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The Soul's Undersong

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A rifle butt jabs sharp against her back. Quiet exhales and allows the infraction while increasing her pace slightly. Not so obedient when their master isn’t watching, these diamond dogs. She wears a neutral expression towards the armed guard, easily accepts the route they dictate as her own. They’re hungry for something, anything to contest.

 

Let them starve, she thinks.

 

Six guards escort her to the brig; one African, two Russians, two Americans, and one she has yet to pinpoint. The first five don’t pose any challenge, but the sixth, Sly Condor, tests her ear for accents. Cantonese and Vietnamese have a similar phonology and the soldier’s words have been few. Quiet glances over her shoulder at the woman. Eyes forward. She doesn't try to look at again, but she gathers enough to sketch her captor. 

 

Slender and petite, she stands almost a head shorter than her comrades. Her black hair is pulled back into a small ponytail, her tawny beige skin contrasting against the dark uniform rucked up at her forearms, an assault rifle held carefully in her hands. Her dark eyes met Quiet’s without hesitation, her lips twitching once in a language Quiet can’t read. Disgust? Contempt?   

 

As soon as they round the corner and are out of earshot, the jaws start snapping, spittle flying from their irate mouths. The Boss saved you this time, next time you won't be so lucky. I can't fucking wait for him to put you in the ground. You try anything- I mean anything, and you’re dead. Eyes forward, prisoner. 

 

All promise her harm should she misstep. It’s a good thing that she’s left her carelessness behind her. Every footstep is deliberate, her worn black boots padding against industrial planes.

 

Sly Condor is silent, neither condoning nor condemning her teammates chatter. She maintains her position in Quiet’s blindspot free from observation. Their rapport is a one way street. Her eyes prickle against Quiet’s skin. Not in the lechery turned venomous way she’s grown accustomed to, but penetratingly, searching. As if there is some kind of explanation written in her sinew, the tight curves of her muscles, the architecture of her bones. 

 

You're not like me.

 

Quiet glances out at the foamy aquamarine drink, waves swelling and dissolving with chaotic abandon. Easily a six story drop if she’d ever seen one.

 

I was once. 

 

Seven feet, maybe eight, and she’d be over the edge. They wouldn’t be able to stop her, a second in time and she’d be flying. Before, the fall would have killed her, now it would be the immersion. Her new body would suffocate beneath the glassy curved ceiling. These thoughts, idle observations, come without warning, fluttering into her head with delicate fatalism. Sometimes she forgets she can’t swim anymore. The rules of self preservation have all but been burnt up and rewritten. Same as her.

 

The wind blows carries the salty scent of the ocean spray. It teases through her hair and soothes her skin. It’s a shame. She used to love swimming, too.

 

Only Sly Condor follows her down the stairs. The rest of the guards remain topside to quell the rising voices and placate the growing crowd. News travels fast on a military base and it’s hardly as though she simply walked aboard. There’s an assassin on board? The woman? He let her live? Wait, what did Miller say? Somebody ought to- 

 

The brig is cooler, feels almost subterranean compared the blazing heat of the top deck. Her eyes accustom to the interplay of light and shadow easily. The answering bars reflect a reality that needs to be seen to believe. Quiet is surrendering, for the moment at least. A shower, a bed, a toilet. The construction of the brig isn't anything to write home about, though the absence of anyone occupying it is a change. A cage just for her, she thinks wryly. A smirk twists her face.

 

The soldier gestures Quiet into the cell with a wave of her hand.

 

“He must have his reasons for sparing you…” she begins, already looking away from Quiet to the stairwell, fingers still curled around the door’s bars. She glances back at her, slamming the door shut, voice firm, “Don’t fuck it up.”

 

Quiet waits until the soldier exits before padding toward the cot to sit down heavily, a sigh pressing through windless lungs. She needs to get her thoughts together and figure out the plan. There's a tinny clatter above her. A spent aluminum can thrown in attempt to rattle her no doubt. It rests precariously between the ceiling’s bars. She doesn't blame them for their hatred, but she's not exactly in the position to humour it either. She waits for something else, for noise to materialize into further action. But nothing follows the impotent threat. 

 

The dull roar of empty threats and snarls above her continues.

 

It takes her a moment to realize there’s another contributor to the chaos, the culprit a banged up silver cassette player just beyond of the bars. She can barely hear the music over the din above, but the red light flashes with promise and the tape reels are spinning. She reaches through the bars, turning the volume knob all the way up.

 

Faint recognition blooms into awareness as the synth beat jumps from a whisper to a raucous shout. A tight snare and voice crooning over synth notes. 

 

Whoooa here she comes, 

Watch out boys she’ll chew you up, 

Whoooa here she comes…

 

An involuntary smile breaks though and Quiet laughs a little. It’s been awhile since she’s heard this song. Given what they know of her, the irony is a giddy amusement.

 

Relaxing back onto the bed, she stares up at the sun for a moment, the clear bright sky, before turning on her side to face the cassette player. Snagging the meagre pillow, Quiet rests her head against the rough cotton, cheek nestling in as she listens to the song gradually fade out. She plays it again. The jeers continue but the cassette tape drowns them out, playing long after they disperse.

 

___________________

 

Venom doesn’t like keeping Quiet in the brig. But since it’s the only point upon which Ocelot and Kaz are in agreement when it comes to the woman, the nature of her housing is virtually non-negotiable. Venom accepts the decision, like many others, while assuming her protection as his own personal responsibility. The first time he ventures to the Medical strut to visit their new captive all he has to do is follow the synth emanating from the brig to find her.

 

As he draws nearer the drifting music becomes sharper, drowning out all other noises by the time he reaches the stairwell. It’s a welcome submersion. Away from the constant chatter from his iDroid, the casual interruptions of the soldiers, all the aural stimulus that usually sets his head buzzing. Just one melody to fill him entirely. So often his mind feels foggy, his memories blurred and indecipherable. It’s steadying to channel his focus.

 

Venom doesn’t disclose anything about his condition to the Mother Base physicians, the overwhelming headaches, the haziness of his thoughts. The fact that in his recollections, Kaz is always dichotomous, like two projections run on the same screen, only the actor reads the scene a little differently in each projection. And that despite his history with Ocelot, he can never quite put a face to the man from his memories, Major Ocelot nothing but a scripted character. Too much was lost in the crash and it quietly terrifies him to think of the extent of the damage done. 

 

He’s still a soldier, though. He hasn’t lost that much.

 

Watching and waiting, 

Ooh, she's sittin' with you, 

But her eyes are on the door…

 

His first view of Quiet contained is a candid one thanks to his silenced steps in the sneaking suit. She’s lying down on the cot, her long legs lazily kicking in the air as she listens to the music playing at full volume. The beaten up cassette player only an arm’s reach away, playing away cheerily. Venom doesn’t recognize the song, but then again he wouldn’t know any of the music that had come out over the past decade. 

 

It’s an alienation that somehow feels more personal than the history he missed during the coma, that he doesn’t feel a thrum of recognition at the music Pequod plays on the radio or the songs drifting across the base during casual hours. It makes him feel alone. It seems like a strange request to make of Kaz or Ocelot, both of them already so busy running the base, to get him up to speed musically so he’s taken to collecting the occasional cassette or two over the course of his missions. 

 

Nodding along with the song, he decides he likes it. It’s soothing. The synthetic and electronic nature of eighties music is so different from the music of the seventies, listening to it makes him feel less stuck out of time. He’ll have to see if he can find a similar track.

 

His prosthetic hand comes down harder than he intended on the rail with a clatter and Quiet’s head jerks over her shoulder his direction. Sharp guilt cuts through him at her expression, not unlike how he’d felt when he was caught looking at his father’s dirty magazines as a boy. Next time, he amends, he’ll try to make some noise before coming down. She turns away, though not entirely, watching him through the corner of her eye.

 

Stepping closer, he looks at her through the bars, keeping an arm’s distance away to allow her some sense of space.

 

Sunning herself beneath the bars, Quiet looks as though she belongs sprawled out on a sandy, white beach not in the belly of Mother Base. Bikini top untied, her head nodding along with the music, she looks entirely unbothered by the incongruity of her situation. Appearances are deceptive though. As he draws closer he can feel Quiet pointedly tracking his movements with sharp eyes as he begins to circle the enclosure.

 

He walks along the perimeter carefully, examining her sparse surroundings. She’s too exposed for his liking, the atmosphere of hostility towards her is palpable. The defaced sign topside speaks volumes when it comes the base’s attitudes towards her. He has the utmost confidence in his soldiers, but it doesn’t change the fact that good men get caught up in bad ideas. Fingers brushing against his iDroid, he makes a mental note to talk to Ocelot about setting up a guard.

 

For a moment he leans against the wall, watching her from across the room. He slides down to sit, his muscles grateful for the respite. It’s been a long day. Glancing through the ceiling bars the sky is a mixture of hazy pinks and purples from the setting sun. She watches him from her bed, only moving to restart the song when it ends before dropping her head onto her forearms. He listens to the rest of the song before rising to stand, making his way up the stairs. Quiet’s eyes follow him until he disappears.

 

He leaves feeling clearer.

___________________________________

 

The Hall and Oates cassette falls apart four days later. One moment Quiet’s bobbing along with the song the next is sheer panic when the music cuts out entirely. She reaches over to pop open the player and her heart sinks at the mess of ribbons that greet her as she carefully extricates the tape.

 

She grimaces at the shiny black innards spilling carelessly from the frame. If she had a screwdriver she knows she could fix the problem easily, but she doesn’t so it’s with determination attempts to improvise a solution.  She moves to the middle of the room where the light is best and drops down carefully, attempting to twist at the screws with her nails. When that doesn’t work, she snags one of her boots from under the cot and tugs loose a bootlace and attempts turning the screws with the plastic tip.

 

It’s a futile gesture. Each time it feels as though the bootlace has gained traction with the grips it slides free. She huffs and tries again. Big Boss’s knock before he descends, but she doesn’t glance up from her mission. Folded up like a pretzel over the frustrating container in centre of the room, the urgency of her task only swells the more hopeless it becomes.

 

“No music today?” Big Boss intones curiously and she glances up, blowing her bangs out from her face. It’s the first time she’s actually felt resentment about her incarceration, the base’s distrust towards her. Anger plumes hotly in her chest at being denied the only thing she had to connect herself to her past. Now that it’s gone, she realizes how sharply the deprivation stings.

 

Big Boss squints as catches sight of the problem and beckons her over “Let me see.”

 

Quiet doesn’t want to part with it, but the truth is she doubt’s she’ll be able to get the damn thing unscrewed by force of will alone. She rises from her crouch easily, approaching him warily. There’s a click as the cassette is exchanged from her warm fingers to the cool metal of his prosthetic ones. 

 

She doesn’t release her grip at first and he glances up at her. Please give it back, she thinks. He nods at her, recognizing its importance to her. She lets go, immediately feeling a slight pang of regret at its departure. Surveying the damage, he gives her a half smile, “I can fix it,” before digging into his pocket for something, “Here.”

 

It’s another cassette. The label is marked over so she can’t tell what it’s supposed to be, but he holds it out to her carefully. An offering. Her fingers skim the surface tentatively, glancing up at him. She’s suddenly aware of their proximity, if she wanted she could touch his face at this distance. It’s the closest they’ve been to each other since they met, since he’d carried her over to the helicopter, thrown his jacket over her prostate body, and they’d been under attack. 

 

She looks at him, searching for something, before plucking the cassette from his hand.

 

She can feel him watch her examine it, turning it between her fingers. As though a visual appraisal of it meant anything without the label. She won’t know anything until she plays it, she pads across the cell to vet her new prize while he departs in the other direction, to the spot where he had sat down the other day, easily fishing a small toolkit from one of the many pouches on his person. 

 

Tongue tied or short of breath,

Don't even try, 

Try a little harder…

 

Quiet laughs, recognizing the song immediately. She falls back onto the cot, closing her eyes, remembering hearing it for the first time while driving throughout the meandering red roads of Afghanistan. It seems like was years ago but in truth was only last summer that she’d heard it. It feels like stabilization. Skull face can’t take this away from her and neither can the fire. Humming along, she forgets that Big Boss is even there until he approaches her after the songs played a few times over. He holds the restored cassette through the bars.

 

The single has been restored to its former glory and Quiet can’t help lighting up at this new development. She takes the cassette, her hand resting for a moment on his prosthetic hand. Thank you. Hastily, she moves to return Big Boss’s copy of “Too Shy” but he won’t take it.

 

“Keep it. I can always come back later.”

 

She nods, holding the cassettes carefully. There’s promise in his assurance.

__________________________________

 

As a rule he visits Quiet after each mission debriefing, excusing himself to go visit the soldiers in Sick Bay after Kaz and Ocelot are finished reviewing new intel and organizing future operations. It’s not a complete lie, only one of omission. 

 

Venom does visit the wards. He enjoys following the progress of each of the patients, hearing their stories. He’s a man of few words, but just being there seems to be enough for the soldiers, their faces lighting up at his armour clad presence despite their ailments.

 

Following the wards he visits to Paz, making sure to sit with her for half an hour or so. Her tranquil room is a disturbing memory that inflames his conscience. Seeing Paz never make him feel better. If anything the visits almost always curdle whatever joy he gets from visiting the wards. But he can’t justify leaving her alone, not when she’s so happy at his arrival, so he goes dutifully, occasionally a faded picture tucked into his pocket for her examination.

 

Only after these tasks are finished, he visits Quiet. He is careful to rap his knuckles against the stairwell wall on the way down, loud enough to be overheard before descending.

 

He doesn’t have the words to explain how Quiet makes him feel. The way the slightest expressions of relief, joy, and sorrow make his heart twinge. How easily her happiness or lack thereof bleeds into him. Even the turn of her head at his presence sets him alight. Around Quiet nothing can touch him, but her. Not the crash, not the headaches, not even his mind’s betrayals.

__________________________________

 

He doesn’t speak much, Quiet realizes some time around his tenth visit. Not simply around her where his words would only be met by gesture, but even in familiar company. This time Shalashaska is with him, explaining her anatomy. Quiet continues her routine despite their presence, listening carefully. It’s something she notices quite sharply now that her tongue has been stilled, the ways in which people dominate the conversation, how freely words spill without thought or consideration.

 

Shalashaska speaks with easy confidence. His Southern accent almost believable even if he does drop the pin-pen merger once every few sentences. It isn’t ostentatious enough to be dismissed outright, yet it still strikes as affected rather than learned to those who would know. A linguistic wink. Quiet files it away along with his the history known, his previous defence of her. There is a pageantry in the man she’d be foolish to ignore.

 

For his part, Big Boss speaks remarkably little. His voice a soft rumble intermittently breaking up Shalashaska’s speeches. There’s little to pick apart in his words, his accent, by contrast. She’s more interested in the fact that he never breaks eye contact with her, even if her stare has galvanized countless people before him. Through the bars she casts a sidelong glance that Big Boss meets easily.

 

Two of the soldiers accompanying them murmur something between them, judging by their faces it’s derisive. It’s a perverse reality that while her body is physically stronger than theirs, easily categorized as a superhuman, that the loss of her words make her subhuman among these men. She’s an animal caught in a cage, everyone holding their breath for the day that the Boss decides to put her down.

 

She doesn’t believe it will happen like that, if it even does. There’s something affectionate in his devotion to visiting her. She can almost time his arrival from the faint beat of chopper blades landing to the growl of the jeep pulling into the Medical Strut. Sometimes he has a new cassette with him, sometimes they just listen to whatever tape Quiet’s been playing for the past few days. Either way, they sit together, listening, Quiet sprawled out on her cot and Big Boss sitting against the wall opposite her.

 

She finds herself looking forward to those moments that scratch at normalcy, intimacy.

 

There’s recognition in his eyes, a tentative understanding between them that isn’t easily grasped. She doesn’t reach back for him it should it be a deception. She smiles weakly, stretching her tight muscles. She doesn’t allow herself much grief considering the things she’s lost. But it’s been a long time since she’s had the luxury of sentiment. Skull Face made sure only anger flowered in her mind upon her resurrection. 

 

She wasn’t so naive as to not notice the ways in which her motives were cultivated and shaped, but Big Boss gives her indoctrination pause.

 

He sees her beyond the tactical expertise and their brutal short history that are exalted by his seconds in command. There’s something in his glance that asks questions she wants to answer, a tentative hand extended. He knows that she’s hiding something, there’s no way he couldn’t. She suspects he’s hiding something too. Only liars allow others the grace of holding their tongue.

 

She tilts her face up underneath the shower head, the water sluicing down through her hair and along the line of her neck, rivulets streaming down between her breasts, the join of her hip. Water splatters against the ground loudly and Quiet closes her eyes. She doesn’t need to see them to feel their stares, to hear the sharp inhale of a soldier’s breath at the sight of her. His men hate her, but that didn’t mean they didn’t want her all the same. It disgusts her, but she doesn’t let it show.

 

He doesn’t look at her like that. If he did, it wouldn’t make her feel the way their eyes do. She hears a brief scuffle, the sounds of boots moving. The low growl of his voice and then silence.

 

When she finally opens her eyes, they’re gone.

 

________________

 

Quiet doesn’t hide her emotions as well as she thinks, but Venom’s hardly in a position to judge, smiling a small smile as Pequod lifts off from Mother Base. It’s their first mission together and the freedom alone is cause for celebration. Quiet hangs almost half out of the helicopter, taking in the gargantuan proportions of Mother Base as her XOF uniform flaps loudly with the wind. Her expression is one of serene pleasure as she leans even further out on her perch. 

 

Venom falls back on his hands, watching her.

 

Pequod, noting Quiet’s interest, takes them in a lazy arch to show her the full scale of the place. The thoughtfulness of the gesture doesn’t escape Venom. It’s a good time to fly, the skies a clear, piercing blue.

 

“Quiet,” Venom yells over the chopper blades, she turns back to him, her expression of slight concern, “You look good.” She smiles, toothy and broad, and it’s contagious. Pequod takes them a full revolution of the base before heading out towards Afghanistan. She looks smaller in the fatigues. He hadn’t wanted to presume anything about Quiet’s dress, but the fact was that he’d uncovered some blueprints for the XOF uniforms and when he’d asked her if she was interested she had nodded in agreement.

 

Quiet takes her seat almost reluctantly as Venom rises to shut the helicopter door. They ride in relative silence until Quiet moves up to the front, looking for something.

 

“What can I do for you, Quiet?” Pequod asks affably, albeit slightly startled at her presence. Venom’s noticed he’s one of the few of the Diamond Dogs unafraid of her, that actually speaks to and of her like a normal person, though his little jump of surprise at her arrival at the front doesn’t escape him. She scans the front for something before finding a suitable symbol. Her fingers tap on a flimsy plastic cassette container and Pequot’s voice lights up with understanding.

 

“You want some music?” he asks. Quiet nods and he chuckles, reaching for the dials, “I can help you there.”

 

Music explodes from the speakers and Quiet returns to her seat. Venom grins at her. Only a few bars in and the recognitions hits him. They’ve listened to this song together frequently over the past couple weeks. Venom was starting to worry that the cassette tape was going to get worn out or damaged. He wonders if she knew that it was his favourite, or if it was hers as well.

 

I, I got be your friend now, baby

And I would like to move in

Just a little bit closer...

 

When they reach the destination, “You spin me round” is still blasting at full volume as Quiet hurtles herself from the helicopter and Venom follows suit.

 

______________________________

 

It’s feels as though they’ve been fighting together for years, not the sparse steady two months of missions together. There’s an implicit trust and understanding between them that she’s only felt with few others. The easy rapport between them as soldiers that parallels the more personal feelings that Quiet can no longer deny.

 

The flush of pleasure she feels at his companionship, his gentle voice beckoning her alone. She’s not alone in her feelings, there are messages writ in the small touches. A hand at her back, a tug on her belt to get her attention, his fingers grazing along hers. There’s no way it can survive, not with the virus inside her, but she’ll be damned if she lets her fleeting pleasures pass her by.

 

When they set out at the beginning of the day, Pequod already has the music ready to go. There’s a burst of adrenaline as they soar over the sea, the ocean no longer calling the siren’s call she once heard. She doesn’t want to die. She hasn’t for a long while, she realizes. It doesn’t change the circumstances, but the shift in her attitude is cathartic, like the last weakness in her has finally been burned away. 

 

She just needed to be in the sky to see it.

 

By the time they spill back into the helicopter at the end of the mission, Big Boss is always in worse shape than she is, exhaustion a heavy mantle on his shoulders. Her resurrection was a deal with the devil, his the fruits of mere mortals. She helps him where she can, easing him on the helicopter, before jumping up aboard. They sit together on the rides home, Big Boss resting his head against Quiet’s shoulder.

 

She leans her head against his, sighing gently. She’ll remember the trips back to Mother Base above all else when she’s forced to leave for good. The helicopter hushed save for the occasional sounds of Pequod radio-ing necessary contacts and the noises of the behemoth itself. Big Boss a warm weight against her, his chest rising and falling with heavy sleeping breaths. How she pressed a kiss to his forehead, and the way he shifted slightly against her, still fast asleep.

 

He deserves a better life than this, she thinks.

 

So does she.