Noble’s been on enough missions for Carter to know what it means when that sick feeling rose up into his stomach and made his fingers twitchy. Johann had always had a knack for telling when things were about to go wrong; Carter did, sometimes, if things were bad enough where there was pretty much no way for them not to go south. Sitting at the window with the rest of Noble, he tries to fight down that sick feeling in his stomach and just focused on keeping an eye on things.
Jun’s question brings his attention, back, though, and he levels a look at Kat, knowing it does about as much good as anything (which basically is nothing at all.) “Those are senior level communiques.”
“I hear what I hear,” Kat retorts, and Carter’s hand curls up a little bit, knowing chiding her at this point is next to useless. “Point is, why put Spartans on defensive deployments.”
She’s right, though- she usually is, not that he’d ever admit it. “I need that link to SATCOM, Kat,” he reminds instead, tone mild, and her reminder of him not answering her question makes his head tip back faintly, jaw clenching. “You want to know if we’re losing?”
Kat apparently doesn’t appreciate the question, snapping out what they’re all thinking. “I know we’re losing! I just want to know if we’ve lost.”
His silence is answer enough, though, that sick feeling not leaving, only emphasized when he hears the beeping from the device that Kat’s been working on, his head swinging over to look at her and the device.
“Colonel Holland, hailing us. What is he doing on an open channel?”
Carter doesn’t know either, but it’s not like they have much of a chance to figure out why, not with time being a very precious commodity they can’t afford right now. “Let’s hear it.”
What he hears next makes his hand curl up into a fist the rest of the way, though, unease spreading through him as he hears Holland say he’s authorizing override of the security protocols. It’s serious, Carter knows that much, but that big of a security break -- “How long for a secure link?”
“I can’t guarantee secure anymore.”
“Could the Covenant trace it to us?” Carter asks needlessly, already knowing Kat’s answer as she says it, the response over-laid with Holland’s voice, demanding he respond. Damnit. Carter tips his head back, frustrated, taking a few steps before he says something he will regret.
There’s just the briefest beat, where Carter hesitates.
They’ve lost. Only a fool would ever think that they haven’t. They’ll do their best to save Reach-- do their best to help people, make sure they survive, but ultimately, he’s sure that Reach is a battle Noble is going to lose. Holland’s demand that he get on the radio makes him hesitate, simply because he knows it’s not secure. If he picks that up, he’s risking all of Noble, and he shouldn’t be putting them in danger.
Kat makes the decision for him, though, holding up the communicator, leaving Carter to exhale harshly as he takes it, knowing it’s what he would have done anyway. “Keep it brief,” she says unnecessarily, though he acknowledges it anyway.
“Carter here…. Yes, sir.”
Listening to Holland, he heads for the window again, not wanting to know what look Kat’s giving him right now, fighting to make this as quick as he can, taking note of Jun leaning forward out of the corner of his eye.
Everything goes to shit after that- the link to Holland sputters and dies, and the room erupts into chaos, most of them thrown to the ground with glass shattering all around them, the heat and pressure sweeping through the room almost oppressive. Carter grunts as he hits the ground, already forcing himself up and grabbing his helmet to put it on as he staggers to his feet gracelessly, seeing Six helping Kat up out of the corner of his eye, leaving him booking it for the elevator.
He glances back, just once, making sure they’ve made it alright, that they’re going to be in their own elevator. He’d rather all of Noble be in one, but he’ll take what he can get, and right now, that’s all of them safe. Carter waits just a moment to make sure they’re in and then lets the doors close behind him once he’s fully sure Six and Kat are safe. She needs to put her helmet on, he thinks in the back of his head, leaning against the railing of the elevator with a hiss, swallowing and tasting blood from where he’d bit his own tongue when he fell. They’re okay. Noble’s made of tougher stuff than most, and they’re okay.
“You get orders from Holland, Sir?” Kat asks, and Carter shakes his head before realizing she can’t see.
“We’re being redeployed to Sword Base,” Carter answers, seeing Jun’s head swing around as he protests that. Preaching to the converted, Carter thinks again, knowing that it’s a shitty mission on top of an already shitty mission, but that’s what they do. “Which is why they want us for a torch and burn OP. Keep Dr. Halsey’s excavation data from falling into enemy hands.”
“If it hasn’t already.”
The elevator lands with a soft ding and a faint shudder as the building’s foundations shake; when the doors open, he doesn’t blame any of them for rushing out. He doesn’t want to sit in the sardine can any longer than he has to, anyway, but the open hole in the roof doesn’t make him any more at ease than the elevator does. Kat and Six are already rushing, the group breaking for the bunker at top speed. “Maybe, but according to Holland, the Covenant are still hunting for something,” he answers, knowing that she’s not going to like that. He skids to a stop at the bunker doors, waving them in with a jerk of his hand, not quite sure what to make of the roar in his ears or the way his stomach is tying itself in knots.
Kat’s voice comes over the com again, the distance between them vanishing as she and Six keep running. You’re stupid, Carter chides himself, willing them there that much faster, knowing they’re almost there. It’s fine, he tells himself, hand gripping the bunker door tightly while Kat talks. “Where does he get off calling a demolition op Priority On--”
Carter sees it and hears it before it actually registers.
Kat’s body jerks, head snapping back, and she just crumples, collapsing in a heap on the ground, leaving Carter to just stare, while Six actually acts, grabbing her pistol and firing at the Covenant ship. She’s fine she’s fine she’s fine, that’s what shields are for, Carter’s mind repeats, over and over and over again, while he grabs his gun and squeezes the trigger so hard the metal creaks under his hand, spraying bullets at the ship uselessly, while the rest of them do the same and Six hooks an arm under Kat’s motionless body, dragging her back into the bunker while the rest of Noble follows suit to flank them, making sure Six doesn’t get taken down too.
“Come on, come on, get in!” Carter demands, voice sharp, barely hearing Jun and the civilians in the background echoing him, barely able to hear anything over the roar of blood in his ears, and that nasty little voice that keeps pointing out she’s gone she’s gone.
(She’s too limp.)
That’s what shields are for, though-- to protect from Covenant weapons.
(If those worked, she’d be walking right now.)
That’s why they wear armor.
(Armor does shit against a good sniper, you know that.)
He’s seen her take a round that practically blew her arm off, and she survived, he’d been in the hospital with her, been in surgery with her when they put the new arm on. She’d be fine--
The doors of the bunker close with a loud thud, but Carter barely notices, dropping to his knees beside Six and Kat (Kat’s body) his hands shaking as he drops his rifle with uncharacteristic lack of care, grabbing for Kat’s shoulder. “Kat. Kat, come on, you can’t--” He cuts himself off before he gets too far, seeing her head loll to the side, the fragmented front of her helmet making his stomach flip. Six moves out of the way, silently, leaving Carter to press a hand to the back of Kat’s helmet, cradling her gently while frantic talking goes on in the background. They barely have anything to treat this (you can’t treat someone shot in the face) and she’s not moving (dead people don’t move, you know that too.)
“--Boss, I don’t think,” Emile starts, voice ragged, uneven, and all of them stop, still, when Carter goes tense abruptly, and draws his hand back. The light in the bunker isn’t great-- Jun had lit a flare, and one of the civilians had a lamp, but it’s enough to see the shine of blood on Carter’s hand, thick and red, spilling from the back of her helmet. Too much, too goddamn much for her to be okay.
“I didn’t even see-” Six starts, and then cuts herself off, drawing in a breath at the sight. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Emile shake his head, stepping back and away, and watches Jun just stand there, straight and still, while Carter kneels there with Kat’s body in his arms, blood dripping off his gloved hand. “I’m. I’m sorry, sir.”
There’s not really much to say to that. Carter just nods, mutely, moving Kat’s body gently, carefully, like she’s just really, really hurt instead of dead. It’s needless, but no one says a word about it, not even when Carter scoops her up gently, her arm slipping down and just dangling, metal clicking and grinding in her elbow as the joint locks up, fingers twitching grotesquely, repeatedly as gears catch over and over again. All of them jerk, Kat’s body jolting in response to the way Carter’s arms tighten and his shoulders tense.
Emile steps forward, reaching over and placing her arm up on her stomach, so Carter can keep walking, stepping back as the man heads for a far corner of the room. There’s really nothing he or Jun or Six can say while Carter moves, setting her down with an obvious amount of care, of concern, even with the fact that it’s just her body.
“Is he dead?” One of the civilians asks, and Six reaches for Emile’s shoulder, grabbing him and silencing him before he snaps out something too acidic.
“What the hell does it look like?” Emile manages sullenly, and the civilian sinks back, shaking, while all of them stare at either the puddle of blood on the ground, or the too-tall man kneeling next to the body, resting one flesh and blood arm and one metal arm over her stomach. He doesn’t come back, not right away, leaving Six to look away from them and curl her fingers tighter around Jorge’s dogtags. She doesn’t have to be an old member of the team to know Carter’s taking this harder than the rest of them, she can see it in the way Emile and Jun are watching their leader, heard it in the way he’d yelled for them to hurry up. She’s not the first Six; he’d lost him, too, and remembering what she’d read about the first Noble, she realized he’d lost his last remaining team member of the first incarnation of their group.
She cringes, faintly, busying herself with checking over the bunker doors, running her fingers along the seams, unconsciously avoiding the puddle of blood that’s on the ground, shining in the dim light.
“Will it hold?”
Six turns, and hesitates a moment, glancing at Carter like she expects him to answer, though a moment of looking at him she realizes he probably doesn’t even hear what they’re saying.
“It has to,” Jun answers instead, gripping his rifle tightly, still, jerking his head away from the sight of Kat’s body, moving to lean against a wall, instead.
The first night passes in near silence; the bunker is stocked, so they’re not hungry or thirsty, but it’s a fight to eat, honestly. Kat’s body is tucked away in the corner, and none of the civilians have ventured any closer to it than they have had to. The blood is dried on Carter’s armor, flaking off his glove, though they don’t waste any of the water they have to rinse it off, not sure how long they're going to be in there. Every so often, the ground rumbles and shakes, and one of the civilians-- a slightly pudgy, anxious girl with messy brown hair and mismatched shoes whimpers every time it does.
For all that Noble interacts with civilians, it's like they're all brand new to it right then. Carter doesn't talk much, past figuring out the self-proclaimed leader of the civilians, explaining the situation quietly, from what's going on outside to the fact that they're going to have to make the rations last, possibly, if things go worse than they have already. Emile doesn't talk to any of them, and just barely talks to the rest of the team, perching himself up on top of one of the boxes of supplies, one leg drawn up, the other hanging down over it. Every few hours, Six wanders to the bunker door, pressing her hand against it like she can feel if it's going to collapse, or not. The sound outside is muted, distant, and she realizes that it's only going to make her more tense. The trips to the doors stop, and instead she takes to pacing.
Carter digs in the crates, lifting them off of each other easily until he finds one with blankets, and he counts them silently, jaw clenching just a little bit. There are ten civilians, four Spartans, and one body; there are only ten blankets. He doesn't doubt that his team is going to be fine, but he silently wishes there was a blanket, for Kat's body. Regardless, he doesn't say anything, just passes them out. There's a boy with broken glasses; his hands are shaking too hard for him to get the blanket undone; Carter takes it back gently, and shakes it out, draping it over his shoulders and keeps on moving down the line. The last girl-- a tiny, blond girl who can't be over twenty, with bloodstains on her wrinkled white jacket, shakes her head. "...we don't exactly have heat, here," Carter says quietly, offering the blanket again.
"I'm okay," the girl assures, and tries to smile, but mostly fails, scrubbing at her cheeks when tears start to slide down them. "My-- my fiancee got killed, yesterday. I--" She stops, swallows, and sniffles a little bit, curling her legs closer to her chest. "She was someone important to you, right? "
Carter nods, once, mutely, his hand tightening on the blanket a little bit, ignoring the little voice that sounds an awful lot like Kat's in the back of his head, telling him, you can't feel responsible for everyone, Commander.
"She needs it more." The girl swallows again, pushing the blankets against his chest and nods to Kat's body, before curling in on herself again, eyes wet.
He doesn't really know what to say to that, honestly. Carter opens his mouth, and clears his throat, before drawing back. "...thank you," he says, voice rough with disuse, and he moves away from the small huddle of civilians, shaking the blanket out, covering Kat's body with it, gently. He doesn't ask how the girl knows that Kat is female; it's not as if it's a secret, or not obvious, it just means she paid more attention than the others. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees one of the older women gesture her over, and is relieved when the girl crawls over and they share it.
The second day, the civilians get antsy. Too much time spent in an enclosed space with the dull echoes of explosions rocking the area around them make people snappy, and that, combined with lack of sleep, leaves one of them tossing his empty water bottle against the wall with a sharp crack, half of the heads in the bunker turning, abruptly. "He's dead. I get he's on your team and all, but he's dead, and he smells," he says, voice nasal, and cracking on the last word as Emile's helmet swings around, the quiet noise of him sharpening his knife stopping abruptly. "--I'm just saying."
"She's one of the only reasons your sorry ass is in this bunker and not a smear across the pavement," Emile hisses, and the civilian cowers, drawing the blanket tighter against himself like it'll protect him from Emile's rage.
Carter doesn't say a word during the conflict, not until silence settles in again, awkward, this time. "Noble doesn't leave their own behind."
Six curls her hand tighter around her gun, at that, trying to ignore the brief flash of guilt. She hadn't left Jorge behind, no matter how it'd felt like she did. He made his choice and she hadn't been left with much of any in it.
That's all that's said about it, though, and the bunker slips into uneasy silence again.
Carter sleeps in uneven bursts; all of Noble rotates watch, every few hours, the other members either sleeping or checking weapons or rations or on the civilians, depending. Jun takes the highest spot in the room, Emile, his back against a wall, Six, in front of the small huddle of civilians against the west wall, and Carter, next to Kat's body, between her and the door. It's unclear whether it's an intentional move or not; in truth, it's entirely unintentional. Dead, or not, he's between her and the Covenant, even though they got their shot in.
He can't rest fully, though; Carter jerks awake at a cough or a scuff of shoes against rough bunker floor, and while on watch with him, Emile pretends like he doesn't see Carter lift her limp body up and press his head against the undamaged part of her helmet, saying something under his breath, to her.
You helped hold this team together, Carter murmurs, and tries not to make it sound like an accusation, exhaling quietly as he lowers her torso, and tries not to think about how wrong she feels, cold metal and limp weight, no biting retort or laugh in response. When her head hits a little too hard, he whispers an apology, useless as it is, and sucks in an uneven breath of air. He lifts the blanket back up over her head, and ignores the eyes he can feel on him, since there's nothing to say.
3 AM rolls around on the 26th, and Carter steps out of the bunker, Kat's body limp, so much heavier in his arms as he watches the flare go off, signaling where they are. The civilians cluster behind them, murmuring and dragging in deep breaths, and Carter counts their heads again, silently. The city's on fire, and there are no doubt countless other bodies littering the streets around them; he can see one, clearly, not far from them.
This whole section of city, and all they managed to save were ten civilians. (He doesn't try to find out their names, doesn't want to remember them, because a horrible little voice inside his head is pointing out their chances of living past this are just as slim as Noble's, right now, and he knows better than to get attached.)
It's a victory, of sorts, but it doesn't really feel like one. When their pickup lands, Carter heads on first, shaking his head when the medic rushes forward, watching her cover her mouth as he lies her down on the bed, anyway, carefully, almost reverently. The rest of them get on board, including the civilians, and Carter takes the comm offered to him without a word.
They sleep in real beds, that night-- cots, really, but it's something, even if he barely sleeps, jerking awake from dreams of explosions, the sight of Kat's body jerking and crumpling, the sound of Johann's scream when an energy sword rips into her stomach.
The next morning, Emile is ducking into his section of the hastily thrown together base, one hand holding something in it when he answers. "...They were just gonna leave 'em with her, Sir," he says, and grabs Carter's hand, pressing cold metal into it. Kat's dogtags, he realizes after a moment, mouth dry. "Thought she'd want you to have 'em."
"...thank you," Carter says, a little unsteadily, a little slow, and curls his hands around them, tight.
"Don't thank me." Emile shakes his head, backing away. "Holland wants to see you, ASAP. We're gonna move again."
Drawing in a shaky breath, he nods. "Understood. I'll find him in five."
When Emile leaves, Carter closes the door and turns back inside, settling the tags next to his, around his neck, his eyes catching the date on the calendar by the cot he slept on.
"You're getting old," Kat says cheekily, leveling her pistol and watching a Grunt spin with the impact of her bullet. "Thirty-two in two weeks."
"...Two weeks?" Carter asks, lips quirking up behind his helmet as he breaks for the nearest patch of rocks, using them for cover as he focuses a burst of fire at an Elite, listening to its enraged howl as its shields go down and Emile blows its face off with a shotgun blast to the head. "...That's not old."
She laughs, though whether it's at him, or at the situation as she takes down a Jackal, and two Grunts, he's not really sure.
That's all that's said about it, though, and he shakes his head; his birthday isn't a big deal, and there's not going to be anything particularly memorable to set it apart from any other one; at least, he hopes so. With how things are going, he's not sure he wants a reason to remember it apart from any others, really.
Shaking his head to rid himself of the memory, Carter grabs his clothing and gets dressed quickly, the tags cold against his chest, closing the door as he heads down the hallway to meet with Holland, trying not to think about how off it feels to have no one at his right side.