Chapter 20 Confiding and Loss

Machines beeped. Doctors and Medics moved about, talking to each other or posing questions to their patients. Air circulated out of the vents. The Infirmary was much as it was the last time Grogan had been a guest there.

For that matter, so was he.

How had things gone so wrong? The enemy was a bunch of gangsters and raiders, nothing compared to the Goa'uld or the Replicators or the Ori. Camelot was made up of the best of the best of two nations, both of whom were well experienced fighting interstellar wars with inadequate resources. Yet, here he was, out of action with the enemy still rampaging freely.

Out of action because of his own mistakes. His own inadequacy.

XXX-XXX

One week prior.

No smoke rose from the rehabilitation clinic, but the light was still failing. This particular day had come to an end and a cool wind blew in with the setting of the binary suns. It was the brief period of transition between the brutal heat of the day and the piercing cold of the night. Desert climates like these were always painfully bipolar and unforgiving.

Grogan couldn't feel it in his armor, but several of the Coalition guards around him were visibly taking comfort from the reprieve. They were federal troops from a more temperate world and they had been shifting uncomfortably in the heat all day. The crowd of locals that had come to watch didn't share the guards' relief. They knew that the drop in temperature was only a prelude to the cold night and they started bundling up while they could.

SG-9 was standing outside the final rehabilitation clinic. The reinforced walls and fortified entrances had not been breached. The interior hadn't been set on fire. None of the inhabitants had been killed. In fact, there had been no attack at all, let alone one as brutally effective as the purge three months prior.

Despite this, it was being shut down. Boxes of medical supplies were being loaded up, under guard, to be shipped to military units fighting the Banished. The medical personnel had already been evacuated and reassigned. The Camelot troopers were standing off to the side, facing outward, ready to fight off any half-baked raid.

The doors to the clinic opened in Grogan's peripheral vision. A line of prisoners moved out, chains clinking around their wrists and ankles, heads covered with burlap sacks, stragglers being shoved forward none too gently. They were loaded into the backs of transport Warthogs and, once the paperwork had been signed and stamped, taken away to be transferred to a regular jaffa gulag for some good ole hard labor. It would be an uncomfortable ride; the backs of those vehicles weren't padded, heated, or enclosed. The UNSC didn't exactly give a fuck when it came to prisoner handling.

Grogan was ambivalent about the rough handling. These prisoners were Lucian Alliance, after all. Too many of Stargate Command's soldiers had died fighting these opportunistic gangsters for him to be all that liberal about their treatment. Still, he'd be lying if he said he hadn't noticed the way some of them were shaking from Kassa withdrawal. Prisons in general weren't known for treating addicts well. Jaffa prisons, even those in the Freedom Coalition, certainly weren't going to put forth much effort to ease their suffering.

A sigh escaped his lips before he could clamp down on it. None of this should have been happening. The clinics had been working, both in gathering intel and in treating the victims of shoddily refined narcotics. Not to mention the valuable experience the jaffa doctors and nurses had been getting under what amounted to a first-world medical internship. That hadn't been enough for the bean counters, though, and now it was all over. Word was that the clinics set up and run exclusively by the Coalition were next on the chopping block. Everything was being trimmed down in favor of the war machine. Necessary, but a damn shame.

The Warthogs kicked up the powdery, dry dirt from the un-paved road as they pulled away. A cloud of the stuff drifted past Grogan's field of vision. His pulse jumped and his hands tightened on his weapon. Memories of the Ambush flooded his mind, the dirt and dust threatening to morph into clouds of snow-blind particles. His eyes darted around the perimeter, searching for anything that looked like a concealed Brute. Nothing. He cursed his nerves yet again. He'd been on edge a lot lately.

The sound of raised voices drew Grogan's attention. A local civilian was talking animatedly at the Coalition Guard captain, gesturing at the clinic and then at a line of other civilians seated by the side of the road. It took a moment for their hunched, blanket-covered forms to register; these must have been the civilian patients that got booted out of the clinic. They had stalled until the absolute last moment before leaving and now sat closer than the small crowd of onlookers.

The conversation was going south, fast. The Jaffa captain had obviously not been particularly interested in what this man had to say from the beginning. The loud, insistent confrontation the civvie was putting up was not endearing him to the warrior. The captain's stance became noticeably more tense and his grip on his staff weapon was tightening. This could get ugly fast unless he intervened.

"May I offer aid, good folk?" Grogan asked in the local dialect as he moved forward. He had to stop this from escalating to violence. Colonel Mitchell was present on this mission but he was busy half-way around the perimeter and Satterfield, who was normally the one he'd rely on for public relations, was with him. The only other Camelot personnel nearby were ODSTs, who would probably welcome the entertainment, and Hailey, who would accidentally escalate it herself with her brusque attitude. That left him with an excuse to occupy his mind with something other than potential flashbacks.

"Ah! Tau'ri!" the local said, his face brightening. He was an old man with a white beard and slightly hunched back. He carried himself with an air of strength, but it was clear from the way he moved and his plain brown robes that he had never been a warrior. "Perhaps you can tell me where my people might find treatment now that this house of healing is derelict? This one has been most rude and unhelpful," he said, gesturing contemptuously at the guard captain. Said warrior rolled his eyes and took the Camelot trooper's presence as an excuse to leave and return to his own duties. The local civvie scowled at his back before looking pleadingly at Grogan. "Where can I take them? They have not finished their recovery."

Grogan shifted uncomfortably. Despite being hidden behind a polarized visor, he found himself unable to meet the old man's eyes. He recognized him now. This had been the same local leader that had personally thanked Col. Mitchell for the clinics all those months ago. The one who had presented him with a wreath and a small, informal ceremony.

"You may take them to the house of healing in the center of the city," Grogan almost muttered the answer provided to him in the briefing.

The local leader's face fell. Disbelief mixed with frustration as he responded. "But...there is no room there. We have checked. Even if there was, my people cannot afford the treatment they offer."

This was obvious. This particular area was noticeably impoverished, practically a slum. The crowd of able bodied, poorly-clothed civvies who were sitting and standing around to watch the depressing show demonstrated this. They weren't working because there were no jobs for them to perform. Wartime depression was hitting this world hard. The fact that the clinic had been free of charge was probably the part of the program that had most endeared the off-worlders to the locals.

Grogan's throat tightened as he responded. "I'm sorry, good sir. There is nothing more that we can do for them." He motioned back away from the clinic. "Please, stand aside."

Now, the local's face shifted to an expression of betrayal and anger. He didn't respond in words. Instead, he surged forward, probably to grab Grogan by the shoulders and shake him, but it was enough to trigger the soldier's combat instincts. The jaffa civilian found himself face-first in the dirt before either of them knew what was happening. The rest of the Camelot security team had their weapons up and facing outward almost as fast.

The civvies all gasped. A few of them looked like they wanted to move forward, but held back out of fear. Most looked a second from running away as fast as their legs would carry them.

"It's alright. Situation is secure," Grogan said into his comms. He held his left hand up in a placating manner to calm the civvies. "A local just got a little handsy is all."

Everyone stayed on alert for a minute anyway. This could easily have been a distraction planned or exploited by attackers. When nothing happened, Grogan motioned a couple of the civvies forward. They cautiously picked up their leader and sat him down next to the trembling kassa addicts. They handed him a rag for his bloody nose.

Grogan spent the rest of the mission mentally cursing Command, the politicians, and all of their red tape and penny pinching.

XXX-XXX

The awkwardness was starting to get ridiculous. Satterfield stared back at the opaque visor of Blue Three, wondering why the Spartan had approached her off-duty if she didn't have anything to actually say. Were the Spartan-IIs really so insular and anti-social that they couldn't even hold a casual conversation?

The pair of soldiers had made their way to the Mess Hall after finishing their volunteer duty in the Infirmary. They sat on opposite sides of one of the tables, specifically the one designated for Spartan usage. It was the only one with stools solid enough to support the weight of an armored up Spartan-II. They felt like sitting on a chunk of solid hull plating.

Satterfield felt awkward sitting in Spartan territory, despite the hall being empty at this point of the day. She felt like she was trespassing. This seemed a good enough excuse to broach a subject that had always bothered her about the most senior of the Spartan generations. "So...do Spartans ever take off their armor?" she asked. "I only bring it up because it's, you know, a bit restrictive," she said, gesturing meekly to their seats. She hoped the respect came across in her tone and gestures.

There was a pause before the reply.

"We turn the armor in at the end of the standard day, unless we're in the field," Blue Three said in the near robotic voice common to the S-IIs. "The Fireteams often go sans helmets while on base."

"Not Blue Team, though," Satterfield pressed, her heart beating madly. This was a risky subject to broach since it was potentially so personal. Still, she was ambitious, and the lure of understanding Blue Team was too much.

There was another pause.

"No. Not us," Blue Three replied. Then, she fell silent.

Again with the pausing.

A wave of annoyance passed through Satterfield. She was about to say something, anything, when something unprecedented happened: the Spartan actually sighed.

"This is...difficult, for me," Blue Three said. She leaned forward, causing the stool to groan in protest, and placed her forearms on the table. She tilted her helmet slightly, just enough to indicate that her expression had changed behind the opaque visor. "Members of Blue Team—Spartans IIs, that is—aren't used to socializing outside our own program. We've never had the time."

"So, what changed?" Satterfield asked before another pause could force its unwelcome way into the conversation. She was hanging on every word.

A pause came just the same.

Satterfield was on the verge of screaming in frustration when the Spartan answered the question. The words were hesitant, like those of a young child who hadn't yet gained confidence in their speech. "...curiosity," Blue Three answered. "New Earth is...so different. The Merging changed so many things. Our lives have been dedicated to preserving humanity and now there's a whole galaxy of them that aren't in the UEG. We...I...want to know more."

Suddenly, the Spartan's demeanor changed. She sat upright, her speech became more confident, and the moment of vulnerability passed as if it had never been. "I propose an exchange," she said.

"...an exchange?" Satterfield asked.

"Yes," the Spartan responded. "Social bonds are typically developed through the growth of mutual understanding. Such growth can only come through each side increasing their knowledge of the other. I propose that we take turns disclosing some fact or set of facts concerning ourselves to facilitate this. It is the most efficient approach I have been able to devise."

The rehearsed, thought-out tone of that speech was not lost on Satterfield. It sounded like something an ambassador or politician would say. Her eyes narrowed briefly before she realized that this was exactly what she should have expected. A Spartan would approach any challenge like they were formulating a battle plan. The social element would naturally lead any research into the diplomatic sphere, since the outcomes of political conferences often had direct impacts on the actions of the military. The connective tissue was obvious in hindsight. The Spartan had probably gotten this idea from the Hydrogen Deal that had been hatched a while back.

"That's how you want our conversations to go from here on out? I tell you something, you tell me something, repeat?" A nod answered her. "That sounds reasonable," Satterfield said. "I guess we could start with me. Is there anything in particular you'd like to know about me?"

"How was your squad formed?" came the response, with no pause at all. The Spartan rushed to cover up any potential misstep. "If that's not too personal, of course."

"No, that's fine," Satterfield assured her. She sat back, careful not to fall off the back-less stool, and stared up at the ceiling for a moment. Her eyes traced the web of cables mounted onto the stone/alloy ceiling and the LED lights they powered. After a moment's reflection, she turned back to her conversation partner. "Technically, the current SG-9 was put together about five years ago, but most of us met in the SGC training program about a year prior to that."

She spent the next several minutes detailing how she, Hailey, and Grogan had originally met while being made ready to fully join the SGC as an SG Team. She told about how Hailey was even then being held back from promotion due to her insubordination, how Grogan was the most driven to protect his friends, even how she herself had gained the reputation for developing crushes on civilian personnel due to her brief infatuation with Dr. Daniel Jackson.

Particularly, she told Blue Three about the memorable week they'd spent training under the legendary SG-1.

"They'd set up a false Foothold Situation," Satterfield explained. "We were still dealing with the Goa'uld at that point, so having a situation where our own people turned out to be either impostors or otherwise under some form of mind control was still considered a threat of the highest order. It still is, actually, but people aren't quite as terrified of it as they used to be. Anyway, we didn't know it was a drill, so when we 'infiltrated' Cheyenne Mountain under Col. O'Neill's orders, we were under a lot of pressure."

"And Major Williamson was not the leader of your squad at the time, correct?" Blue Three asked.

"That's right," Satterfield answered, glad that the Spartan was still interested. "That was Elliot. He's a Major now. Commands SG-17. Anyway..." The story ran its course until it got to the rather dramatic ending. "Testing Elliot in particular was one of the main objectives of the scenario. So, at the end, when we all thought the game was up, they threw him a curve ball. Hailey had been arranged to be 'out of contact' with the rest of us and was supposedly making her way to the Gate Room to blow the whole place sky high. Elliot made a sacrifice play, 'disarmed' the sabotage without using lethal force, and earned himself a commendation." Satterfield's face screwed up in wry irritation. "None of us were particularly pleased about Hailey keeping us in the dark, even though she had orders. Grogan and I had some fun with her over that."

"Captain Grogan was not happy with being kept in the dark?" Blue Three asked with what could almost be a hint of interest.

"Nope. Neither of us were," Satterfield replied. She smiled coyly as she continued. "I won't go into details about how we got back at her, but suffice to say she knew how we felt about it."

There was another pause. This time, though, it seemed like the super-soldier was mulling over what had been said rather than just letting the dead air hang, which made it far less frustrating.

"I can understand not wanting your fam—your squad-mates to keep secrets from you," Blue Three said.

Another pause.

This time, Satterfield took it as a cue to push. "So, what about you? Any stories about Blue Team's early days?"

The Spartan stiffened. Satterfield imagined the Spartan's mind was racing to come up with something that wasn't classified. Just how clandestine were the origins of the Spartan-IIs?

"There was...one time, during training," Blue Three said. Satterfield's ears perked up. "We were charged with making our way across a stretch of wilderness. It was a thick, deciduous forest region on the planet Reach. We made it to the Pelican we were to evacuate on but Cadet-117, the Master Chief, smelled a trap."

"What made him think that?" Satterfield asked.

"Our chief Instructor, CPO Mendez, was always throwing surprises at us," the Spartan replied. It was impossible to tell, but Satterfield would have sworn there was just a hint of fond nostalgia in the normally robotic voice. Blue Team's relationship with their Chief Instructor must have been rather positive despite where this story seemed to be headed. Blue Three continued, "We decided the 'guards' present with the dropship were probably hostiles that needed to be subdued. So, we executed a classic 'wounded man' gambit. One of us, Fhajad, used his boot to cut his thigh. He was always one of the best at manipulating people. I played rabbit and lured them in, using my speed to our advantage. We had the hostiles subdued in a few minutes, piloted the ship ourselves, and arrived back on base without incident."

"I imagine the 'guards' were Marines?" Satterfield asked, chuckling. The Spartan nodded but remained as stoic and unemotional as ever. "They must not have been very happy about that."

"That would be an understatement," Blue Three confirmed. "The Marines provided OPFOR for nearly all of our training exercises. ODSTs specifically were called in for the later stages. Tango Company in particular took it pretty hard. None of them were happy with losing so often to a bunch of—."

Suddenly, the super-soldier went rigid. Satterfield was instantly on alert, half convinced there was some kind of threat that had just invaded the Mess Hall. When nothing appeared, it became clear that the Spartan was reacting to her own speech. Had she almost let something slip?

"So—um—what happened between the training program and the formation of SG-9?" Blue Three asked in a rather obvious attempt to change the subject.

Satterfield decided to oblige her. Pushing for more details would only destroy whatever progress they'd made that day. "A few things happened. Our team was split up, mostly for bureaucratic reasons. The exception was Hailey, who actually looked set to advance in rank to an official Science Team before she let her big mouth get away from her again and set back her career. In the meantime, I was assigned as a temporary replacement to SG-3, Elliot got his own squad, and Grogan was assigned to SG-9."

"Captain Grogan is one of the original members of SG-9?" Blue Three asked.

"No, it was around before him," Satterfield clarified. She hesitated to say more, but decided that there were plenty of ways the Spartan could find out on her own and it wasn't like the super-soldier was a known gossip or anything. She winced as she continued. "But he is the only survivor. All three of his squad-mates from that time were KIA. After that, General Hammond decided to bring us back together under Williamson. Best assignment we've ever had."

"Why wasn't Captain Grogan just promoted to squad-leader?" Blue Three pressed.

"Command thought he wasn't quite ready yet," Satterfield replied. It was a partial truth. The full reality was that a lot of people were worried about how Grogan would cope with having his entire team shot out from under him. She had actually been asked to keep an eye on him and inform Command if there were any 'warning signs', which she still felt guilty about. "He doesn't handle loss well..." she whispered to herself, forgetting in her fatigue that the super-soldier would be able to hear even the quietest reflections.

XXX-XXX

The foliage glistened in the sunlight. Tree branches and vines swayed in the breeze, alien wildlife moved this way and that, and sun rays peeked through the thick canopy twenty meters above. The jungle had recently endured a torrential rain, meaning everything was either moving in the winds or shining with the residual moisture. One could almost feel the overwhelming humidity through the climate controlled OCA-1 armor. There was so much water in the air that the sun rays hit clouds of mist. It was a nightmare to fight in because the Camelot troopers were surrounded by motion and barriers to sight.

The Master Chief had really gone all out with this particular training exercise. Equipment whose proper function the rank and file couldn't even guess at had been re-purposed as humidifiers, small trays of water had been placed throughout the hall to stand in for rain puddles, and there was even background ambiance that must have been recorded in a terrestrial jungle. Maybe some eccentric member of the Science Team used the audio as a sleeping aid, because there were few other explanations for why Camelot would even have it. The effect was so good it could easily become distracting.

Carl Grogan, however, wasn't distracted. His mind was focused and his eyes were locked on the pedestal holding the objective. He crouched thirty meters away, shrouded in holographic ferns, and waited, holding perfectly still to avoid detection via motion tracker. The anti-sensor camo matting he was draped in let him blend into the green foliage perfectly. If the Spartans were having half as much trouble with their sensors as the non-augmented personnel, there would be no way to detect him.

Weapons-fire erupted from beyond the defensive perimeter, only to fall silent after a pair of seconds. Spartans only ever needed a single volley to down an opponent. Grogan knew that the pair of ODSTs he'd left on sentry duty were downed.

It didn't matter; this was part of the plan. Grogan tried to convince himself of this as his grip on his rifle tightened. Hopefully, sacrificing troopers like that wouldn't come up in the field any time soon...

A blur rushed into the scene. Grogan could barely make out any details as the super-soldier covered the ten meters to the objective in less than five seconds. The Spartan picked up the MRE standing in for something of value.

A small cylinder, laid carefully in cover a meter from the objective, flashed and released a deafening crack. The Spartan's armor locked up; he was vulnerable.

Grogan threw off his matting and opened fire. The simulated rounds peppered the armored behemoth and the super-soldier was downed.

Stage one of the trap had worked.

Grogan pressed a button on his gauntlet, activating stage two. Canisters of reverse-engineered snow-blind (whose use had been cleared with the Master Chief; he wasn't about to repeat past mistakes) had been scattered around the field, hidden beneath holographic foliage and terrain. They activated, spraying their concealing clouds and obscuring the battlefield even more.

The mere mortals serving as OPFOR wouldn't have to worry about it. Hailey was to thank for this plan. She had written a sensor program designed to cut through the jamming compound. One that was not yet made available to the Spartans.

Adrenaline surged through Grogan's veins as he pulled down the enhanced vision package. Memories of the Ambush, of snow-blind and roaring Honor Guard and the disastrous results of his first field command, tried to batter down the walls of his disciplined mind as his field of view was narrowed.

But he'd expected that.

In fact, the reflexive nervousness he felt whenever thought of snow-blind came up was one of the reasons he was using it in training. He wanted to conquer that fear, to show his subconscious who was boss. As he maneuvered around the battlefield, listening to the weapons-fire of his squad-mates, he took pleasure in how his hands remained steady on his weapon and his mind remained—mostly—clear.

That thought, and all others, was driven from him as he was violently thrown to the ground. It took a moment for him to get his bearings, which was enough time for the other Spartan who had attacked him to put a trio of simulation rounds into the back of his head. He was relieved of the actual objective in short order.

The comms were a mess after that. Grogan's squad had to adapt to the loss of its commander, which provided a distraction for just long enough to allow the Spartans to exfil without further losses.

Another failure.

The post-exercise debrief went as usual. The Spartans of Fireteam Epsilon got an unusually brutal chewing out over their recklessness. There was no excuse for rushing to grab what they thought was the objective without verifying that they weren't walking straight into an ambush. Some of the other non-augmented troopers were audibly holding in grins at what they perceived to be a minor victory.

Grogan wasn't among them. They had lost, and that was still as unacceptable as ever. This was a fact the other members of the squad made sure to mention in the locker room following the exercise.

"Can I ask you a question, Captain?" one of them, an ODST lieutenant, said.

"Granted, lieutenant," Grogan grunted back, using the trooper's rank because he honestly wasn't sure what his name was. He split his focus between the conversation and rubbing his own sore muscles. The combat may have been strictly practice, but getting knocked on his ass and stuck in rigid armor for however many minutes had been far from comfortable. This was compounded by the fatigue he felt from continuing to participate in the exercises on top of his regular combat duties.

"Why exactly did you have to be the one to carry the real objective? It made you the priority target," the lieutenant demanded. "Sir," he added after a moment.

The implied criticism was clear in the soldier's tone. The tension in the room started to rise as the participants of the exercise, SGC and UNSC, started paying attention. This was beyond the last thing Grogan needed.

"I wanted the damn thing where I could see it," he answered with a stiff frown. He didn't know this soldier. Didn't know how far this conversation was going to go. If it had been Taylor, there would have been no worries. Unfortunately, Grogan hadn't really gotten to know any of the other ODSTs since the Ambush.

"Is that how they taught you to do things in the SGC?" the lieutenant asked.

Grogan set his shoulders and stared the man down. "More or less," he said. "Was that all, lieutenant?"

"It's just that maybe one of us," he said, gesturing to the other ODSTs, "should be squad-leader next time. Maybe then we wouldn't lose so many—"

Grogan's fist contacted with the man's jaw before he could finish the sentence. He was out like a light and hit the floor with a dull bang. There was no thinking involved, before or after the blow. The ODST had made the mistake of becoming the personification of Grogan's deepest fears, and paid for it.

Another ODST stepped up to take their punishment. Their attack was blunt, full of brute force that would doubtless have shattered him. If it had connected. Instead, he weaved around the strike with ease and repaid the attack tenfold. The SG Trooper only stopped raining blows upon his adversary when someone put him in a headlock from behind.

This just pissed Grogan off even more. He set his feet, grabbed the arm around his neck, and channeled all of his pent up frustration and rage into swinging his attacker off his feet and straight into a locker with a resounding bang. The grip lessened. Grogan executed a trained escape maneuver, landed a strike on his disoriented attacker, and moved off to greedily suck in air.

The locker room had erupted into chaos. Months of growing tensions and frustrations were now being vented in the form of a massive brawl between the SGC and UNSC personnel. Grogan had only a moment of horrified realization of what he had done when someone shoulder checked him into a locker. His head hit hard, and he faded out of consciousness.

XXX-XXX

That had been several days prior. Since then, he had been confined to the Infirmary, ostensibly to recover from his injuries. Grogan lifted his right arm and was pulled up short after about an inch. The restraints hand-cuffing him to the bunk and the curtains cutting him off from view of the rest of the room suggested a more punitive motivation. He lay back and stared at the ceiling, his mind racing and his gut hollow.

No excuse. There could be no excuse for his behavior. What the hell had been going through his head that punching an allied soldier seemed like a good idea? He could barely remember what had even been going on at the time; he certainly couldn't remember anything that happened after it all got started. The ODST had said something to him. Something he still didn't want to face. His eyes started dancing back and forth, desperately trying to find something to distract himself with. Maybe that was part of the point of his isolation—force him to confront his demons. Unfortunately, he wasn't in the mood for that particular game, so he kept looking with mounting desperation.

It was the silence that did it.

There was no sound other than the machinery keeping the ICU patients alive. The low rumble of conversation that normally saturated the Infirmary had abruptly died down. It was as if everyone was holding their breath.

There was, however, a whisper. A...hint of potential sound. Something almost imperceptible even in the near total silence. It had a rhythm to it, like footsteps, but it was far too quiet. No human could make so little noise as they walked on a bare stone surface. A feeling of familiarity was warring with confusion in the SG Trooper's head. What was it...

Grogan's eyes only had a fraction of a second to widen in recognition before the curtain was pulled back to reveal the Master Chief. As always, the Spartan was in full armor. The incredibly advanced soles of the MJOLNIR boots had masked his approach, giving Grogan a taste of what it would be like to be on the receiving end of a Blue Team surgical strike.

It wasn't pleasant.

The Spartan paused at the entrance. He turned around and Grogan could feel the glare in the super-soldier's voice as he addressed the rest of the room. "As you were!" he barked.

The tension broke. Many of those Grogan could glimpse around the Spartan's armored bulk jumped slightly as the unnaturally loud voice rang throughout the room. The shock only lasted a moment before everyone rushed to look busy. The Chief turned back to the small enclosure without further comment, but Grogan would swear he saw an almost imperceptible shake of the head. The curtain was shut in short order, and the pair was alone.

Silence ruled in the tiny 'room'. A thousand different things to say ran through Grogan's mind. Excuses, confessions, pleas, resignations, what have you. None of it was adequate enough to warrant saying out loud. Eventually, so much time passed that he wanted to scream at the super-soldier to just get on with it already. Nothing he could do would be worse than this uncertainty.

"You've been scrubbed from the training program. Colonel's orders," the Chief explained in his typical matter-of-fact tone. "SG-9 is too important to Camelot's continued operations, so you aren't being grounded, but you will be denied all recreational privileges and assigned latrine duty for the immediate future. Additional penal measures may follow."

Grogan's lips compressed into a thin line. He honestly would have preferred a Drill Instructor-style shouting session to the quiet disapproval the Chief was giving him. It felt like he was being chewed out by his father or something. 'I'm not mad. Just disappointed'. Funny how that always managed to hurt worse than outright anger.

The punishments themselves were...expected. That didn't make it easy, though. The training program had dominated his spare time. It was actually a relief that he would have additional penal duties since he wasn't sure what to do with himself otherwise. He was about to acknowledge the message, and respectfully ask why a Spartan was the one delivering it, when the super-soldier spoke again.

"How are you recovering?" the Chief asked.

Grogan blinked. Small talk? After everything that had happened? And from a Spartan? "Er...alright, s—I suppose." It felt wrong not to call the Chief 'sir' but, outside of the training program, Grogan technically outranked him. Something that was a bit difficult to keep in mind with the super-soldier towering over him in an enclosure barely large enough to contain the two of them. It felt like there should have been clouds circling the Spartan's head, he looked so tall.

"I...have been speaking to Blue Three," the Chief said.

Grogan blinked, unsure he had heard right. The fourth member of Blue Team had never been directly involved in the training program. What could she have to do with this?

"Are you aware that she and Captain Satterfield have been working together in the Infirmary?" the Chief asked.

"I...guess so," Grogan replied. "I-I mean yes. I was aware. She's mentioned it to the rest of us."

"They have...gotten to know each other," the Spartan said. Then, he shifted in place. It was almost too small to see, like all Spartan-II body language, but Grogan had been trying to pierce the veil of that armor for months. He would almost swear that the super-soldier looked...awkward? The Chief continued. "The subject of SG-9 came up in their conversations. You, in particular."

Inwardly, Carl Grogan cursed his friend. What the hell was she doing blabbing their personal details to anyone, much less a soldier of a foreign power? A spike of anger raged through him and he had to struggle to stay in control. Satterfield was going to lose a few teeth over this.

The only thing that kept him in the moment was the Spartan's bizarre behavior. The Chief seemed to be struggling with what to say. "I..." he said. "She..." he said next, after a brief pause. "You..."

The Spartan sighed. This was the most spectacular display of emotion Grogan, or any SGC personnel, had ever seen from a member of Blue Team. Just how badly had he fucked up that a Spartan was getting emotional?

"No one can decide how many Spartan-IIs fought in the Human-Covenant War," the Master Chief said.

Grogan just stared.

"They know there's only four of us left. That, at least, has been declassified," the Chief continued, not noticing or not caring about the lost expression that surely had to be plastered on his audience's face. "But the number of us during the War hasn't been. Never. Nobody in high command wants it known how many of us died to protect humanity. How many of us fell to the Covenant" He paused, and the visor turned directly to the man cuffed to the bunk. "It was thirty-three. There were only ever thirty-three of us. Now, there are four."

Grogan's mouth fell open. "Why—"

"I was their leader," the Chief interrupted. His voice was growing less robotic, more infused with suppressed emotion with each word spoken, making the situation even more surreal. "Every time one of them died...I felt it. Like a weight, dragging me down. Twenty Nine times, plus those who died in the augmentation process. It...it never stopped feeling like it was partly my fault. That I could have, should have, done more..."

Suddenly, the situation clicked in Grogan's mind. He found himself unable to sit up even to the limited extent his restraints enabled. The sheer enormity of what the Chief was doing felt like a weight pushing him back down. He had been anticipating many outcomes of the brawl, but an impossible moment of kinship with the Master Chief himself? A moment where the super-soldier actually tried to reach out and connect with him? His mouth opened and closed several more times before he rediscovered his voice.

"How...how did you do it?" Grogan asked, feeling like he was asking his old man about the facts of life. Or a master sensei the secret to enlightenment. "All that...for so long...how?"

The Spartan's hands clenched and unclenched repeatedly. It took even longer for him to find his voice. "Honestly? I don't know." He shook his armored head. "Maybe I haven't. Maybe there isn't a way. I know I can't save everyone; I try to focus on the ones that I have saved. Other than that, I've just focused on completing the mission. On protecting humanity. No matter the cost."

Grogan latched on to those words. He memorized them, dissected them, promised himself to pour over them until he understood. He was struggling to come up with a way to thank the Spartan when the Chief straightened and began speaking in his normal, all-business tone. Apparently the heart-to-heart was over.

"Rest up, Captain," he said. "You're out of here in thirty, and we still have a war to win. After that...well, we'll talk. Depending on how you handle things from here on out, there may be more for you in the future."

Thanks for reading. Love you guys.

Slipspace Anomaly with Jon Harper