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A Few Selfish Seconds (now i'm paying the price)

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It had been almost a year since Cortana had attempted to lock John away in a cryptum. Almost a year since she had unleashed damnation on the stars. Almost a year since John had lost most hope.

He walked into the Infinity's main conference room, waiting to be debriefed on his next mission. It had been weeks since he had a break from combat, but the Spartan didn’t mind. It kept his mind off of his failures.

Of unkept promises.

He pulled his thoughts short as he heard the door behind him open. He expected Blue Team and Captain Lasky, but to his surprise, Doctor Halsey walked into the room, datapad in hand. She set it down on the table; the causality report from the last mission was onscreen.

John looked away.

Five people had died under his command.

“Perhaps it would have been better for everyone if you had given Captain Del Rio her chip.”

John flinched.

Yes, Cortana was becoming increasingly ruthless, but he was under no illusion that she had unleashed her full power yet. John knew that she could wipe out humanity within a matter of weeks if she wanted. Cortana, saturated with the knowledge of humanity, the Covenant, the Forerunners, and a Gravemind, had the upper hand in this fight.

And yet, John knew for whatever reason, she was holding herself back. 

Maybe there was a part of her that was fighting against the alluring words of the Warden. 

Maybe, someday, she could come home.

“I disagree, ma’am.” 

“I didn’t expect you to say anything different, John.” She didn’t bother masking her disappointment.

He felt the need to defend his actions. “If we didn’t escape Requiem, the Didact would have gotten to earth and Composed everyone. Cortana saved everyone’s life, including my own. If I had gone through with Del Rio’s order, the Didact would have killed me before I had a chance to arm the nuke.”

Halsey shook her head. “Can you look at what is happening now and tell me it was worth it? Do you not have any regrets?”

A window popped up on his HUD as they were driving through the hills on Requiem. Cortana appeared in a video feed, looking more unsure of herself than he had ever seen her before. “Chief, can I ask you something? Fair warning, I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

“If this is about your Rampancy…”

“Not exactly.” She drew in a breath. “More like, thinking about what ifs.”

John already didn’t like where this was going. As a Spartan, he never allowed himself to look back at his previous decisions. Doing that produced regret. Regret caused distractions and distractions got people killed on the battlefield. Still, he felt like he owed it to her to answer her question.

"Go ahead."

If she noticed the tension in his voice, she didn't show it. “When we were escaping the Ark, you had transferred me into the network on the Dawn so I could activate the engines and help us get back to Earth." She pinned him with a look, curious and maybe the slightest bit resentful. “I've run the simulations and determined that it was possible that I could have transferred myself to the forward section of the ship that got through the Portal. My program could have successfully been uploaded to a new matrix chip. Maybe I could have even worked with Halsey on a solution for...this."

Cortana frowned slightly. "The one variable that I can't figure out is why you transferred me back into your armor instead of letting me remain in the Dawn’s systems.”

A heavy weight -- guilt, perhaps -- settled over John's chest. Why had he done that?

He could attribute it to muscle memory. 

He could say Johnson’s words -- don’t ever let her go -- were still fresh in his mind. 

He could say he needed her to watch over him in case the escape went awry.

He could have told her that he had been so tired after their last mission and he just wanted a few selfish seconds when he could lean back and take comfort that he was reunited with her.

He could have told her any of those things and they would have been true, but what came out of his lips was, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, Chief.” She seemed to study him for a second even though John knew she couldn’t see his face from the HUD display. Her voice softened. “I think I understand why you did it.”

He couldn't process this now. He had a mission to finish. He needed to get back to Earth, to Dr. Halsey.

He may not have been able to save Miranda or Johnson, but he was as sure as hell going to make sure that he got Cortana home.

“For what it's worth, I wouldn't have wanted you to be alone all those years. Still,” she said, voice wistful, “I wonder what would have happened if things had worked out differently.”

His HUD flickered, a silent testimony that time was running out for her. 

“Me too, Cortana.”

He kept driving forward.

Halsey crossed her arms, looking not unlike Cortana, and John was pulled from his memory.

“A few,” he replied, answering the doctor’s question. “But refusing to give Cortana’s chip to Captain Del Rio is not one of them.” His stubbornness was no match for Halsey’s disapproval. 

The doors behind them opened. Captain Lasky and Kelly walked in, Fred and Linda trailing behind them.

Halsey scooped up the datapad before turning back to face the Spartan. “Do you really believe she can be saved, John?”

“I have to, ma’am, because if she can’t, then we’ve already lost the war.”