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an empty shell (but i'll still hold it close)

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“You know, for years I wondered what you looked like under that helmet.” John turned towards Lasky’s voice. The newly promoted captain approached the Spartan with his hands behind his back. “Though,” the captain continued, “I suppose it’s a lot more strange for you to be in a standard uniform.”

John didn’t reply.

Instead, he turned and faced the large window he had been standing in front of. On the tenth floor of the new ONI headquarters on Earth, he looked out and saw Navado Sajama in the distance. Several Pelicans dotted the skies, soldiers peppered the ground below him. Being in this building with his UNSC brethren should have made him feel comfortable.

But with the feeling of failure still weighing on him, nothing felt as it should have.

"I heard that High Command isn't going to take disciplinary actions against you for disobeying Del Rio's order back on Requiem." A faint smile passed over Lasky's lips. "Which is probably a good thing considering I helped the two of you leave the Infinity."

"Lord Hood told me that my service record would remain in its current standing." 

Years ago, before Reach, before Halo, before Cortana, that would have mattered.

His priorities had shifted, despite what he had said to Lasky several days prior. For the first time in his life, his service seemed secondary to something.

Or, more specifically, someone.

“Have they figured out what they are going to do with you yet?” Lasky walked across the room to stand next to the Chief, looking at the vista.

He gave a simple nod. “I’ve been ordered to remain here. ONI and High Command have some questions for me.”

Questions about what happened after the Portal closed.

Questions about Requiem.

Questions about what happened to Cortana.

A now familiar ache curled in his chest. He wondered if that feeling would ever go away.

“I’m sure they do.” Lasky’s voice pulled him from the grips of grief. “Not to mention that you have some catching up of your own too.”

So much had happened since the portal had cut him and Cortana off from the UNSC. The Covenant threat had grown; the Separatists were struggling to keep the peace; the UNSC was trying to do their best to keep peace among the stars.

Answers about what had happened in UNSC controlled space during his years floating in space would come in time, he was certain. But there was one person he needed to know about now.

Halsey.

“Permission to speak freely.” He turned to face Lasky.

“Of course, Chief.”

“Where is Doctor Halsey?”

A look of guilt passed over Lasky’s face. “I can’t -- that’s classified information. I’m sorry.”

“Is she on Earth?” John pinned him with a look. “Could she–Could she have saved Cortana?”

Two tense seconds passed before Lasky shook his head quickly. “You know that officially she was KIA on Reach.”

John knew that wasn’t true; he had been the one to lead a rescue on Reach with Halsey being one of the very few survivors of the attack. But, secrets and half-truths were part of ONI he was familiar with. It wasn’t fair to push Lasky. “I understand, sir.”

Lasky frowned. He lowered his voice. “Unofficially, she’s off-planet in a UNSC prison cell. But, from what I can tell with all the chatter going on around here, no one, not even Doctor Halsey, could have saved her. I’m sorry, Chief.”

Somehow that didn’t make John feel any better. He went back to looking out of the window.

After a minute, Lasky fully faced John. The Spartan turned to look at the captain, silently asking him why he was still there.

“So, there is something I want to give you.” The captain took a step closer to the Chief and held out his hand.

Cortana’s chip lay in his palm.

Don't make a girl a promise...if you know you can't keep it.

“How did you–?” His words died in John’s throat.

“Each AI chip has a homing signal so that the UNSC can find it before the enemy can. I know you said that plinth was destroyed, but somehow, the chip’s shielding must have protected it because when the recovery team was going through the debris on the Composer, they came across the signal.”

John couldn’t look away from the chip.

“I pulled a few strings and convinced the commander to leave it in my custody.” Lasky’s eyes softened as he held out his hand closer to John. “She may have been programmed within the walls of ONI, but I think we both know that this belongs to you.”

With reluctant fingers, John reached out and picked up the barren chip. He moved to place it in the back of his helmet before he belatedly remembered ONI still had custody of his armor.

“Old habits die hard.” Lasky’s words were laden with experience.

John looked down at the chip, willing for Cortana to appear.

“You know, I still carry it with me. The fragment of armor that you gave me on Circinius IV.” He gave a sheepish smile. “It feels like several lifetimes ago.”

John pulled his gaze from the chip and looked at Lasky.. “Does it help?”

“Yeah. It does.” Lasky gave a half-shrug before looking out the window. “Over the years, it helped to remind me why I fight and remember the sacrifice that some have given.”

“I could never forget Cortana.” The words slipped from his mouth of their own volition. It was one more sign that he hadn’t been able to tuck himself behind the emotional bucker that he had grown accustomed to over the past thirty years. Lasky glanced at him with a knowing look on his face.

“I didn’t say you would, Chief.” A sigh passed through the captain’s lips. “I’m sorry if I overstepped.”

“You didn’t.” John carefully wrapped his fingers around the chip. “Thank you, sir.”

“Thank you, Chief. You saved a lot of people when you destroyed the Composer.”

John looked back down at the chip in his hand. “It was a team effort, Captain.”