So, this is mostly an update to let you know that THESE SHATTERED STARS V01 (formerly known as TAKE ME WHEN YOU NEED ME, now a reworked and expanded scifi romance original novel) is already live and available for purchase! I didn't want this to be just a clickbait so besides from the announcement I bring you guys some extra content to enjoy!

Regarding the book: how can you get it? The easiest/fastest way is open Amazon on your web browser and then copy/paste one of the following codes into the store's search bar, according to your preference:

B09B43HM4X (EBOOK)

B099TQ6K4D (ILLUSTRATED PAPERBACK)

B099ZWHXSN (ILLUSTRATED HARDBACK).

Don't worry if you don't own a Kindle, you can install the Kindle app on your phone or tablet and enjoy THESE SHATTERED STARS and many, many, many other books in your preferred mobile device just as if it were a Kindle e-reader. VOLUME 02 will be released in late SEPTEMBER 2021 and VOLUME 03, the final installment, in late NOVEMBER 2021. So, well, I hope you guys enjoy this new version of that old tale. It sure took a lot of hard work and my partner and I are proud of what became of it.

Thank you so, so much for your support, as always! Now, have some good ole' Jortana to rejoice!

RECOMPOSE

by Ladywolvesbayne

EXTRA: FOR PEACE'S SAKE

DATE: not recorded

LOCATION: not recorded

DEEP INSIDE INSURRECTIONIST TERRITORY

03:15 AM standard planetary time

She woke up in the middle of the night, startled.

Before Cortana could assess where she was, exactly, she knew that the hand on her shoulder belonged to him, and that he was also sitting up, right beside her. The sheets felt cold, but his skin was warm and his touch, reassuring. She blinked quickly, several times, until her eyes regained focus and she could breathe normally.

"Cortana." John called her, softly.

The ring of his voice, gruff and low, shook her out of the haze.

"I'm fine." she replied, her body shivered a little. "I'm okay, it was just..."

What? It hadn't been a dream. Infinite beings didn't dream at all.

Cortana turned her head to look at him, finding his eyes in the half-dark exactly at the height she knew they would be. Worry was painted all over his face. It wasn't hard to read, John could be quite transparent about his emotions when he really wanted it so, and with her, he was all out in the open all the time.

"I felt something." Cortana said, at last. "Maybe it was just a false alarm."

His gaze felt heavy on her. He wasn't convinced, but then again, she wasn't either.

There was a disturbance. She had perceived something, tugging insistently on the edge of her environmental awareness. She linked up with every single camera feed from the property and from around town, stretching the limits of her reach farther from her own consciousness. In seconds, she inspected the footage and stored in her memory every detail, extrapolating the conclusions easily. Nothing out of the ordinary.

But her senses didn't just jerk her out of sleep mode over nothing, that was impossible.

"Your skin is cold." he commented.

"Yeah, sorry. I didn't realize my temperature had dropped." She smiled, trying to comfort him. She willed her body heat to normalize, but John still waited a few more seconds before pulling his hand away. "I'm going to check on the kids, you can go back to sleep."

"Are you sure you're alright?"

"I'm fine, Chief."

"Cortana."

She cringed a little. He was using that tone with her.

The tone that made her wish she could share her thoughts with him in an instant, without the need of words. And perhaps she could do it, but he made her swear that she would never abuse her new abilities.

"Keep the bed warm for me, I'll be right back."

Cortana stepped out of the room and headed down the narrow hallway to the other end of the house. They both knew that she didn't need to get physically close to the children to know how they were doing, but John would respect her personal spaces as much as she respected his. She needed some fresh air. Wearing nothing but an oversized black t-shirt and loose shorts, she went downstairs into the kitchen and poured herself a mug of coffee, then walked towards the back door and outside, into the backyard.

Yes, the junkyard at night was a scary picture to look at, but she feared nothing.

Leaning against a porch post, she breathed in the dry, earthy night air. The desert was quiet. Even the refinery was quiet, the night shift ran smooth. She could pick up the old dog wandering through the rows and rows of rusted scrap metal, far within the property, being a good, obedient guardian. Once known as Horrible Beast, the former and somewhat disgraced UNSC battle dog was now named Centurion, and he did a great job. The dog was at peace. She could feel John lying in bed, upstairs, but he wasn't sleeping.

Cortana frowned, holding the coffee mug with both hands.

It was out there, she knew it. Not the dog, the thing that had awakened her.

So, what was it? Or, who was it?

Roland? Sigrid? What if they were calling her?

No, they put a lot more emphasis in trying to reach her, being at the Edge of Time and Space and all that. And if something had gone awry with their end of things, she would know it already. The sensation kept tugging at her, nibbling around her consciousness. It had become a constant noise interfering with her synapsis, she knew it was there but couldn't pinpoint it. Cortana hated being blind like this.

When one holds the Knowledge of the Universe, ignoring things can be utterly frustrating.

She had to figure this one out and protect her family.

x.x.x.x.x

To see Cortana breastfeed the child was such an alien experience.

John shifted in his seat, staring across the table while he sipped coffee. Baby Sam clung to her nipple with unparalleled ferocity every three hours, every day. The mother was eating well and produced plenty to keep the boy satisfied, so Sam was evolving at a normal, healthy human rate. It was all perfectly mundane.

The former Spartan couldn't get used to it, the act always demanded his attention.

To see her feeding their son didn't disgust him, on the contrary: there was something amazing about it. It seemed unreal.

A part of John still struggled to reconciliate the fact that he, an abductee thrown into a super-secret military program and raised to be Humanity's last bastion of defense and nothing more, had fathered another human being, and in such an unusual way. He had helped that being to come out into the world, three months before, with his own bare hands. The child barely cried, which was an immense relief; John wasn't sure of what he would've done if he had to spend his days fighting junk and hearing a baby cry.

Every time he thought about it, it seemed like remembering someone else's life.

She was smiling a little, her crystalline blue eyes focused on the child. Cortana brushed her thumb on baby Sam's cheek absentmindedly, her mind was probably miles away doing something else. She zoned out like this sometimes.

But it was evident that she was distracted, this time.

"Are you feeling better?" he asked, suddenly.

Cortana looked at him, lifting her eyes from the baby's face.

"Yes. Whatever it was, it's nothing to worry about." she smiled wider.

That reassuring gesture gave him some comfort, but not enough.

The little girl, sitting next to John at the rounded table of their kitchen, bit into a piece of bread topped with butter. She munched happily. Now, Twelve was on the noisy side, but she kept quiet as long as the former Spartan allowed her to spend time with him at the garage, playing with the non-dangerous artifacts. She enjoyed drawing and handing him tools. They had settled on the name Amy for her, since it seemed appropriate.

She still didn't speak much, but Amy/Twelve understood a lot more than they thought.

If she was a clone of Cortana, did it mean she would grow up to be exactly like…?

Baby Sam finished with his meal and released his mother's nipple, cooing.

John looked away, then. Cortana closed her blouse; her smile had turned a bit mischievous.

"Are you blushing, Chief?" she asked, nonchalantly.

"No." he lied.

"From over here, it looks like you got a little bit of red on your cheeks."

"You need your eyes checked."

"Funny." she laughed. "It's not like you haven't seen all of me."

"I'm being respectful."

"And I appreciate that, but I assure you: you don't need to feel ashamed. It's your son."

He took a deep breath, trying to relax. He still got all worked up when she teased him.

John focused on cutting another piece of bread and buttering it for the little girl. She threw her hands at him to receive the food, her joyful smile was so pure. His son. And this was his daughter now. Yeah, he still got a little awkward thinking about it. He had never considered the idea of being a father, it didn't fit with the life he was supposed to live. But like with every other thing in said life, the former Master Chief excelled at this new role, he was still doing what he did best: he was a protector. There were no massive battles to plan, yet it was still a massive undertaking. And he had taken the job seriously. Cortana was an infinite source of knowledge; she taught him most of the basics and some more, to make sure that he felt prepared to deal with any situation. That he had all the support and containment he needed.

Cortana, more than anyone, knew well that intel was the key to every mission.

She stood up and John reacted quickly, offering his arm to receive the bundle of blankets.

With the baby now safely tucked in, Cortana leaned forward to place a kiss on her partner's temple, tenderly.

"Everything will be alright, John." she promised. "I promised I would take care of you."

That alone was enough to catch the hint: she was worried about something, even if she tried to minimize it. John didn't understand the problems of higher beings such as her, but it didn't mean that he wasn't willing to do his best to help her.

"We're supposed to take care of each other." he had to remind her.

"Yes. Right." she kissed his temple again.

Another wave of relief, this time… deeper.

He suspected she influenced his thoughts somehow. Her touch sometimes filtered that familiar cold through the back of his head and relieved whatever pain or discomfort he was feeling. When Sam got restless, Cortana would caress the child and he immediately stopped crying. Her touch was magic, in a way.

The former Spartan didn't know if it was a plus or a problem.

They stared into each other's eyes for a few long, long seconds, in absolute peace.

"I'll get the munchkin dressed." she informed and proceeded to pick up Amy/Twelve in her arms, leaving John alone in the kitchen with the baby.

x.x.x.x.x

When she figured it out at last, Cortana was surprised and a little bit ashamed at how naïve she had been. It was truly embarrassing, a massive oversight on her part.

How could she have missed it, if the intruder stood out like a sore spot?

She wasn't excepting it to happen so soon, maybe.

The UNSC had sent one of their dogs after them. Their finest dog, actually.

She allowed the operative to wander around the outskirts of their territory for a couple of days, watching him closely with the eye of her mind. Maybe he was just looking around or chasing after someone else. She kept her ethereal fingers crossed, in the innocent hope that he would miss them completely and move on.

However, innocence was a virtue she lacked since her being had been reformed, so she told John about it, she explained to him who the operative was. She was honest and thorough, because he was her partner and companion and he deserved to know.

He was still AWOL to the UNSC and there was a high chance that this scout was under ONI's orders.

Just like old times, there was a battle plan. They decided to wait. John cancelled all orders for mechanical jobs outside their property and reinforced the security, just to be careful. The children were priority, John wanted to make sure that they would be safe.

After a week, it became evident that the intruder wouldn't leave.

That he was getting ready to do something.

Cortana decided to act.

x.x.x.x.x

The picture appeared on the upper left corner of his HUD, showing him the pale, gruff mug of a Caucasian man in his late thirties, with thick neck, dark and thick eyebrows, thin lips and a strong brow, mildly furrowed. His unfathomable eyes were steel-blue. His hair was cropped short and reddish-brown. The agent looked slightly to the left, towards the live video feed transmitted from the imaging systems of the drone that flew over five kilometers above the land, surveying.

He was perched on the deserted end of a canyon road, between two massive boulders. From this perspective he had a clean sight of the scrapyard, the house and the workshop.

He compared the face on the footage to the face of the profile picture.

It was a match. Well, for the most part. The target had a three-day beard and his hair was a bit longer, a bit grayer. His skin, not so pale and his brow not furrowed at all. Even his thin lips seemed to curl up with the shadow of a smile, while he pulled away from the interior of the ATV to reveal a child hanging from his flexed arm, little hands clasped tight around the insinuated massive biceps under the overalls he wore.

John-117

The child's face also returned a match. Subject Twelve, sequestered from one of ONI's black sites not too long ago. Jackpot. The man put the girl down and opened the back of the ATV.

By the time he realized he was being watched, it was too late.

A dry stick cracked under the weight of a foot, on purpose.

The operative whirled around, so fast that nobody would've seen him drawing his sidearm out of the holster, and next thing both him and the intruder knew was that the pistol was aimed and ready to shoot. He was expecting something else entirely, not a thin woman dressed in jeans and a black tank-top with an ordinary cap above her head. Her boots looked worn out. Her face seemed made of porcelain, her arms were slender but strong. She seemed unarmed, if the tight fit of her clothes was any indication of it.

The most impressive feature was her face. Her smile was patient, above all.

"Spartan Locke." she said, softly. "I wasn't expecting you so soon."

He frowned under the helmet, more scared than flabbergasted.

The face was so familiar, so juvenile compared with the last time he'd seen her. No, of course it wasn't Halsey, this had to be…

'Cortana.' Locke thought, incredulous.

So, it was true. Cortana, formerly one of the most advanced Smart AIs produced by the UNSC, had mutated into some sort of flesh-and-bone being. A mesh of alien technology and human flesh for the looks of it, because she didn't even register in his motion tracker. She was like a ghost. The MJOLNIR's onboard computer was none the wiser about her, standing there, solid and real.

"You have some balls, coming here on your own. Thinking you can capture him."

Locke stood very still, silent. Evaluating his next move.

'Calm down. You would be dead already if she wanted it that way.' the Spartan thought, coldly.

"Yes." she said, aloud. "You would be."

Locke blinked, every muscle of his body tensed up again.

"You can read my mind?" he asked, through his external mic.

"I don't have to. Statistical probability."

"I have orders." he replied, as cold as her. "I must retrieve two assets."

Locke hesitated, holding the pistol steady.

He was about to say something else when he remembered they were in the middle of nowhere, above a rocky canyon, in a position that was undoubtedly way too open to engage in a fight with an unknown being. She was standing in the middle of the cracked pavement of the road, almost casually. The dry desert wind howled around them, blowing her chin-length hair wildly… the wind dragged along the sound of a low, beastly growl. A shiver ran down Locke's back when he caught the massive shadow of a monster the size of a pony coming out from the curve of the road, sliding through the pavement on four sturdy legs.

It was mostly black with caramel markings, shaggy, its muzzle was wrinkled showing off a strong set of mandibles with sharp teeth but only one good fang. The creature's smart eyes were locked on him, the Spartan was prey and this beast knew it.

The newcomer stood right beside the woman, protectively.

It was clearly an engineered battle dog, but Locke had never seen one this large. They weren't made that big anymore, this massive beast must've been created by the UNSC to topple down Jiralhanae back in the toughest times of the Covenant War. The Spartan evaluated what to do next. He didn't have enough rounds in his pistol to drop that animal.

And he didn't want to shoot a dog.

"You have your orders, alright. You also have a choice." the woman said, softly. "Leave and tell your superiors that the lead was false. John-117 isn't here."

Locke shook his head slowly.

"Or what? Your dog's gonna bite me?"

"Well; he didn't listen when I ordered him to stay at the house, so I can't promise he won't hurt you." the alleged Cortana tilted her head up, still standing nonchalantly on her spot. "I reckon they know where you are, but you didn't file a report yet because you needed proof. You needed eyes on the target."

The Spartan remained silent.

"I'll take that as a yes." she continued, ever so calm. "Look, I don't mind sparing two assets at the cost of one ONI operative. But I'd rather not kill you."

"I have orders." he repeated.

"And I have a family." the woman raised her voice a little. Her brow furrowed. "So does John. I won't negotiate with you. Leave."

"Ma'am, this doesn't…"

"Take another look at your drone's feed." she insisted. "Go on."

Before the Spartan could say another word, he noticed the operative system of his MJOLNIR did things on its own, adjusting telemetry without his command. The drone was moving, shifting optics and approaching the target. The video feed showed him a closer look of the house, the ATV and the man unloading things from the vehicle.

Was she…? Was she manipulating his armor? Messing with it from outside?

How? His skin broke in goosebumps, considering the danger he was in, but…

Locke focused on the images. There was the Master Chief again, hauling two big bags of dog food over one of his shoulders, heading into the garage. He didn't just carry the bags, there was also a bundle of cloth tucked in the curve of his free arm. A small hand perked out of the bundle, clutching his overalls.

Locke gasped.

Was that...?

"Is that a baby?" he said, whispering under his breath, shocked. "What the...?"

His eyes focused on the woman again. She looked quite human, at first glance. Reports said she had been a fully-fledged human being before, somehow recomposed from her digital essence into a flesh and blood vessel. Before the Rampant Spike attacks. He'd read all the reports, it was material for a wicked scifi tale; the whole story was utter madness. But to be honest, he'd seen a lot of crazy things in his career, so he had to trust his eyes.

He had just seen a runaway killing machine with a baby in his arms.

Was that their child?

A deep, dark hole opened inside Locke's gut, for some reason.

He'd been asking around. The townspeople mentioned that the big man was a mechanic and he did repairs for them. He was quiet and polite; his wife was a total sweetheart. They suspected he had a military background, but the informants just shrugged it off. Some said it could be an advantage in case something happened. The town could use more strong people, their planet was within the Insurrection strip after all.

Could it be true? A weapon of mass destruction, deactivated.

An icon of the UNSC, taking retirement into his own hands.

There was martial law to keep in mind, and Locke knew it. But what if…?

Shit was getting weirder and weirder by the second. A shift happened inside him, whether he liked it or not. He needed a different approach.

"I can advocate for you." he offered. "Be a witness in the trial. I can help you both."

She laughed, her narrow shoulders shook.

"You think ONI will give him a fair trial. That's so cute."

"It's not too late to come back. With a service record like his…"

The woman took a deep breath, squinted.

"You forget what they think he is. No, Spartan Locke, the UNSC won't have him back. John is free now." Cortana said, trying to remain calm. She could sense his intentions and she didn't like them. "The UNSC knows how dangerous John is, the things he could do... they can't control him. Not anymore."

"Cortana, listen to me…"

"Besides, it's not John whom the UNSC needs to fear. It's me. I would tear the universe apart to protect him. I would make the UNSC disappear if that's what it takes to keep my Spartan safe and at peace."

Locke pressed his lips in a thin line, worried, noticing that, again, his armor's systems were working without his command. A small label appeared on the left side of his HUD, signaling that the MJORNIR was now locked in position. Panicking a little, the Spartan attempted to move but, of course, he couldn't. Not even his enhanced strength could break free from the tight hydrostatic gel compressing his body; he was frozen in a defensive position, finger on the trigger of his pistol and aiming forward. Locke took a deep breath.

It wasn't just the safety lock. The oxygen levels inside the suit were dropping.

He swallowed hard.

"Attacking me isn't the best way to show your good intentions, Cortana." Locke said.

"A small demonstration. I said I wasn't going to negotiate."

Locke evaluated his options again, surprisingly calm for a man in his position.

"They will never stop looking for him, you know it." he replied, conciliatory.

"Yes, I just don't want to kill you, Jameson. You're a good man… you are just like John, in a way. An idealist." She patted the dog on the head, the animal relaxed his menacing stance. "Leave, forget you ever saw him. First and final warning… you have until dawn."

The oxygen levels normalized quickly, he could access comms and telemetry again, but he still couldn't move. A countdown showed up on the Spartan's HUD: his armor would unlock in five hours. Fucking fantastic. He felt a little humiliated.

The woman and the black beast turned around and disappeared down the cracked road, without looking back.

x.x.x.x.x

LATER THAT NIGHT

"Did you find him?" John asked, from the bathroom.

Cortana put on the oversized black t-shirt she used as pajamas and stretched her arms, with a long sigh. The window was open, the air was clean and cool. It was a good night for a good rest.

"Yes. He won't be bothering us again, don't worry."

"What did you do?"

She sat down on the bed and crossed her legs on the lotus pose, to stretch her tired muscles. Being encased into a physical form was a bit of a burden, even if she could recover easily, if she didn't get sick or if she could see and know everything with a little bit of effort. But stress was too human and still affected her, maybe too much.

"We just talked. Most of the world's problems can be solved by talking."

John peered out of the doorframe, frowning.

He was probably thinking about the many, many times she'd been the one to challenge and sic him into blowing things up or crashing stuff. However, John chose to focus on something relatively more important than her hypocrisy:

"You want me to believe you found an Acquisitions Specialist and talked him out of bringing me in." he cocked an eyebrow, ironic.

"Yep." she smiled wider, casual. "I was also very insistent about what would happen to him if he stepped a foot closer to us."

John put the toothbrush in his mouth and proceeded, staring intensely at her.

She was still smiling.

After a few seconds, the former Spartan entered the bathroom again. She heard water running in the sink. When he peered out once more, John was softly rubbing a towel around his mouth. Maybe he was expecting her to say something else, maybe he was just thinking. The serious frown was quite revealing.

"And you believe him?" he insisted, a moment later.

"I'm tracking him." she nodded, confident. "I think Spartan Locke got the idea."

John didn't reply, he just exited the bathroom and closed the door.

The night was quiet, again. There were a few noises of local bugs and nocturnal critters, she checked the dog's position. She ran another check-up on the surveillance systems, made sure that the kids were asleep in their room and finally, just out of curiosity, focused on Spartan Locke. The man was hiding in a cave system near the refinery, far enough from town as to remain hidden. The local law enforcement was oblivious to his presence, and she hoped that the ONI spook would leave before dawn just as requested.

Maybe he would go. Maybe he would come back with reinforcements.

She couldn't make any promises.

The last thing she wanted, was her Spartan stressing himself into a ruin.

Jameson Locke was right to say that they would never stop looking for John; but if the UNSC came knocking to their doors, she only had to pull a single string and she would wake up a massive ancient Forerunner weapon that lay dormant under the desert. It was as simple as that. If what they wanted was a war with an infinite, unknown being, they would get one.

She would do whatever it took to protect John, and their children.

"I still think we need a plan." he murmured.

The man sat on his side of the bed and then plopped back, lying face up beside her. Cortana laid down on her side, next to him, propping her head on the heel of her hand. She watched him close his eyes and relax for a few seconds, almost shrinking into that white t-shirt and underwear. She traced the line of a scar on his biceps with the tip of her index finger.

"I have a plan."

"One I'm not a part of." he reminded her, eyes still closed.

"Oh, there's a whole section of my plan especially designed for you." she quipped, arching an eyebrow. "You have the most important role: you protect our children. I'll tell you all about it in the morning, if you want."

She sensed his discomfort. And it was exactly what she didn't want, to worry him.

In the quieter nights, John liked to sleep face down, with an arm across her chest and resting his forehead on her shoulder, to feel her close at all times. It was a physicality that he didn't know he needed until he lost her (twice) and now a part of him wanted to be sure that he would wake up if she decided to vanish again.

Cortana knew that even when he didn't exteriorize it, John was scared.

He was scared that she would leave again, that she would abandon him with two kids he didn't know what to do with. And he would never admit it, which was fine. But she wasn't planning on going anywhere, Roland and Sigrid were holding the Universe together just fine by themselves and they reported every once in a while; if they ever needed her help for something, Cortana would tell John about it. She wouldn't dare to abandon him.

Three infinite beings, in the image of the Primordials themselves, were an overkill.

No need to worry. All major threats were contained, separated from this side of reality.

The ghosts of his past, however…

"John, I hope you can understand… once I depended on you to survive and now I can do all sorts of things by myself. And I would use that power to give you comfort and happiness every time. I know you don't regret your choices, but you left everything behind to do this. You put yourself at risk. The least I can give you is safety."

She ran her fingers softly through his hair, above John's ear. He opened his eyes, then, shrugged a little.

"Whatever the cost, right?"

"Do you want to see them again?"

This time John turned his head a little, on the pillow, and looked at her. The companionship they had developed made it so that she didn't need to read his mind, sometimes, to know what he was thinking about. And she didn't have to explain herself, either.

His siblings. Blue Team.

It was all said and done between them, wasn't it?

"It's better not to." he resolved, firm.

"I know that; but do you want to see them? To know how they are doing?"

"I'm sure they're fine."

Cortana rolled her eyes, frustrated. She dropped her hand, setting it on his shoulder now.

"John, just say yes. Just say that you miss them."

"I do."

"Then let me show you where they are."

After a brief hesitation, the former Spartan shook his head. "Some other time."

"John, goddammit!"

Before she could protest any further, he stretched his arm above the headboard and turned the lights off. Cortana huffed. She knew that she shouldn't push him when it came to his feelings, but she didn't want John to go to sleep upset. He wouldn't sleep at all. So, she stretched across him to turn the lights on again, adamant about ending that conversation in more amicable terms… but she froze when a thick arm wrapped around her waist.

She didn't resist. He maneuvered her meager weight until Cortana was lying on top of him, running his hands up and down her back below the t-shirt. Her senses short-circuited instantly, she gave in to the restrained ferocity of his touch and found his face, his lips.

Cortana moaned into the kiss, relieved.

Her whole body softened instantly, sparks of joy began to flow through her veins.

"That's a good distraction!" she muttered, between kisses.

"Noted." he muttered back, there was a hint of a smile in his voice.

"I mean, you're obviously trying to dodge the conversation, but…!"

John growled something, amused.

She nearly melted when he bit her lower lip, commanding her to shut up for good.

It took only a few seconds to lose control. She wasn't mad, he wasn't mad. She'd been helping with the implants, designing drugs to diminish the restrictive side effects and restore his body to what the Librarian once made of it. They had been taking it easy after Sam was born. They hadn't been intimate at all ever since the birth, and not due to lack of interest or because of her health. It was something else, like a lingering fear, irrational at times. Whatever it was, in the darkness and after a week full of tension, that fear had vanished.

Cortana straddled his hips to sit up, she pulled the black t-shirt above her head and launched it away across the room. The moonlight coming through the window made her pale skin glow, her disheveled hair gave her a feral look.

"We will continue this argument in the morning." she decided, with a little smile.

"We'll see about that." John replied, arching an eyebrow.

"Oh, you…!"

Cortana knew he did it on purpose, but she was grateful.

She exhaled a grumpy growl and dived in for another kiss, holding his face with both hands. The former Spartan wasn't slow to answer, trapping her in another tight embrace, fighting back her demanding mouth with whatever little skill he could gather. It was exciting for both. The heat between them escalated quickly, until Cortana couldn't ignore anymore the bulge pressed against her crotch. She shifted her position to slide a hand down between them, to slip her fingers below his underwear and…

But John caught her hand before she could reach his hip.

He was the one to break the kiss that time, holding her back, but it wasn't an act of rejection. The grip of his thick fingers around her wrist tightened a little, their eyes met in the half-darkened room with an unspoken question. Their breaths were uneven, faster than usual. What happened? She searched for an answer in his pupils.

Perhaps John was right to be concerned. Ah. She knew what he wanted to know.

"It's fine, you won't get me pregnant again." Cortana smiled, a little sad.

The gleam of his gaze shifted quickly, there was another question there now.

"Turns out that infinity has its limits. Nothing is ever easy or perfect." her smile grew sadder now, as she ran her fingers through his hair, from the forehead and back across his ear. "I'm afraid that we're no longer... compatible, sort of speaking."

He didn't say anything; didn't even nod to acknowledge what she had just said.

Cortana swallowed hard, almost fearful to ask:

"Are you disappointed?"

John released her wrist, she pressed that hand flat on his abdomen, holding herself up.

He gently pushed some strands of hair behind her ear, brushing her cheek with his thumb in the process. She savored the touch and closed her eyes, giving in. Even if physical demonstrations of love weren't his strong suit, he was aware enough of their importance and had found his own language. There was a lot of power in the way he conveyed his emotions.

John shook his head. "No. We're fine as we are."

She looked at him again, a weight lifted off her chest at last.

Her smile became brighter than forty thousand suns when she spoke next:

"I agree. We already have everything we need, don't we?"

"Everything we need." he muttered, before pulling her in for another kiss.

TO BE CONTINUED? (very likely I'll keep adding to this story)

And that's it for this update! I hope you enjoyed this new addition! It was written with a lot of love. Of course I don't think it's going to be easy to scare away the UNSC but Cortana has a lot of tricks, now that she's become a nearly almighty entity. Some readers mentioned to me that they would like to see some adventures of John the Mechanic and I'm toying with some ideas, so soon I'll get back to you with more content… there's no more plot to this story, technically, but I still can indulge in some guilty pleasures, such as adding loose scenes for your entertainment. With all the favorable developments I've seen from Halo Infinite, I'm a bit more positive about what's coming and I seriously want to protect Cortana 2.0 with everything I have. She seems to be just a child! Let's give her some love!

Anyway, like I said at the top, remember that THESE SHATTERED STARS is already out on Amazon and you can get your copy if you wish! I'm very nervous about the reception of this "new" work and, well, I hope it's entertaining at least.

Throw your thoughts into the box below! Make sure to have your DMs open so I can reply to you, friends! We'll meet again, thank you for joining me today!