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Spin and Turn

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            It didn’t surprise him all that much when the red-headed child started sneezing and such following two straight days of rain. All the dripping and humidity must have been awful for his mask, if nothing else; and his clothes might have gotten soaked. Eli had a bundle of food tied to his belt when he went to try and find the child again. Sometimes he came over smelling of wool and that weird earthy smell animals picked up, but mostly he smelled of the leather. The least Eli could do for his friend was get him a bit more food that he was probably stealing already.

            He rounded a corner on the platform, heading into one of the quiet corners that the guards didn’t patrol as often, and heard the breathing right behind him, followed by a cough. Eli frowned and turned to face his friend. Little Red, as he had taken to calling him.

            “You sick or something?” The floating child shook his head. “You should try going without the mask for a bit and drinking more water. It’ll help.”

            Cannot. A shiver went down Eli’s spine. He didn’t like the feeling when the words were in his head. Need the mask.

            “Then water, and eat more plants.” He offers the bundle and it floats out of his hand and between Tretij’s. “I hope you feel better soon. That kind of thing can get nasty real quick.”

            There were a few more coughs as Eli headed off, but he didn’t think too much of them.

            Two days later, Eli watched his new ally hunch over as he kept up the floating act. There was fluid coming up with each cough. He could hear it. A cold that bad at this time in the planning stages? It couldn’t be more poorly timed. They couldn’t just abandon the plans, not with how well things had been going so far. Eli grabbed one of the boy’s sleeves and tugged him closer. Every cough shook the red-head’s body toe to top.

            “You need medicine… I could try and fake a cold and get you some from medical, if you want.” The red-head picked his head up and stared at Eli from behind the mask. There was a hint of exhaustion in them. “Little Red?”

            Please. Even the words sounded tired. Eli swallowed a sigh. Not enough to draw attention.

            “I can do that. Hide out somewhere warm, yeah? I’ll do what I can about getting some pills.”

            He felt a bit worried leaving the red-head alone like that, but what else could he do? A little food, leaving him to hide in whatever corner suited him best, and then they’d find each other again for little meetings wherever they could. At any rate, he made a fairly good job of faking a few aches and pains that he ended up on the back of one of the trucks heading to the medical platform. Kaz and that soft spot he had for children meant that Eli was seen fairly quickly by the doctors on staff. There wasn’t anything amiss to find, but a little insistence and playing up what innocence he had to work off of gained him a small bottle with a few pills in it ‘just in case’ and strict orders to come back if he felt any worse.

            And then Snake showed up. Word got around quickly about sick little boys, and he was ready to greet Eli on the way out of the building. Green eyes met equally green eyes and Eli put on one of the scowls he saved for people he especially despised. There were priorities, dammit! He didn’t have time to mess around with nosy old men who didn’t give two shits about him.

            “Heard you weren’t feeling well.” A smirk crossed Snake’s lips when Eli narrowed his eyes. “Relax. I was going to ask you to keep an eye on the other boys. Make sure they don’t get sick either.”

            “Stuff it. I’m not a babysitter.”

            “You’re not, but you have a responsibility to look after others while living here. Too many people got sick already, and I’m not about to have another…incident.”

            Right… They already had a parasite outbreak. Soon to be another, if Eli could have his say. Finally do in the old bastard and his soldiers for good. Eli put his hands to his hips and tilted his head up.

            “Why should I care? I never wanted to be here. You don’t care about me either.”

            “You’re wrong about that. If I didn’t care, you wouldn’t have doctors to see or medicine to keep on hand.” He knelt down to Eli’s eye level. “If you notice anything, don’t keep it to yourself. You won’t get punished for honesty.”

            Snake opened his mouth as if to say something else, but he shut it after a couple of seconds and shook his head. He got up and patted Eli on the shoulder before heading off. As soon as his back was turned, Eli brushed off the part of his jacket that had been touched. What an apathetic old man! What good did it do him to practice that kind of honor when he was the type who went out killing people on every other mission?

            Nasty thoughts kept him occupied on the walk back to the platform with his little holding cell. He couldn’t stand any of the other children, especially with how much respect they showed to Kaz and that Ocelot fellow. Quiet was about the only one who left him good and well alone, just the way he liked it.

            He ignored all the soldiers on patrol, even the ones who took the time to say hello. Stupid Big Boss with his stupid plans and his stupid friends on this stupid base in the middle of the bloody ocean with nothing around for miles but salt water and clouds… And then he felt the tug on his arm and turned around with a fist raised- Against Tretij. Eli’s fist stayed up for a moment before he slowly lowered it. Tretij was standing on his own two feet.

            It was nearly another moment before he found words that sounded appropriate for what he was thinking. Between the breathing and his lack of talking, the red-head had an uncanny way of seeming like he was listening to every thought on his mind. Eli took out the bottle he had gotten and shook it.

            “See? Medicine. It’s basic stuff, but it should do the trick.”

            The bottle escaped from his hands at the behest of an invisible force that transferred it over to the red-head. He pulled at the bottom of his jacket and the pills vanished to some secret pocket only he probably knew about. He wasn’t coughing this time, but his feet seemed unable to keep him in an upright position. Eli looked about them and tugged Tretij into a corner nearby, sitting him down.

            “How long has this been going on for? You don’t have that- The bugs, right?” Tretij shook his head slowly, leaning heavily against the wall. “What if this gets worse? If you get sicker, it’d either be death or outing ourselves to everyone.”

            Anger damn near radiated off of the red-head’s body at the second suggestion. It was a raw hate that even Eli didn’t feel could be possible from someone so small. Tretij curled up on himself until he was in a kind of ball, hands under his thighs. He shook his head.

            “Are you mad? You’d rather die than be found out?” Stubbornness he could understand, but personal health was sometimes more important. No one should die of a common cold.

            Tretij shook his head again and let out a little groan. This time, Eli let the sigh run its course. Some people could be so stupid, even when they had the most incredible talents. It’s a wonder anyone with real skills survived after a point. The Russian child sitting across from him was the only ace he had in his hand. If he lost Tretij…it would be that much more difficult to take down Snake.

            “Be that way, but the instant I think you’re going to actually be in serious trouble-” He let the threat linger like that. There wasn’t any real plan in mind for this kind of possibility from either of them. If it got that bad, and Eli had a bad feeling in his gut about it, they’d be playing it by ear for weeks to come. He sat up and leaned over to Tretij, patting him on the arm.

“Remember: find someplace warm to stay. You’ll be comfy that way. I’ll see you later, Little Red.”

Chapter Text

The call came out to him in the middle of the night. Nothing spoken out loud, but a singular message fed directly into his mind. In their bond, he could feel the inklings of fear and exhaustion going through Tretij’s thoughts. He was worried? Scared? Of what? Eli jogged around the platform until he turned into a small nook on one of the stairwells. He could hear the ragged breathing before he saw Tretij curled up against the wall, shaking with each breath.

            A few pats around his neck and chest told Eli the long and short of it. It was a fever. A bad one, given the shaking. He could see those pale eyes staring back at him from behind the mask as he patted Tretij down. They had to do something. Fevers were no simple thing to fake and he had no idea where they would even keep that kind medicine to steal away.

            “We have to…” Tretij made a noise that might have been a growl at any other time, but it was strangled by the mess his throat had no doubt become. “Red, we don’t have a choice otherwise. You could die. I can’t let that even become a possibility. Not before we get away from this bloody place.”

            Tretij Rebenok sighed and stretched out his arms.

            Eli took the stairs down slowly, carrying Tretij on his back rather than slinging him across his shoulders. Grownups could carry people like that, but he wasn’t quite there yet and the boy on his back probably wouldn’t do well with that kind of carrying to begin with. He looked around and heard a few soldiers on patrol coming around the corner. They went for their guns immediately, and one paged up Ocelot on the radio while the other moved closer. Eli tried not to let his expression change much as the soldier patted Tretij down. Not a single strand of hair fell out of place as the two of them were ushered onto a jeep to go to the medical platform. There would be time for second guessing himself later.

            The first mistake the doctors made was trying to get Tretij away from Eli. He went from silent shivering to an inhuman howl, struggling and flailing around with everything he had. If he had plans to use his powers, it was quickly stopped by a needle aimed right for his shoulder. Tretij’s body stretched out like he was in some old horror movie and collapsed just as quickly as his tantrum had begun. Eli didn’t even bother shaking off the soldiers pulling him back as the doctors got the red-head into one of the beds, sticking him with an IV drip and calling out for medicine and blankets.

            A voice chirped on the radio. One of the hands holding him tightened. “Boss’ orders: the kid in the mask stays sedated until notified otherwise. Eli’s coming with us.”

            “I’m what? No!” With Tretij out cold, he’d at least get the care he needed, but like hell he’d be brought into that interrogation room again! Eli tugged back against the two men holding him. “I want to stay! He doesn’t know any of you. That mask of his…”

            “Enough, Eli! You’re going.” He growled, fists clenched. “Come on. You’ve got a lot to answer for.”

 

            Slouching in the chair was nothing he couldn’t handle, but the sheer accusation in Ocelot’s eyes pissed him off. Eli looked up at him with a scowl and crossed arms.

            “I’m not telling you anything.”

            “That boy nearly killed our boss on more than one occasion. He’s obviously been talking with you, otherwise why would you even know where to find him?”

            “He isn’t with me. I saw he was sick. Was I supposed to let him die of exposure and some cold?”

            Ocelot glared at Eli, hands planted on either side of the chair. “I know who that kid is, Eli. What matters to me is what he’s told you.”

            “You don’t know him at all.” He shot that glare right back. “What’re the color of his eyes, then? Who does he work for?”

            “Shouldn’t you be asking yourself that, boy?” The cowboy paced around the scowling Brit. “When did he follow us back to Mother Base?”

            “About two weeks ago. You’re terrible at noticing when there’s a guest on the helicopter.”

            “You do realize he’s a Cipher agent, right?” Ocelot stopped his pacing, leaning back slightly on the heels of his boots. “What gives you the right to judge if he can be trusted?”

            “You trusted me enough, didn’t you?”

            The cowboy ground his teeth a little. Eli could tell he wanted to raise one of those gloved hands and slap him around a bit. He leaned to one side in the chair, looking right at the wall behind Ocelot.

            “If he’s here to kill you, wouldn’t he have done it already? Hell, I’d have killed you already if I could get away with it. That one’s got more opportunity than I do!”

            He heard the slap before he felt it. It was a sharp and stinging burn all across his cheek. Even his ear seemed ready to start ringing. Eli had to breathe deeply before he found that he could sit up again. Blood stained his fingertips when he gingerly poked the inflamed skin. Ocelot had already left the room, which suited him just fine. The bastard had the gall to slap him! He deserved it for that remark, but at what cost to the “torture expert”? No doubt Kaz was letting him have an earful on the other side of the glass. Snake too, if Eli was truly lucky. Ace in the sick bay and he still managed to come out on top.

            Not even a minute later, three grown men entered the room. Ocelot and Kaz hung back by the desk so Snake could take a step forward. He wasn’t smiling and any of his usual attempts at showing a bit of kindness in the hopes of fostering some non-existent bond. Snake took a chair up and sat across from Eli, his arms resting on his knees. When he finally looked up, it was with a fairly calm expression.

            “I know you’ve got something planned. All that talk of not giving a damn and then you try to stay with him in the med bay? You two have probably worked this out since he got here.” Eli raised an eyebrow. What was the old man getting at this time? Playing to a sense of honor? “I don’t care all that much what you two had planned. It’s already out the window with the kid’s health. What I want to know is what else he’s told you. Someone like that… I doubt he talks with spoken words.”

            “Get to the bloody point. You’ve wasted enough of your life. I’ve got plenty left to live.”

            “Tell me about his powers, Eli. What does he know how to do?”

            “Ask him yourself once those drugs wear off. I bet you’ve seen plenty out of him already.” Eli crossed his arms, then scowled when Snake laughed quietly.

            “He can make fire, I know that much. Moving things around without touching them… And he knows when you’re going to do something.” Snaked looked back over his shoulder. “Telepathy, right Ocelot?”

            “The power to read people’s thoughts and project your own onto others.” The cowboy nodded. “That’s how he’d get the point across without opening his mouth.”

            Eli didn’t say anything, but that must have been enough for Snake, as he smiled at him. Telepathy? What a weird word. He had powers, but why should he care about what they were called or what they’re specifically about? Little Red gave the vile to him and they could still make that plan work in the end. All they needed were the other children and that machine…

            “So what if there’s a word for the things he can do? It seems to me like you already know everything I could possibly tell you.”

            “That’s the thing, Eli.” Snake leaned forward. “I’m having my men searching all the places you’ve been running around and questioning the other children. Whatever we find, you’re going to have to answer for.”

            Eli willed his breathing to stay shallow and calm. So they were already getting to looking through his things. Damn Snake! And damn Little Red for that blasted cold of his! His fists tightened. His teeth ground against each other.

            “I’m not telling you a goddamn thing.”

            “Of course you won’t. That’s why I’m giving you a special room all to yourself for the next few days.”

            “You can’t seriously expect me to-” Eli’s words got tangled up in his throat when Snake lifted him up off the chair by his jacket.

            “There’s a lot of things I ‘can’t’ do, but it’s not like you’re going to stop me. A few days by yourself and I’ll consider telling you when your little friend is feeling better.” He held Eli out, avoiding kicking feet and a lot of swearing. “Ocelot! Get him in a room all to himself. Clear his pockets out while I help with the search.”

 

            Eli fumed on his little cot. He never carried the vile on his person, always moving it to a new location so there was still some hope in everything. There were plenty of small spaces on Mother Base that no one ever bothered with. Plenty of dark corners where a weapon could be hidden away…

            He tried breathing, but it only irritated him to hear it. He tried doing sit-ups, but his stomach only started growling at him. Push-ups only made him tired, and he couldn’t afford to be sleepy with his plans threatening to go up in smoke. He flopped down on the floor and stared at the door of his cell. The lock was fairly complicated and the bars were made of steel. Nothing gets in or out of doors like that without considerable force.

            So he waited. He lay down on the floor and pretended he was a snake hiding in the grass. Things were better when he was Nyoka. The White Mamba hidden in the grass, rounding up little hands and minds to join his plans against the wretched display of adults parading around like they had any better idea of what to do with all the power they brought together. Even when they had a kind of bigger goal in mind, there was someone else ready to come along and fuck up everything they had struggled to make.

            Pathetic. Eli felt pathetic. Supposing that he did get found out, the options became slim and even more difficult to accomplish. There’d be more attention paid to him and Little Red and then they’d never be trusted again. The White Mamba slithered up to his cot and tried curling up for a nap. With all his other options exhausted, there was little more to do but wait for the screaming to begin.

Chapter Text

            Getting back into the interrogation room was inevitable. Three goddamn days Eli spent sleeping on that god-awful cot waiting for any sign of progress either with the parasites or Little Red. He’d try and antagonize the guards who brought him food so that they’d give him some kind of idea of what was going on, but they either ignored him or told him to shut up. If there hadn’t been guns pointed at his head when they finally marched him out, he’d have called it a relief.

            He took his seat quietly, sitting back. Three adults this time. Three grown men looking at him like he was the devil himself.

            “You found something, right?” Eli tilted his head up. “Well? What did I do now?”

            Ocelot’s moustache twitched. “We found your little toy, Eli. It’s all burnt up now, but we did work up a vaccine for it.”

            “Toy?” No. They couldn’t have! No one would- He shook his head. “I’m not some stupid child.”

            “The English parasites. You didn’t hide them as well as you’d have liked.”

            Eli stared at Ocelot. His eyes widened. Not entirely, but it was enough that Ocelot nodded.

            “Thought you were real clever, didn’t you? We’ll be talking to your friend when he’s feeling better.”

            “The plan was mine!” He sat up quickly. His face felt like it was burning up. How could he have been so damn foolish? “All he did was give me the vial and follow me here!”

            “Planned it out for weeks, didn’t you? You were going to make another kingdom of the flies to rule over with King Eli and his little viscount.”

            “Shut up!”

            Eli near howled with anger and lunged out at the cowboy. The world spun as Ocelot flipped him onto his back. It stung. The pain in his back stung and the tears in the corners of his eyes stung. It failed.

            A padded crutch came closer to his field of vision. It pressed into his chest as Kaz glared down at him.

            “You nearly got a lot of people killed, including yourself!”

            Eli shook his head and tried to get the weight off of his chest. No arm, a missing leg, and Kaz still managed to throw serious weight around. Bastard.

            “You think this is going to stop me? Make me bow down and act docile? I’m not afraid of you.”

            “Of course not. You’re too cowardly to face your fears.”

            “Kaz!” Snake’s voice was an unwelcome thing with Eli’s struggles to breathe. “Let him breathe.”

            The weight on his ribs came down harder. Eli could see his vision start to blur. Then he could breathe. His whole body curled up as he gasped to get air back into his lungs. Damn, damn, damn! If this kept up, he’d probably float out to sea in a body bag or some tasteless cremation urn…

            A metal hand rolled him over onto his back and one made of flesh pressed against his neck. He squirmed away from that touch and curled back up on his side.

            “Go away!”

            Snake sighed and sat down next to him.

            “Eli…” The boy heard him laugh. Just once. “Got to give you this much: you’re a hell of a soldier. Stubborn, clever, wise enough to know when not to speak.”

            Eli stared at the wall across from him. At any other time, in another life, maybe he’d be happy with that kind of compliment. Instead, he bit his lip.

            “You hate everything about me. Can’t say I don’t deserve it, but this was too far. You want revenge? Fine. Go after the one you hate. What you don’t do is drag in more people than you need to. That kind of mindless killing only makes things more complicated than they need to be.”

            That…was actually advice he could make use of. You heard stories about people who did incredible things for country and pride. Bases wiped out, enemies kidnapped in broad daylight, the sheer amount of things accomplished without killing a single soldier… Snake was a legend. Big Boss was a man of lore. Eli loathed everything the man stood for. Nothing he did was ever enough to match up to such stories.

            “Let me go.” There was the slightest croak in his voice. “You took everything I had again. Why not get rid of me and pretend I don’t exist? You were good at that.”

            “I’m not letting you abandon your men.” Snake tugged on Eli’s arm and got shaken off. “You want to be a leader and show you’re worth following? Get back to medical and look out for your own. Tretij’s fever is still over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. He’s going to need someone to rely on when he wakes up.”

            “T-Tretij?” Eli’s head rose slowly off the floor. He looked over his shoulder at Snake. “That’s his name?”

            “Tretij Rebenok. It means ‘third child’.”

            The translation got to something in Eli. He smiled and then laughed, holding a hand over his mouth.

            “I’ve been calling him Little Red. The ginger haired Commie.”

            Eli looked up at met Ocelot’s gaze. His arms were crossed, but he didn’t seem as upset as he was before.

            “Boss thinks that should be your last chance at a privilege here.”

            Kaz sneered. “I don’t think you deserve it, but it might actually work out for once.”

            Eli narrowed his eyes. He looked between the three of them, finding a hard glare no matter where he looked.

            “If I’m good and do what I’m told, I get to make sure Re- That Tretij is all right?” Too easy. “You’ve got yourselves a deal.”

 

            Two guards were already waiting to escort him into the medical facility where Tretij was sleeping. Snake followed close behind, not saying a word. It didn’t matter to Eli what he wanted to observe. He finally had the ability to do something about his imprisonment. He smiled when he saw the red-head lying on the bed.

            “You gave him his mask.” He walked over to the bed and traced the IV tubing with his fingers. “He needs that.”

            “The mask seems to be a psychological crutch more than anything.” One of the doctors stepped forward. She was a round-faced woman with dark brown eyes. “When he woke up without it, he would panic and try to get out of bed almost immediately. Once we put it on, his whole demeanor changed and he calmed down considerably.”

            Eli found a chair nearby and pulled it up to the side of the bed. The doctor hummed to herself as he pressed his hands along various points on Tretij’s body: neck, chest, stomach and arms. It took him less than a minute, but once he was done, he sat down and nodded.

            “The medicine’s been working. He doesn’t feel swollen anywhere and his heartbeat is where it should be.”

            “Good eye.” She walked over and patted him on the shoulder. He tensed up, but didn’t do anything else. “We’ve been keeping a close eye on his vitals since he arrived. He’s actually a little underweight, and we think that might be why he’s been sick for so long.”

            She looked up when Snake took a seat on the other side of the bed. “What about his face?”

            “What’s wrong with his face?” Eli felt a pit low in his stomach. “Did he get hurt?”

            “Not recently.” The doctor gently removed the mask from Tretij’s face. “He has burn scars on his face, mostly around his nose and mouth. They’re at least two years old, but he’s still missing a good portion of his nose.”

            It was a mess of scar tissue. Eli had seen some pretty nasty cuts in his day, but this was something else. The boy almost looked like a skull with what little flesh was left on his nose. He reached out his hand, but hesitated, looking at the doctor. After getting a nod, he touched the larger scars on either side of Tretij’s mouth.

            “Are those where he had stiches put in? They did a horrible job of it.”

            “We think that given his reaction when brought here and the apparent age he was when he got these scars that it might have been more the result of his own reaction to being injured than any negligence on the behalf of a doctor. He doesn’t like medical professionals very much.”

            The mask was put back into place and Eli let his hands rest on his lap. Whoever burned Tretij like that ought to be skinned alive! He frowned and twirled his thumbs as he thought things out. This was his chance to prove that he could be good and still trusted to do something right. Snake wanted him to look after Tretij. That he already wanted to do. After that, he’d have to find something else to do.

            “Could I help out here where I can?” He looked down at his hands. “Would that be permissible under my current restrictions?”

            “Sounds fine, if you’re willing to listen to her instructions." Snake gestured to the doctor. "She’s the doctor heading over Tretij’s case here. Follow her orders, do what she or the others doctor say, and you can stay here all day if you want.”

            “And if I want to rest?”

            “Your cell stays where it is. Show me you can do this for a few days and we’ll talk about better arrangements.”

            Snake got up from his chair and nodded to the doctor. “I wouldn’t worry too much, Crane. He’s got a temper, but there’s a good kid under there somewhere.”

            “Of course. Thank you, boss.”

            She took the seat Snake had been occupying and leaned forward to look at Eli. “My codename here is Singing Crane. You can call me Dr. Crane or Crane when we’re not working on patients. Cleanliness is important, so you’ll be getting plenty familiar with the washing station and the sanitized gloves. Anything you want to know so far?”

            “Can I stay here, if he thinks I deserve it?”

            “Figured you were going to ask that.” She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s fine with me. We’ve got sleeping arrangements for the doctors, so there’s always a bed available. You get comfy for now, all right? Familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade.”

            “I will. Thank you, Dr. Crane.”

            “Hey… It’ll be all right. Boss comes down hard on all of us, but he’s a softie under everything. That was him being very patient with you.”

            “Was it? I couldn’t tell.”

            Crane giggled and got up, heading to a different room. “He’s got a face like stone except for when he looks at DD and Quiet, I swear. Have a nap in one of the beds if you want. Things are quiet around here today.”

            The moment she was out of the room, Eli took off his boots and set them neatly on the floor. He found extra pillows in one of the cabinets and curled up in the space of the bed not occupied by Tretij and curled up. It wasn’t perfect, and he didn’t feel very certain about anything that was going on, but he knew something new about Tretij and got to see his face. Somewhere in the state between being awake and asleep, he heard one of his guards walking around the room and fiddling with something in the cabinets. Then a warm something was draped over him and he slipped off into dreams.

Chapter Text

            A boat. He could feel it shifting along the waves. It had been days since he last saw land. All he knew was the sky and the rocking of the ocean as he kept with the current. Off in the distance, he could see new clouds forming. They were dark and massive and already dripping with rain miles off. This was it, then. He’d be thrown from the tiny boat he had to himself and be left to the mercy of the sea and her creatures. What a miserable way to die. He wants to be angry about it, but he’s too hungry and too tired to care anymore. Let death find him. His eyes close and then he feels the rain coming down. It hits his body in merciless drops that pat, pat, pat against his skin. Pat. Pat. Pat…

            PAT. Eli’s face scrunches up as he’s patted on the arm again. As the dream fades, he can feel the tiny hands trying to shake him awake. Hands of a child. Child? He groans and waves his arm around to get those hands off of him. It did the trick. Whoever was trying to shake him awake backed off a little. Was that…breathing? Very slow breathing, it seemed. And a voice, off in the distance somewhere.

            “Be gentle, Tretij. He’s had a long few days alone in a cell.”

            He yawned loudly, stretching out on the bed to get some blood flowing. That was Dr. Crane, but who the hell was she talking to? The only person who had a weird name like that was- Green eyes opened immediately and he sat up quick enough to give himself a sudden case of blood rushing to his head. His face scrunched up as the sensation passed, and when he opened them, Tretij was sitting across from him on the bed.

            “You’re awake?” Eli rubbed some of the crust from his eyes. “But I thought you still needed to rest.”

            He watched the boy shake his head. The hospital gown was the usual shapeless paper fashion disaster, but he could see more of the body that had been hidden away under the straightjacket. Everything about the boy was thin and kind of long without it being overly long. It was the kind of body Eli could imagine stretching to well over six feet if Tretij was that lucky.

            “Are you cold?” He also couldn’t help but notice the way those skinny arms were pressed close to Tretij’s chest. He grabbed the blanket and swooped over neatly with a single pull, making the red-head look more like a child in some kind of fairy tale. Little Red Riding Hood, perhaps.

            Tretij laughed. It was a brief thing that showed off how his voice was slightly scratchy and high pitched. Eli laughed too and held out his hand, palm facing his friend. Against his own hand, Tretij’s was smaller, thinner, and far paler. Not exactly the kind of hand that saw much sunlight. For the moment, the young tyrant simply enjoyed being able to touch that hand without the jacket getting in the way.

            Maybe there was something they could still do.

 

            Plants were a rarity on Mother Base, even with the animal platform supporting the wildlife he’s extracted out in the field. You had to bring in only what you needed. Only what you couldn’t live without. When he started finding little gardens under the struts, he took to resting near them when he had time for a smoke. The finest cigars lit up where the rain couldn’t get him and work couldn’t find him.

            Usually. The kids were going to be the death of him. Between the wannabe warlord with his minions and the little mind reader that seemed to like him the best, he could feel cold skeleton fingers edging towards his throat. How could one child ever cause so much trouble? The sheer amount of charisma and manipulation that Eli managed to use to his advantage was impressive and worrisome all at once. Kaz didn’t like it. Ocelot hated it. Now he only had to wait for the next argument about whether or not it’s wise to let two volatile children be near each other. All the latest news was either Tretij’s fever hadn’t gone down yet or Eli was being even more surly than usual. For a few minutes next to the tiny garden, Snake had something he could call peace.

            He took a long drag from his cigar. When he heard that Eli’s only actions after being left on the Medical Platform were curling up at the foot of the bed, he felt a weight roll off of his shoulders. Losing the parasites had been enough to shake up the kid considerably. That much he could at least say with certainty. How long it’d last would be the real question to answer.

            The radio chirped to life on his shoulder.

            “Boss? Got some news from Medical.” Ocelot sounded a little less confident than usual.

            “Something wrong?” He tapped some of the ash off the end of his cigar.

            “It’s Tretij, boss. The doctors usually wake him up twice a day to coax him into eating something, and he saw Eli sleeping on a bed they brought into the room for him.”

            “Yeah? Doesn’t sound like anything’s exploded so far. What’re the two doing?”

            “I’m honestly a little surprised. Tretij shook Eli awake and then they sat next to each other while Tretij had his meal.”

            Goddamn. Snake coughed on a mouthful of smoke and leaned over until it passed. They were being peaceful. Two of the angriest kids he’s ever met surrounded by adults they likely didn’t trust, and they weren’t so much as yelling or screaming. It was almost too much to believe.

            “Boss?”

            “I’m here, I’m here. That’s- It surprised me too. How’s Tretij doing, anyway?”

            “Fever finally seems to be going away. Docs say he’ll be better by tomorrow if it keeps up the trend. Maybe being near his friend is giving him cause to feel better and that’s affecting his overall physical health.”

            “I’d believe that. Come see me over on the platform. I want to get a chance to talk to the Third Child.”

 

            It was almost expected that Ocelot and Kaz would be waiting together for him; even more so that they were arguing once again. Snake didn’t bother to try and hush them up about it. The decisions were ultimately his own and that was what mattered most. He waved at them both and heard a brief end to the yelling.

            “We can’t leave those two alone surrounded by the sick!” Kaz shook his head. “It’s insane. Those two worked out a plan that could have gotten all of us killed and now that freak is awake for good.”

            “You’d rather we let a psychologically damaged child wake up fully without anyone he can trust nearby?” Ocelot crossed his arms. “Tretij likes Eli. We can use that to our advantage to keep them both in line and away from anything that could allow them to cause actual trouble. Singing Crane’s been telling me that Eli’s been holding onto Tretij for a little bit. She thinks Eli used their bond to inform Tretij about how their plans went up in smoke and now Tretij is having a sulk.”

            “All the better that we give the two something new to focus on. They’re allies with no real means of getting off Mother Base now that we know they’re both here.” Snake gestured to the facility. “How about I head in there on my own for now? Doubt those two are going to cause trouble. Even if they do, I don’t want either of you caught in the middle of it.”

            Kaz shook his head. “Be careful, boss. No telling what they’re going to be up to.”

 

            A dozen or so hands saluted him on the way downstairs to Tetij’s secluded room. He could hear muffled voices talking in consoling tones: a woman and a boy. Was the turn of events really so horrible? It can’t be the first time Tretij has messed up something he was supposed to accomplish. At least, it shouldn’t have been too bad. Picking up on Eli’s thoughts, perhaps? That would mean he’s the one who’s the most upset with everything.

            “-we’ll make sure that you never have to do anything you don’t want to. That’s one of the things Kaz wants most for any of the children who end up here.”

            Crane was a miracle with the kids and their health. Someone who handled pediatrics as well as she did was hard to come by. Snake leaned against the wall outside and listened in more to the conversation.

            “I know you’re not happy, Tetij, but I can’t help make it better if you don’t at least try and tell me what’s wrong. If you want, you can tell Eli, and then Eli can tell me. Would that be easier?”

            “He doesn’t want to talk.” Was that concern in Eli’s voice? “I think he needs a bit of time to sort out his head about it. Maybe he could go out to the- Who’s there?”

            He jumped slightly at the sudden accusation in Eli’s voice. Did Tretij already know he was there? It meant incredible things for his ability to recover his strength if he did. Snake snuck low against the wall and waited for another sign that at least one person in that room knew he was there.

            “Stop sulking! We already know you’re there.”

            “Eli, who the hell are- YOU!” Crane peeked out the door and flattened herself against the door almost immediately. “Oh my… Boss, what are you doing?”

            “Trying to see what’s going on with Eli and the patient.” He stands up and pats Crane on the shoulder. “Tretij isn’t feeling good?”

            “He doesn’t want to talk to you! Go away.” From the doorway, Snake could see Tretij wrapped up in a blanket, cradled in Eli’s arms. “What do you care if he’s feeling good or not? This the first time you’ve come to see him since he got put under.”

            “You’re right about my visits.” He walks into the room and spies a chair to sit on. Eli’s grip on Tretij got tighter. “This is the first time I’ve had a chance to see him since then. I heard he was acting peacefully around you.”

            “And? We’re friends.” Tretj’s head turned slightly in Snake’s direction, but he didn’t make any kind of noise. Snake could see some vague hint of red on his left shoulder, like Eli’s emblem.

            “I can tell. He likes you a hell of a lot more than he did me.” Sending Volgin after him, among other things, although he did appreciate that it was more Skull Face and Volgin giving him such inclinations. “Thought maybe he’d be up to talking now that he’s had a chance to rest.”

            There was a flash like smoke, and Eli looked around him as Tretij appeared behind him. Snake could see the hint of eyes staring at him from behind the orange lenses of the mask. It was a look with more anger than he had ever gotten from Eli thus far. Small hands clung to the shoulders of Eli’s jacket. Eli raised a hand to cover one clinging to him.

            “See? He doesn’t like you. You can’t be trusted.”

            “That’s enough, the three of you.” Singing Crane took a seat on the bed, focusing her attention on Tretij. “Hey… It will be all right. He won’t hurt you. I would sooner have him strapped to a bed and fed laxatives than allow him to harm a child. Remember?”

            Snake can see the confusion in Tretij’s body language. He hasn’t been awake nearly long enough to get around to truly rational thinking, especially with Eli fuming away. Now if only he’d open his mouth and use some words to get a point across, then they’d finally get something out of him other than violence. Until then, he’d have to get the kid to calm down and not cling so tightly to his pint-sized boss.

            “I wouldn’t put it past her. She and the other doctors here don’t take well to people messing with their patients.” He scratches at his hair with his left arm. “I’ve done horrible things to better people. Children are my exception.”

            “Doesn’t matter.” Eli rolled his eyes. “You’re still a bastard and we- What?”

            Pale and tiny hands reached out as Tretij moved just a bit closer to Snake. Towards his prosthetic limb. His fingers curled back before he could touch it properly, and he looked up at Snake with a slight shudder to his voice. So he nodded and watched the red-head slowly lift his arm up in those little hands. The limb was turned in one direction, then another as he explored the joints in the wrist and fingers. He traced the shape of the casing and tapped along various points as if to count something only he thought worth counting. Snake curled his hand into a fist and Tretij gasped in the most genuine sound of delight and surprise. The boy bent over and twisted himself as Snake worked his wrist around, making more little sighs and gasps at the movements.

            Then Snake pulled his arm back, staring Tretij right in the eyes. A steady gaze met him right back until the boy turned his attention back to Eli. Silence followed along with a gesture to Snake himself, and he saw Eli’s face go from wonder to confusion to a truly nasty pout.

            “Are you mad?!” He crossed his arms and huffed. “No, I’m not going to be content with this! There is no way that I would ever work with him-“ A firm pointed finger was jabbed in Snake’s direction. “On anything.”

            From behind Eli, Crane stifled a laugh, making him blush. He let out a spectacularly angry noise and flopped down onto the bed. Tretij didn’t even budge in the midst of the tantrum and crawled over to sit by his head. Eli crossed his arms over his face and made many more angry huffs and growls that wore down in frequency and volume until he was left with nothing but a disappointed frown upon his face.

            “Ffffine! I’ll do it, but don’t think I’m going to be happy about it.” Tretij patted him on the head. “The deal’s still on, right father?”

            “As much as before, but I might have to work out new terms now that Tretij is awake. No offense.”

            Tretij merely shrugged his shoulders and stretched his arms above his head. Little seemed to faze the child with Eli around. He turned back to Snake and bowed slightly from where he sat. Then he turned to Crane to repeat the gesture.

            Crane smiled and nodded her head in return. “It was my pleasure to watch over you, Tretij. You go back to resting. I’ll see the boss out.”

            Eli turned over on to his side and listened to Crane and Snake leaving the room. One guard came in, no doubt with the other one outside. Tretij rubbed his shoulder and kept his gaze towards the door. People were talking outside. Medical staff mostly, but Eli could hear the sounds of patients in other rooms. Crane came in after a moment and clapped her hands.

            “All right! Business as usual: Eli isn’t permitted to leave the building for the rest of the day, you’re both under guard, and it is high time Tretij got into a proper bath. I’ve secured a shower facility for you on the floor, so no one’s going in there except you. Feel up to that?”

            He looked at Eli, and got a nod. “Go already. Even that bastard doesn’t get to smell for too long.”

            Tretij kept close to Crane as he got off of the bed. Everything smelled of hospitals and felt unnaturally clean. He followed behind her with his hands digging into the back of her scrubs. No one could be trusted in a place like this. Not one, not ever. But Eli was here and that meant safety for the moment. With a chance to wash up came a chance to think and now he really could think, even with the other adults around him. There wasn’t anyone in the hall other than a guard or two by the many doors and he saw the same dearth of people on the way back to the room after being fitted with fresh clothes.

Back in the room, Eli was busy helping a nurse change the sheets. Tretij waved and walked over and took one of the pillows that still needed a new cover. The nurse seemed more amazed than anything to see the pillow floating in mid-air as they were suddenly assisted by two boys. Eli, however, had a slight change of heart over the pillow and snatched it from the air. He stood on the bed and smiled, holding it over Tretij’s head.

“Come get it, if you can even JUMP!”

Tretij lifted himself up very calmly and pulled down against that pillow with every pound he had to his name. He dangled in mid-air for a few seconds and found footing on the edge of the bed. The relief to Eli’s arms meant that he could pull back even harder in a tug-of-war game where Tretij quickly lost ground as he was tugged onto the bed as well. Tiny as he was, the young psychic proved to be a fair enough challenge and held on for a good minute before Eli suddenly jerked his arms back with a loud cry, sending his opponent to bounce on the bed before rolling onto his back.

“Not bad!” Eli crouched low and tossed the pillow behind him. “I thought you were all skin and bones.”

He laughed, and Tretij laughed with him, and that was all either of them cared about.

Chapter Text

Two days later, Tretij walked out of medical holding Eli’s hand. He felt glad to be out in the sunshine. It was warmer than the building and a breeze was circling around. Now if only the soldiers could look at them both with kinder expressions. There was no trust to be found in their thoughts and many expressed some disbelief in how two children could be so destructive.

            Snake was waiting there with two other men standing behind him. The blond one’s distrust was greater than that of the troops, but he did a pretty good job not letting it show. As for the silver haired one… Tretij tugged on Eli’s sleeve and pointed to the older one.

            “Ocelot? He thinks he’s an American cowboy.”

            Was that what his style of clothes was called? It seemed so overdone. A look like that belonged in those movies from the West.

            The boys stopped when Ocelot stepped forward.

            “Good morning, gentlemen. I’m known as Ocelot around here. Given how long you’ve been cooped up, we’re willing to try a kind of field trip around Mother Base. We even have a babysitter lined up for you both.”

            “Piss off, old man.” Eli already had enough with being talked down to. Small hands held on to his jacket sleeve.

            “Not on your orders, boy.” He smirked and nodded his head to the facility. “Besides, your sitter’s here.”

            The hands tugged tighter at Eli’s sleeve. She was hard to figure out, but Tretij knew where she was. Up on…the edges of the wall? It felt like eyes watching them. Tretij pointed to where the eyes were coming from. And she was gone. Or rather, she was moving fast enough that he could barely follow.

            A flash of smoke shielded Tretij long enough to try and run from this strange woman. He reappeared mere feet away after a bullet rang out. Then he banked and vanished again, only this time the gun barely missed him. He floated in the air and looked around him in a panic. How? Not even Snake was this good!

            All Tretij saw was a sudden blur before he screamed as he was plucked out of the air. He squirmed and kicked and screamed a bit more, but she was not letting him go. Quiet carried him back to Eli and set him down. A sleeved covered fist swing at her and missed as Eli tugged him away from her.

            “How-?” Eli shook slightly as he helped Tretij up. “What is she?!”

            “Your babysitter.” Ocelot moved a little closer and nodded his head in a greeting to Quiet. “Even our boss had a hard time stopping her.”

            “To shoot at us then?!” Eli  was practically boiling with anger. “She’s a sniper!”

            “With tranq rounds.” Quiet hefted her gun up. “You’ll be out before you realize you’ve been shot.”

            Neither of the boys moved. They watches Quiet sling her rifle across her back and tilt her head. She knelt down on one knee and folded her arms across her chest.

            Tretij clung tighter to Eli. He was still breathing hard and shaking a little. What an awful woman! She grabbed him like it was nothing. No one was supposed to be able to catch him like that. Was she another Cipher agent? One of their weirder ones? She must be if she could vanish like that. This wasn’t going to happen.

            He pulled on Eli’s shoulder and shook his head.

            Eli wrapped his arms behind him as much as he could.

            “Another rule, right Ocelot? A babysitter for when we’re out of doors?”

            “Either her or you go right back to your pen.”

            The little warlord turned around. Eli could see the fear in Tretij’s face. He patted his friend on the shoulder.

            “It’s all we have. They won’t let us go otherwise.” A whine came up out of Tretij’s throat. “Just for now? If we’re lucky, this will be a temporary thing.”

            No! Eli, no. There are things he’s willing to put up with, but Cipher-made soldiers like her are not among them. He reaches into Eli’s mind and makes it clear that there are better ways of proving they can be trusted. At least with a cage they’d be safe from others. Tretij shook his head again.

            “There’s got to be something you’ve been wanting to have a look at.” Eli frowned. “I want to breathe fresh air, Tretij. I want you there with me.”

            He…had a point. They had spent far too long indoors and it might be nice to see something besides a bunch of doctors and grown-ups in hospital gowns. It was the woman who made it all wrong. Freedom isn’t really freedom when someone is watching you. He’d been alive long enough to appreciate that.

            “Wherever you two end up going doesn’t matter so long as she’s there.” Ocelot smiled at them both and held his hands upon his hips. “Make it easier?”

            The smile disappeared with the glares that got thrown his way. Snake laughed a bit, but held it down quickly. This was Ocelot’s time to lay down the rules as the ‘enforcer’ on base. Eli’s little scowl faded, though, and he turned his attention back to Tretij.

            “The…striped horses? Oh! Those are zebras. You want to go and see them?”

            “The animal platform?” Kaz perked up and took a few steps forward. “You can only get there by the helicopters. There’s more animals there than just the plant eaters, and even ones like the zebras can be dangerous. They’re not tamed horses.”

            “I know that!” Eli rolled his eyes. “He’s never seen them up close before. He didn’t think it was safe to try and go there when he was still hiding.”

            “Might be a nice excursion, Kaz.” Ocelot sounded surprised by the request. “Think of it like a trip to the zoo. Tretij has probably never seen most of the animals we have there, especially in the aviary.”

            “It’s still dangerous…” His gripped tightened on the crutch. “How do we know they won’t try any-”

            Sleeved hands tugged gently on his arm. He stiffened up at the sudden touch, but didn’t move away either. Tretij tugged again and tried letting Kaz feel the want he had for seeing these animals. What made a zebra different from other horses? How many birds did they have fluttering around? He’ll stay away from the animals with sharp teeth and make sure Eli does too…

            “Enough!” Kaz jerked his arm away and shook his head. Thoughts. Those were the kid’s thoughts in his own head. “Enough. I- I get it. You can go.”

            That’s more like it! Tretij bounced a little on his feet as he ran quickly back to Eli. He won! Eli hadn’t been kidding about Kaz having a weakness for little kids at all. That was easier than he usually got out of grown-ups. He grabbed Eli’s hand and tugged him along towards where he had seen the helipad on the platform. Eli’s quiet laughter followed him with the rest of the boy.

            Quiet lingered behind and watched the boys walk off. There was the slightest hint of a smile on her face that grew when she saw the leaders of Mother Base watching them go as well. Ocelot met her gaze and shrugged, which she returned. Snake, on the other hand, called in Pequod to come in and meet the kids. He patted Quiet on the shoulder before breaking out into a jog to catch up with the boys.

            The instant Quiet headed out of sight, Ocelot sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He joined Kaz at the railing overlooking the ocean and leaned against it.

            “They’re definitely children.” That much Ocelot knew with certainty now.

            “At what cost? We’ve got no idea how those two will handle being outside on their own like this.”

            “Not like we could keep them cooped up forever. Everything we’ve learned about Tretij tells us that he would handle cabin fever worse than Eli, and Eli gets antsy like DD does when he doesn’t go out in the field with Snake.”

            “We’re being played by two boys who haven’t even been around long enough to know how to pick their fights wisely.” Kaz leaned heavily on the crutch. “There’s not much left for them to get up to, but that doesn’t change who they are and what they’ve done.”

            “That may be, but we did learn something about Quiet.”

            “Tretij noticed her, didn’t he? That’s when he tried to run and she started shooting to keep him still.”

            “Imagine having the two of them interacting more. Tretij might be our first clue as to what Quiet is actually thinking.”

 

            The boys got to sit at the edge of the helicopter as they were ferried off. It was nice being up in the air for a bit. You could feel the wind whipping around and see just how small parts of the base could be. Even with Quiet and Snake watching them, Tretij felt some tiny bit of comfort. Eli never felt happy or content. Not really. There were always some embers, a collection of angry thoughts and memories, rolling around in his head like some coal fire that had set itself deep underground.

            He held onto Eli’s hand and turned his thoughts to animals. He’d seen the sheep mostly, since he knew what they were. Anything with that much hair and a clear face had to be a sheep. He knew of the wool and their strange noises beyond the typical “baa” and “bleh” that sounded more like weird screaming or some odd burp. They ate out of people’s hands, although he wondered if they’d go near him at all. Not all people had gas masks, but surely that wouldn’t matter when they were being offered food or gentle petting.

            Eli squeezed his hand gently. Direct contact never quite suited Tretij. When he could feel a physical presence overtake him it felt stifling and a bit scary. It was like what happened in his head, but with his skin instead. So he squeezed back and perked up when the animal platform came into view. Zebra. Zee. Bruh. It was a strange name to call an animal that was clearly a horse. Surely it didn’t need to have a fancy name just because it had all those stripes.

            Eli jumped off the helicopter first, but Tretij waited for Snake and the babysitter to get off before he did. Snake even held out a hand for him to grab onto. His hand, the flesh and blood one, felt particularly strong. You could break bones with strength like that.

            “All right…” The king of Mother Base looked at the trio and then at the platform itself. “Don’t let them near the carnivores and they’re absolutely not allowed in the aviary. Other than that, make sure they don’t get bitten.”

            Quiet nodded and gestured for the boys to head out. Like with the helicopter, Tretij remained behind a little while Eli went on ahead. He wasn’t sure about being left alone with Quiet and her strange thoughts. When he looked up at her, all he could see was her confusion about why he hadn’t moved yet. He wasn’t even sure what language she was thinking in. It sounded nothing like English, or Russian, or any of the other languages he’d ever heard before, but he could still piece out the intent behind them.

            The strange woman raised an eyebrow at him and patted him on the back of his shoulder. Move. It was a universal language of movement. Tretij looked behind him at Snake getting back into the helicopter and waving goodbye. He waved back and finally willed himself to move once Pequod had the vehicle heading out of sight.

            “About time!” Eli had a bit of a smile on his face and his mind was alive with possibilities of seeing real animals instead of just people, people, people. He gestured for Tretij to follow and broke out into a run for the giant dome where all the birds were kept.

            “Look at that thing!” He stretched out his hands as he got nearer as if to measure the dome with his hands. “How many birds has he caught already?”

            There were a few vultures roaming around on the ground of the aviary. Tretij peered in as they tore into bits of meat that had been left in there. It looked like it might have been a goat or something at some point. Whatever it had been, the birds seemed to like it considerably. They tore off their food with their beaks, but they held it down with their clawed feet. It must feel awful if the animal is still kind of alive when they’re being eaten.

            A tall shadow fell over him as Quiet came a little closer. She and Eli both held their hands over their eyes to look into the glass at the feeding. When Tretij looked up, he could see a slight grimace on her face. Maybe she didn’t like seeing things being eaten? He had heard rumor of how she didn’t need to eat floating around the thoughts of the staff.

            After a few more minutes Eli’s gaze began to wander and he shuffled off towards the other pens where the more docile animals were kept. Sheep and zebras were hardly going to stop him from strutting around like he did. Tretij felt his mouth turn up into a small smile. Happiness was a rather pleasant emotion to feed off of. It didn’t make his stomach twist up or his heart beat as quickly as anger did.  He felt…light. Lighter than he did when he floated about.

            The two boys gasped when they saw all the animals in their little pens. There were so many of them! Sheep and donkeys, but no zebras just yet.

            “There’s three areas and the aviary, right? The zebras must be on a different strut.” Eli was eager to hop the railing and wander down. He bounced slightly on his toes. “Tretij, do you know much about sheep?”

            Eli made a noise of surprise when Tretij actually ran a bit down the stairs to the bleating animals. He was fiddling with his sleeves as he went, exposing his thin, pale arms as he used the straps to pin up the fabric by his shoulders. A set of footsteps and a loud thud followed him as he walked down to the sheep. They were big and fluffy sheep with mostly black and white fleece covering their bodies. Tretij looked around and picked some flowers that were growing in the pen. One sheep turned to him and sniffed the flowers before taking a generous bite.

            He felt Eli’s hand on his shoulder as the other boy watched the sheep eating. There was quite a bit of crunching and the other sheep looked at them from where they sat or grazed. When the flowers were gone, Tretij picked a few more of them and handed some to Eli.

            “Uh… Are you sure?” Eli looked sideways at the sheep. Soft as they were, he still wasn’t too sure about whether they could be trusted. They seemed to have pretty strong teeth. “They won’t bite or anything?”

            Tretij sighed and shook his head. He handed the rest of his flowers to Eli and took his hand to one of the sheep lying down. The two of them sat down on the dirt and Tretij moved Eli’s hands closer to the animal’s mouth. Eli was resistant to being moved, his thoughts occupied with thoughts of biting. Then they vanished in an instant as the sheep took the bait and at the flowers out of his hand.

“Good sheep…” The animal sat up slightly and licked his hands a little to get all the flower taste off of them. Eli made a face and stuck out his tongue. “Eew! It’s all slimy.”

            The laugh that came out of Tretij was a quick one, but it was enough that Quiet looked up with a hint of shock in her expression. She seemed surprised to hear that kind of noise coming from him, but in a good way. She was happy to know that he had things to laugh about. Quiet walked closer to them and sat down on the grass beside the sheep. This seemed to please the other sheep, who were quickly realizing that there was food being passed about. One of the sheep sniffed at her hands and then moved on to Tretij when it found nothing.

            She watched her two charges feed the sheep and try petting them. Eli marveled at the softness of the wool and got one of the sheep to talk back to him by making “baa” noises. He picked up some of the stems left behind from the flowers and tried leading the sheep around. It wasn’t the most successful try, but he did lead one in a circle while Tretij sat and watched with the others. When Eli had his fill of shepherding, he laid down on the grass and watched the sheep that had been following him lay down next to him. Tretij laid down as well, taking up the other half of Eli’s personal space. The sun was well up in the noon-ish position and that made for a fine spell of sleepiness.

            While the boys nodded off, Quiet moved closer and patted them both on the head. Eli squirmed away and frowned, while Tretij sighed and leaned his head back a little into her touch. The trio shared a magnificent nap together with the sheep for about half an hour before Tretij woke up. He yawned loudly and tried sitting up, only to wobble a bit. Quiet quickly woke up from her resting position and propped him up by the shoulders. Eli had worked up a nice little tan and muttered a bit in his sleep at all the sudden moving about. When he saw that Tretij and Quiet were already on their feet, he frowned and stood up himself.

            “Zebras next, right? They’re at the other end.”

            For whatever reason, this seemed to be a little switch that sparked a burst of energy in Tretij. Eli found himself being led firmly by the hand back up the steps and to the other end of the platform. When he looked back at Quiet, he could see this little smirk at the corner of her mouth. So she thought this was amusing, hmm? Eli stuck his tongue out at her and let himself be led onward. So Tretij was happy, so what? They were alone and then he’d be able to introduce his new friend to the team he already led.

            They reached the other pens with the animals, and Tretij at last let go of Eli’s hand. He couldn’t help but stare at the zebras. They really were black and white, although he was curious as to whether they were white with black stripes or the other way around. He tugged on Eli’s sleeve and gestured to the animals in question. Perhaps he’d know the answer to this little riddle. What he got was a snort of a laugh.

            “Black with white stripes!” Eli pointed at his nose. “You can tell cause they all have black noses. The skin is naturally dark and the white stripes help them hide from lions and other animals that eat them.”

            Lions? Now those sounded perfectly interesting! A very large cat sounded much more interesting than the little ones people usually kept at pets. Eli rolled his eyes when that thought coursed through their bond.

            “Lions are wild cats, you know.” He started down the steps to the pens. “They look like giant sized versions of the ones that can live in a house, but they’re much more dangerous. Small cats look at us and see other cats. Big cats look at us and see another predator. Hyenas, though, are a lot more friendly. They’re really smart and hunt around in big packs.”

            The two stood at the railing surrounding the pen and watched the zebras grazing. Tretij decided that wild horses like these were much more interesting than that stallion Snake was always taking with him when he left the base. Why have a horse that knew how to follow orders when you could watch ones that were striped and who had little care for the wishes of the people around them? They didn’t care about people other than in terms of fear or food. Naturally, he had to jump the railing and float down to see them up close.

            The zebras were much more skittish than the sheep were. They backed away as Tretij approached and patted at the ground with their hooves. Eli stood up on the railing surrounding their pen and crossed his arms.

            “Have you seen horses much? Besides Ocelot’s and D-Horse, I mean.”

             Tretij shook his head and leaned on the railing. A smaller zebra walked closer to them and its ears swiveled towards them. He reached out one hand to it, trying to touch its snout. The zebra pressed its nose up against his hand and moved its lips about as if to taste him. He spread his fingers out, making a little noise of disgust when he got licked. The noise spooked the zebra, which ran away from Tretij as he tried wiping off the spit on his straightjacket. Eli, on the other hand, got a great laugh out of it.

             “Revenge!” Eli smiled at Tretij, raising his arm in defense when the other boy tried to give him a shove. “You can’t hurt me like that. You’re too tinY!”

             The words turned into an undignified squawk as Quiet lifted Eli up from the railing, holding him at a distance to avoid his kicking feet. He swore at her before she put him down and fixed his most bitter glare on her when he turned to face her. Quiet merely shrugged her shoulders and shook a finger at him in a scolding manner. Then she turned to Tretij and offered her arms out to him.

             Tretij shrunk up a little and shook his head. He didn’t want to be picked up. Never liked that kind of thing, really. Usually grown-ups only picked him up when he was being difficult somehow. He floated over to Eli and patted him on the shoulder. When blue eyes were focused on him, Tretij pointed to his stomach. It had been a while since they got a chance to eat something and his stomach was poised to start growling. On top of that, the kind of food kept here was undoubtedly meant for the animals, so they couldn’t eat it at all.

             The logic in that turned over a few times in Eli’s head before he nodded. “It’s about time for a meal. Quiet, isn’t it?” He took Tretij’s hand and nodded at Quiet. “What if we wanted to leave a little early? I want my men to meet their new teammate.”

             Quiet only shrugged and gestured for the two to follow. For someone who was so strong and kind of scary, she didn’t seem to put a lot of effort into things like maintaining her reputation. Or rather, it lingered long enough off the battlefield that she didn’t need to. Tretij was convinced that she was once some kind of spy. People who made a habit of lying were good at hiding their strength and she had a lot of it to spare.

            There was a panel at the helipad for calling in a chopper, and the boys watched as Pequod came in to pick them all up. No Snake. No Ocelot. Only a very dedicated pilot who eyed the trio as they climbed inside. Tretij crept closer to the front and situated himself behind the co-pilot chair to watch them take off. He could hear Eli laying down on one of the benches and huffing to himself. Meeting the other boys… When he hid wherever he could, he would catch hints of the grown-ups talking to the boys or Eli rallying them up for some little mission or another. Now he was a part of this little army. They were completely out of luck with the parasites, he knew, but that machine that Emmerich made was still within their grasp. Whether they’d get away with it… Tretij shook his head to chase away that thought.

            No. There’d be time for that kind of thinking later. He had friends to meet.

Chapter Text

            Noise. There was so. Much. Noise. Tretij clung tightly to Eli as they headed to the mess hall. Ocelot had met them at the helipad and told them that Snake was having a little lunch-in with the boys to let them know about the newest addition to the group. The two of them followed Ocelot along while Quiet ran off to do her own thing. Eli was already displeased with the situation.

            “I don’t want him talking to the boys about Tretij. I know him better. He might say stuff that’s untrue.”

            “Really?” Ocelot sounded amused by Eli’s fuming and shrugged his shoulders. “Most of what he’s been telling them is the things Tretij can do and how he wants them to be especially nice to the newcomer.”

            Tretij looked up at that and tilted his head. Why would they have to be kinder than usual? Wasn’t he supposed to be one of the group? Surprisingly, Ocelot’s mind proved rather difficult to read, but it wasn’t like with Quiet, who just thought in a language that he didn’t know. No, Ocelot’s thoughts were masked entirely. He could hardly get an idea of what emotion was tied up with his thoughts, let alone what he was actually thinking. His grip on Eli’s jacket tightened. That wasn’t good at all.

            When they entered the building, Eli took Tretij’s hand and led their little group straight over to the usual table where he and the boys ate. As promised, Snake was there eating burgers with the others. It was becoming a popular luxury food on Mother Base, even if Eli found it a bit excessive. Why mix up all those vegetables and meat between slices of bread?

            One of the boys looked up…and his eyes widened and his jaw went slack. In a matter of seconds, this surprise and sudden silence fell over their little section of the table, as did other tables surrounding them. Tretij felt even more exposed and pressed himself right up against Eli. Maybe if he tried to hide, people wouldn’t stare as much.

            Snake got up from the table and walked over to the two.

            “Heard that you two had fun feeding sheep.”  He crouched down and kept his gaze focused on Eli and then Tretij. All that fear from being seen. “Enjoyed the sunshine?”

            “We did.” Eli pouted and wrapped his arms behind him. “Tretij showed me how to feed sheep and I taught him about lions and zebras.”

            “Did you? That’s good to hear.” Snake smiled at them. It was a warm kind of smile that reached his eye. “I was talking to them about organizing a bigger trip to the animal platform. They’re all fine with it as long as you don’t mind.”

            “I don’t. It’d be good for us all. We’re hungry, so go away and let us eat.”

            For a few seconds, Snake didn’t say anything. Then he laughed briefly and stood up, a hand reaching out towards them. Rather than patting Eli on the head, he offered the gesture to Tretij, who shrank from the touch.

            “You’re doing a good job here. Haven’t seen Eli this peaceful since I met him.” His green eye focused on Ocelot.

            The cowboy shrugged his shoulders and turned to leave. “Quiet’s run off to her own world. I don’t think she’ll want to babysit again.”

            “Figured she wouldn’t like it all that much… You boys behave yourselves. Remember what I said.”

            Eli’s scowl didn’t disappear from his face until Ocelot and Snake were well and gone from the mess hall. He sighed, looked back over his shoulder, and then at his fellow soldiers. There were looks of confusion all around, and the smallest got up from his seat.

            “He- Snake said he’s been through a lot. That we should be kinder to him.” He wrung his hands together as he spoke.

            So Snake was saying such things about him? Tretij wasn’t sure how to feel about it. They probably wouldn’t ask many questions about the mask, which he could appreciate, but what then? There were plenty of other questions that they could still ask.

            “It’s nice to meet you, uhm… Tretij.” He waved shyly.

            Tretij waved back. Uncertainty. It was all over his thoughts. All of their thoughts. How was he supposed to talk to all of them when Eli was the only one who could speak for him? Maybe he could reach into all their heads to talk back. Or he could become exhausted with the effort and fall asleep where all could see him. They had all bene recruited by Eli for his own tiny army, too. Formerly a part of the forces commanded by grown-ups, losing their lives one at a time, no doubt. Lives like-

            No. It couldn’t be. They couldn’t be from the same group that- Tretij perked up a little and stared at the oldest child at the table. There it was, among the other necklaces. He remembered the shape and the thoughts of that dying boy in the middle of others suffering similar fates. Tretij pulled away from Eli and walked around the table to the other boy. He stared back with a mix of fear and confusion in his eyes.

            “What is it?”

            Names, names… There was that name, at the tip of his tongue, but he wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it right. Sh. Sha. Shaba-

            Shabani. The other boy gasped when he heard the name crossing between their mental connection. There were the sounds, but it wasn’t quite right yet. Not an “uh” sound on the first syllable, but more like the way an “a” would sound in English. He gestured to the boy. Sha- Like “ahh”. Like when you suddenly understand something. It sounded very little like the names he had grown up around.

            “How… Did you see him?!” The boy looked at Tretij with something approaching awe. He sat forward, pulling the necklace off of his neck and holding it up. “This. You saw him wearing this, didn’t you?”

            Exactly! Tretij nodded and sighed in relief. At least that much was obvious.

            Tretij pointed to the necklace and then at himself. He remembered Shabani so well because of the sheer anger that had emanated from his heart. Skull Face wasn’t even that angry. He had wanted to see Skull Face suffer, too. And yet…he had already been so close to death that Tretij couldn’t help but feel pity. There was nothing Shabani could have done to get his revenge, so Tretij settled on showing him a little mercy.

            A hand touched his shoulder, and Tretij turned around. Eli was looking at him with pure confusion. “What did you say to him?” Then Eli’s eyes went wide as Tretij shared the memories he had dragged up. The smell of burning flesh, seeing Venom trying to steal away the Burning Man, the feeling of annoyance at how there were so many sources of water in that area fit for stopping him…

            Tretij shrugged his shoulders, suddenly feeling cross at remembering that fight. He huffed a bit noisily, his shoulders shrugging. Eli let out a little snort of a laugh and sat down, patting the space next to him. The boys watched Tretij sit down and curl up into a ball facing Eli.

            “He doesn’t really talk aloud all that much.” Or ever, really. “Mostly it’s in someone’s head. But you saw Shabani. How come you didn’t tell me?”

            It would have been good to know before he tried introducing Tretij to the others. Something he could turn into a kind of prod to keep them all in line.

            Eli got another shrug. Tretij hadn’t really observed the other boys after arriving on the base, so what did he know about their ties to Shabani? He looked at Eli and at the other boys. Then he held out one hand, beckoning the oldest one closer. The boy took his hand and Tretij drew up memories from that day. Of the fire and the pain of the people there. Of Shabani knowing that he was about to die and having nothing but hate running through his mind until Tretij had forced his heart to stop. It was a sudden severance to be reading the mind of one who died so quickly. Tretij had been a little disoriented until he had been refocused again.

            Someone sobbed very close to Tretij. His gaze focused back on the oldest boy, having glazed over with his recollection. The boy was crying and gripping his pale hand tightly. Had he…done something wrong? Wouldn’t he have wanted to know that Shabani fought back to the end? That he died quickly after so much suffering? Or- Oh. That was precisely why the boy was in tears. He felt bad for not being there. For not having done more to help his friend. But the boy was already dying, so what did it matter that any of the rest of them hadn’t been present? He squeezed the boy’s hand back, not quite sure what to do otherwise.

            “You showed them how he died.” Eli’s face was calm, almost curious as he offered a napkin to the sobbing child. “He can remember things and lets you see and hear what he did. I saw a report about that place. Everyone there perished in a big fire.”

            Tretij nodded and pulled his hand back without meeting any resistance. He wrapped himself up tighter into a ball and watched the boy wiping up his tears.

            Then the older boy turned to the others. He spoke quickly, not in English, but their native language. The one they had been born with. The littlest one teared up a bit as the news was relayed, but mostly, they looked sad and relieved all at once. A quick death was all you could ask for in a world like the one they grew up in. Tretij watched as another boy came over and hugged him briefly. He gasped at the sudden contact of arms around him and his body was still stiff when he was released.

            “Thank you.”

            Eli smiled. This was interesting! Having someone who could pass along emotions and memories without the need for words or photos was apparently good for morale. Snake had to put in actual effort and show up, talk to people, keep himself showered a lot. He patted Tretij on the arm.

            “Maybe we ought to give you a special nickname, like mine.”

            That got Tretij to focus again. His head perked up and everything. Nickname? Like White Mamba? It was an interesting prospect, but for what purpose? They didn’t let Eli use his nickname on Mother Base, so getting his own codename seemed pointless. Eli got this very sentiment over their bond and he laughed.

            “Oh, come on! It’s not like we’d really need to use it, but wouldn’t it be fun? You can be my official second in command.”

            Tretij shook his head. No, he was fine being the Third Child. Besides, he had a real name like Eli’s that he didn’t really like to use anyway. Pale eyes wandered away from Eli and towards the burgers. They looked strange, almost fake, but somehow every other person in the mess hall seemed to be eating one. He pointed to one of the burgers that hadn’t been touched yet. What the hell was that thing?

            “Kaz calls them hamburgers,” One of the boys picked it up, tray and all, and offered it to Tretij. “You should try it! They taste good.”

            That tasted good? Tretij tilted his head and stared at the sandwich presented to him. It certainly…looked interesting. He slowly peeled away his sleeves to keep them from collecting crumbs. There were a lot of colors and textures going on all at once. Bread, meat, that looked like a tomato, and…lettuce? Surely there could be more appetizing combinations. He lifted up his mask part of the way, enough to get a sniff, and quickly put the sandwich back down before pushing the tray to the side. Nope. He’d rather just have the meat and some boiled potatoes.

            Eli laughed at the way Tretij shook his head to try and get the smell away. It was just like a dog! The boys seemed to take this as a good sign and sat down around their pint-sized leader and his new friend. By nature, Tretij didn’t have much to say, but his few words moments ago seemed to be enough that he was considered one worthy of trust. No one was getting angry at him or showing any fear. It felt like forever ago since he could feel so secure surrounded by so many people.

            After the boys had finished with eating, Eli gave them a few orders for the day. There was to be much working out soon enough and he wanted to do some laps around base later in the day once lunch had been digested. Running around, huh? Tretij turned in his seat and stuck out his legs. His bare toes wiggled freely, not confined to boots or shoes like the others. Would he have to run these laps too?

            One by one, the boys gathered their trays together and two soldiers approached them. One of them was a British man that Snake had picked up on a previous mission, the other a somewhat short woman with a round face. The woman raised an eyebrow to see Tretij sitting with the others and then smiled. She crouched down to look him in the eye.

            “There’s the boy I’ve heard so much about.”

            “Are we having lessons, Miss Buffalo?” One of the boys got up to give her a hug.

            She hugged him back and giggled. “Almost time, actually. I thought it might be a nice thing if our new friend here would join us.”

            Lessons. Tretij never really had much of those, at least as far as actually going to school. He had spent too much time hiding his powers. Learning to control them under Cipher’s network of agents. He turned his head to Eli. Eli was frowning, but less angrily than usual.

            “Hungry Buffalo and Timid Viper. They’re part of the intelligence division. Kaz wants them to teach us how to read and write and fix things.”

            Oh! That sounded a bit fun, actually. He didn’t know how to do any of that. There was much going on at Mother Base he had only been able to guess at and now he learned something new every time he turned his head. Besides, he couldn’t hear anything from Buffalo or Viper that spoke of mistrust. Viper especially seemed interested in learning about how well he could speak. Tretij stared up at the man from behind the lenses. Some of the boys laughed at their staring contest and cheered Tretij on. Then Viper blinked and offered his hand to Tretij.

            “What do you say, young master? I hear you’re Czech in terms of nationality. We might be able to provide a translator for you if we know what language you grew up around.”

            Tretij merely tilted his head at the suggestion, but he did get up from his seat, taking Eli’s hand instead. It made Viper chuckle. Eli had already gotten up while two of the boys got to finishing a neat stack of trays to be brought to one of the collection stations by the garbage bins.

            Together, they made a march along the platform, edging close to the buildings. There were more people all around, which made Tretij feel terribly exposed. They were walking in the shadow between two towers when he suddenly vanished in smoke and reappeared overhead, hugging himself. Eyes. Eyes and heads and thoughts in those heads and he could hear the glimpses of some unsavory rumors. The boys were looking up at him in wonder and amazement, but Eli narrowed his eyes.

“Tretij?” Buffalo looked up and stopped in place. “If you need a moment, I can stay here while the others go on ahead.”

            Stay? No, he didn’t need watching over like that. He wasn’t a burden. Unless he was a burden and she was just being- No. No… Buffalo was sincere. He could see her worry swirling around, wondering if he was over- Overstimulated? Stressed. Or if he was reliving a bad memory like the other boys sometimes did.

            At least she could understand that little part of what he thought about. And now he knew a new word! A concept of too much at once. He shook his head and floated on ahead, twirling once in the air. Maybe once they were in this classroom, he could forget about the eyes and the heads for a little bit.

            Eli met his gaze as they turned the corner and ascended a short flight of stairs. After so much time watching, Tretij knew that there were many little offices scattered around. The boys started getting excited as Viper unlocked the door and poured inside, laughing already with thoughts on what they were going to do that day. Lights came on inside, and Tretij was back on the ground, peering around the doorframe inside.

There were two large black rectangles against the back wall. A large desk by the back wall, a long desk that sat in the middle of the room, and many bookcases along the other walls. On the shelves he could see toys, books, paper in all kinds of colors, a can full of scissors. Even the very walls seemed to be decorated: a pale and soft blue rather than the harsh yellows and tans outside. It looked so…fun. He wanted to explore this place.

A hand touched his shoulder. Buffalo was watching him and Eli hovering. She smirked when Tretij walked in on his own, but she and Tretij missed the tiniest pull at the corner of Eli’s mouth.