brother's abduction and training by the UNSC, yet on occasion forgot the absolute hell his sibling had been put through even before the Human-Covenant War began. Marco tentatively reached out and patted Michael's shoulder as gently as he dared.
"Sorry, just joking around."
"Yeah, me too. Didn't mean to sound like I've had it worse, Marco."
The Spartan was still thinking of a way to lighten the mood when the stomping of feet down the stairs sounded nearby. The brothers looked at one another, and Michael pulled himself up, shifting off towards the kitchen with an exaggerated sigh of resignation just as a little girl came bounding into the room, clutching a tiny figure of a Spartan in armour.
"Uncle Marco!" she ran up to the Spartan, whose eyes lingered on his retreating brother as he found himself faced with an excited and energetic six year-old. "I have a question."
He raised an eyebrow. "What's that, Kate?"
"What armour do you wear?"
She held up the Spartan figurine. As it turned out, some clever companies had been making a killing selling these things to the public both as items for collectors and kid's toys; the sheer variety in MJOLNIR armour these days apparently allowed for a massive amount of variation that helped their popularity. He'd picked one up in a toy store shortly after arriving on Earth last week without much thought, and taking it from his niece's hands, he soon identified it as one clad in a NOBLE-class suit.
"Well," he pondered how to explain it to her in the simplest terms. "It's kind of like this one, only a sort of light brown."
"Because it helps with camofla—it helps me hide better."
Kate's brow furrowed, and she flicked a strand of blonde hair away from her eyes. "Why not something like yellow, or purple?"
Marco didn't want to admit it, but there were indeed Spartans running around these days with surprisingly garish suits of armour. He'd seen it as a mixture of suicidal overconfidence and poor taste personally. In the end, he simply allowed a gentle smile to form and handed the toy back.
"I just like the colour, I suppose."
That seemed like a satisfactory answer. Kate seemed to hesitate for a moment, looking down towards her fluffy blue slippers before clambering up onto Marco's knee. The Spartan hid his surprise well, being totally unused to Human contact like this.
"Can you tell me a story?" Kate asked, green eyes wide. "A Spartan story."
This would be a tough one. Most stories Marco was used to telling involved some particularly brutal or inventive way of killing a foe, while most of his prouder moments involved death in some manner. In any case, there were few things in his life he could retell to a girl of six. He clicked his tongue, looking off to one side for a moment as he thought of something Kate would like. Something happy. At last, he settled on a tale from long ago, only slightly embellished for her sake.
"Well, there was this one time, during training. I was with my friends Jack and Elena, and we..."
By the time he'd finished recounting his story, with a few additions and tactful omissions, dinner was ready. Michael's wife, Melissa, pushed a trolley table through the kitchen door laden with food; crisp roast potatoes, glazed parsnips stacked high, steaming brussel sprouts and broccoli, a mound of peas and a dozen yorkshire puddings, and a turkey larger than any Marco had ever seen. Behind her walked in Michael, carrying a gravy boat and looking utterly dumbfounded.
"Marco, Kate," Melissa called. "Come and get it!"
Kate immediately hopped off her uncle's knee and ran to the table, taking her seat next to Marco's own specially reinforced wooden chair. Marco heaved himself up, still feeling rather awkward as he watched husband and wife quietly set out the bowls across their table. Being a guest was something new and unfamiliar to the Spartan, who hovered around them for a few moments before taking his seat.
"Thank you for this," he managed to mutter, nodding towards his brother and sister-in-law in turn.
Michael slid a plate across the table towards him. "It's fine, Marco."
Soon, the Wade family began to eat, talking of future plans and domestic gripes and how things had been the past year. Marco had little to say, barring a few comforting words that the disaster that had befallen New Phoenix in July would likely never happen again. As they slowly cleared their plates and filled up on food Kate began waving around her colourful cracker, shoving the cardboard tube towards him expectantly.
"So what do I do?" he asked, genuinely confused.
"You pull it and whoever wins gets the prize!"
Marco exchanged glances with her parents, who were both fully aware that the slightest yank from him risked the chance of accidentally pulling Kate's arm off. Nonetheless, he gripped the end of his cracker as lightly as he could, and to the surprise of no one soon lost the rest of it with a sharp snap as the little girl pulled at it with all her might, earning herself a bright blue paper crown and a slip with what someone, somewhere, considered a 'joke'.
"What do you get if you eat Christmas decorations?" Kate read it out with a wide, gap-toothed smile.
Put in an insane asylum. "I don't know, what?"
Sounds like something Jax would laugh at, Marco thought before remembering to chuckle at it alongside Michael and Melissa. Kate joined in and as her giggling set off a second, larger bout of rather infectious laughter, the SPARTAN-II felt oddly at peace. Deep down in the cold, logical mindset he had been trained to adopt since the age of six, he knew this was all pageantry; he could never truly be like these people or live as they did, no matter how hard he tried. The best he could achieve was a simulacrum of sorts as he emulated his only family and tried to fit in. Soon, he would have to return to his world; a life of endless deployments and horrific battles where he truly felt at home.
Marco knew all of this, and yet for today, none of it mattered. He was home.
|0857 Hours, December 25th, 2557
Aceso Medical Centre, Asphodel
The moment his shuttle touched down on the rain-slicked landing platform, doubt began welling up in Kane-098's stomach. It wasn't a feeling he was used to dealing with, but like any other challenge, the Spartan would have to overcome it. Shrugging a raincoat on over his black fatigues, Kane pulled up his hood and clambered down the shuttle's ramp as a pair of armed guards emerged from the nearby facility. While access codes transmitted from a ship were one thing, visual confirmation had to be established before he'd be allowed inside.
"Out into the open!" one barked, clutching an MA5K in one hand. "We'll need identification."
Kane did as ordered, and allowed the men—both clad in the black armour of ONI security—to approach. Though he absolutely dwarfed the guards, neither seemed intimidated as one checked his ID pass and ran it through a datapad, shielding the bright screen from the rain. Only when the confirmation flashed up telling them exactly who he was did they backed off.
"Oh, sorry sir. Right this way."
Kane could almost feel the awe radiating from the two men as they escorted him towards the facility's entrance. He didn't question the security; Aceso Medical Centre had been built on the distant, sparsely-populated colony world for the sole purpose of providing long-term care to high-ranking members of the United Nations Space Command and Office of Naval Intelligence. Guarded around the clock by a sophisticated array of automated defences and staffed by several hundred medical and security staff—both paid handsomely—it boasted some of the most advanced technology seen in Human space. While not as famed as the UNSC Hopeful, this facility was its equal as a hospital.
"You have a good trip, Spartan?" one of the guards asked Kane as they descended a flight of stairs.
"Here to see anyone in particular?"
Two words from Kane ended the conversation there and then, as the man's demeanour immediately snapped back from slightly starstruck to absolutely professional. As they reached a security checkpoint, both guardsmen saluted the Spartan and returned to their post, allowing him through a gate into AMC proper. At a nearby desk, an old man in medical scrubs turned around as Kane finally lowered his hood, nearly knocking over a miniature Christmas tree as he scrambled over to greet the visitor.
"Hello sir, how may I help you today?"
Kane slid a small dataslate across the receptionist's table and tapped an input code. "I'm here to see Patient 443. Here's my credentials."
The man cast a suspicious eye towards the Spartan as he leaned over to check the device, having tensed up ever so slightly upon hearing the patient number. There were a few moments of tense silence, punctuated only by the clacking of a keyboard as everything was verified. Eventually, the receptionist nodded contently, and passed Kane a passcard from under the desk.
"He's in Ward Four, Room Sixteen. Want me to take you there?"
Casting his eyes over a nearby map over the wall, Kane shook his head. "No thank you."
Leaving the man behind, Kane set off at a brisk pace, shaking raindrops from his coat as he keyed his way through a set of double doors. The hospital hallways were brightly-lit and decorated with wreaths of tinsel, though the false cheer couldn't cover up how desolate and lonely the place felt. Kane wondered if those here got many visitors, even around this time of year. He was more than used to the utterly lifeless, sterile hallways of ONI-run facilities, but it was this vague attempt at dressing it all up that somehow made it more eerie. Turning right and through another set of doors, the Spartan entered Ward Four.
Long-term residents only.
With only the sound of his footsteps echoing off the black and white-tiled floor to bother him, Kane found himself wondering if this visit would be worth it. He had fully intended to spend his two weeks of leave aboard Helios Station, a UNSC-run facility orbiting Mars that acted as Sigma Team's primary base while not in the field. While Marco was playing house with his family and Jax was off doing whatever he did when he had free time, Kane had no reason to celebrate Christmas as so many others had. He'd spend it doing what he always did in his off-hours: MJOLNIR suit tuning, weapons calibration, and if he truly felt as though he'd earned a break, some reading.
Then, the message had arrived.
Spartan communication channels were usually heavily encrypted and reserved largely for long-distance communication between the supersoldiers themselves and orders sent directly from HIGHCOM. Anything sent through them was usually of high importance, so when Kane received mail from an unknown sender, he became suspicious. It had been double and triple-checked for authenticity and appeared to have come from somewhere within ONI, so he was sure that it wasn't the work of some prankster or rebel infiltrator trying to get to him personally. Taking out his datapad as he approached Room Sixteen, Kane read through it one last time.
BEGIN:// SPARTAN-098, this is not a message sent without lengthy consideration on my part, but I feel it must be said. While I am not in a profession where an active conscience is considered a positive attribute, this is what I believe to be a small act of kindness towards someone whose actions have benefited not only myself, but mankind as a whole. He is in my mind, without exaggeration, a hero.
I have sent this to you with news that your biological father is alive. While I am one of few privy to some of the more sordid details of the SPARTAN-II Program and aware that you and your brethren likely have little interest in your early years, I will not deny you a chance to visit your sole living relative. Last year, he was involved in an incident that left him comatose and on the verge of death. While his life signs are stable, his old age should be taken into account alongside the possibility that he may never awaken. Currently, he is being kept within the Aceso Medical Centre on Asphodel. Ask for Patient 443; I have already informed the staff that you may be coming.
Should none of this interest you, SPARTAN-098, then simply delete this message and continue on with your life. Your father will be kept safe and well looked-after indefinitely, either until he awakens or passes away. Should the latter occur, I shall message you again with funeral arrangements if you wish to attend. If anything else, consider this a Christmas gift of sorts; a chance for you to reconnect with your past, if you so choose.
Kind regards, a friend. //:END
Kane had told no one of this, not even Jax and Marco, his closest companions. No matter how hard he tried, he could recall nothing of his childhood but a few hazy memories and vague sensations from the days long before his abduction and training. Had he received this communique at any other time he might have ignored it, but as the long, lonely days seemed to stretch out endlessly, his curiosity had been piqued and before Kane knew it he had boarded a ship heading for Asphodel.
Now, he stood in front of a plain door, grey eyes boring into the black lettering across it. 443. Behind here lay a segment of his past he had long since come to terms with losing, and though he was loath to admit it, was slightly afraid of meeting. Taking a deep breath, he turned the handle and pushed it open, stepping inside the brightly lit hospital chamber. Nearly half the room was filled with complex-looking medical devices, responsible for monitoring its occupant's heart rate and blood pressure, while various tubes and wires took care of both food and waste disposal. A small fortune's worth of equipment sat here as life support for a sole man, who lay quietly on a small bed by the window.
"Father?" Kane murmured, mostly to himself. He wasn't sure what he could say to someone in a coma. Dad? Papa? Old Man? What am I doing, I don't know him.
To his surprise, a set had already been set out by the bed, with a small, unadorned box on the nearby table. Kane approached it, looking over the old man who lay before him. Most of his skin was still covered in numerous bandages, with stitches visible across much of his neck and face from cuts that had not yet healed. He was very pale, with combed-back white hair and an old scar stretching across the right side of his face. Looking down on the old man, Kane's eyes searched for any vague similarities, but between their considerable age gap and the bandages could see nothing physical shared between them. Above the bed sat a whiteboard with the man's details scrawled across it.
Captain Frederick King, Office of Naval Intelligence.
It wasn't a name Kane was familiar with. He stood in silence above the bed, listening to the steady beep-beep of the heart monitor and barely audible pumping of air into King's breathing mask. Aside from the name and rank, he knew nothing about this man's service history. His contact had labelled him a hero—a term used far too often in recent years, in Kane's opinion—but by ONI's standards that could mean anything. Sighing, the Spartan drew the chair up to the bedside and picked up the little box from the table. Attached to it was a small, handwritten note.
From your friend. Happy Christmas.
Kane opened it. Inside was a book, slightly weathered and dog-eared from years of use. The cover was plain an unadorned, save for the title: Marcus Aurelius: Meditations. Vaguely intrigued, he pulled open the first page and found a series of notes scrawled across the inside cover beneath Frederick King's name. Evidently, this had been his at some point. Kane had never paid much attention to philosophy, and outside of studying military tactics used throughout Human history had little interest in the past, either. However, even the stoic Spartan felt something pleasurable when it came to holding and reading an actual book as he leafed through the first few pages, finding the odd annotation penned in here and there.
Kane felt a lump in his throat as a hazy memory drifted up into his mind. I remember now. He could not have been more than four or five, but even then he had trouble sleeping. This was not the regret-filled nightmares or horrific recollections of his more brutal life experiences, but something simpler and more primal: a fear of the dark. Sat in the dark, alone and crying, he was eventually comforted and lulled to sleep by his father, who would sit by the bed and read from one of his books as he stood guard over his child. It was a brief recollection; so far-off and fast that he might have imagined it, but the feeling was there.
"You're family," Kane's words were hardly above a whisper as he stated the obvious.
For Kane, things like unconditional love and compassion had been stamped out during training. He understood duty and courage, and could appreciate the bonds of friendship forged between comrades in battle, but this was an entirely new experience for him. For the majority of his life he might have well have been grown in a tank and put straight into the SPARTAN-II Program instead of being born to two loving parents as far as he concerned. Despite the strangeness of the situation, Kane sat in the chair and began to read aloud from his father's book.
For today at least, I'll stand guard over you.
|1908 Hours, December 25th, 2557
Arlington National Cemetery, URNA, Earth
While access to these grounds was heavily restricted even outside of the holidays, Jax-007 soon discovered that being a SPARTAN-II with some degree of security clearance could get him into a lot of places with few questions asked. Though the air was still, the ground was blanketed in a thick layer of snow as far as the eye could see. Stepping onto the stone path, Jax pulled up his parka's hood up a little tighter and began a long journey across the abandoned cemetery. Surrounded on all sides by thousands of graves, some new, others hundreds of years old, he kept his head bowed against the wind and focused on the task ahead.
It wasn’t something he resented doing. Far from it, as Jax always made a point to come here every time he was given a few days of shore leave on Earth. No matter how bad the weather was, he would make the trip down to this lonely cemetery alone to pay his respects.
"Now," he spoke to himself, "Where were you?"
He kept to the path, heavy boots kicking up snow with each heavy step forward. The Spartan took a moment to adjust the laden plastic bag swinging from one arm, then turned off down a side path, careful not to accidentally step off and onto the ground that was this sea of headstones, poking above the frosty white layer that made many nigh-impossible to read. Eventually, he came to a newer section of the cemetery, constructed less than twenty years ago. This housed the dignified dead of the Human-Covenant War. With each breath expelling streams of smoky air, Jax slowed down as he approached the end of a row, looking for a particular grave.
There’s been eight more buried here since last time.
In normal circumstances, recovered bodies were handed over to the deceased family for burial with some compensation from the United Nations Space Command. This was a courtesy that soon dissipated during the war, during which space burial became commonplace if corpses could be recovered at all; the absolute destruction a Covenant invasion brought with it tended to leave almost nothing behind. Despite this, there were a few whose valour and military service had earned them a place in these hallowed grounds.
It was here that Jax’s greatest and oldest friend, Resk, had been buried.
It had been a struggle, Jax recalled, to even get him a proper headstone. With the official line of 'Spartans never die' running at its highest back in 2552, the loss of SPARTAN-063 during the brief but bloody invasion of Dorvyesk III had been met with a desire by some to simply dispose of the corpse quietly and forget about him, or even to donate his body to medical science to study the superhuman physiology of the SPARTAN-II. Thankfully, several high-ranking individuals had bought their comrade the chance to have some peace in death.
"Ah, there you are."
Kneeling, Jax began to brush away snow around one particular headstone, his thick gloves keeping the worst of the cold away as he cleared out space around it until he unearthed a cracked glass vase. Inside were the fragile remnants of what had once been a small bouquet of red tulips. As his fingers touched one of the blackened, wilted flowers, it fell apart completely, disintegrating almost into nothingness. Jax sighed, emptied the vase, and put it upright by the headstone. The epitaph read:
Here lies Resk
A warrior with unmatched strength
A man of good humour in the worst times
And a friend beyond compare
You have earned your quiet rest.
Jax had written that a little over five and a half years ago. To this day he still wondered on occasion if it was too much or not enough for his fellow Spartan, only to realise Resk wouldn’t have given a damn either way. In a collection of hardened killers, raised for nothing but war and destruction, he was the only one who could look at it all and laugh.
"It’s nice seeing you again, buddy," he patted the top of the headstone.
Reaching into his bag, Jax pulled out a tightly-wrapped bouquet and set it down in the vase. It was always red tulips. In this weather they’d likely quickly wilt and die, but it made no difference to him. It was tradition now, and today of all days, Jax knew he’d be left in peace.
"I should tell you about what's going on, Resk. About how Jax and Marco and Elena and Hank are, and all that. All about what happened with New Phoenix months ago, all the fallout we've had to deal with from that Requiem place, and this chase ONI's got us on now."
He paused for a moment, taking a thermos flask out of his bag and unscrewing the top. Inside was what he had been assured by Elena was the best coffee the Office of Naval Intelligence could provide. Jax didn’t really even like coffee, but he needed something hot to drink. He took the tiniest of sips, then smirked.
"But of course, if you were here you'd call me an idiot for talking to the dead, wouldn’t you? You'd make some big 'ol speech about life being for the living, then laugh and head off to clean your armour, you big stupid bastard."
Jax glanced up at the grey, overcast sky. Strange. Could’ve sworn it was starting to rain.
"But you’re gone, and here I am."
He sat back on the icy ground, holding the flask close to his mouth. To Jax, this was a rare moment of peace; something to be enjoyed between missions. The only thing he missed was being able to share those moments with his closest friend.
Still, the silence would be nice while it lasted.