Roach stared at the grave, and gave a slight shudder. This was all so surreal. He looked to his left, where an unmasked Ghost stood silently, his jaw tightening. His teammate's heavy breath turned to steam in the cold air beneath his nose.
It was odd seeing Ghost without his mask, but even the painted balaclava wouldn't have hidden the raw emotions radiating from him. It could be seen in his very demeanor. However, it was his eyes that gave away his chilling state.
The man was, in a word, broken.
To Ghost's left, Roach heard Soap sigh heavily, his eyes also glued to the grave marker. His eyes clenched shut.
"We should go," the Scotsman said quietly, placing a hand on Ghost's shoulder. Ghost gave no sign of having even heard the captain, but after a few moments' hesitation silently turned and began the uphill walk back to the compound.
The mud that squished beneath their boots from the dreary morning's rain was the only sound that broke the silence in the long walk.
That evening's meal was just as tense. News of the tragedy spread through the base within less than an hour of the team's return. Death was a common thing in their line of work. The emotions that followed this loss were not.
Most of the men reacted in silence. The break room and cafeteria went half empty; those who did decide to attend meals sat in a mixture of reverent and awkward silences. Some were just too scared to break their superiors' sullen trances.
MacTavish sat isolated at the end of one table leaning on his elbows, his muscles tense. He poked at his food occasionally with a fork; no one had seen him take more than two bites since their return. He only spoke to give orders.
Ghost hadn't even attempted to eat in the last two days. Soap had attempted to get the lieutenant to take even a few bites, but was met with cold silence. Ghost spent most mealtimes and extra hours in a corner of the break room, his masked face turned out to the sleeting rain. More often than not he'd have a cigarette in his hand.
Most days, Roach sat by Ghost, watching the older man's face stare stoically out the window. With the mask, he looked like an unmoving statue. Roach wondered what he could be thinking, what was going through the man's head. He never said anything; he knew his words wouldn't do much good. He just hoped his presence did his friend some good.
Whether Ghost blamed their attackers, or he blamed himself, no one could tell. Except for Roach. He knew that Ghost blamed himself. He'd done this before, when Roach had nearly been left behind in Rio de Janeiro. While he'd never said anything, Ghost was as easy to read as a book that day. It was written on his face. Why didn't I do something more?
And now, it was too irreparable. Both he and Roach knew it. There was no convincing him otherwise.
On nights where he thought no one would see, just before he fell asleep, Ghost would let the tears fall. Just a few, before he built back up the walls he hid behind and fell into a dreamless sleep. Only Roach ever knew.
After three days had passed in silence, the men began to get antsy. More and more of them began risking lowered whispers and hushed giggles, some even daring to share audible laughter.
The break room had once again fallen into silence when 1 a.m. struck the next night. Toad and Archer sat at a side table playing cards, the scraggly lamp above them the only source of light in the room, Ghost at his usual spot by the window. Roach continued to keep a wordless watch over him in the dim light.
Footsteps suddenly sounded in the hallway, heavy and irregular. Pretty soon, Burrow's wobbly form came stumbling in, a beer bottle sloshing in his hand.
"Yo, yo!" the young recruit slurred loudly. "What's up guys?
He seated himself between the pair, Archer sending an icy glare in his direction. Ghost flinched, but made no other movement. Roach knew he must've been seething at the interruption.
Burrow drunkenly punched Toad in the arm and guffawed. Toad's face matched Archer's.
"Dude, can you tone it down?" Archer snarled under his breath. He and Toad may not have been as upset at the loss as Ghost or Soap, but they'd lost their friend too. It felt like it was too soon to be that cheerful yet. Disloyal, even.
"Dude," Burrow drawled out mockingly, attempting to roll his eyes but mostly just swaying in his chair. "Chill! I still don't get what the big deal is. So we lost some punk-ass kid. Got plenty more where that came from!"
Toad and Archer were on their feet in half a second, ready to punch the recruit in the face, but even they didn't reach him before Ghost had him pinned against the wall.
"What the fuck did you just say?" Ghost snarled. Even from behind the mask, his fury fell off in tangible, deadly waves.
Burrow, either being too drunk or too stupid, merely giggled in the lieutenant's face. "Look, man, no biggie," he slurred. "If the kid was really stupid enough to get shot, good rid "
Even if he had been sober, Burrow wouldn't have had time to block the impending blow. Ghost had him unconscious before he even hit the ground.
"You son of a bitch!" Ghost screamed, launching himself at the unmoving drunkard. Toad and Archer each tried to hold back their feral superior, but the unspent fury in Ghost won over both of them. As blood began pouring out of Burrow's nose, Soap came skidding around the corner. Somehow, he already knew who had raised the commotion.
"Ghost!" he yelled out, pulling the lieutenant away from the bloody and bruised mess he left behind Roach wouldn't have been surprised if Soap had just saved Burrow's life.
Ghost continued to struggle, but MacTavish held him back. Really, Ghost didn't want to fight anymore. Before long, he collapsed onto his hands and knees, panting.
Soap sat next to him, making no move to touch him. Breathing heavily as well, he nodded to Archer and Toad. "Get Burrow to the infirmary." They quickly did as they were told.
Roach had never felt so helpless. There was simply nothing he could do.
Finally having regained his breath, Soap sighed. "Need to talk, Simon?"
It wasn't often that Soap used a soldier's first name. If he did, he was either very serious or very pissed off. And right now, it wasn't the latter.
Ghost, still on his hands and knees, continued to pant as though he were in pain. He struggled to regain his composure but the anger and the pain were just too overwhelming. His head was spinning, he felt like he needed to run. But he couldn't. All he could do was go to the confines of his room.
Picking himself up off the floor, that's exactly what he did. Marching from the room, he left a distraught and torn MacTavish behind him.
Locking the door behind him, Ghost finally let out the scream of anguish he'd been holding in for so long. He screamed because he was angry. He screamed because he felt guilty. He screamed because he'd just lost a good man.
He screamed because he had failed his best friend, his brother.
Tears fell down his face, but no one would have guessed past the sounds of glass shattering and metal clanging against the floor. Whatever he could get his hands on, he threw, he tore, he destroyed.
He even threw off his balaclava, discarding the prized cloth in a forgotten heap on the floor. His scars were traced by his tears.
Finally, in exhaustion, he collapsed onto what was left of his bunk. The emotions, lack of food, and exhaustion finally overcame him, and he finally fell into another dreamless sleep.
Roach wanted to cry. He'd watched every moment of Ghost's breakdown every tear, every scream, every broken piece of him chip off. And still, there was nothing he could do. As he looked into the pained face of his superior, he came to a sudden realization.
His presence didn't make things better. It only reminded him of what he'd lost.
Roach let a tear slip down his face. He knew what he needed to do. And this was as hard for him as it was for Ghost.
Slipping the chain from his pocket, Roach marveled at the tiny piece of metal. Even he wasn't sure how he'd managed to get it here. He supposed it was because it was the thing he wanted most. The thing he needed last.
Roach kneeled by Ghost's face, and placed a silent kiss on his friend's forehead. "See you later, bro."
He slipped the small chain into Ghost's hand, stood, and walked from the room.
For reasons he never understood, Ghost suddenly woke from his dead sleep. His vision was still blurred from his sleep and earlier outburst, and it took him a while to readjust his eyes in the dim light.
When he went to rub his face, he felt something cool in the palm of his hand. He rolled it over to get a better look at it, but he felt as though he were still dreaming.
They weren't able to recover this. They said there was nothing left.
But the dog tags were his. He knew it. He remembered the signature chip in the side from when the tag had gotten shot, but luckily its owner had dodged the attack.
Ghost looked up at the door still locked. He sighed, and another tear dripped down his face.
There, engraved in the metal, was the name Gary "Roach" Sanderson.