Terminal.png This article, The Onyx Chronicles/Running Gag, was written by Ahalosniper. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
February 27th, 2544

Location: Aboard UNSC Themistocles, in Slipspace

She was five years, one month, and twenty-four days old.

Morgana Chevalier had kept track from the day she’d learned how to count. She liked knowing, because her mother told everyone it proved how smart she was, and she always knew how long it was until her birthday. Now, though, knowing made her sob into a scratchy pillowcase on an unfamiliar bed, because knowing made her remember there would never be any birthdays again. No more parties, no more family she only saw on special days. They were all dead.

A child couldn’t have imagined it in a more horrible way. Torn apart by monsters, huge creatures she didn’t have the words to describe, could have only dreamed in nightmares. She was barely able to understand, never mind process, what had happened. And with nothing around her but the bare, windowless walls and dull, grey sheets of the room she’d been given, she had nothing to do but think about how they died. And when she thought of that, she cried.

It was a long time before anything interrupted her. When it did, though, it was so unusual Morgana had to stop crying and see what it was. A soft knocking was coming from the other side of the door to her small quarters.

People didn’t knock on her door. The dark-haired lady who asked if she wanted to leave the orphanage and the men in suits who’d brought her to the spaceship just opened the door with a code and told her when it was time for breakfast, or supper, or time to go to bed. So who was this?

She sniffled and wiped her eyes. If someone came in and saw her like this, they’d ask her what was wrong, and then she’d have to talk about it all again. But the door didn’t open, and no one came in. Just as she started to wonder if they were waiting for her to answer, the knock came again.

Now she was sure. Either whoever it was wanted her to answer, or they weren’t going to let her sleep. She slipped over the edge of her bunk, stretched to reach the cold floor on tip-toe, then crossed to the door under the dark of the room’s sleep cycle. Once there, however, she remembered she couldn’t do anything to open it. The keypad’s numbers glowed halfway up the wall, out of her reach, and even then she didn’t know the code to open it.

Another muffled tap echoed from the door’s other side and Morgana’s nose scrunched up, annoyed. Didn’t they know she couldn’t do anything about it, and would they just keep knocking all cycle? “Hello?” she raised her voice, and waited. When the knock came again, she was sure it was too long after to be a response, and just wanted it to shut up and stop. She raised an open hand and slapped it against the door as hard as she could.

Silence again. Just as she was thinking of putting her ear to the door, it hissed as it always did before opening. She jumped back, and raised an arm to shield her eyes as the door slid sideways, unveiling the bright fluorescence of the hallway outside. When she let it down again, still blinking furiously, she found herself standing opposite a boy with deep tan skin and dark hair—the boy who’d talked to her the first day she was brought on board.

“Carlos?” she asked, then, noticing the other figures just behind the edge of the door frame, looked up to see another with lighter skin, slender green eyes, and brown curls with a finger on the door controls—riding the shoulders of a heavier boy with skin as pale as hers and hair the same brown as the rider’s, only straight and shorter. Each wore the gray pants and long-sleeved shirts all the kids on board had been given.

“Morgan, hey!” Carlos whispered excitedly, drawing her attention just long enough to miss how the other pair lost their balance and sprawled in the center of the corridor. Carlos winced. “Ooh.”

The unseated rider struggled to reach behind him and rub a smarting back. “I wish you could lift me up for more than a few seconds,” he said.

“Stop stealing my desserts, then,” his partner replied, hand clutched to his head. “You won’t weigh so much.”

Carlos barely spared them a glance and asked her, voice still hushed, “Hey, do you want to—were you crying?”

Morgana blushed as it was blurted out, and swiped her sleeve over her puffy blue eyes. Her cheek felt hot against it. “I’m fine,” she lied. “Who are they?”

“Oh, um,” Carlos pointed to the small one first, “that’s Dyne, and he’s Kodiak. They’re kinda dumb, but they know how to open all the doors on the ship!”

You’re dumb!” said the smaller, still on the floor. “We’re… well, we figured out the doors, anyway. How’s that dumb?”

Carlos only looked back to Morgana, smiling. “We can go anywhere we want!”

“But we’re only supposed to be one place. Bed!” she protested. For a moment, she thought they’d actually forgotten. It made no sense not to be where the grown-ups told them to go. Only then did Morgana understand what they were doing—they were disobeying on purpose.

“Carlos, go back to your room!” she urged, drifting aside to put the door frame between them. “You’ll get in trouble.”

He shook his head. “We haven’t met the new kid yet. I heard the guards talking at dinner, and they said we just picked up the last one. We want to meet her first. You wanna come?”

Her? The single word made Morgana give it thought. She’d been on the ship for a while now, but Carlos was the only friend she’d made. The only time she saw the other children was when the guards gathered them for meals, and there were so many she barely saw the same faces twice. She hadn’t tried approaching anyone else, and knew it was her own fault for being shy. She wouldn’t even know Carlos if he hadn’t started talking to her first. And he was nice, but she missed having other girls for friends, and it sounded like this was a chance to meet the new girl in a small group. She leaned a little less behind the door frame.

“Okay,” she said, “where do we go?”

Carlos grinned and turned to the pair getting up and brushing themselves off.

“This way,” the larger, Kodiak, answered, and started down the hall. Dyne ran after, and Morgana slipped through the door and fell into a run beside him. Carlos darted behind, right on the heels of whoever lagged as if shepherding the group. She tried to ignore how her lungs burned keeping up with the boys and asked, “How much further?”

“Not much.” said the smaller one, Dyne.

“How do you know?” Talking made the burning worse, but just to prove it didn’t bother her, added, “And how do you know you can open the door, anyway?”

The boy smiled open-mouthed, and Morgana could hear his own muted gasps for breath between words. “It wasn’t so hard when you realize every button on the keypads makes a different tone. Just had to listen and match the sounds, and we found out every kid’s door is the same when we tried it on the next door. That’s how we met Carlos.”

“And every door has a number on it between zero-zero-one and three-three-zero,” Kodiak continued, “so it figures the last kid is in the last one.”

Morgana nodded and fell silent as they ran, but not just to save her breath. The grown-ups who’d brought her here told Morgana she and everyone else she’d meet would be special, but she hadn’t realized how special. If Kodiak and Dyne were the dumb ones, they were still clever enough to figure out things she hadn’t even thought of, meaning there could be kid as smart as she was, or even more. Being head of the class, getting the special treatment grown-ups gave their favorites, wasn't going to be easy anymore. It worried her.

At last, Kodiak trotted to a stop, and the rest behind him, all puffing quietly as they looked up at a door marked “330.” A glowing keypad just like the one outside Morgana’s door sat beside the frame three-quarters up, out of their reach.

“Okay, here we go again,” Dyne clapped and rubbed his hands together. “Give me a boost, Kody.”

“Uh-uh.” His friend shook his head. “You shake too much. Someone else this time.”

“Me!” Carlos jumped to volunteer, and the pair crowded at the foot of the door. Kodiak pressed his back to the wall and cupped his hands, giving Carlos a step up to start. It was a short hop to his shoulders from there, and they froze a moment, finding their balance.

Kodiak’s shirt twisted a lot under Carlos’ boots. “This is really making my shoulders hurt,” he complained. “This is the last time I do it.”

“That's fine. It’s the last new person anyway.”

With nothing better to do, Morgana stood back with Dyne and watched. She was suddenly conscious of her arms dangling at her sides while they struggled into position, and began fidgeting. The boys didn't need her to help, so why did they want her here? Did they want her here at all? Hoping they wouldn't start asking it themselves, she looked away, tracing the corner of the wall and ceiling down to the far end of the hall, and by mistake glanced straight at Dyne as he was glancing the other way past her. She jerked away from the unanticipated eye contact, wincing as he did the same. Just as the silence between them was turning awkward, he asked,

“Wanna hear a door joke?”

She nodded, grateful for anything to break the space between them.

“There’s these two spacers trying to open an airlock to save their friend, but they’re too late, and the friend gets sucked out into space. One punches the walls and says they could’ve saved him if they’d only pulled harder. The other one says, ‘Oh. Pull.’”

Without even waiting for her reaction, Dyne’s expectant grin opened into a fit of laughter that shook him from belly to shoulders. It was striking to her. Laughing unashamed at his own joke for the same reason he’d told it: because he thought it was funny. And it was. Between the joke and the boy already enjoying himself in her company, Morgana felt invited to laugh along, and found, as a breath forced its way up from her lungs, she already was. The convulsions rolled out of her mouth, and she inhaled through her nose in short, desperate gulps to replace the air lost, each one sounding with a sharp, squelching snort.

Dyne paused, looking to her with wide, surprised eyes, still smiling. “Your laugh is funny.”

She stopped laughing.

She would've felt frozen, were her cheeks not suddenly flushed hot. She'd felt safe, for just a moment, to think they would like her, and now she would've given a lifetime to have the last five seconds back and avoid embarrassing herself.

The heat was creeping up towards her eyes, threatening to push tears over their brim when the door suddenly startled her with a hiss, drawing both their attention. Carlos jumped down from Kodiak's shoulders as it rolled aside, and they all struggled to peer into the dimness after so long in the corridor's light. A dark-haired girl, no older than Morgana, sat up in the room's bed, staring back at them in confusion.

Just as she dared hope she'd been forgotten, Dyne glanced back to her with a widening smile. “Wanna hear another one?”

So he wanted to make fun of her? Morgana's eyelids tightened and narrowed, driving the heat back down where it settled in her jaw, making her teeth clench. Fine, she wasn't going to stop him, but she didn't have to be here to listen. Turning around, she stormed past Dyne, ignoring the look of surprise her glare gave him and headed back the way they came without a word.

She never looked back, ignoring the hushed questions about her leaving the others asked in her wake.

Forget crying. She was mad. Mad like she’d been when the dark-haired woman came to the orphanage and told her she could make the monsters pay for killing her mom and dad.

She was mad at Dyne, now. And one day she’d make him pay, too. She’d find something to shut him up, and stop his jokes for good.

June 20th, 2546

Location: Room 105, Stanforth Hall, Camp Currahee, Onyx

She was seven years, five months, and fourteen days old.

She was Morgana-G018 now, and she was growing up. They'd kept her blonde hair short from the first day on Onyx, and as the childrens' days were filled with training runs and obstacle courses, she'd built up strength and stamina fast enough to notice the gray trainee fatigues stretch around her new muscles. She could keep up on steep-grade runs through the evergreen valleys around camp for hours without a break, and she wasn't afraid to sit atop the highest climbing walls anymore. Once her body had caught up with the demands their drill instructors set, it even started being fun. Something she could take pride in when she'd shunned athletics before to keep anyone from pointing out how weak she was.

But the classrooms were always her favorite part of the day. She sat cross-legged in the higher rows of terraced amphitheater seats, nibbling a cracker as she watched the wizard in the holo-tank below explain the importance of commandos in the British raid on St Nazaire. Every so often she had to elbow her neighbor, Amber-G330, to keep her from falling asleep. The girl who Morgan had almost met on the ship often took naps in the dark rows further back, but offering Morgana her remaining crackers was enough to rouse her, as usual. Everyone knew the drill instructors were looking to match up the trainees into final teams, and Morgan had wound up with the dark-haired girl the last three rotations. They would probably end up teammates, so Amber paying attention would likely impact Morgan's own success.

From the row behind them and across an aisle came a voice so lacking in subtlety it may as well not have bothered hushing itself. “Hey!... know why the Covenant crossed the galaxy?”

Morgana twisted back over her shoulder, and sure enough: Dyne-G217, her own personal albatross. He'd grown with the rest of them—if only in body—but was still smaller than most of the boys, and shorter than Morgana by at least an inch. Somehow, he was ducking the routine buzz cuts the boys were given and had grown out his hair long enough to start developing curls. And he tried to make Morgana laugh every time he saw her. He was seated on the other side of Kodiak-G114—his constant companion, growing to be one of the larger boys—which gave him a convenient excuse to catch Morgana's eye when she looked back at them.

"Well," he whispered loud enough for her to hear across the aisle, at which point it didn't qualify as a whisper anymore, "go on, guess!"

"Be quiet," she hissed back.

"Why did the Covenant cross the galaxy, Dyne?" Kodiak responded, bored. Morgana had to admit, acquiescing seemed a faster way to end the conversation than all the times she'd tried getting him to quiet down.

"To get to the other side!"

Dyne's expectant smile fell into perplexity when Morgana's blank stare was all it met with. "What? I thought it was good."

Rolling her eyes with a huff, Morgana turned back around hoping her displeasure was obvious enough this time he wouldn't trouble her again. But before her eyes had even focused on Deep Winter's holotank again, the voice whispered again.

"Okay, I've got a better one."

She whirled back. "Dyne, be quiet!"

"But it’s a really good one—"

"Shut up!"

"Trainee!" Morgana jumped. Standing over her in the aisle was a drill instructor, glowering at her from the shadows even darker under his sergeant's cap. "No chit-chat with your friends during the lesson plan."

"But," Morgana protested, horrified, "he was the one—"

"Quiet, candidate! Or you'll be spending the night in push-up position in the yard."

Morgana stopped, turning back around as her face flushed hot, paralyzed by the thought of her neighbors thinking she was the one disrupting them. The instructor marched past her down the stairs, hunting for other trainees inviting him to chew out. In the brief window his back was turned, Morgan shot a furious look back at Dyne. Dyne sank down in his seat, trying to minimize his profile in the crosshairs Morgan was painting on his head. He stayed quiet at least for the rest of the lecture.

August 8th, 2547

Location: Grid F3, Ground Maneuver Training Zone Charlie, Onyx

She was eight years, seven months, and one day old.

And for the sixtieth consecutive day, Dyne asked, "Hey Morgan, want to hear a joke?"

She did not. She was exhausted from losing their scrimmage battle to Team Hatchet, her green Semi-Powered Infiltration armor was stiff from leftover Tactical Training Round paint and making her joints sore, and her march back to Camp Currahee with the four other members of Team Machete was only half over. But none of that had ever stopped Dyne's attempts at humor before.

Morgana still couldn't believe her team assignment. She had combat scores in Gamma Company's upper fifty percentile. She had the best record for equipment care and maintenance. She had a claim to fame as Gamma's best artillery coordinator, guiding strikes outside effective ranges with precision only thought possible using artificial intelligences. And she'd been put on one of the worst teams.

Amber-G330 hadn't been a surprise. Her marks were a match for Morgana's, and higher in close quarters, but the dark-haired girl didn't seem to care about improving. At least they knew how to stay out of each others' ways, making spending time together outside exercises tolerable. Since Carlos had washed out on the first day of training, she'd been the closest thing Morgana had to a friend.

Their team leader, on the other hand, only strengthened her conviction Commander Ambrose had made a mistake drawing up the teams. Kodiak-G114 was an idiot. He posted his team in defensive positions when they should've kept their mobility, waiting for opponents to come suss out their ambushes and flank without ever being exposed. Morgana performed better when she broke rank and made her own strategy—but, as today's results attested, she wasn't having much more success alone.

Morgana... actually didn't know why Tara-G112 had been assigned to Machete. The tall, tanned girl barely ever spoke, but seemed happy to follow the rest of the team, whether they followed Kodiak's orders or Morgana took the initiative. She could handle herself in a firefight, but left alone she hadn't even engaged a rival team on its way to capture their flag.

But Dyne. Dyne-G217 was the cause of all her suffering. Even when Kodiak had a good plan, Dyne would blow it off and get them all fragged if it amused him. It was his fault they were a team, plotting with Kodiak to sneak out past curfew and steal camp property when she reported them. And every day since that night two months ago, he'd wasted time thinking up some new joke to embarrass her with. She had yet to give him the satisfaction of a giggle, which—given how furious his daily question made her—wasn't difficult.

"C'mon! Morgan, I know you'll like this one."

Sweat prickled Morgana's skin beneath her armor's body glove, either because Onyx's summer sun triggered a psychological response or the SPI's design hadn't prioritized environmental control. She picked a solid-looking trunk, half-buried where it fell beneath the ferns, for her next step on their way down the latest ridge's slope.

"I'll hear it." Kodiak replied for her, calm as ever after his strategy lost them another game. He was just as much the problem as Dyne, always enabling one another.

With gold visors polarized, the team's SPI helmets were opaque, but Morgana could hear the smile through the COM channel's buzz. "Why don’t stealth Elites use Energy Swords?"

"They do." Morgana didn't like this joke already. It was factually inaccurate, and reflected on Dyne's attention in class.

"It’s a joke." Amber chided. Morgana's helmet spun sharply, the closest she could come to shooting Amber a nasty look. She hadn't expected the only other competent team member to take Dyne's side.

Dyne glanced over his shoulder to watch his audience's reaction. "They can’t see the point."

Kodiak and Amber's chuckling filled the TEAMCOM, and even Tara reached two fingers up to swipe across her visor, SPARTAN shorthand for a smile, but it was her Dyne's visor lingered on. Sensing his anticipation, she replied, "You'll have to explain what makes that funny."

She was mildly pleased when Dyne almost missed a step. Once their teammates' laughter died down, they marched in silence as Dyne kept his chin tucked to his chest, watching his footing and probably already working on his joke for tomorrow.

As they hiked through the green and gold of ferns dappled in the sunbeams threading through the canopy above, Amber slowed down beside Morgana and pinged her on a private COM. "You really don't get it, do you?" she asked with a peculiar inflection.

"The joke?" Morgana asked. Obviously she had.

Amber just shook her head rather than clarify.

January 6th, 2550

Location: Grid J6, Ground Maneuver Training Zone Lima, Onyx

She was ten years, eleven months, and thirty days old.

And in just under three years, she'd admitted Kodiak was capable of good ideas. She'd have checked herself into the infirmary if quarterly exams weren't coming up.

Lying prone beside Dyne atop a sandy bluff, Morgana and her spotter were rendered as if cast in glass by their SPI's photoreactive panels. While not so advanced as Covenant light-bending tech, the barely discernible outline the suits left broke upon their bedding down amid the withered, stalky shrubs eking life from the scrub plain Zone Lima encompassed. They were all but invisible unless one of their opponents on Team Xiphos literally stumbled over them, and the clear site lines surrounding the hill's every slope ensured plenty of warning before that. Yet, despite the excellent vantage point, the slender, black sniper rifle planted on its bipod between them had gone untouched since they'd dialed in its intricate scope.

"Which variant of the M90 features the same magazine capacity as the Misriah weapon it was based on?" Dyne asked, the see-through chin of his helmet unmoved from its rest on his crossed phantom arms, staring across the desiccated scrubland.

"The M90... A." She answered, gratified by the green blink of Dyne's status light a moment later. Her own view of the desert obstructed by the list of ordnance specifications glowing in her HUD, Morgana scrolled down and countered, "What scope comes standard on every variant of the M6-series sidearm but the C?"

"Ah..." Dyne shifted, tensing. "The Oracle scope?"

Morgana's sigh gave him all the excuse needed to slump back down in dejection. Taking the moment to close the window, she was just in time to scan the horizon as the clatter of distant gunfire echoed over the plain. Thousands of meters away, the rest of Machete were up against the full force of a higher-ranked Gamma fireteam—just as planned. Scrimmages between camo-cloaked teams could take hours just for squads to find each other, especially if one was determined to drag the skirmish out with chases, feints, and ambushes. Since Machete wasn't terribly likely to beat Xiphos to begin with, Kodiak had suggested using the time to practice for the armory exam. An efficient tactic, Morgana allowed, but apparently not enough for Dyne to commit the UNSC arsenal to memory.

"I think I need a break." he mumbled, his helmet shifting as though he could find its custom fitting uncomfortable, then tilted pensively. "Why did the Elite's soldiers all desert him?"

Ugh, there it was. Scarcely a day had gone by in the years of their training when Dyne didn't have at least one new jab for her. At least the rest of the team weren't around to encourage him. Even Tara, annoyingly, had started prompting Dyne when she ignored him, like a game they were all in on. She tried not to care.

Reopening the weapon specs window, Morgana swiped further down the list and gave Dyne a chance to get back on topic. "Here's an easy one—primary advantage of the SPNKr EM configuration?"

"Because he took them all for Grunted!" Dyne twisted to face her, more animated than he'd been through the whole of the training exercise. "C'mon Morgan, it's too lame for you not to be smiling under there, admit it."

She wasn't. In fact, every one of the dozen emotions Dyne's latest stupid joke elicited in her brought the same disgusted scowl to her face. Her wasted time, his blatant refusal to improve on ignorance, his dogged persistence in futile attempts to humiliate her—she closed the ordnance list. Dragging herself forward to intentionally shove in on Dyne's space, she choked up on the sniper rifle between them and brought its stock to her right shoulder, synchronizing its scope with her cleared HUD.

Recovering from her snub a moment later, Dyne made sure his COM transmitted him grumble, "Y’know, I’m beginning to think you just hate fun."

"If that's what you think it is," Morgana replied frostily, "have fun failing the armory test tomorrow."

With her face behind a one-way window, she couldn't resist straining her eyes to their periphery for Dyne's reaction to that one. The idiot stared as though she'd hit him in the face with TTR, fixed in place like an invisible sculpture an about as useless. With the scope synced, Morgana trained its highest magnification in the direction of the distant firefight while Dyne settled in to lie parallel.

A minute passed in silence before Dyne commented, "They really do insulate us pretty well in here. It's so quiet, you can appreciate every tone to whatever sound you make inside. Wanna hear me burp?"

"Don't." Morgana warned.

He did. Stopped at the lining of his helmet, the noise fed into his microphone and was transmitted by COM to her helmet a meter away for a replication to be driven directly into her ears.

"That's it."

"That's wha—unf!" Dyne hadn't even finished when the rifle's stock flipped back around and swung into his helmet like a bat, hard enough to snap the rifle in two and make his photoreactive panels flicker with glitches. Momentum and surprise from the impact rolled him onto his back, and Morgana was on top of him before he could clear the stars from his eyes, growling as she rained punches on his upraised forearms and dragged her knee into his side again and again.

She was just about to try prying his helmet off to land a punch in his stupid face when Dyne unexpectedly pushed back, rolling to put himself on top and clear of her flailing legs. Another attempted punch, and Morgana found she had to shake her head to clear the surprise of a reflexive counter he connected with her faceplate. The idea Dyne could possibly be getting the upper hand in a fight with her was an outrage, an insult to all the years she'd spent studying and pushing herself while Dyne played around.

Fury drove her to use his reversal's momentum, the first advantage she could find, to continue the roll and vie for the top again, only to find it carrying them both off the top of the bluff. Still she didn't release Dyne, and neither did he shake free, despite the bruises and sprained joints each suffered by the time they rolled to a stop.

As she tried to cement a grip on one of Dyne's wrists, he abruptly changed tactics and tried slipping out of Morgana's reach, which she countered by yanking the arm she had purchase on. Dyne tumbled to the ground beside her, but before Morgana could capitalize on the advantage, the yellow light of Zeta Doradus overhead was blocked by the silhouettes of men with stun batons, appearing around them impossibly after they'd so long been sure the field was empty for miles.

Morgana held down the arm Dyne tried to block a baton to his now-visible helmet with, then managed half a scream as shock exploded from her shoulder to shroud her vision in darkness.

January 7th, 2550

Location: Cell 2, Detention Center, Camp Currahee, Onyx

She was eleven years old, exactly.

She could tell by the angle of sunlight blazing across her cell's instacrete wall when her eyes finally opened. She'd been unconscious all night.

Morgana had never seen the inside of Camp Currahee's combined jail and time-out corner, though her teammates were frequent visitors. The cot beneath her creaked to credit itself with her aches when she tried to move, just like the one in her barracks. The instructors had taken her armor and left only her undershirt and black fatigue bottoms for her shoulder blades and pelvis to dig into its surface through. Her muscles, though, owed their pains to the shock stick she'd taken while tensed to hold her grip on Dyne. Stupid. She'd known the instructors would be on them at once to break up the fight, but just couldn't let go, and now half her chest felt stiff.

"You broke an SRS99-AM over my head."

Morgana twisted her stiff neck to spot Dyne, brown curls and slender limbs revealed by his matching state of dress, seated on the cell's other cot with his back against the opposite wall. His sour stare dropped into confusion. "Or... an SRS99C-S2? Man, I'm never gonna pass the armory test."

"You would," Morgana groaned, willing herself to sit up and face Dyne evenly, "if you bothered taking it seriously."

Dyne's frown hardened again. "I take it seriously. We were up there two hours trading trivia—"

"Before you got bored and started telling jokes without finishing." Morgana reached up to rub her eyes, helping coax the soreness out of her arms. After her long night, the prospect of an argument with Dyne already exhausted her.

"You're right." Dyne drew his knees up onto his cot. "I'm sorry."

She blinked in surprise. "You're sorry? Are you not going to fight for a last word to prove its not your fault you're in the lowest percentiles?"

"Nah, I spent two hours being mad at you when I woke up." He shrugged, then pointed to the right side of his chest. "Thought about waking you up so we could yell at each other, but you looked like you needed the sleep after... that."

Morgana ignored the premonitions of a headache enough to nod in confirmation. "I'm sorry I hit you. I should be better than that."

"And maybe I didn't deserve it?"

Morgana lifted an eyebrow.

"Yeah, okay." Dyne grinned. He uncurled himself and stuck an arm up his left pants leg, stretching the fatigues' fabric until something crinkled. Backing it out, he swung his full hand toward her to suggest a toss and followed through when she raised a ready hand. "This is for you."

Whatever it was smacked into her palm. She turned her hand over to find a round cake, pale yellow and perforated like coral, shifting beneath the packaging's familiar emblem.

"You always save anything raspberry for last at meals." Dyne brightened. "And you're from Miridem, right? We had Redbridge Raspberries even on Reach, so I figure you've had at least one. I added it to the base's provisions request when Kody and I hacked it last month."

She had. Morgana was silent, but unwillingly for a change. In her hand was a tiny piece of a life she hadn't known she'd forgotten. An unimportant piece, but so utterly erased she scrambled for the flashes left of the memory it once inhabited. Sunlight's warmth on her arms. The packaging's crinkle pulled from a basket. Her father deeming it a local claim to fame.

Dyne scratched behind his ear. "I wanted to show you I've been practicing tactical observation. And it is your birthday, after all."

Morgana gawked as if he were about to uncloak to reveal a squealing Unggoy. This wasn't the Dyne she knew. Forward thinking, studious—considerate? She'd almost put the meaning of birthdays behind her, just the day when her count reset from a long phrase to a short, simple number. Her mind raced for other explanations immediately, and the slightest curve came to her pursed lips at the first fitting theory. "Practice nothing. You just hacked the personnel files and read mine."

"It counts." Dyne mirrored her smile tenfold. "Actually, this reminds me of a joke—"

Her smile dropped, released along with a sigh and the tension in her pinched fingers on the confection's wrapper, letting it fall to her lap. "Why do you always have to ruin it? We were just getting along."

Dyne spread his open hands wide. "I was just making a joke."

"You’re always trying to make fun of me." She wanted to be away from here. Away from the fact nothing would ever change between them.

"What?" Dyne dared feigning innocence. "When have I ever made fun of you?"

"From the very first day!" She snarled, hunching to bring the teeth below her curled lip the few inches closer to him. Had he really tormented her for years without even remembering the reason? "You told me I had a stupid laugh, and you’ve been trying to make me laugh ever since."

"I didn’t say your laugh was stupid, I said your laugh was funny. I loved it."

"O—oh." Morgana faltered. The indignant rage she'd held for Dyne so long evaporated an instant before she could harness it for the tirade she'd so often fantasized of.

He had remembered. Apparently better than she had. Could she really have misunderstood? In all the years since, she'd never thought to reexamine that moment, repulsed by her own anger surrounding it. If Dyne was serious, every attempt at provoking her had to be recontextualized. And to her horror, Dyne's eyes widened as though he were coming to the same revelations.

A steel grate door screeched open beyond the cell's cinder block walls, at the end of the corridor outside. Dyne huddled up again, and Morgana rushed to shove the crinkling snack in her fatigues' pockets as heavy bootfalls echoed closer.

"Alright," Drill Sergeant Stacker announced as he appeared before the cell door, looking down on them from under the brim of his flat-top cap. "You two're up and cooled off enough, looks like. You've got calisthenics and an extra ruck march to start making up for yesterday, unless you'd like to keep having it out with each other."

Dyne shook his head. Morgana followed suit.

"Learning after all." Stacker muttered and swiped a keycard to unlock the door. Morgana hopped quickly from her cot to file out first, sparing her from meeting Dyne's eyes.

May 16th, 2551

Location: 'The Hill', Twin Forks River, Onyx

She was twelve and... maybe a third years old.

For the first time in three months, the warm hues of Zeta Doradus setting in the east painted clouds and tinged the expanse above her head. Since their augmentation—one night spent sedated through mutative injections—the full-grown Spartans of Gamma Company had remained on the medical station Hopeful to recover, bedridden while their ossified bones cemented in time to withstand the tension of muscles condensing into superhuman sinew. Even as existence allowed for more than agony again and physical therapy began, all they'd had to look upon through the viewports was the uniform dark of space. Content as she usually was forgoing aesthetic experience to be in their concrete barracks by curfew, she'd felt it healthy to seek out sensory stimulation her first day back on Onyx, difficult as reaching The Hill had been.

She still mistrusted her new anatomy, flustered by the inability to judge what force might take hold of a mug and what might scoot it over the far lip of a table. Her lithe form had taken on definition, become stocky and powerful, while her cropped blonde hair lost the last of its color and turned white as an Onyx winter. Dyne had nicknamed her Snow White, which she had to admit was apt. He'd kept their spirits high with jokes throughout recovery—and she didn't mind them so much anymore. She still wouldn't laugh at them, but she paid attention to when he chose to make them than the jokes themselves. They'd come up when someone had to replace a snapped pen, or lead from one to the next until a technician showed up with a new doorknob. Lurching through fern beds and catching herself on pine trunks on her route north of Camp Currahee, she'd almost wished for the distraction.

She'd indifferently collapsed in the first unoccupied plot on the hillside overlooking a bend in the Twin Forks River. The river's break in the canopy left it sunny more days than not, and a cool grass carpet made it an excellent rest. Other Spartans and whole teams dallied or cautiously tussled or swam nearby, making it little surprise when her own teammates fell with varying degrees of grace alongside her.

"Good day for a homecoming, right Morgan?" Dyne lay back, propped up on his elbows. He'd filled out somewhat thanks to the augments, but remained lanky by Spartan standards. His hair still curled over regulation.

"No joke?" she asked after a minute's expectant calm.

Dyne ducked his head sheepishly. "Not unless you want to hear it."

"Dyne not wanting to tell a joke?" Kodiak chuckled from his far side. "There's a surprise."

Shoving him playfully, though hard enough to stagger anyone but a Spartan, Dyne shook his head. "After all they've put us through, I don’t think there’s anything that could surprise me.”

The assertion struck Morgan as ridiculous. They would be deployed soon, face a war machine filled with the inventions of half a dozen combined civilizations, but the rest of her teammates let the statement pass with no more than noncommittal nods. Deciding to demonstrate his mistake herself, Morgan sat up, loomed over Dyne, and pressed her whetted lips against his.

"Surprised?" she asked, drawing back with a smile at Dyne's bewildered stare.

Looks from their teammates gave way to raucous laughter as Dyne's enhanced heart pumped a pink flush to his face. Amber gave her a congratulatory punch on the shoulder.

As Morgan counted it, she'd finally gotten him back.

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