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“Did you hear? The boss brought in a girl.”

Shy Octopus perks up slightly. It’s not every day the word chica makes its way to their quarters. And there aren’t many girls on the base, especially single ones. Every straight man on base is going to be showered and in their best clothes for a while.

Octopus doesn’t think he’s going to have a chance; there aren’t many ladies interested in somebody who’s barely an adult, but it doesn’t hurt to take a shower and comb his hair. His parasites enjoy the cool water, anyway. He doesn’t need it to survive like Lieutenant Quiet does, but it still makes him feel strong and bright, better than the sickly child that died convulsing and frothing in the mud.

As it turns out, the girl is the too young one. She can’t be older than fifteen, even if her eyes have that steely sheen to them all kids like them have. Her skin is a shade darker than the boss’, and Octopus’ heart flutters, even though even if she was South American he couldn’t speak Spanish to her anyway.

Wolf, is her new name, and it sounds almost like a dog barking on her unsure tongue. She is Kurdish, her eyes an unsettling shade of blue and her hair dirt blond. They don’t speak each other’s language, but they are the youngest people on base right now, and Octopus can’t be deployed until he turns eighteen, so he takes it upon himself to show her around.

In less than a week, Wolf and Octopus are inseparable, and whenever the boss isn’t out on missions DD completes the trio. Octopus was scared at first, DD is too big to be just a dog, he’s seen Ocelot train him, knows how deadly he can be. But with Wolf, he’s like one of those lapdogs girls like, watching her adoringly no matter what she does.

The older guys in his quarters tease him, call Wolf his “little girlfriend”, but Octopus doesn’t let himself be bothered by it. Every time the boss or Lieutenant Quiet run into them, they smile and give them a thumbs up, happy they aren’t lonely anymore. Wolf learns English so fast she’s helping Octopus be more sure of his, too.

“What is scar,” she says one day, as they sit in the shade of the intel tower, disassembling guns and oiling them as they practice their language. She points at her throat. “Quiet has scar, also.”

“Ah.” He touches his throat, where his skin is bleached white in a jagged line down his vocal cords. “That’s from the parasites. The...things that make Lieutenant special.”

Wolf frowns. “You speak.”

“Yes. I’m not special.”

Wolf laughs, and it sounds like tiny bells. “You are special.”

“I am stronger than I was. Faster, too. I see well. That’s about it.”

“You don’t see it?”

Octopus blinks. “See what?”

“Your face. It changes.” Wolf frowns, gesturing with the empty magazine in her hands, trying to find the right words. “You look something when you talk to me. You are different with other people.”

When Octopus still doesn’t understand, she drops the guns and runs back to her quarters, comes back with a small pocket mirror, and then places it in front of his face.

Octopus blinks. “I look just...normal.” Except he doesn’t, does he? He looks...younger. His skin is a little darker.

“Come,” grunts Wolf, pulling him by the wrist. She drags him by a group of female Diamond Dogs, starts talking to them, introduces him to them, especially Rowdy Cobra, the gorgeous Persian R&D staff member half the base has a crush on. Then shows him his own face. He looks older now, a little lighter, his hair shinier, his teeth whiter.

“I never saw that before.”

Wolf crosses her arms, proud of herself. “You are special.”

Their language sessions soon also involve a mirror, a radio, and after a while, Octopus’ gun. They listen to the pop songs on the many tapes that circulate the base. Octopus teaches Wolf to shoot, and soon she’s better than him at it. Wolf shows him rumpled magazines with actor and musicians on them, and makes him take their face.

The change is very small at first, lighter hair shades, imperceptible shifting of cheekbones. They are drinking flat warm coke on the boiling hot day Octopus makes his dark eyes blue like the Boss’, and Wolf is so excited she laughs for the first time, a deep belly laugh that surprises even her. They are hiding away from the monsoons in one of the hallways where Commander Miller won’t whine about “kids always underfoot” when Octopus manages a passable Tom Cruise. It’s not until the dry season that he spends the whole day disguised as Wolf and nobody notices. Lieutenant Quiet looks at him as if she sees through him, but she isn’t gonna tell, is she?

By the time the new monsoon season rolls around Octopus’ skill is good enough to go on missions disguised as other people and he makes a remarkable amount of barter by covering for Diamond Dogs who claim that another mine-defusing mission is literally going to kill them with boredom. Wolf is often out training with Lieutenant Quiet. They don’t see each other much, and every time they do Octopus is surprised by how much of a woman she’s becoming, blossoming into a beautiful creature between missions. But she also looks at Lieutenant Quiet the same way the boss looks at Commander Miller, and Octopus squashes down any traitorous flutter his heart might make when she comes running for him every time he comes back, when she recognizes him even through his many disguises.

And then, one day, Commander Miller calls him in personally.

***

Octopus has never directly interacted with the surly commander and was hoping to keep it that way. He doesn’t want to be sent away. He likes the Diamond Dogs. He’s never hungry or alone here. Wolf is here.

He is not expecting to come into the office and find both Lieutenant Quiet and Instructor Ocelot flanking Miller. God, just in how much trouble is he?

“Come in Octopus. Don’t be afraid,” says Miller, and Octopus does not believe him, but steps inside anyway, standing on attention in front of the messy desk.

“We’ve been hearing some interesting stories,” says Ocelot, his voice almost a purr. “About your exploits.”

“I’m, I’m sorry sir?”

Lieutenant Quiet rests her gloved hand on Commander Miller’s shoulder. He lowers his aviators. Octopus has never seen Miller’s eyes before and instantly understands why. There’s oily marks around them, and his irises are milky, swimming in black. Parasites.

Shit.

“We welcomed you within Diamond Dogs mindful of your....condition,” he says, his voice even but his shimmering eyes boring through him. “We were hoping that once side effects started manifesting themselves, you would contact the medical team.”

Octopus swallows.

Ocelot slinks to sit on the desk, crossing his long legs with a soft tinkle. “How long have you been taking other people’s place on deployment missions, kid?” he asks.

Octopus takes a deep breath. “Since November, sir.”

“November!” sputters Miller, pushing his glasses up again. “You weren’t even of age then!”

“I have been doing just minor missions, sir.”

Quiet grunts, and Octopus snaps his mouth shut.

“Lieutenant here has been keeping an eye on you, Octopus. Making sure your inexperience doesn’t get you killed.”

Oh. “Oh.”

“But it has been going on long enough.”

“I-I understand, sir.” Octopus closes his eyes, preparing himself to the worst. Time to go back to being a regular kid. He’s going to need a new name. He can’t speak his own out loud anymore.

“As of now, you’ve been transferred to the Intelligence division.”

Octopus’ head snaps up, looking at the three officers in front of him.

“You will train under me,” says Ocelot, grinning like a cat with cream. “Your...special skill is wasted on mine defusing for D-rankers. You’ll be infiltrating S-rank objectives in no time.”

“Sir?”

“You are going to be a spy, Octopus.”

***

“A spy? You?” laughs Wolf, and the copper bells dangling from her wrist chime along.

“Looks like it.”

“It’s probably for the best.” She aims her sidearm and a breath later she’d ripped off the head of the paper man a hundred yards away. “You are a terrible shot.”

“I’m not,” he grumbles. He aims, grips the trigger, and the bullet goes through the paper man’s stomach. “I’m just bad compared to you.”

“I’m just saying, you’d be a mess in combat. You’d turn in an actual octopus from the tension.”

Octopus snorts. “Look at her. Goes on one mission with Quiet and now she’s all combat veteran.”

“Quiet trusts me.” Another headshot, between the eyes, perfect round hole. “And we all have things we’re good at. I’m good at shooting. You’re good at taking people’s faces.” She smiles, shoots again, and the bullet goes through the hole without touching the rest of the paper. “To be fair, this will probably mean you’ll live longer than me.”

“Hey, who’s gonna sit on a rooftop and look out for me while I’m in disguise if you die first?”

Wolf laughs. The third bullet goes through the paper a hairsbreadth to the left, carving an infinity symbol into the dark head. “I’ll look out for you until my last breath, you know that.”

“Good. You’re not allowed to die until I do.”

Wolf shoots in the air, covering her bright laughter. “Deal!”

Years later, as his heart stops and there’s nothing his ageing parasites can do to restart it, he will think of their deal and the sun shining through the twin holes in the paper, and quietly apologize to his best friend for dragging her along for this long.