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I'll Pick Up Your Bones When I'm Done

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ART BY STARLOCK

 

 

1999

“In a real dark night of the soul, it’s always 3am,” Solid Snake thinks as he chips the black mud from his boots. The air in the Tselinoyarsk jungle is humid and thick enough to slice with a knife, but Snake’s been trudging through so many swamps and sewers that a chill he can’t shake has settled beneath his skin. His uniform is stained dark from the soil, and from the blood of Big Boss’s many lieutenants: Red Blaster, Predator, Kyle Schneider -

Snake’s knife slips and he accidentally nicks the side of his hand. He hisses and brings the split skin to his mouth, sucking hard on the wound to stop the bleeding. The truth is that his Dark Night has barely begun; his mind is off the mission now. His thoughts are scattershot, disorganized. He still can’t shake the sight of Gustava’s shredded torso as she bled out in his lap, the sound of Gray Fox’s voice, filtered through the grating that enclosed Metal Gear’s cockpit...

He shuts his eyes and tries to think of nothing: purification of the senses is the first step to purification of the soul. David isn’t a religious man, but the absolution St. John of the Cross finds in oblivion is a universal desire. ‘cesó todo y dejéme, dejando mi cuidado...’ - the freedom found in God is similar to the freedom a soldier finds in following orders. Purify the senses and give yourself over to the mission. Everything else will come naturally. The man who taught him that, he -

- a voice drifts through the mist to answer the hanging couplet of his verse. Snake’s nerves are so shot that at first he thinks he’s hallucinating. “- entre las azucenas olvidado.” my cares… forgotten among the lilies. Snake hadn’t realized he’d been speaking aloud, so how could anyone possibly respond? He drops his knife and checks his radio. Maybe he’d left it on since his last briefing? If so, it’d be a disaster; they were using burst communication, but even switching frequencies would be detected if left to dangle for too long. Besides, that voice - it was so familiar. It -

“A blood drenched jungle like this is the last place I thought I’d hear someone mumbling the words of a holy man. Then again, this is you we're talking about.”

The words are accompanied by the dulled clang of a metal cylinder (a cane?) hitting wood. It strikes again and again, in the pattern of an appreciative slow clap. There is only one person Snake knows who expresses condescending approval like that. He leaps to his feet and spins with one hand on his holster. He’s not sure what he’s expecting to see at this point; after all the shit Big Boss has thrown at him it could be anything: a shape-shifter, a man with perfect control of pitch imitating a voice he’d heard Snake speaking to on the radio, a disturbingly realistic hologram...

The most obvious answer is also the most inexplicable. In the middle of Zanzibar Land’s dark, dense jungle - half a world away from where he’s supposed to be right now - Master McDonnell Benedict Miller is leaning nonchalantly against the spine of a young Kapok Tree looking like he belongs there. He’s got a modified camo poncho slung over his shoulders and he’s wearing a red beret emblazoned with a ‘ZL’, denoting allegiance to Big Boss’ walled nation-state. A scarf of the same colour is tied like an ascot around his neck. His expression, as usual, is impenetrably shrouded by his trademark aviator sunglasses.

“- but I’m proud of you, David,” he says with a very sincere smile. “No other soldier could have made it this far, and no other soldier would still be desperately searching for his soul with so much blood on his hands. You really are one of a kind.”

All Snake can do is rasp his name. “M-Master Miller? What are you… how are you here?”

Miller quirks an eyebrow, amused, and raises his arm. He sweeps his cane through the air and says: “I’ve always been here. This is my home.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m the X.O. of Zanzibar Land. Those are my men you’ve been killing too, David.”

“You-” Snake is faltering. He can’t find the words to respond, he can’t find the presence of mind to make logic out of this. “You’re… a traitor too? How can you have gone over to Big Boss’ side?” Kyle, Madnar, Gray Fox, it’s too much.

Miller shakes his head and tsks. His tone turns chiding.“His ‘side’? David, David. You really don’t understand - after all this time, your thinking is still too black and white. There was no ‘side’ for me to go over to. That’s the point.”

Miller pushes off from the tree he’s leaning against and walks towards Snake, maneuvering on his cane and fake leg with the ease of a decade’s practice. “The battlefield should not divide soldiers into “ally” and “enemy”. We've talked about this before. The criteria we use to determine these things is entirely arbitrary when you sit down to really think about it, isn’t it?”

“I -” Snake feels younger beneath the harsh scrutiny of Miller’s opaque gaze, like he’s a green cadet falling just short of the Hell Master’s required 110%. Was he supposed to admit that after all this time, he’d still never thought about it that way? He fails to answer the question and Miller sets a friendly, fatherly hand on his shoulder.

“It’s okay, David. I’m not trying to give you an exam. This is the kind of thing they train you not to think about in the military. Countries - lines on a map. Ideologies - words in a book, rarely followed to the letter, an excuse for domination and exploitation. Religion? Very convenient for excusing social inequalities. Don’t get me wrong - it’s all well and good if it keeps society structured. We need false constructs to function as a species. That's what makes us human. But should soldiers really be forced to die for things that mean nothing to them?”

Snake says nothing. He can feel the parts of himself that philosophize and intellectualize shutting down one by one. The other part of his brain is kicking in - the one that makes him an excellent soldier, the part of him that made Colonel Campbell beg for him to come back this one last time despite how final he’d made his resignation in the wake of Outer Heaven. This part of him watches the world with animal eyes - looks for weaknesses in people’s gaits, faults in their stance. He begins to shut away the things he’s felt about Master Miller in the past (teacher, friend, father figure, no, more than th -) and forces himself to coldly categorize the man as one thing only: potential enemy.

Miller frowns at Snake’s protracted silence. “Soldiers should be allowed to choose their own cause. Their own comrades. They should be the architects of their own crusades. That’s Big Boss’ dream. That’s the dream of Zanzibar Land.” He pauses and takes his hand off Snake’s shoulder. When he steps back, his sunglasses catch the moonlight for just a moment, flashing bright as he throws his cane to the ground. “That’s the dream that I came here to defend.”

Solid Snake is ready now, all traces of David-the-student buried beneath a shield of confidence carried by a warrior who has never lost a battle. He cocks his head back and forces a thin smile. “You really expect me to fight you like that, Master?”

“Oh, you mean because I’m a cripple?” Miller chuckles and grabs the edge of his poncho, folding it over his shoulder to show the shape of a sleek, mechanical prosthetic. “Did you really think that someone like me would let myself go? Don’t worry, David - I know that you like a fair fight.”

Snake sets his left heel back to steady himself, preparing for a physical blow (the prosthetic looks Russian, probably rigged with a few tricks; usually the joints clamp down with approximately 43% more force than standard human strength), but Miller reaches into the depths of his cloak and pulls out a smoke-grenade. Snake’s eyes fly wide and he dives aside, covering his face to avoid getting choked by the chlorate composition. When he raises his head, Miller is gone. Above, a loudspeaker whines to life and the clap of a spot-light switching on echoes against the jungle canopy. Snake shields his vision against the sudden and harsh light, surprised that he hadn’t noticed the broadcast system in the trees before.

As the smoke dissipates, Snake’s eyes adjust. He can see now that he wasn’t in an abandoned patch of jungle like he’d thought; hidden beneath palm leaves and ghillie blankets is familiar equipment - ropes, ramps, carefully-dug pit-traps. It’s a military grade obstacle course hidden in the middle of the woods, very similar to the one back at FOXHOUND HQ.

Over the loud-speaker, Miller’s voice cracks crisp and clear.

“How about it, Snake? You up for one last training session with the Hell Master? Show me what you’ve learned!”

”What do you want?” I asked.
“To be with you in hell,” he said.

I laughed. “It’s plain you mean
to have us both destroyed.”

- Anna Akhmatova, from 'The Guest'

 

1994

Show me what you’ve learned.

David is fumbling with a trap-wire, his gloves made clumsy and slick by the kind of thick, misty rain that only falls on the West Coast, here in a forest cradled on one side by mountains and the other by the Pacific Ocean. It’s the kind of rain that hangs in the air even after it hits the ground. The radio in his ear is crackling loud with the confused whispers of the other FOXHOUND recruits out on this training exercise with him. The confusion started fourty minutes ago when the voice of Roy Campbell - Executive Officer of FOXHOUND and the highest authority in the unit besides Big Boss himself - cut into their radio frequencies and began issuing subtly conflicting orders against Mission Control. Things got unconventional after that as “Mission Control” - their usually trustworthy if somewhat hard-assed survival trainer, Master Miller - began issuing “helpful tips” that led his students straight into cleverly hidden traps.

That’s where David was right now. He’d walked into his trap intentionally and with purpose. The very last thing Campbell had said to them was: “Mission parameters changed. Miller is now the enemy. Bring him in. Campbell out.” What caused the confusion was that he refused to respond to or confirm any queries. Any attempts to call back were met with radio silence. David’s radio beeps to life again with the voice of his comrade, Vibrant Hawk.

“Snake. Going after Miller. What’s your position? Out.”

Instead of answering, David pulls his gloves off with his teeth and uses his bare fingers to loose the last bit of the trap wire’s taut knots. The “C4” on the other end isn’t armed. The worst it will do is trip an alarm and broadcast his failure across half the forest, tipping off his target that someone was closing in. With the trap safely disabled, David drops to his stomach and begins pulling himself through the muddy underbrush.

He has no time to wait for Hawk to help him pincer in on their teacher’s position. He already knows where he’s going, had discerned the purpose of the exercise the moment Campbell’s gruff voice came on over the radio. He is certain that he knows where Master Miller is broadcasting from now, after passing multiple red-herring posts manned by decoys that watched the world through clumsily applied, knock-off sunglasses.

Miller’s transmissions are backed by the steady thrum of rain hitting a roof, meaning that he’s either above the tree-line or nestled in a clearing. He was calling in the trainees one by one, leading them to the traps that probably surrounded his position, to throw the ones who didn’t fall for it off his trail. All David has to do is follow the audial intensity of the rain. It’s not long before he catches the glint of glass between the trees. As he crawls closer, he can see that there is a shadow moving unsteadily in the window. Bingo. The sentry-post is built into the rise of a small hill, formed by two rectangular boulders long lost beneath a sea of soft moss and red peat.

It’s not hard to sneak around the back of the structure with the rain and the wet ground dampening the fall of his footsteps. He walks slowly and carefully, to mitigate the noticeable squelch that accompanies each raise of his heel. The sentry post has no door so Miller’s back is clearly visible the moment David climbs the hill. He’s got a size-too-big raincoat thrown over his tracksuit but he cuts an unmistakable figure with one sleeve empty and his left pant-leg clinging wetly to the inhuman shape of his outdated prosthetic.

David pads his way into the post and sets his empty gun to the back of Miller’s head as soon as he crosses the threshold. Miller goes stiff, but he doesn’t raise his arm, which David allows because the man’s dependent on his crutch for balance.

“I’m gonna guess,” Miller speaks slowly and with surprisingly good cheer, “either Bastard Crow or, judging by the fact you went immediately for the gun, Solid Snake.”

“Gig’s up, Master,” David says. “Good show, though. It almost worked.”

Miller doesn’t respond, which should have been a clue that he was about to do something risky, like using his cane as a pivot to make a hard dodge left and knock the gun from David's hands with the brunt of his skull. The momentum makes the crack hit hard and the gun goes skittering off into the dark corner of the shack. Miller regains his balance using the wall to brace himself and draws his own gun, setting his good foot on David’s weapon and kicking it further away for good measure.

“If that was a loaded gun, I could have shot your brains out,” David says.

“50/50 chance can still mean success,” Miller huffs, clicking the safety off his pistol. “You didn’t even pull the trigger on instinct. David, what have I told you about going easy on people because of something like a few missing limbs? Men who have already lost something take bigger risks than men who haven't.”

David considers their position for a few seconds: Miller steadied by the wall, the distance between them only a few inches off arm's length… he calculates the variables in his head, tracking potential movements like mathematical certainties. When the equations add up, he moves.

The art of CQC is to blend multiple moves into a single, fluid attack. David starts with the roll of his heel and feels his muscles ripple like a wave through his body as he turns a leg pivot into a tackle and then draws his knife with the same motion that he grabs Miller’s wrist and twists it. When he lands on the ball of his right foot, he’s already got the blade against his teacher’s jugular.

Miller grins. “Much better. Go on. Call it in.”

Solid Snake does as he’s told.

*

The air at the rendezvous point behind the gymnasium is tense. Campbell stands beneath an umbrella, his body swallowed by the wide lapels of his standard issue FOXHOUND trenchcoat. Miller paces in front of the students - two rows of some of the unit’s best new recruits, most of them barely out of their teens and all of them soaked to the bone. “It’s raining today, I bet the Hell Master is going to make you do something tedious outside for ten hours,” was a common exaggerated refrain amongst the older soldiers and David was beginning to wonder if there was something to it. Like being miserable and cold would somehow drill his lessons in more surely; etching them in stone, instead of sand.

Miller ceases his pacing and comes to a stop beneath Campbell’s umbrella. He digs his cane into the mud and tips his shades down a half-inch.

“Well,” he says, “that was interesting.”

The soldier beside David lets out a barely audible exhale. Everyone here knows what that tone of voice means - it means that there is probably going to be a written portion to this exam. The first time Miller assigned them an essay after a training exercise, Hawk had complained about it in the mess over dinner, saying “I didn’t join the military to write fucking research papers”. Miller caught ear of it as he passed by and smacked him over the head with his cane: “That’s the goddamn point, soldier.”

(Later Hawk said: "He talks big but I think the bastard just likes paperwork." )

“Before I say anything else, I’d like to give a round of applause to my co-star.” Miller taps his cane against the ground in place of a second hand to clap with. The soldiers remain standing to attention.

“I’m afraid I’m not a terribly good actor,” Campbell says, very sincerely.

“Nonsense. You were very authentic, Colonel,” Miller replies.

Campbell's face softens in embarrassment. He turns his head to address the soldiers: "What you did today was not an exercise of Master Miller's design, but a standard FOXHOUND training protocol. We've gone easy on you so far, but in the future, you should be prepared for your mission parameters to be flexible, unpredictable and occasionally..." the Colonel grimaces before finishing, " - disagreeable."

Miller picks up the thread: "This exercise is always an educational experience. I think that we learned a lot about ourselves and each other this evening. I want you to all go cool off with two laps around the field.” He pauses, relishing the tremor of dread positively radiating from his students: “... and then go back to your quarters and write me 750 on what, exactly, we learned. You’re all dismissed.”

The cadets lag through their two laps and begin filtering out, Campbell shaking everyone’s hands as they pass on their way to the showers. David paces himself and finishes third last. As he ducks into the building, Miller stops him with his cane.

“Everyone dismissed except you, Snake. You - come to my office in fifteen minutes. I want to talk to you.”

David hesitates, casting a baleful look downwards at his mud-caked uniform. He doesn’t argue, however. He wouldn’t have joined the military if he were the kind of guy to kick up a fuss over this sort of thing. Before heading to Miller's office, he stops off at the barracks to grab a clean shirt and a light jacket.

He takes the long way around the exterior wall of the mess hall and gymnasium to clear his head and get some air. It always takes him a while to quiet his blood, to get his head back into “civilian mode”. He'd been christened Snake for his ability to “slither” effortlessly and unnoticed into foreign environments, but as with all FOXHOUND codenames, there were a few more components to it once you peeled back the layers.

The other cadets often joked - with that thin, edged humour that was actually about fear - that he slipped into a cloud of hyperfocus when he was sparring, or “hunting” a target in a field; he pursued victory like a constrictor with the scent of blood, “you know how they get - so wild they’ll smash their noses against the glass, leaping at shadows with their fangs bared”. David didn't think of it as bloodlust. He felt it as a primal satisfaction, one that came from using your body like a well-oiled machine in a task that it excels at - all the parts and pistons moving in perfect symphony.

Any attempt to explain this subjective experience had ultimately failed in the past, which told David that maybe if they saw something dangerous in his eyes when he fought, he would do well to watch for it. That’s why he doesn’t pull the trigger unless he has good reason.

David arrives at the administration building with three minutes to spare. He steps inside and removes his soaked coat, tucking it under his arm. Standing in the narrow hall beneath the harsh, fluorescent lights, he stops to examine his right hand. There is dirt caked under his nails, and an angry, red mark running lengthwise across three of his fingertips from where the trap wire cut into the skin.

‘You didn’t even pull the trigger on instinct…’ David grimaces and wonders if he’s in trouble. If Miller knew how much that sort of calculated, intentional restraint cost, how important it was… well, either way, this wouldn’t be the first time that Miller’s dressed him down in private. He had a vicious reputation, but he never singled a student out - for praise or reprimand - publically.

With David, however, it's a little different. Miller had, almost immediately, taken a special interest in him - not just as a soldier with particular potential, but as a person. They had similar hobbies, shared love of a certain kind of literature, and surprisingly natural rapport when off-duty. Miller, of course, was a consummate professional and did not let that fondness affect how hard he came down in the field, but David is acutely aware of the fact that he is the only first year FOXHOUND recruit with the Master's dog eared copy of Spring Snow sitting at the bottom of his locker.

The door to Miller’s office is open a crack, so David lets himself in. Miller is behind his desk, furiously signing his signature to a stack of paperwork. There’s a bottle of whiskey and two glasses at his side. He gestures for David to sit down, but doesn’t look up. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he says. David slides a chair out from the desk and lowers himself into it carefully, setting his jacket down under him so he doesn’t smear mud over the seat.

Miller signs off on the last paper with a flourish and puts the stack away. Then he uncaps the whiskey and pours two generous shots, one into each cup. “Here," he says, pushing a glass in David's direction. "Have a drink with me.”

David hesitates; technically, he’s still on duty. He wonders if maybe this is a trick - Miller had a reputation for presenting recruits with unwinnable riddles. That sort of sadism is what earned him the nick-name ‘Hell Master’, but David had figured out pretty quick that it was just his way of efficiently picking apart the personalities of his students while still having a bit of fun. Right now, Miller’s game face is switched off, and there really isn't much of David left to pick at. Miller had his number the moment they met.

So David makes a careful assessment of the situation and accepts the alcohol. He knocks it back easily (hopes Miller doesn’t notice how easily).

“Good. You gonna relax now, or what?”

“Sir?”

“You’re always wound up so tight. I want to have a conversation, but I don’t want you to take everything so seriously.”

David glances up and catches the outline of Miller’s eyes visible beneath his sunglasses. His handsome face hardly shows its age, but he’s got deep wrinkles along his laugh lines. When he’s playing the role of ‘Hell Master’, they’re more like scowl lines, though. David looks away - Master Miller doesn’t need to know how practiced David is at knocking back hard liquor, and he especially does not need to know the effect his softer smiles have on some of his students.

“I’m not tightly wound,” he says. "I just don't see the point in wasting time padding down my words with transparent pleasantries.”

“Mmm hmmm…” Miller leans his chair waaaay back and folds his arm over his stomach, his smile flattening. “On one hand, I like that about you, David. On the other hand, that is exactly the kind of thing someone wound way too tightly says when told that they’re wound too tight. Why don’t you have another shot?”

“I’m technically still on duty.”

“Don’t make me order you to take another drink, soldier. I’m not above it.”

David does as he’s told. Miller grins and taps his fingers against the arm of his chair. “Pour me another too while you’re at it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Enough of this ‘sir’ crap. Do we really gave to go though this song and dance every time we talk? You’re a completely different person face-to-face than you are in the field, you know that?”

Two shots of whiskey is enough to make David bold. With deliberate care, he says: “If you say so, Master Miller.”

“Jesus christ, you’re unbelievable,” Miller says. He hits his glass against the table. “David,” he begins, a bit more seriously this time. ““Join me in a thought experiment, would you? Let’s say... you’re sent into the field. Your Mission Operator betrays you. You’re alone and cannot secure reciprocal communication with your Commanding Officer. The balance of some small Banana Republic’s economic obligation to the United States hangs in the balance. What do you do?”

“You know what I’d do. Wasn’t that the point of today's exercise?”

“Partially. The reason I singled you out is that every other recruit in that field hesitated for a moment. Even those who acted quickly had a single half-second of doubt where they questioned themselves over whose orders to follow. You were the only one who forged ahead - without a single look back - and put a gun to my head. Without waiting for clarification. Without even waiting ten minutes for backup.”

“Do you think I made the wrong call?”

“Of course not; chain of command is everything. If we abandoned that one philosophy in the military, it’d be absolute chaos. I’m curious why you didn’t hesitate.”

David tips back his whiskey shot and then rolls the glass between his thumb and forefinger, watching the way the light plays over the curvature, distorted and fractured, a warped reflection of the room’s stark ceiling. He didn’t hesitate because there was no reason to hesitate. David had discovered at a young age that he possessed a certain talent for turning his conscious objections off temporarily. He saved all his thinking for after the mission. He wasn’t certain how to articulate this to Master Miller without sounding strange. It was this kind of mentality, he was aware, that found him struggling with relationships, had found him shuffled from one foster home to another with disheartening rapidity, unable to reciprocate the sort of openness and care those transient parents seemed to crave.

“I’m… very good at following orders without thinking,” is what he says. ‘I’m not sure I like what that says about me,’ is what he doesn’t say. Three shots of whiskey and he can be mostly honest, he supposes. He pours himself a fourth.

“Without thinking?”

“Yeah.”

“That simple?”

“Yup.”

“Okay. Let’s approach this from another angle.” Miller tips the whiskey into his glass for the fourth time. For David, it’s the fifth. Miller holds his shot up and says ‘cheers’, wiggling it impatiently until David humours him and clinks their glasses together. When the shots are downed, Miller begins: “In this scenario, you’re alone in the field, no backup, no on-site support personnel, just you and your radio, alone in the dark. You’re aiming for Alpha Team, right?”

“Yeah.” ‘Aiming’ wasn’t quite the way David would have put it. Colonel Campbell had told him months ago that Big Boss was keen on scouting him for the Stealth unit. “The Boss man himself thinks you have a talent for it, recruit. You should be honoured.”

“Well - that’s how Alpha Team operates, much like the defunct CIA F.O.X. unit that FOXHOUND was based on. One man infiltration operations aren’t just about physical and mental acumen - of which you’ve got plenty. They’re also about personal judgement. When you’re in the field on a mission like this, you might be thousands of miles away from the person who calls your shots. You might as well be on a different planet than them. Any number of things could go wrong. Aerial noise could permanently jam your communication, you could lose your radio, you could be captured by the enemy. Dependence on the chain of command when you’re deep inside enemy territory is a fragile, tenuous thing.”

Miller’s thought experiment is beginning to sound a little like a lecture, so David - without really thinking - says: “You got a point here, Master, or are you just gonna ramble on all night?”

Miller’s eyebrows shoot up towards his hairline and he chuckles, impressed rather than annoyed. He leans forward and makes a great show of peering at the half-empty bottle of whiskey. “Amazing. And it only took a third of a quart of hard liquor for you to loosen up.”

“I shouldn't have-”

“Don’t apologize. Shit, you nearly cracked a grin. This is a historic moment. C’mon, let’s have another.”

So they do. Miller takes this shot sloppy - a line of bright liquor dribbles down his jaw, catching in the cleft of his chin. It’s the sort of detail David would have had the self control not to notice with less alcohol in him. It wasn’t uncommon for younger recruits - female and male - to harbour a crush on McDonnel Miller. He wasn’t like the other high ranking FOXHOUND officials; there was a dressed down elegance to him despite his uneven gait, and an easy-going charisma that seemed to have a switch on and off depending on whether he was on the job or not. He was a good drill instructor because he made people want to impress him. His recriminations hurt more because his rare compliments sounded sincere.

David realizes that there is probably a good measure of calculated artifice to his approachability, but it's hard not to fall for it, to believe that most of it is real.

“I’d say it’s just me showing my age, but the Boss always said that I have a bad habit of never being able to shut my damn mouth. Says I love the sound of my voice too much.”

“You mean Big Boss?”

“Yeah. Who the hell else would I mean? He uh,” Miller laughs to himself and trails off. David realizes with a numb sort of fascination that his teacher is tipsy off just four shots of whiskey. Well, of course he is; two less limbs means a lower alcohol tolerance, but it’s still a delicate, humbling sight. The FOXHOUND staff often seemed impenetrably worldly with their zig-zag military careers and dossiers filled to the brim with classified information. David files away this humanizing knowledge: “Hell Master” Miller cannot hold his liquor.

He lets Miller grin to himself over some private joke for about a minute before leaning forward and clearing his throat. “Master?”

Miller rocks back in his spinning chair. “David?”

“You were saying?”

“Ah - right. What I’m trying to say is that today’s exercise was meant to be an examination of your personal judgement up against the chain of command. It was not meant to be a pass/loss trial to see who follows orders best.”

“And I failed to show good judgement?”

“I wouldn’t come down that hard. No one involved in the exercise really succeeded on that front. And that’s fine - you weren’t prepared. And in the real world, no one is prepared for an outcome like their immediate superior betraying them. But it’s not unheard of. But let’s extrapolate those orders a bit. Say you’re told to bring the target in at all costs, but your communications cut out before you can receive clarification on what sort of state you’re supposed to bring them back in. You have no idea what kind of informtion they could have.”

“I bring them in alive for questioning.”

“They fight back.”

“I… take them in alive.”

“It’s not always that easy. He won’t be taken alive."

"Tough for him. I take him in alive."

"He fights back. Hard. Your life is in danger. He does something risky - this is a man with everything to lose. You fumble, like you did today, and now he’s got the advantage. But he’s not like me, and this isn't a training exercise - that advantage means a bullet in his head or a bullet in yours. You’re looking into the eyes of someone you trust. You know that they might pull the trigger before you do. In fact, they probably will.”

David takes initiative and fills the glasses without being told this time. He takes his time with his shot, sets the rim of the glass against his lip and lets the taste of the whiskey linger in his throat. “Are we,” David asks quietly, “talking about Operation: Snake Eater?”

No one dared to invoke it casually, but everyone in FOXHOUND knew the now legendary story of how Big Boss obtained his code-name. Not the “real” story, of course - even the version that official military personnel heard was stripped bare of full context, boiled down to the bones, the same kind of pithy soundbites that the CIA was forced to concede to the national newspapers.

Miller’s countenance turns serious and he reaches for the bottle again. “Not specifically,” he says. “Not in so many words. But it’s a good illustration of how what we believe to be the ‘Truth’ as told to us by our superiors is defined only by who is giving the orders, and who is hearing them. ‘Enemy’ and ‘ally’ are arbitrary definitions that can change in a flash on the battlefield. These are things you’d do well to think about, David. They’re not things that your superiors can decide for you.”

David does think about it, but it’s not the most pressing matter on his mind at the moment. He sets his cup on the desk and pins Miller with an intense stare. It doesn't have its desired effect, unfortunately, since Miller's not actually looking at him.

“Master Miller. You aren’t going to have this conversation with anyone else, are you?”

“Hmm?” Miller’s attention wanders and he eventually makes eye contact with David. It’s difficult to read his exact expression with those antique aviators dominating so many of his facial features, but the quirk of his mouth and the way his eyebrows pinch into a light furrow sure make it seem like he’s abashed. Interesting. “Ah… no, no. I didn’t plan on it.”

“Why single me out?”

“Are you worried that I’ve singled you out unfairly?”

“The opposite, actually. I’m worried that you’re giving me an unfair hand up. I’m not the only recruit on base applying for Alpha Team.”

“No, you aren’t.” Miller’s silent for a moment. A long, strained moment punctuated only by the waning rainstorm pounding a din against the tiny window. Miller frowns and raps his fingers against the arm of his chair in uneven staccato. The lines on his face twitch like he’s getting halfway through opening his mouth before thinking better of it.

“Well,” he says, sounding a bit defeated. “You caught me. I try not to play favourites, but it doesn’t always work. I worry about you, David. You have a lot of qualities that say you’re made for this job. I try to imagine you doing some white collar gig and it seems wrong, you know? But you’ve also got a lot of qualities that tell me that when something finally does hit you - and it always does, in this line of work - it’s gonna hit you like a train going four hundred kilometres an hour. Ah, sorry -” Miller taps his temple. “Two hundred and fourty eight point five miles. I always forget.”

“Master, I-” am honoured? Flattered? What’s the word for it? David is frozen in his seat wishing suddenly and quite desperately that he was anywhere else right now, doing something easier like weapon storage inventory or one hundred push ups. He’s now aware that this situation is incredibly inappropriate. Miller’s right: he is a completely different person on the field than off of it. The person he is off the field doesn’t have the life experience to exit this conversation gracefully and the person he is on the field doesn’t want to.

Miller mercifully puts him out of his misery by attempting to stand up. He doesn’t make it all the way the first time. He glances up at Snake, clearly embarrassed. “Heh, that’s what I get, trying to keep up with you at my age. Could you, ah, get the door for me?”

David does as he’s told, hitching the door open while his inebriated teacher struggles to his feet. Miller succeeds this time, using his crutch to steady himself. When he’s standing, he adjusts his sweater, caps the whiskey and clumsily scuttles the bottle and the glasses into the top shelf of his desk. “It’s getting late. Sun’s gone down. I should let you go. You’ve got work to do tonight, after all.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, we’re back to ‘Sir’ again.” Miller sighs. “Well! I tried.” Standing up, he seems drunker. There's a sway to his steps that suggests he'd started in on the whiskey even before David arrived.

When Miller crosses beneath the door-frame, his cane slips out from beneath him and he nearly takes a dive. David moves fast and manages to catch him before his skull hits the wall. The door swings shut behind them, trapping David in the darkening office with Master Miller pressed up against his chest, Miller’s arm slung all the way around his neck and his breath warming the skin beneath his left ear. David’s fingers tighten instinctively around the swell of his upper arm and the hard arch of his rib-cage. He's momentarily surprised by how dense Miller’s muscles are under the loose gym-clothes. But of course, David chides himself, why would a guy like Miller let himself go over something as minor as a war wound?

They stay entangled long enough for it to become uncomfortable. When Miller speaks, what he says is: “Interesting. For someone so quick to violence on the field, you’re surprisingly gentle.”

And that's just - his voice is low, almost… and David is certain that he’s misinterpreting this, but Miller’s tone has shades of flirtation. He almost convinces himself that it would be an objective interpretation to call it “sultry”.

But that can’t be it. Miller is drunk and tends to tease even when sober. The responsible thing to do would be to apologize, to let go and help his teacher out the door. There’s a part of David, however, that always speaks in a traitorous voice in the back of his skull, reminding him that he’s the kind of person who doesn’t always have to be responsible. He’s the kind of man who can very easily get exactly what he wants. That’s why it’s important for him to be so careful. That is why he's not going to test the boundaries of his teacher's favoritism, even though something is telling him that he's just been invited to do exactly that.

David pushes Miller away and sets both hands on the man’s shoulders. He keeps them, just there to make certain that he’s not going to topple back over.

“Doing okay there, Master?”

Miller raises his hand to rub beneath his sunglasses. David catches a flash of his eyes beneath the shades; his irises are an oddly pale shade of grey. “I haven’t drunk in a while. Should have been more careful. You recruits are brutal in more ways than one.” He rolls his shoulders out from under David’s hands and shoots him a lopsided grin. “I’m fine now, David,” he says.

David takes a wide berth on his way back to the door, blood thrumming in his ears. He holds it open for Miller and gives him a quick, respectful salute.

Before they go their separate ways in the hall, Miller turns back and says: “Hey - don’t forget what we talked about today.”

David cracks a cocksure grin. “Do I still have to write the essay?”

“Don’t think that I’ve gone soft on you, soldier. I expect it on my desk at 5AM sharp, along with everyone else’s.”

“Typical.”

Miller laughs. “You’re a good kid," he says, then he ambles down the hall, humming to himself off tune.

David watches him go - the taste of whiskey on his tongue and the memory of Miller's shape in his palms - and thinks: No, I'm really not..

NOTE: all surveillance recorded in the C.O.’s office is scheduled to be destroyed pending examination and approval by a senior staff member - by order of Roy Campbell
NOTE: approved - M.B.Miller

[CLICK]

(door clicks open then slams back shut.)

“Evenin’ Boss.”

“Mmm.”

“Another successful day of playing the affable mentor - aren’t you going to ask me how it went?”

“... Kaz, are you drunk?”

“That kid can really hold his liquor.”

“I see.”

“And not in a ‘oh, I guess he’s your son after all’ way. In a ‘I’m really worried he spends a lot of his free time crawling into the bottle already and he’s only twenty-two’ way. Tell Roy to get someone to search his quarters, would you.”

“Worried about him?”

“What? C’mon - someone’s gotta take a paternal interest in him and we both know it’s not going to be you.”

"I've not washed my hands of him entirely. Not the way you seem to think. There are things I plan to teach him, Kaz. Things that he can only learn from me. Not as his father, but as his superior."

"Funny that I'm the one they call 'Master'."

(stumbling steps cross the floor, out of synch. ------ eases into a chair. a sigh)

“So. Which way do you think David is going to jump?”

“When it comes down to the wire? It’s hard to tell. That kid lives inside his head too much. He won’t be like you - all instinct until the unimaginable happens. He’ll think it through. More likely than not, he’ll just do what he’s told.”

“Good to get him thinking about it now, I suppose.”

“In the end, it doesn’t ultimately matter who comes out on top.”

“Hnh. Those paternal feelings of yours disappeared pretty quick, Kaz.”

“Personal feelings and business don’t mix, Boss. Don’t worry - I learned that lesson from you a long time ago.”

“If you wear a mask, your face will grow to fit it, Master Miller.”

“Have you even read Orwell’s essays?”

“Give me some credit, Kaz.

“Hmph. Well - I might be two faced, but at least both faces are still good looking. Don’t you feel privileged that I don’t hide anything from you anymore, so you get a nice long look at both of them?”

“Speaking of which... a mutual friend of ours dropped something off for you today. Something that you’ve been wanting to see for a long time.”

(the creak of a chair as ------ leans; the slick sound of paper moving over paper. an envelope is carefully ripped open. a sharp intake of breath follows.)

“... hah. Hah! I knew he couldn’t hide forever... and his son is with him too. After everything that happened, he couldn’t bear keeping his nose to the ground, living under a fake name. What a piece of shit.”

“Don’t do anything about it right now, Kaz. Wait until the Operation is over. One thing at a time.”

“I know.”

“I know you know, but when it comes to this sort of thing, you can be... impatient.”

“Heh, damn right I’m impatient.”

(uneven legs hit the linoleum, followed briefly by the sound of a spinning chair groaning on its legs and the clatter of several things falling off a desk.)

“... heh heh, oops.”

“You’re really on a roll tonight.”

“I got a foot in the door to an incredibly unethical seduction on your orders, the least you could do is help clean up.”

“I never actually told you to handle David that way. That was your decision.”

“If this is how you’re gonna be, maybe I should go track him down after all. He was very eager to take care of me.”

Kaz -”

“Woah, hey - I’m not actually going to do it. I was just trying to piss you off. It’s remarkably hard to get you riled up these days.”

“You’re getting old too, Kaz, too old to have this little self control.”

“Oh nevermind.”

(tap, tap, tap. the desk creaks quietly as ------ hoists up to sit on it. a moment passes with only the sound of pen scratching over paper filling the room.)

“Hey Snake, remember that time... oh, back in early ‘73 I think? When we got the jeep stuck in the mud by the Rio Palmonia?”

“Was that when you dragged me halfway across the country to talk to that mining magnate about providing security to his mines? And I said no?”

“Yeah.”

“Heh... you were furious with me. I think that was the first time I’d ever seen you really angry, not just puffing up your feathers for show. ‘Shit costs money, Boss’!”

“Shit does cost money. I couldn’t understand why you’d turn down such easy bank when you were willing to work for the Colombian government.”

“He wanted to hire us for all the wrong reasons. He wanted to make us his private army.”

“I get it now... but at the time... “

“You gave me the silent treatment for eight hours. What is that - the longest you’ve kept your mouth shut in your entire life?”

(the sound of something small being thrown - a pen, or maybe a bullet casing - whistles through the air and hits fabric.)

“Funny stuff, Boss. But y’know... I never told you what was going through my head the whole time. I was angry, yeah, but it was more than that. I was having second thoughts about the whole thing. You might have been a living legend, but the MSF was barely holding together at the seams and you threw out as many of my good ideas as you kept. The whole thing was beginning to feel like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. And I told you, I-”

“- didn’t want to live like a pauper.”

“Mmm. So I was trying to figure out if I could make a decent break for it the next time we stopped for gas and food. You’d made it more than clear that my only option outside the MSF was execution at your hands. I was trying to figure out if I could outrun you, outsmart you - lose you in a crowd if we got to a big enough a town... I spent the entire eight hours mapping out complex escape strategies in my head and preparing myself for what would happen if you caught me. Asking myself if I was prepared to die over this. I can’t believe how cool I kept it - inside, I was panicking. I’d never felt so trapped as I did in the carriage of that shitty jeep, driving back to Barranquilla with you. Not before, not since. Not even when... god, not even when I was in the hole in Afghanistan. At least there, I knew - one way or the other - that it would end.”

“Then, if we hadn’t gotten stuck in the mud... “

“Would you have killed me?”

“I don’t know. It’s impossible to know. It’s not a decision I would have made ahead of time.”

“Of course not. Thank god for that rainstorm, then.”

“Is that why you...?”

“Stuck my hand in your pants once we were finished hollering at each other? Pretty much. You know me - I have a few tricks up my sleeve when my back is up against the wall, and that one often works. Not with you, though. You just punched me in the nose and told me to have a little self control.”

“When you think about it, not much has changed.”

“No, Boss. A lot of things have changed.”

“Still. A strange time to share a secret you’ve been sitting on for twenty years.”

“I’m really goddamn drunk right now.”

“What made you think of it?”

“Sometimes... I need to remind myself... “

(a protracted silence; the tape skips.)

“Kaz?”

(very softly) “... sometimes I wake up from dreams where I still have two hands, and both of them are around your throat.”

“Remind me not to let you sleep in my bed next time you come knocking.”

“It’s not a fucking joke.”

(a beat of silence, followed by a bitter laugh.)

“- and sometimes, Boss, I wonder what it would have been like if... ”

“You wouldn’t have won.”

“Your ego gets more unbelievable by the year, Snake. You always underestimate me... “

“No, Kaz. I understand you.”

“You don’t think that I could have taken you down. Not even if I really put my mind to it?”

“That’s not it entirely. I don’t think you could pull the trigger.”

“Ahaha... Snake, of course I couldn’t. That’s why I would have gotten someone else do it.”

“You would have done that to David?”

“Honestly? Yeah - in a heartbeat, if it got me what I wanted.”

(a very light chuckle of amusement. the chair’s wheels go spinning out across the floor and the desk is rocked by the impact of bone and muscle being slammed against the it. papers rustle, something heavy hits the floor.)

“Oh, now you want to fuck.”

[CLICK]

Chapter Text

 

1985

“Take a walk, Pequod.”

“Commander Miller?”

Kaz lifts himself out of the helicopter palette and winces as his feet hit dirt. The air on the African mainland is thick with afternoon heat even two hours after sunset. Kaz breathes it in, feels the humidity settle beneath the folds of his coat. He’s already longing for the comforting salt scent and cool breeze of ocean air. The sight of the Angolan Serengeti just reminds him of all the shit he saw trying to scrape out a merc’s living in the twilight years of the Bush War.

“You heard me. Take a walk. A long walk. This area has been secured ahead of time, so don’t worry. Come back in an hour.”

Pequod is young and loyal and doesn’t ask many questions, which is why he’s often the one chosen to fly ACC on the kind of missions Kaz and Ocelot don’t want the troops gossiping too much about: Parasites and Sahelanthropus and SANAR… Pequod’s seen a lot of shit in the last year, he won’t think anything of Commander Miller asking to be alone in the middle of nowhere for sixty minutes. The troops are all convinced Kaz is nuts anyway, which is fine. He doesn’t need them to like him anymore - they just need to listen to him.

Pequod grabs a rifle and hops out of the chopper, shooting Kaz one last worried glance. Kaz waits until his silhouette is indistinguishable from the tall grass before slipping his hand into his jacket pocket and switching on the radio transmitter he’s been carrying for the last few days. It’s old MSF technology - a unique patent of theirs, in fact, tweaked by Huey to respond only to equipment attuned by him and Strangelove. It’s invisible to all other potential trackers and hasn't been turned on since the 70's.

With the device on, Kaz lets out a long, shaky breath and rests his back against the helicopter. He’s fulfilled his side of the bargain, against his better judgement. All he has to do now is wait. It’s a familiar feeling - the freedom of putting all the power into Big Boss’ hands. The last time he did this, he was betrayed. Who knows what’ll happen this time.

What happens is that after minutes and minutes of thought-eating silence, the sound of an antique motorcycle’s engine roars to life in the distance. A 1970 Triumph Bonneville. Kaz has never been a gearhead, but he’d know the sound of that particular model even if he was dead. He shuts his eyes and listens to it close in. He listens to the keys jingling as the ignition is clicked off. He listens to the engine rev down, to the squeak of leather gloves tightening around the bike’s handlebars as the driver swings himself out of the saddle. The bike creaks against the weight of Big Boss leaning back against it. Kaz doesn’t need to see him to imagine the way he’s standing right now: all casual and cool, his arms crossed, his right fingers twitching for lack of a cigar in them.

Kaz laughs quietly. "This time you came.”

“You asked so nicely.”

Kaz breathes in sharp through his teeth. He tries to open his eyes, but he can’t. Last time, it was a lie, a fabrication… but even if it’s real, what do you say to a man like Big Boss when you haven't seen him in ten years? Kaz can't do this a second time, he did it once already - bled this blood once already, swallowed back his pain and smiled with broken pride (“What took you so long?”) once already. That last semblance of innocence, that last inch of his old self... he’d saved it and stored it so carefully, so desperately - like a chipped china mug on the top shelf - and it had been wasted on a photo-copy.

“So I received this funny missive from the new Mother Base.” Snake unfurls a crumpled piece of paper and holds it up. Kaz finally looks and immediately wishes he hadn’t. It’s a poster. “ ‘Big Boss is Watching You’? Kaz, really? You’re usually smoother than this.”

“I know you haven’t been awake for long, Boss, but it’s actually been more than ten years. That’s really the first thing you’re gonna say to me?”

Snake has the presence of mind to look at least a little bit contrite. He rolls up the poster and sticks it in his pocket. Then he pushes off his bike and approaches Kaz with all the assumed intimacy of their relationship circa 1975. It hurts, that he looks so healthy and whole. His beard is thinner than usual and flecked grey, but other than that he looks like he's stepped straight out of the past unscathed. The mixture of jealousy and desire that coils at the bottom of Kaz's stomach at the sight of him is as heavy and poisonous as lead. He bristles when Big Boss grabs the empty arm of his coat and lifts it.

“You’re so vain, Kaz. How did you stand it?”

“I didn’t,” Kaz responds dryly.

“I can see that now.” He drops the sleeve and looks the rest of Kaz over. “You know. I had no idea about this, not at the time.”

“Are you making excuses? That’s not like you.”

“No, I suppose it’s not.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had lost all four limbs or none at all. It doesn’t change what you did and nothing in the world would make you apologize. So it doesn’t matter.”

“Then why did you want to see me? You went through quite an effort to track me down. Good timing too - I won’t be in this part of the world for long.”

“I…” it's a good question. Why did he bother? What was he trying to prove? After holding onto his anger quietly for months, standing at the Phantom’s side with a strained expression while Ocelot used his bullshit self-hypnosis techniques to feign ignorance… what did he think seeing Big Boss’s face would prove? You know why, Kazuhira, he tells himself. Hate’s just the flipside of the other thing, the thing you never say, not even to yourself.

“I,” Kaz swallows hard, speaks soft. “I… wanted to see if you’d actually come.”

Big Boss arches an eyebrow, “Mmm hmm. No ulterior motives? No grand scheme? You just came to waste my time?”

Kaz has to snap his jaw shut to stop himself from screaming. Patience, he’s here on your terms for once, after all.

- then Snake puts his hand on his shoulder and says: "But, Kaz you know, despite all that... you did good. "

And that's just too far over the fucking line, so Kaz spits in his face.

Snake wipes the spit from his cheek slowly - with one knuckle - and he grins. “There we go. Let’s talk face to face now. You wanna ‘send me to hell’, huh?”

“Did you come here to put an end to that??”

Snake shakes his head, “honestly, Kaz, it sounds like fun. It’s been awhile since you’ve tried to rope me into one of your little contests. Trying to defeat me… using another version of me. Interesting tactic.”

“Is that what you think this is!?”

“You don’t half-ass the things you commit to. And I’m not going to stop you from doing what you want.”

“Not even if I misappropriate your resources?”

“You’ve done good by him so far. Diamond Dogs is your operation - it was always meant to be your operation. I’m sure Ocelot’s explained to you how things are going to be from now on.” Big Boss reaches out to cup Kaz’s face between his hands. Kaz considers ducking away, avoiding the touch, but he doesn’t. He bears the contact stoically. Big Boss strokes his thumbs down his cheekbones. “As long as you’re clear on that, I promise not to step on your toes.”

“You’re so full of shit,” Kaz whispers, but he doesn’t back off.

“Let’s be honest, Kaz: so are you.” Snake kisses him almost chastely, like the kiss is a signature on a contract - a necessary chore, like Big Boss is using the memory of what they used to be as leverage in a business deal, oh Kaz knows that language, all right. Knows when the boxes are being ticked. That wakes something up in him - he bites down on Snake’s lip and dives into the kiss desperately, sucks back like he’s trying to eat Snake’s dark, ugly soul out through his mouth.

Kaz throws his arm up and hooks his crutch around Snake’s neck - it throws off their balance and forces Snake to grab his hips and pull their bodies taut together to stop them from falling over. Snake hoists Kaz into the helicopter’s pallette. He leans him back just enough that Kaz is still dependent on him for balance. When they come up for air, Big Boss asks: “Okay. What do you want?”

“Huey Emmerich killed.”

“Such a low price? Kaz, I can’t believe you’d underestimate your own market value like that.”

“That’s not all,” Kaz digs his fingers into Snake’s skull and pulls him down so that he can whisper in his ear. “Who are the Patriots? What is the Philosopher’s Legacy? You and Zero - what are you fighting over?”

He can feel Snake’s lips twitch against his neck. “Cipher never told you?”

“Oh - I know most of the story, but Zero was careful about what puzzle pieces he handed to me. But that’s not what I care about. I want to hear the story - the whole story - in your words. I want you to explain it to me. To tell me all the shit you were hiding for me.”

“The ‘shit’ I was hiding from you?” Big Boss laughs. “You’re incredibly presumptuous, Kaz.”

“Haven’t I always been?”

Big Boss presses a wet kiss to Kaz’s chin and says: “yeah. Can’t believe your nerve sometimes.” He runs his hand along the inside of Kaz’s thigh and presses his thumb right to the pulse of the saphenous vein. Against his better judgement, Kaz eases his limbs apart, lets Big Boss nudge a knee between and rock against him.

“But haven’t I,” Kaz’s voice hitches, “- always done good work for you?”

“Debatable. You’ve done good work for just about everyone else too.”

That ruins the illusion. Kaz snaps back to his senses. He tries to pull away but can’t, so instead he fists his hand in Big Boss’s hair and yanks him up so that they’re eye-to-eye. “Are you… are you accusing me of being unfaithful?”

“You sleep with other people. You make deals behind my back. You’ve many times withheld important information from me for your own benefit. Tell me, Kaz: when have you ever in any definition of the word been faithful to me?”

Kaz can’t find a witty retort for that. His lip twists the way it does the half second before he cracks a joke, but his mouth is dry and empty. What Big Boss has said is factually true, but how… how could he think that? Rip open my chest and look at my heart and then say that again. There’s nothing in there but you and your big fucking head and your long fucking shadow that blacks everything out, sucks all the air from my lu-

“Y-you want faithful, you piece of shit? I kept the embers of your dream burning for nearly a decade while you slept pretty in one of Zero’s secret hospitals. I was out there working for you. Fighting and bleeding for you! I bore your crosses! I -” Kaz lets go of Snake’s hair and gropes for his cane so that he can smack him with it. “- I gave half my body for you, asshole, and you have the gall to call me unfaithful!? No one is more faithful to you than me. Not Ocelot, not Zero, not that woman who carried the clones in her womb, not -”

Big Boss reaches out and covers Kaz’s mouth, smothering the rest of his rant with leather. Saving him the embarrassment. “Always so competitive, Kaz,” Snake teases, brushing Kaz’s hair out of his face with his other thumb. He’s smiling with unabashed fondness.

Kaz briefly considers biting his palm hard enough to draw blood, but he doesn’t. He waits.

“Calm down. I’ll tell you everything. There’s only one thing I want in return.” Big Boss slowly removes his hand. “Just one thing you need to promise me.”

“What is it?”

Snake puts his mouth to Kaz’s ear and says it so, so quietly that it’s nearly drowned out by the sound of Kaz’s own heart-beat. He says: “Surrender.”

It’s a game they used to play. At least Kaz always thought it was a game: a joke about the way they met, a joke about how stubborn they both were - Snake’s pathological need for dominance mirrored by Kaz’s almost petulant refusal to admit defeat, even with a gun to his temple. Only now - over a decade later - does he realize that Snake meant it. Every goddamn single time, he meant it.

This is his last chance to decide, to choose which side of the line to plant his feet on. But what choice do I really have? Kaz imagines his future if he says no: imagines himself trying to let go of his pain, throwing away his fourteen years lost to feed Big Boss’ legacy, tries to imagine himself just… walking away. Kaz knows himself better than that. It’s pathetic. I’m stuck in his shadow no matter what I do. I shouldn’t have come here.

The choices are submission or obsession; revenge or subservience. There is no third path, so why not just give Big Boss what he wants?

Kaz exhales, closes his eyes and lets his head fall back to bare his throat. “Okay. I give up,” he says. “Take everything, Boss.” I’ve got nothing left.

Big Boss just laughs at him. “The way you said it... I almost believe you.”

 

[CLICK]

(the distant sound of sea-breeze and seagulls, occasionally a sigh. punctuated by the smooth roll of wheelchair tires against steel, approaching from the distance. the chair squeaks to a stop.)

“Coyote - who thinks himself clever - sets off into the wilderness to slay a giant that he has heard of. In his arrogance, he walked straight into the giant’s mouth thinking that it was a cave. In that cave, he met many captives of the giant’s hunger and because he used his stick to cut flesh from the sides of the giant’s throat, he thought himself a hero.”

“Everyone else finds this act cute, Old Man, but I think we know each other well enough at this point that you can cut the crap.”

“The kind of devotion that the Boss man evokes in these people... I would liken it to a warrior god of old. Zeus, Odin, Dine Bahane himself... but you’ve always struck me more as Coyote; the spanner in the works, a clever beast with a silver tongue. It’s strange for the Raven to sit on a man’s shoulder as if that man were his Master.”

“Funny how you’re still talking in metaphor. If you wanna have a conversation about this, you’re gonna have to do it in plain-speak.”

“As you wish. You went to see him, yes? The man that you call Big Boss. The man that the Ocelot calls John?”

“...”

“Your countenance has changed. You walk with purpose once more, but the serenity that surrounds you is a dark one.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Kazuhira, my children can see through your eyes as clearly as they can see through my own. When you look at him, he eats all the light. You can see nothing else. Whatever decision you made in his presence... the clarity of it cannot be trusted.”

“Hnh.”

“Surely you don’t intend to make me spell out what I mean in incriminating detail, not in a place like this where we are never free from the cameras.”

“Well - I’m the final authority on what happens with that security footage, so if that’s your concern you’ve already ‘walked into the mouth of the giant’.”

“I see. Commander Miller is watching us, indeed.”

“I’m tired, Old Man. Please, just say what you mean.”

“... Kazuhira. I do not think that you have made a good decision. To forgive the man that you call Boss after what he has done... it may feel like a bandage over your heart, but you are selling your soul.”

“Hah. Rich. Haven’t you been working for Big Boss this whole time as well?”

“For an old man like me who has walked a long and bloody path, there is very little choice now that I am at the twilight of my life. The more bones that line the road - the more corpses put there by my hands - the fewer branches I will come across. I have accepted my lot, to be used as a pawn by Zero’s bickering “sons”. My fate has narrowed to a point so thin that it could fit on the end of a needle. But Kazuhira, you are still young.”

“I’ve got a lot of blood on my hands too, Old Man. And a lot of it is the same blood as what’s on Snake’s hands. I’ve been treading over the same corpses as him for a long time now. You walked your bloody path alone, but I forged mine hand in hand with someone else. That was a decision I made with eyes clear. You couldn’t possibly understand.”

“I am very, very old Kazuhira. I have also been in love.”

“Wh-what?”

“More than once, even.”

“Just what the hell are you trying to say!?”

“That you - despite all your pride and your intelligence and your ambition - are willing to make yourself subservient to the will of another. Not because it’s good business, or because it is something you believe in, but because of your personal feelings.”

“I -”

Kazuhira. I want you to think long and hard about what exactly it is that Big Boss wishes to accomplish. Tell me in your own words what it is.”

“A world united without borders, where soldiers can be free of the petty machinations of politicians and nations.”

“You recite this as if you are reciting a memorized speech. You are telling me the content of his dream, Kazuhira, but not the context. The meaning. What does it mean - this thing that the man you call ‘Boss’ strives for?”

“...”

“Is it not your dream as well? This warrior’s paradise? The world in which your Mother Base is meant to be a microcosm? This world that we are preparing? You are an intelligent man, Kazuhira Miller. You are not so naive as to accept such an audacious claim without extrapolation. What does it mean: a world without borders, built for and by soldiers? What does this world look like for the rest of us?”

“...”

“Surely you have imagined it?”

“I’ve imagined it.”

“Then tell me about it.”

“I don’t like your tone, Old Man. The Boss and I... the MSF was a conclusion we reached in the dark years of the Cold War. Back then, LBJ and Khrushchev thought that they had the right to speak for every single person who lived on the planet. Can you imagine a world in which the Mujahadeen speak with the same authority as the USSR? That’s the world that we imagined.”

“You’re a very convincing liar, Kazuhira, but don’t forget: I was like you when I was young. Worse than you, actually. I bought into my own bullshit.”

“It’s not bullshit.”

“You’re an organized man, the kind of man who derives satisfaction from straightening a stack of paperwork that has been signed and stamped. You don’t have to lie to me right now - I can see through your eyes. You agreed with Zero more than you’ve ever agreed with Big Boss, am I right?”

“I -”

“A united world with no national armies. All wars will be fought as proxies and politicians will stumble over themselves to slip the largest check into your hands. That is the cynical Pax hegemony you felt was inevitable. I saw a glint in your eye when I spoke of my original plan for the parasites. Deterrence is a kind peace. It keeps the Big Men of history from dropping nukes on civilians.”

“No, I -”

“The Boss wants something different - a return to borderless, tribal chaos. He positions himself a warlord of old. Would you stand by his side in a world like this?”

“...”

“Your world-views are essentially at odds and the longer you try to pretend that you and he are in harmony, the more discordant and sick your soul will become. You will have no inner peace.”

“You know, I honestly can’t remember ever asking for your goddamn opinion on this.”

“Is Big Boss’s world the world your mother longed for when she chose to name you ‘Peace’? Ten hours in labour - back then it was still dangerous for a woman to carry a child so young. Her life would have been easier were you born looking like her, but she cherished your blue eyes, didn’t she?”

“What are you -”

“It’s what’s in your eyes right now, Kazuhira. She was afraid, but when she saw your blue irises, she was secretly grateful - she was a woman who believed that we could be better than we are, that’s why she -”

“Get the fuck out of my head!”

“... I apologize.”

“I never should have told you... any of that... Never should have...”

“... perhaps not.”

(the conversation stills. there is a long moment of silence punctuated only by laboured breathing.)

“Code Talker. You’ve helped us immeasurably, but I can’t help but think you’ve overstayed your welcome.”

“I see.”

“Mother Base doesn’t have the resources to spare to keep civilians safe and cozy indefinitely. This isn’t your retirement home. You have a week to put your affairs in order, but after that, we’re shipping you out.”

“If that is what you wish.”

“Yeah. It is.”

[CLICK]

Chapter Text

1990

“Mornin’ Boss!”

“Boss!”

“Come train with me Boss!”

DD’s paws hit the steel first. He barks and goes off barrelling towards the small congregation of soldiers that have gathered at the sound of Pequod blasting Rod Stewart above the dock. Snake moves slower. He’s covered in engine grease and other people’s blood; a bullet grazed his thigh and he twisted his wrist falling off a truck, so he’s in no mood to tussle with the men today. He lets DD handle the brunt of morale boosting - he's good at that, so filled with infectious energy and enthusiasm for human contact. As Snake drags himself from the helicopter, he gives each soldier a weary smile and polite salute. Then he passes them by, and heads for the office.

It’s a beautiful day - preternaturally still in the way only the middle of the ocean can be. No insects, birds - even the sound of the sea-water lapping again Mother Base's legs has a muted comfort to it. It's nothing like the piercing howl wind makes when it rolls over the sand dunes. Today, it's especially quiet. Will be quiet from now on. Ocelot departed - permanently - at the beginning of the month and Snake has not yet had time to delegate drill organization to another soldier. Or rather, he hasn’t wanted to; this is the kind of thing Kaz usually does, after all, and Snake doesn’t like the to acknowledge the slow bleed of Mother Base’s oldest staff members. Malak, Silent Basilisk, Flaming Buffalo, Komodo Dragon: all lost to legitimate job offers in their home countries, or dead to missions gone awry halfway across the world. So many new faces... the nature of the job means that they cycle in and out so frequently it’s almost pointless to learn their names.

But he does anyway. Because that’s what it means to be the Boss.

When he opens the door to his office, he’s surprised to see that it’s already occupied. Kaz is seated behind the desk at his old post, flipping through the recent personnel reports with a severe expression on his face. Snake’s heart lifts immediately; Kaz has been busy with so much off-base work lately that it’s been months since they’ve been in the same room. With Ocelot gone, maybe he’ll get to see Kaz enjoying himself for once. Snake can count on one hand the times he’s seen Kaz laugh sincerely in the last six years.

Kaz glances up when the door shuts, tipping his sunglasses down to examine him: a quick once over, and then his face softens.

“Boss.”

“Kaz.”

Snake rounds the desk and cups Kaz’s face between both hands. His gloves are dirty and still wet with various fluids, but Kaz doesn’t seem to mind. His eyes flutter shut and he leans into the touch as Snake dips down to kiss him. He means for the kiss to be brief - chaste - but time and distance have unexpectedly stoked the embers of desire. He strokes his thumbs over Kaz’s pronounced cheekbones and tilts his head so that he can pull him into a deep, open mouthed kiss. Kaz does not reciprocate.

“Is… something wrong?” Snake asks quietly. Kaz sighs and twists out of his grip, spinning his chair so that his whole body is turned away. He rubs the bridge of his nose, then gestures to the other side of the room.

“This is always so ugly… Boss, you’re gonna want to sit down.”

“What’s going on?”

“Do you trust me?”

Snake nods and follows the arc of Kaz’s hand. “Always,” he says as he pulls one of the room’s spare chairs away from the wall and sits down. When he’s seated, Kaz’s smile fades for a moment, then quirks sardonic.

“That’s what you always say, Boss. But y’know, you really, really shouldn’t.”

Snake doesn’t realize how very, truly dark it is in the office until he hears footsteps that aren’t his own. From the shadows steps his own reflection - not an exact duplicate. He’s shorter by an inch or so and his face is unmarred by the signs of suffering that Venom Snake has endured. Seeing him sends a jolt down Venom’s spine: this is the man he used to be, this man he one day will become. For a moment he’s lost in a dark pit at the back of his skull - he feels the same nauseating sensation one experiences when tumbling head-first off a cliff halfway to dreaming. He hits the water metaphorically in a clash of screeching metal and flame - a memory so important and familiar that it’s etched like a lithograph into the inside of his eyelids: the moment that he gave his life to Big Boss. Nothing before or after matters - that one moment defines who he is.

His mirror leans over him, bracing a hand on either arm of the chair. He puts his face close to V’s and asks: “Do you know who you are?

“Of course,” V answers automatically. “I’m you. But right now, I’m your Phantom.”

Big Boss grins and pats him on the cheek affectionately, like he’s been a good dog. “Good, good. That’s what I like to hear.”

“Is it time?” V asks. He’s always known - if not consciously, he’s known it in the marrow of his bones - that one day it would be time for him to take a second fall. That is his ultimate purpose, the fate that he consented to the day that his old self threw his body in front of the Boss, to shield him from the consequences of Cipher’s assault on their home.

Big Boss rears up to his full height and digs a cigar out of his breast-pocket. His faded fatigues are a brighter shade of green than V’s. V tries to place them, to figure out where the Boss has been this whole time based on their pattern. Funny how after all this time, neither of them are wearing a suit. It takes the Boss a few clicks to light his smoke. He sighs at the first inhale, then waves the lit end in V’s face, a little absent-mindedly. V chews his lip and takes note of the fact that Kaz has said nothing; funny, because Commander Miller has been consistently strict about banning traditional tobacco smokes from Mother Base since 1984.

“No, it’s not time,” Big Boss finally responds. He pauses to take another drag off his smoke, then adds: “Not yet, at least.”

Kaz eases himself to his feet and crosses the room, his uneven steps punctuated by the resonant clang of his cane hitting metal on each off-beat. That sound is one of the most basic, familiar comforts in V’s world. “You’ve done a good job here, Boss,” Kaz says, more kindly than he has to. Kind enough that it comes off condescending. “We’ve built something amazing. It’s no small feat to take a PMC from zero to a major force in global nuclear disarmament in less than a decade. But we need to change the way Diamond Dogs operates from now on. We’ll need to be less centralized, and you -”

“You need to be you for a while,” Big Boss finishes Kaz’s sentence for him. “Because I’m going to be Big Boss.”

“Okay,” V says simply. There isn’t anything else to say. When Big Boss is in the room, you say ‘yes sir, no sir’.

Kaz holds out his hand. It takes V a moment to realize what the gesture is begging for - Kaz is looking for a handshake. His expression is cold, careful - professional. Trying to gauge the tenor of his emotion beneath his shades makes V wince because suddenly he’s questioning his memories. Kaz is his best friend, his second in command, his lover, they - (“Don’t touch me, don’t touch me. Dont -”

“How can you accept this so passively? What are you gonna do - just go back to sleep so you don’t have to deal with the cognitive dissonance?”

“Oh, I’ll play my role. That’s a promise I made to the Boss when we talked. But you need to remember yours: you’re a gun, a sword, a weapon, and it’s my hand that pulls the trigger. No matter how I act to keep up the fiction, don’t mistake it for the real thing.”

“Aren’t you just taking out your anger at him on me? And on yourself?” “You think that I made a mistake in coming back?” “No, I think that you’re hurting yourself by -” “I honestly don’t care what you think. I only care what he thinks.” “Don’t you understand I

(worry about you)

am him.”)

- Kazuhira Miller has always been an impeccable actor. His lips form a thin smile when V reaches out to take his hand. “On behalf of all the soldiers of Mother Base, I want to thank you for your years of service. You’ve given your all for us, and then men appreciate it.”

“Of course,” V replies. “You’re welcome.”

“There’s just one last thing,” Big Boss says. “One last job I need you to do. And this one’s a doozy.”

 

[CLICK]

“--- oss. Why?”

“I ga-- --is mission to a rookie like you so that you could r----- false information but you’ve -one too far.”

“-- is has to be a joke. This can’t be real.”

“The world that you li-- -- -s an illusion, Solid Snake. FOXHOUND, the vows you’ve sworn to your country, the conflicts we’re forced into... but this is real. Outer Heaven is real.”

“Y-you’re nuts. I’m --- -”

“You’re going to take me down, rookie?”

“..--- -h.”

“Heh. Well. I won’t die for nothing. You’re coming with me.”

(the gunfire comes in three short bursts. the battle persists for several more minutes.)

“ -- mn. Damn. Damnit.”

[CLICK]

1995

A soldier’s gun is his best friend. In the end, your gun fails you. Somewhere along the line the casing warped - in the sewer, crossing the electric floor, the battle with Metal Gear… it doesn’t matter. You peer out from your hiding spot, you aim carefully, you pull the trigger and the slide lock jams. The weapon backfires. Your gun has betrayed you. It snaps back in your hand and goes off like a blank, giving away your position.

The room is flashing red and dark - it’s like a bloodstained strobe-light. Big Boss bears down on you in static still frames. You scramble around the corner but he grabs you by the collar of your uniform and tosses you to the floor. He’s saying something, but the klaxxon of the evacuation alarm drowns everything out. Your heart-beat pounding in your throat drowns everything out. He pins you to the floor with his forearm on your jugular and he looks right at you with his one wild eye and his blood-flecked smile. You think you might be hallucinating now from lack of oxygen, because his face looks split down the middle. He looks like he’s the devil himself - and you - you -

- ten minutes later you’re looking at a caved in face and your own hands covered in gore and he’s still breathing so you… what did you do? You can’t remember, not how you escaped his grasp, not how you gained the upper hand - you moved without thinking and you, without thinking, hit him until he wasn’t moving anymore.

But he’s still breathing so you…. you take his gun and you… you put it to the center of his ruined face and you -

David’s not listening to Campbell’s lecture, just like he didn’t listen to any of what Doctor M had to say about patience and PTSD. He’s staring at his hands and seeing double - and not just because he’s drunk. Oh no - he’s quite good at operating at full capacity even with a half quart of vodka spinning behind his eyes. That’s not what got him caught. Not at all.

David is staring at his hands and trying to make peace with them. There’s a bright smear of blood staining the knuckles on his right hand, from where he punched Bomber Bat hard enough to fold his nose to one side. That’s what tipped them off that something was wrong; Solid Snake was the kind of man who finished a fight, not the kind who started one.

“Snake -” Campbell’s voice is stern, but he can’t mask the concern and exhaustion fraying the edges of his composure. He’s bleary-eyed and overworked from too many sleepless nights trying to re-structure FOXHOUND in the wake of their C.O.’s unexpected betrayal.

The world you live in is an illusion. FOXHOUND is an illusion -

“I’m listening,” David lies.

“No, you aren’t. Look - I understand that what you’ve gone through was rough. In a way, we all went through it together. But none of us so personally as you.”

David snorts. “That’s a nice sentiment, Colonel. You think a big group hug is gonna solve this?”

Campbell sighs and runs both hands through his thinning hair. “Snake… David. Like I said, to some extent I know what you’re going through. It’s never easy to come back to the civilian world after wading chest deep into enemy territory. I’m sympathetic, but I can’t let this go just because I feel sorry for you. This is going to go on your record. You understand that?”

“I don’t care.” David slouches in his seat and rubs at the space between his eyes. His buzz is long past pleasant at this point. His gaze flickers to the back of the room, trying to make eye contact with the one other person in the office. Master Miller hasn’t said anything yet. He’s in his dress uniform for once, having been given a number of temporary administrative duties during the adjustment period. David doesn’t know if he’s looking for support, for camaraderie, whatever… somehow the buttoned-up look changes Miller’s demeanour entirely, puts up a wall around him.

David stares point blank at Colonel Campbell and says: “Put all the black marks on my file you want. Kick me out if you want. I don’t care.”

“Snake…” Campbell’s at a loss for words. Miller pushes off the wall and goes to lean against the desk. He sets his hand on Campbell’s shoulder.

“I got this Roy,” David hears him whisper. He’s trying to be subtle, but David’s a trained superspy. He hears it. He hears everything. Why the hell does he always have to be the one who hears and sees everything?

This isn’t real - Outer Heaven is re -

“Hey kid,” Miller says, hitting the bottom of David’s chair with his cane. “Let’s get you some fresh air.”

The drive is a blur. David stares out the window and fails to recognize any of the familiar landmarks. The sun is all the way down by the time Miller drives his junky, modified Volvo off the road and puts the car in neutral near the base of the mountain range. They sit in very un-companionable silence for a moment, then Miller turns off the engine and says: “Come on.”

David rolls himself out the door and goes to join Miller, leaning against the trunk of the car. The tail-lights cast long, grey shadows towards the highway. David fumbles for his smokes, drops his lighter. When he gets back up, Miller snatches it from him.

“Let me get that.”

David sways forward, accepts the favour. Miller lights his cigarette with surprising ease - as if he’s done it a hundred times - even though David’s never seen him smoke. They’re silent for a while longer after that. David presses the smoke to his lips with trembling hands, doesn’t really even inhale. Just holding the damn thing, watching the smoke spiral up towards the sky… it makes him feel normal for a moment. Anchors him, reminds him that he’s home in America, back at FOXHOUND - the only home he’s ever known. A home that gave him stability for the first time in his life and then brutally cut his legs out from under him. Big Boss gives, and Big Boss takes away...

“That was some damn unprofessional shit, soldier.”

“I know,” David mutters. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“You’re better than this, David. You’re too smart to let everyone see it like that.”

“Yeah.”

“But Campbell’s wrong. He’s got no clue. He means well, but I don’t think that he’s ever killed a man with anything but the utmost professionalism. He’s career military. It’s his job. But it’s more than a job for you, isn’t it David?”

David doesn’t answer. There’s a strange hitch in Miller’s voice, but his face is hard and unreadable. At least he’s not trying to be kind - David doesn’t think he could stand one more person trying to be friggin’ kind to him after he - with his own hands -

“Did Roy ever tell you how he met Big Boss?” Miller asks.

“Yeah,” David answers blearily, staring at his hands again. “He tells everyone the same story. Big Boss saved his life in San Hieronymo. I suppose you’re going to tell me he saved your life too?”

“No,” Miller’s looking at the sky, his eyes distant beneath the sunglasses. “When we met, he was going to kill me.”

“Kill you?”

“He defeated my unit in combat. Beat me brutally, to be honest. He was going to execute me, but I talked him out of it. Showed him how I could be useful. And here I am, twenty years later, still trying to be useful to him. Funny, right?”

“No,” David answers honestly.

“Yeah, sorry. It’s a bad joke.”

“When I fought him, he looked more like a demon than a man.”

“But you survived, David. That’s what’s important. You surpassed him.”

His one wild eye, his blood-flecked smile. In the darkness of that cargo bay, it looked like he had a devil’s horn. When you catch your bloody reflection in a pane of glass later, for a moment you think that it’s him -

“I feel like…” David tries to articulate, but he’s shaking. He sucks back on his cigarette, desperate for the tobacco to soothe his nerves, but it’s too much. The cold night air, the alcohol swimming in his veins, the blood on his hands… “I feel like… a part of him is in me now. As if... that was my reward for killing him.”

“It was,” Miller replies, as if it’s that simple. “The ones that do well in FOXHOUND rarely come through the normal military ranks like you did, David. Usually, they’re like me, or like Roy. Big Boss is either their captor or their saviour. That piece of him you carry inside you… you can turn it into a weapon.”

David drops his smoke and watches what’s left burn down to the filter. “At least with him dead… I suppose in a way that means we’re free.” We can move on.

Miller laughs. “Free? David you’re -” he shakes his head and meets David’s curious gaze. “You’re young. That’s not the kind of thing anyone can ever truly be free from. Everyone’s treating you with a soft hand right now, but I’m not gonna lie to you: it haunts you. It sleeps in your bed every night and wakes up with you in the morning. It follows you like a shadow - no amount of light can get rid of it.”

“So you…”

“The man ultimately responsible for my arm and leg… I killed him eleven years ago. I still think about him every day. Sometimes I regret what I did to him. Sometimes I - I wish that I could be there again. In a way I’m always there, standing over his broken body, holding the barrel of his own gun, as we shoot him again and again and aga -” Miller inhales abruptly, stops himself. His voice has gone deep and ragged - like something rotting and torn uneven at the edges. He looks away and brushes a stray strand of hair behind his ear, trying to regain his composure. David realizes now that he’s never seen a smile from Master Miller that wasn’t performative and his gut turns over in a wrench that’s half resignation, half empathy.

When Miller’s hand falls away from his cheek, David replaces it with his own. He guides Miller’s face towards him and kisses him. It seems right - the hazy clouds dimming the moon, the pale beams of the car’s lights cutting through the darkness, the wind rattling down from the empty highway… it’s that kind of night. Miller doesn’t return the kiss, but he doesn’t pull away either. David eases back and searches his teacher’s face for approval or rejection. Miller’s face is oddly impassive.

“Jesus, kid,” he sounds exhausted. “You’re really sloshed.”

“Master, I-”

Miller grabs his arm and tugs it, guiding him back around the car. “I gotta get you home. You need to sleep this off. You’ll feel better in the morning, once that hangover starts driving into your skull like a sledgehammer. Nothing like pain to bring clarity.” He’s speaking with clipped, forced flippancy now. David can’t believe that it’s taken him so long to figure this out, to see the dark well of sorrow beneath Miller’s meticulous veneer, how hollow his good cheer is.

With the liquor clouding his judgement and turning his emotions bright and raw-edged, all this realization does is make David want to kiss him again. Which he does when Miller tries to help him into the backseat of the car. He wraps both arms around Miller’s neck and drags him down. He hits his head on the hard, plastic arm of the opposite door and accidentally makes the kiss all teeth. They end up half in the car, half out, Miller forced to straddled David’s hips for balance.

David,” he scolds when they part. Whatever lecture he’s about to launch into gets swallowed by David’s third attempt at making this work. This time it’s a little like picking a lock - careful technique and perseverance slowly unhinge the stubborn vise of Miller’s teeth. When Miller does kiss him back, he does it like this was all his idea in the first place. He rolls their mouths together with shocking expertise, bruising David’s lips with sharp, deliberate bites.

David immediately cedes the kiss to his superior. Letting Miller take the lead makes it easier for him not to think too hard about it: that he’d been caught drunk on base, that he’d flattened a comrade’s nose, that he’d practically sexually harassed his teacher and now they were making out in the back of a car like damn teenagers. Using his hands to thread through someone’s hair makes it easy for him to forget that he’d recently beaten his Commanding Officer to death with them. There are gentle uses for hands as well. He ghosts his fingers along Miller’s ribcage, down the plane of his stomach, and tugs his shirt free from his waist-band. Miller’s got his tongue halfway down his throat, but when David slides a hand up under the shirt, he goes tense and jolts back.

“Kid,” he hisses, wrestling into a sitting position. “This is really fucking unprofessional.”

“That’s fine. I’m tendering my resignation anyway.”

“Shit - you’re not funny,” Miller says with a misplaced sort of familiarity that makes David feel immediately self-conscious. There’s something about Miller’s tone that's been unraveling all night, like the layers have been peeled back to expose the flesh; the false gaiety, the kindly teacher, the stern mentor - it’s all gone. David slides out from beneath him so that his back is against the window. The glass is ice even with two layers of fabric between it and his feverish skin.

Miller leans back in the seat and pulls the other door shut, locks them in together. He pauses to tighten his ponytail before fixing David with an expression that would be unreadable even if he weren’t wearing sunglasses in the middle of the night. “Don’t move,” he says, and then he reaches down and begins undoing the buckle of David’s belt.

David chokes back an embarrassing sound - shock and desire all tangled together - and grabs Miller’s shoulders. He’s not sure if he’s trying to shove him away or pull him closer. Miller’s head snaps up and he actually growls.

“I said: don’t. Move.” And he says it with the same hard, authoritative edge he uses when telling cadets to drop and give him fifty. David goes still on instinct, all that trained obedience that can’t be turned off in civilian life coming to the surface. Miller yanks down the zipper on his fly and slips his hand into his pants. “Don’t move and don’t say anything,” he repeats. “If you do, I’ll stop and we never talk about this again. Is that clear?”

David nods, and then he closes his eyes because he realizes what’s happening is not particularly psychologically healthy and he’s afraid of the things he’ll find out about his teacher if he watches the exact emotions that cycle through his face as he dispassionately jerks someone off. He stays still and he bites the side of his mouth to stop himself from making noise. He’s ashamed that he manages to stay aroused through the whole ordeal and he’s ashamed at how quickly he comes, but Master Miller really knows what he’s doing, and he goes about it with a sort of practiced workmanship. When he’s finished, he wipes his hand on David’s pant leg, a final reprimand.

David falls back against the window, panting. He can see out the window from the top of his vision. The stars are spinning above him. He flattens his palms against his flushed cheeks and tries to catch his breath, to center himself the same way he does after a good fight.

This isn’t real. The world you live in is an illusion. This isn -

David cleans himself up, gathers his composure. Sits up. “So,” he shoots Miller a wry, side-long glance. “Did I pass?”

Miller sighs and rests his head against the back of seat. “You have a lot of nerve taking a smart ass tone with me after all that.”

“... sorry, natural instinct.”

The silence that settles inside the car is suffocating. The military discipline in David can’t stand that he’s getting let off the hook so easily for such rank insubordination. He looks at Miller and asks: “... are you going to read me the riot act about my drinking finally?”

Miller groans - exasperation or regret, it’s difficult to tell. He takes off his shades and pinches the bridge of his nose. “No. No… I’m not gonna say anything, David.”

“Isn’t that why you brought me out here?”

“Booze, sex, drugs - everyone who’s gone through the kind of thing you went through has their vices. Sometimes it really is the only way to escape. It’s fine if you can’t look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, as long as you get out of bed and keep surviving.” Miller slides his glasses back on before giving David a reassuring look. “That’s the one principle I’ve tried to instill in you kids - survival isn’t pretty, survival doesn’t feel good. Survival is the bare minimum of living. So… do what you have to do. Just don’t let anyone else see you doing it.”

David watches the way the moonlight pools beneath the sharp edges of of his profile. He thinks that he’s probably drained the well with regards to his privilege to ask the Master invasive questions, but the one he really wants to know slips out anyway. “What… was your vice?”

Miller raises his arm and lets it fall with a slow, purposeful thud. He claps the stump above his fake leg a few times for emphasis. “Pain,” he says with a crooked grin. “That’s why I don’t wear nicer prosthetics. So I can carry it with me all the time.”

It never goes away. It stays with you… the world you live in is an illusion -

David is suddenly struck by the heavy weight of his future. It hits him all at once with the same density as a fist in the gut. I killed him eleven years ago… but I still think about it every day.

It sleeps in your bed every night… it haunts you… the world you live in is an illusion. Outer Heaven is real -

“- avid. David! David -” Miller’s shaking him, eyes pulled wide with concern.

“I can’t do this,” David gasps. He whirls around and tries to bust his way out of the car, but the door is locked. He panics, throws his arm back and hears the sound of bone cracking against bone.

Fuck -”

- and that snaps him out of it. He twists his head back around to see Miller nursing a wound to his forehead.

“Master - I -”

David reaches out, but Miller jerks away. “It’s okay - it’s fine. David, I’m fine.” He looks up - shades slightly askew and a dark bruise forming around his eyebrow. “But you aren’t. You need to pull yourself together.”

“I know.”

Miller struggles out of the car - his eye is probably more hurt than he’s letting on. David sits alone with himself until he can’t stand it anymore. He sits alone with himself until he needs a smoke so bad that it’s shaking his bones. When he steps outside, Miller says nothing, he just lets David recline against the car with him wordlessly. David smokes one cigarette. Then he immediately lights up another one.

“If you’re really planning on leaving FOXHOUND,” Miller says haltingly. “I -”

David stares at him.

“- I know a place. An organization, I mean. Where you could put your talents to use.”

“No offense, Master, but I think I’m gonna take some time off. I need to... “ David takes a drag off his cigarette and breathes the smoke out in a thin ribbon. “... I need to be alone for a while.”

“Well, if you ever change your mind. Give them a call.” Miller forces a business card into David’s hand. “It’s… the same card I gave Jaeger, after all was said and done.”

“Frank? You… gave this card to Frank?”

“Yup.”

David smooths out the edges and holds it up to the light so that he can read the text - two words in bold, militaristic font: Diamond Dogs.

 

(door opens. dog starts barking immediately. five seconds later, the phone begins to ring.)

“Oh, come on, I just got in the door - yeah, yeah DD, calm down. We’ll go for a walk after just let me -”

(Miller picks up the phone. Only his side of the conversation is audible.)

“Impeccable timing. You got my apartment bugged or something?”

“----”

“Oh no, of course not. How could I ever suspect you of such a thing? Besides, I’ve already checked for bugs this week.”

“----”

“Yeah. It went off without a hitch. I did what I needed to do, you don’t need to check up on me like a goddamn babysitter.”

“----”

“You still feel that way after all these years? That hurts. I thought that at the very least we’d come to a place of mutual respect and tolerance.”

“----”

“Don’t worry. I have an exit plan.”

“----”

“I don’t really see why you need to hear it.”

“----”

“Fine - I go out the same way I came in. Staggered about eight months after the Boss. Campbell’s asked me to take over his old position, but I refused. Started seeding my cover story too. My health, you know; it’s just not what it used to be. I’ll stay in America a few months after my resignation before going to help out you know who in you know where. And then you -”

“----”

“Heh - it’s almost like we’re trading places. Funny how life works out that way. Such a shame that your work always keeps you on the opposite side of the world.”

“----”

“Oh, you know. Just getting nostalgic for old times.”

“----”

“Yes, DD’s fine. You ask that every time like I have no idea how to take care of a dog. It’s not rocket science. I walk him regularly. Take him to the park and everything. He’s happy. What? You want me to hand him the phone?”

“----”

“Mmm hmm. I know. There’s a lot of things you would have preferred to take care of yourself, but we don’t always get what we want.”

“----”

“You don’t have to tell me twice. I know what I’m doing. What my role is.”

“----”

“Right. Bye.”

(Miller slams down the phone, sighs.)

“Your mother is a real asshole, DD. A miracle you turned out so well. Wish he’d self-hypnosis himself into forgetting my phone number.”

(Miller paces. Glasses rattling, fluid being poured.)

(several minutes of silence.)

“... aha... ahahaha... come on, Kazuhira. Why all this self pity. You’ve done worse.”

(A loud impact rattles the walls of the apartment. [Miller punched the wall?] The glass breaks and he hisses in pain. Dog starts barking.)

“Shit, shit - DD, DD I’m fine. I’m just...”

(laughter)

(the dog is quiet but his footsteps pad after Miller as he crosses the apartment. A tap is turned on. it runs for a few minutes.)

“You’re a really dumb dog, you know that? All this time we’ve had you doing things a dog should never have to do. But it doesn’t bother you, does it? Because you trust us so much. Because you don’t know any better.”

(tap is turned off.)

“Although... if we’d left you out in the wild and you’d survived, you would have spent your entire life killing animals instead of people. That’s just how you’re made. From that perspective, I guess you’ve had a pretty good life.”

(footsteps approach the living room again. Miller settles into a chair. Dog follows and lays down. A sigh, and then Miller begins dialing a phone number. 12 digits. It rings for a hundred and twenty six seconds before someone picks up.)

“... listen, don’t ask how I got this number. I’ve got some very important information for Donald Anderson.”

“----”

“No, I can’t tell you who I am. And I don’t care if you hang up, but first let me give you a message: tell Donald that someone wants to talk to him about what a loyal patriot he is.”

[CLICK]

Chapter Text

1986

“You couldn’t have sprung for something a little nicer?”

“Victoria’s a small city, there’s only a handful of hotels. Besides - aren’t you the one who knows where all the money is?”

“Yeah, well, I’m not going to embezzle two hundred whole dollars for a guy who didn’t care enough to come see the men and women who earned it for him.” Kaz takes a half-hearted stab at his curry. He has no idea why he let Big Boss order for him, of course he’d use it as an opportunity to make fun of him. Kaz was infamously picky about his curry. The dish isn’t bad, but all it does is remind him of what an effort cooking is these days. All his old hobbies are either arduous or impossible.

Snake, naturally, is enjoying himself. His eyes had lit up when Civet de Chauve Souris turned out to be exactly what it said on the tin. He’s munching contentedly on one of the spiced bat wings now, surveying the hotel dining room with the eye of a battle tactician. He looks a little ridiculous in polite company with the eyepatch and the black turtle-neck, rolled up to the elbows. Not as ridiculous as he did in the 70s, though; his edges are smoothed down these days, his beard neatly trimmed. He looks almost tamed. He looks like a stranger.

“These people are awfully calm considering the city just survived an attempted coup,” Snake says in Spanish.

‘Calm’ isn’t how Kaz would describe the atmosphere. Desperate, maybe. Determined to be jovial. The banquet room is full of chatty diners dressed in neon and floral prints, all of them drunk on sambuca and palm wine. He and Snake stick out like a sore thumb in their monochrome tones. A few years ago, Kaz would have been embarrassed at how out of touch he looks in his unfashionable, beige suit. He bought it in Johannesburg in ‘78 so that he could look trendy and professional when meeting with potential employers. In 1986 it’s the only thing he owns that isn’t a uniform, or military fatigues.

“Coups are the way of the world here,” Kaz replies, surprised at how natural Spanish still feels on his tongue. “Seychelles has been relatively untouched the last few years, but this close to South Africa, the people probably spend their whole lives waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“It’s good that it did, then. A little conflict is good for the soul.”

“That’s true for us, Snake. But it’s not true for everyone.”

“All people are ultimately driven by the same base instincts, Kaz. You and me… we’re just more honest about it. That edge of danger has made these people appreciate what they have - look around, most of them aren’t tourists. They’re living in the moment for once.”

“Do you actually believe that?”

Snake takes a long swig of his wine. “The better question is: do you think that you’re so different, Kaz? Do you believe that you’re so far removed from everyone else in this room that your inherent nature separates you from them?”

Kaz doesn’t answer. How can he? It’s one of those questions where every answer leads down a rabbit hole he doesn’t want to explore. Instead, he sticks his fork into his untouched curry and says: “Did you really bring me here just to debate clumsy philosophy? We have unfinished business.”

“So impatient,” Snake frowns. “Relax. I want you to enjoy yourself first.” He says it with that sincere, guileless kind of charm that occasionally possesses him when it comes to interpersonal shit, which means that even though he’s been an asshole since the moment they met in the foyer, he really does mean it.

“What are you doing?”

Snake hunches his shoulders and glances away. Oh no, no. After the shit he’s done, he does not get to be embarrassed and charming. He doesn’t get to act like he used to.

But he does. “Er… you remember, about a month after… everything with Zadornov and Paz.” He scratches at one of his sideburns and his gaze flickers back to meet Kaz’s. “And you took me out to the beach? Said we worked too hard, so we deserved a break.”

Yeah, Kaz does remember. His and Snake’s relationship had taken on a… bizarrely romantic tone in the months between the Peace Walker Incident and… and the end. But mostly because Snake had forbidden him from dallying with women in his spare time (but oh, that had nothing to do with them or what they did), so what else was Kaz supposed to do with all that charm and expertise? He was really, really good at wining and dining - it was a shame to let it all go to waste! At the time it had felt a bit like a cold war, or a game of chicken - candle-lit dinners, stargazing, the whole nine yards; Kaz was trying to see how far he could take it before Snake caved in and let him have sex with women again.

“You were trying to make up for a big lie,” Snake continues. “Thought I’d return the favour.”

Kaz is honestly bewildered. “This… is… a date?”

“Yeah.”

Kaz laughs and slams his hand down on the table, rattling the glasses and all the utensils. “How is it that you can… just say this shit that cuts me right down but then it’s like… you don’t even know me at all.”

“Kaz. I know you.”

The way Snake says it, and the look that he pins Kaz with… Kaz tries to swallow, but his mouth is suddenly dry. Despite everything - all the crossed wires and the lies and the years and years between them, it’s true. Snake may misjudge him from time to time, but when it comes down to who he is, who he really, truly is at his core - the most basic, primal things that make him Kazuhira Miller… Snake knows him. But that’s only because the man he is today is the man that Big Boss made him. It’s cheating, to claim any credit for being able to see through that.

Snake pushes back his chair and stands up. He leaves a roll of crisp bills in the center of the table and then, cheekily, offers Kaz his hand. “Come on. Let’s go resolve our unfinished business.”

And if that wasn’t just the most portentous euphemism for ‘let’s go fuck’... because yeah, they had things to talk about, but it wasn’t like they weren’t going to end up in bed. Kaz has felt it in the air between them since the moment he spotted the Diamond Dogs patch on the shoulder of Snake’s jacket and he had to dig his nails into his palm to stop himself from jumping the bastard right then and there to beat the shit out of him (“That doesn’t belong to you. That’s not yours.”). Snake has been infuriatingly calm all night and Kaz has been desperately trying to pick a fight. With them, one thing has always lead to another.

Snake is so good and patient with how long it takes Kaz to make it up the stairs. He doesn’t suggest that they take the elevator instead. He doesn’t even move to catch him when Kaz struggles a bit on the last step.

“If you try to help me down the hall,” Kaz whispers pleasantly, “I’ll break your wrist.”

Snake grins - sees it for the issued challenge it is - and snatches Kaz’s cane from him. Kaz stumbles, shocked, right into Big Boss’s helping hands. In the manner of a gentleman helping his grandmother across the road, he walks Kaz to his hotel room. Under his breath, he says: “Kaz, I’d really love for you to try.”

The moment the door slams shut, Kaz does just that. His CQC is rusty and the move doesn’t have any real intent or planning behind it, so Snake’s able to throw him off without even breaking a sweat. But breaking Snake’s wrist wasn’t what Kaz really wanted - what he wanted was to be thrown against the wall so hard that his vision falters. The impact feels better than any drink, any lay he’s had in ten years; it reverberates from his shoulders to his hip, strumming every single rib like they’re strings on a guitar. He can’t help it, he actually moans.

“Good to see that you’re just as shameless as I remember,” Snake grins and grabs Kaz by the waist. He wraps both arms around him and swings them around, pulling Kaz so close there’s almost no room to breathe. The back of Kaz’s knees stutter against the bed, but Big Boss doesn’t push him down, just holds him.

Kaz shuts his eyes and whispers: “Hurt me.”

“Hmm?”

He doesn’t know why he said it, just that he wants it. “You heard me. Hurt me.”

“What’s gotten into you all of a sudden, Kaz?”

Kaz’s arm is crushed between his chest and Snake’s. He manages to slither it free to tug at the loose edges of Snake’s too-neat hair-cut. “I was ten years without you. I want to really feel it. I want you to leave marks I won’t soon forget, ones that I can’t mistake for some dream or phantom.” It sounds pretentious out loud but whatever. There’s no one in this room to judge him except the one person who’s opinion really matters.

Big Boss’ chuckle thrums warm against Kaz’s jawline. “Would it really be wise to send you home in that condition?” He tugs at the neck of Kaz’s dress shirt, exposing the top of a fading mark left by the other one, by Venom Snake. “You’ve got someone waiting for you, after all.”

“The thing about him,” Kaz whispers it like a secret. “- is that he goes on a lot about things that aren't there. Sometimes he thinks people who died years ago are still alive, forgets things that happened the day before. So, I’m pretty sure that I could tell him just about anything in the right tone of voice and eventually make him believe it actually happened.”

Big Boss stops laughing. “Kaz,” he says, tone halfway between disappointment and a reprimand.

“Don’t you ‘Kaaaaz’ me. Isn’t that how Zero made him? I’m just taking advantage of a pre-programmed failsafe.”

Big Boss pulls back to look him over, his mouth turned down. “Were you always this…?”

Mean?” Kaz finishes with a hiss. “Petty? Cruel? No. You did that.”

“I don’t think so,” Snake says. He brushes Kaz’s hair aside and then clips his thumb and forefinger around the bridge of his sunglasses. He slides them off, folds them up and slips them into Kaz’s jacket pocket. When that’s all done, he steps back and holds out his arms. “But since blaming me makes you feel so good, why don’t you take a swing at me?”

“What?”

“I’ll hurt you, Kaz, if that’s what you want. But you’ve got to hit back. Otherwise what’s the point? C’mon - I’ll give you one for free.”

Kaz sucks air through his teeth, his hand curling into a fist automatically without him even thinking about it. On one hand, Big Boss is condescending to him, like he always does, that complete piece of shi-

On the other hand, it’s gonna feel so good trying to break his nose in one swing. Kaz’s skin is tingling in anticipation, eager for bruises, for scrapes and finger-marks. He’s so sick of the Phantom’s tender shit, all feathery touches and fumbling callouses drumming gentle along his cheekbones, his ribs. It was nice at first - to be handled like he was cracked glass - but after a year and a half it’s become suffocating, makes it too easy to slide back into self-pity. The thing they don’t tell you about chronic pain is that it’s fucking boring. Everyone is so ginger with you and you forget what it feels like to be alive with adrenaline. The thrill of a good fight he can’t win? Kaz can feel it humming in his teeth.

So he takes a fucking swing. Big Boss does nothing to stop it. Kaz puts all his weight and strength into it, doesn’t even care if he loses balance and topples them both over - which, of course, he does. It hits with disappointing force - there was no real thrust behind it, nothing solid - but it does pin Snake between Kaz’s thighs, giving him a much better position to swing from a second time. This punch rakes across both Snake’s cheeks and grounds his face into the cheap, scratchy carpet of the hotel room. The third punch comes with a wet satisfying crunch, but Kaz keeps going. A fourth time. A fifth time. The sixth blow loses steam. Kaz’s arm is shaky and aching, he’s already breathless from the exertion. He raises his fist and tries to breathe past the pain. Snake’s nose is broken - not phenomenally broken, but noticeably. His lip is split. He’s gonna have a black eye in about ten minutes. Kaz is seeing red by the time he lands the seventh punch.

His body is moving automatically now, running on autopilot in response to pleasurable stimuli. How could he have spent the last year and a half docilely doing paperwork when hands were made for fighting? The most basic, primal, obvious use for a hand was to pound the shit out of another human being with it - that’s the sort of thingyou learn when you run with Big Boss. It was freeing, seeing the fruits of his effort, the effects of his own strength. It was like running after being bedridden. Shit, he hasn’t run in twenty-one months, and the last time he ran, it was for his li-

- the human body is an amazing machine and it is capable of amazing things, like hitting another human body so hard that the bones snap and grind into the flesh, so hard that you can do damage to a skull that eats away at its original shape, like what it takes the ocean ten thousand years to do to the shore. That’s what Kaz is imagining himself doing, what his arm wants to do after so long caged by pain and self-loathing. His arm wants to hit Big Boss so hard and so many times that his fucking skull caves in, so that his face is just a ruin of soggy flesh and chipped bone. That’s not really what Kaz wants, ultimately, but it’s in the force of how hard his eighth punch hits. For a second, Kaz thinks that Big Boss is going to let him get in an even ten, but as he lets the ninth blow drop, Snake’s hand snaps up and catches his fist.

“Okay, that’s enough,” he says, a bit nasal though his broken nose. He folds Kaz’s arm back with surprising ease for a man who’d just been beaten so semi-thoroughly and Kaz has to roll with the motion of the twist to avoid getting his arm dislocated. He hits the floor hard on his right side and pain shoots through him all the way from his shoulder-stump to the bottom bone of his ribs. He falls, cursing, onto his stomach and Snake’s arm comes up around his neck to catch him in a CQC hold. Kaz manages to get his chin into the space beneath Snake’s elbow and he sinks his teeth into the soft flesh there so hard that it draws blood.

“Good, good,” Big Boss says affectionately, his voice hardly affected by the pain. Of course not - this is the kind of thing he lives for. He’s honestly proud.

“Don’t. Patronize. Me,” Kaz gasps, the taste of metal and meat sharp on his tongue.

Snake draws away long enough for Kaz to roll onto his back. He tries to kick at Snake’s kneecap, but Snake shifts deftly to the side. He reaches out and grabs Kaz by the neck, and then he lifts him. He lets most of the pressure rest on either end of Kaz’s jaw so that his air passages aren’t prohibitively restricted. When they’re both on their feet, Snake asks: “How badly do you want this to go?”

The grip on Kaz’s throat is relatively gentle, but it’s still difficult to talk around it. “Go for broke, Snake,” he pants. Big Boss chides him.

“That wouldn’t really be fair. C’mon Kaz - you could hardly beat me when you had two arms.”

Kaz knees him in the gut. Snake drops him and he lands hard on his fake leg. The cup of the prosthetic digs sharp into the flesh of his thigh and he would have been crumpled on the floor again if Big Boss didn’t catch him by the shoulders to steady him.

“I told you not to-” he begins but he’s cut off by Big Boss’ palm. Snake grabs Kaz’s face in one of his big, calloused hands and throws him back against the dresser, with enough force to knock the breath out of him. He doubles over, into Big Boss’ arms.

“You really need to pull yourself together. I’m not going to do this for you every time you feel inadequate.”

“H-heh. This is like shooting fish in a barrell for you, isn’t it?” Kaz’s breath comes out thin and ragged. “Th-there’s really no… way for me… to keep up. T-to make you take me seriously-”

Snake grabs his face again and smashes his head into the mirror this time. The whole thing shatters, mostly because it's cheap as shit. Still, it hurts.

“Watch out,” Kaz says, his vision sparking and spinning at the edges. “You’re gonna… give me brain damage if you’re not c-careful.” His speech is slurred from how hard he'd bit down on his tongue upon impact. There's so much blood in his mouth, both his and the Boss's.

“Yeah, that’d be a shame. To be honest, I don’t care about the arm and leg, Kaz, not as much as you think I do. Your mind is the only part of you I really need intact.”

Kaz laughs at that. He closes his eyes and asks: “am I bleeding?”

Snake checks, pressing down on the tender spot at the back of his head. It doesn’t hurt really, not much more than anything else has hurt. Kaz worries that his pain tolerance must be unreliable at this point after dealing with so many months of pain as a constant. He could be bleeding out for all he knew and his body wasn’t going to recognize it.

Snake drags his fingers down the side of his face and Kaz can feel that they’re slick with blood. “Oh. Good,” he whispers, then rocks forwards to crack his skull against Snake’s. Snake falters on his feet - loses his balance for a half-second - and that’s all Kaz needs to knock him down again. They hit the floor near where Snake dropped Kaz’s cane. Kaz gropes for it and braces it across Snake’s throat, slamming the other half of it to the floor with his knee. Snake croaks - an involuntary sound, caused by the cane crushing the air out of his trachea.

“How does it feel?” Kaz snarls, pushing down hard on the metal. “Feeling trapped? Smothered? Knowing that someone else holds your life and death in their hands? And that it’s entirely possible that they don’t give a fuck? This is how you make me feel. Do you like it?”

Snake sets his palms against either end of the cane and pushes, just a little. Enough that he can hiss out words. With that limited air, the words he chooses are: “K-Kaz… has anyone told you… that you really… can’t pull off a beard…”

Kaz lets go of the cane so that he can punch him again. He actually misses and gets Snake in the ear instead. With his high ground sacrificed, it’s easy for Snake to roll them over and pin Kaz down. He gets both his hands up under Kaz’s shirt and he squeezes, kneading at the sad remains of his fading six pack.

“And what’s this? You’re getting soft.”

“How dare yo-”

Big Boss cuts him off with a kiss. When he tries a second time, Kaz turns his mouth away. “Don’t,” he says. Snake grabs his jaw, clamps it tight in his hand and forces their lips together. Kaz fights it, bites into it, does everything he can to resist it until he can’t, until his lips are forced pliant. Big Boss kisses him slow and open mouthed, easing the grip on Kaz’s jaw slowly, tipping his chin so that their noses can slot against each other, so that his tongue can drive deeper. Kaz claws at Snake’s shoulder, at his hair, desperate for purchase as all the oxygen is sucked out of him. He can’t remember the last time he was legitimately kissed breathless, kissed until his lips were raw and he didn’t care how ugly he was acting, drooling and making tiny, desperate noises.

He always used to wonder what the hell Big Boss even got out this, how much of the physicality of it was passion and how much was tactical. He knows that Snake doesn’t need sex, can do perfectly well without it. He’s not like Kaz, who gets twitchy and depressed when he’s gone too long with only his hand for company, who couldn’t stick to one partner even when that partner was the hinge on which his entire world revolved… Snake always acted so pure and wise and above it all. But as soon as there’s a little blood in the water, Kaz thinks as Snake grabs his hips, he’s as animal as the rest of us.

Snake breaks off the kiss, barely winded. He yanks Kaz off the floor and for a moment, Kaz thinks he’s about to get flipped over. He lets out a long, shuddering breath, almost trembling in anticipation. Instead, Snake drags him to his feet and pushes him - gently - onto the bed. He makes sure that Kaz is positioned comfortably on the mattress before straddling him and going to work on his shirt buttons.

Kaz panics, suddenly feeling more trapped than he did with Snake’s hand around his throat. “N-not like this,” he rasps.

Big Boss raises an eyebrow. “Then like what, Kaz?”

“I… against the wall, on the floor. Ground my face into the carpet. I don’t care, just not like this.”

“Do you need to do this because you want to prove to me that you can still fight?”

They stare at each other in the half-light. Big Boss is almost more handsome with the hollow of his eye puffing up into a black bruise and his nose caked with drying blood. No scars, no horn; when his shirt comes off, all the bullet scars will be in the right places. Kaz isn’t ready to see how accurate his memory really is, to face the real weight and brunt of his obsession with this asshole who ruined his life, after giving it purpose. “Not everything I do is about you,” Kaz whispers. It tastes more like a lie said aloud. “This is something I need. I’m… I’m asking you because I want it.”

Big Boss leans over him and slides the warm base of his palm along his cheek. He strokes the soft skin beneath Kaz’s eye with his thumb. “It’s dangerous to use pain as escapism, Kaz. It dulls your natural instincts and can be just as addictive as alcohol or heroin.”

“You’re not listening to me.”

“I’m listening, Kaz. But you have a bad habit of saying one thing while meaning another. You’re not honest by nature, not even with yourself.”

Kaz closes his eyes against the sight of Snake’s affectionate smile. “Snake… please…” Don’t make me look at you.

“Don’t worry. Like you said - it hasn’t been that long for me. I remember what you like.”

And wasn’t that just typical - Big Boss knows what’s best! Kaz, your wrist trembles holding a .45, puts your aim off by whole centimetres. You’ll want to turn your arms slightly to absorb the recoil. You favour your dominant hand when you fight. Learn to grapple right handed. Only ten percent of the population is left handed - use that to your advantage. Kaz, you can’t talk to uneducated soldiers the same way you talk to businessmen and politicians - you’re smart, you’re strong, you’re talented, but you still have a lot to learn. I’ll trust you with just about everything: my men, my money, my body - even my life - but I won’t trust you with yourself.

Kaz gives into it when Snake kisses the dip in his throat, but not when Snake kisses him again on the lips. He fights what he needs to fight, to maintain his pride. It’s good to know how to choose your battles wisely - another lesson he learned from Big Boss.

Afterwards, Snake sits on the edge of the bed and lights up a cigar. Kaz stares at the ceiling - still damp and panting - and tries to gather his thoughts. He rolls himself into a sitting position and leans his face against the hard muscles that line Snake’s upper spine. It’s a difficult journey with one arm and all the bruises from their earlier fight starting to turn blue and tender, but Snake shifts his shoulders and silently accommodates his presence. They stay like that for a few minutes: Snake filling the room with smoke and Kaz listening to the sound of his heartbeat through his ribcage.

“I adore you. You know that?”

“Mmm?”

“Adoration is a latin loanword. We’ve softened it with mundane associations, but in its original context, it means admiration and reverence. In Rome, a devotee to an adored figure could not even look at the object of their affection. They would cover their heads and kiss the feet of divine statues, or otherwise put a kiss to their hand and turn it so that their love would be given indirectly. If you adore something, you pay homage to it. When you think about it that way, it’s pretty messed up that we toss it around so casually.”

“No, it makes perfect sense to me. It’s only human to see the proverbial face of God in those we love.”

“It’s not love, Snake. It’s worship.”

Snake takes a long, thoughtful drag of his cigar. On the exhale, he snickers. “Ah - you always say things like this after sex, Kaz. And you’re always mortified in the morning. You always ask me to pretend it never happened.”

“I’m not the same person I was in the 70’s. Listen to me. I’m going somewhere with this.”

“Go on then.”

“It was so easy to hate you. Like flipping a switch on and off. It’s two sides of the same coin: I hated you when I first met you, I think, and it’d be easy to hate you again. You don’t realize the effect you have on people. You’re careless with them.”

“So what, you’re gonna kiss my feet?”

“Hell no. But… we need to talk about this.”

“You... want to talk... about our relationship?”

“Yeah. I do.”

“Hmm. I seem to remember trying to lay down some ground rules back in the day. More than once. You always brushed me off - ‘oh, Boss, you wanna take me to senior prom? This isn’t serious. We’re just having a little fun’.”

“Even back then, you knew that wasn’t true. I’m grateful you humoured me, but look at the mess that denial’s made of me. Just three years at your side, and nine years thinking of almost nothing else.”

Pining, Kaz? You’re above that.”

Kaz chuckles humorlessly and shifts his position so that he and Snake are sitting back to back. He stares out the window at the city lights and the moon reflected on the still ocean. “Don’t worry,” he murmurs. “Not all of it was pining. A lot of the time I was furious with you. Zero, Cipher… they took everything. Our men, our home - they took you from my side when I was unconscious, wouldn’t even trust me with your location. I missed you, sure, but six drinks in I’d start to follow the problem back to its root cause. I’d start to think: you know, I wouldn’t feel this awful if I’d never met him. I’d start to think: why am I here, seat-warming for a man who practically kidnapped me and press ganged me into serving in his private cult of personality.”

“Is that what you really think of me? Is that what you think of what we built?”

“No - I’m being ridiculous. When I met you it was just a few guys in leaky tents messing around in the woods. It wasn’t until I got there and started working my magic that it became a real cult, right?”

Kaz.”

“Seriously, Snake. I always viewed your charisma as a valuable business asset. I didn’t realize how much I’d fallen for it until you were gone and I was alone with myself, with nowhere left to look but in. I couldn’t… hold it together on my own.”

“You managed. They followed you. Never forget, Kaz: you were their Commander.”

“Sure, okay. Everyone listened to me, but only because they knew me as the man you trusted with the reins. The work didn’t matter, the money didn’t matter - the only thing that mattered was that we’d all been there, we all remembered Big Boss. So I thought,” Kaz stammers, falls over his words. He can feel the bitterness welling up at the bottom of his stomach again. It gets into his throat and makes his voice go guttural and cracked. “I thought - what am I without you? Nothing. I’m nothing at all if I’m not your partner, and that’s what got me through nine years of hell and weeks of torture. If I could just see you again, it’d all make sense. But when you woke up, you didn’t even think about me. Out of sight, out of mind’. And you want me to accept the table scraps you’re offering now just because I kicked up a fuss?”

Snake is quiet. He’s quiet for a long while. Kaz doesn’t know if he’s pushed too far, or if Snake’s honestly thinking through everything he’s said.

Finally, he says: “I don’t go through this kind of effort for just anyone, Kaz.” He says it like it should be obvious. It’s not.

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“What do you think?”

“I feel like… you’ve always wanted to fold me up and put me in your pocket. But I’m not made out of a material that can be folded, so you have no idea what the hell to do with me half the time.”

“Maybe.”

Snake grounds out the nub of his cigar and shifts, turns around so that he can sit on the bed proper. Kaz moves with him and is surprised when Snake reaches out to pull him down into a tight embrace. He tucks his arm between them, knocks their foreheads together. It’s suffocatingly intimate. Snake hums quietly and says, “easier to fold now, with so much less of you.”

“Is that what you got out of this conversation?”

Snake runs his fingers through Kaz’s blood-stained hair, then over the bruises on his neck. “No more of this. I don’t enjoy beating you down as much as you seem to enjoy me doing it.”

“You’re a goddamn liar.”

“Hmm?”

“If you don’t enjoy it, why don’t you fuck Ocelot?”

“Why would I sleep with Ocelot?”

“Exactly. He’s not like me. He won’t fight you again and again - sincerely fight you - even though he has no chance of ever winning.”

“Is that your professional opinion as my psychiatrist, Kazuhira Miller?”

“I let you smash my head through a mirror and ten seconds later, you couldn’t get my pants off fast enough. What is that?”

“You seemed like you needed it.”

“Can’t you just admit…” Kaz twists in Snake’s grip, tries to jerk out of it. “I can admit it. I like it when you beat the shit out of me. Can’t you just say ‘Kaz, I like to fuck with you.’ Jesus Christ, you always have to frame it like it’s a lesson, like you’re doing all this for my own good. Just admit that putting me in my place turns you on. Why can’t you just-”

Big Boss flips them over and pins Kaz to the mattress - and not in a playful or gentle way this time. This is all business. Snake’s good humour has switched off and he’s staring down at Kaz with a dangerous, impatient glint in his eye.

Kaz’s heart flutters in his chest, thrumming like a caged butterfly. He hasn’t been held down like this in years. More than years - he feels like the last time he was held down like this was in another life; and it was. Back to the dirt, a grenade in his hands and the monstrous form of the legendary soldier bearing down on him while he tried to charm the beast with his silver tongue… he was a different person before Snake came along and took ownership of his death.

“I’m not the same man I was in the 70s either,” Snake growls. “We do things differently, now, Kaz. No more messing around. This -” he closes a hand around Kaz’s throat to demonstrate. “This is messy. Do you know why you weren’t told where I was? Why you weren’t told the truth? Because you take things too personally. Because you can’t let things go. Because you let your emotions cloud your judgement. Kaz - you’re furious with me, but who was it who let Cipher into Mother Base?”

“... me. I was… the one who did it.”

“Yeah, you were. Now think about it seriously. Who are you really mad at? Huey Emmerich? Zero? Me? Or are you mad at yourself? Isn’t that why you want so badly to feel pain?”

Kaz’s eyes have pulled so wide that they’re catching all the light in the room. The push and pull of midnight traffic flickering through the blinds, the moonlight catching on the shards of the broken mirror, the fierce, deep blue of Snake’s one good eye. He’s right, god, Big Boss is right, he’s always fucking right.

“And despite all that,” Snake says magnanimously, “I still came here. I still answered your summons. I'd like you to be with me for what's to come, but if you can’t get past this - if you can’t stop feeling sorry for yourself and blaming everyone else for your own mistakes - you’re of no use to me.”

“All I have ever wanted,” Kaz whispers, voice unsteady, “is to be of use to you.”

Snake lets go of his throat, eases his knee off Kaz’s sternum. “Tell me how you want it to be and I’ll tell you yes or no. That’ll be the end of it.”

What ‘end’ means in this case is ambiguous. He wouldn’t put it past the Boss to kill him straight out if he gives the wrong answer. And that’s fine - Kaz doesn’t think that he’s going to die tonight, because he knows who he is again. His eyes are alight with it - no more stabs in the dark, no more whispering revenge fantasies to ghosts in the night. He’s back where he belongs now.

“You’re going to change the world,” Kaz says. “And I want to see that through with you, right until the end.”

Big Boss nods, so Kaz continues. He can hear his voice growing lighter, like all that weight he’s been carrying is falling away, sloughing off his soul like a dead layer of skin. “Well - Ocelot’s your eyes and ears, right? And the Phantom is your sword. So let me be your Pen. I just don’t want to be in the dark again. You can use me, push me around, ask me to do terrible things in your name, I… I don’t care. Just don’t lie to me and I’ll do anything you want. And if you lie to me again…”

“You won’t forgive me a second time?”

Kaz jabs Snake in the forehead. “I haven’t forgiven you this time. Just remember that.”

Snake sits up. He thinks it through. “Okay,” he says, the severity drained from his face and shoulders. “That sounds fair.” Then he starts laughing. “Hnh - if only I’d known back then that it’d be this easy to get you to stop all your petty nitpicking...”

Boss…” and the nickname sounds true again. “I never said that I would agree with you on everything. Sure, you lecture me all the time, but there’s a lot of basic things that you don’t know shit about. That’s what I’m here for.”

“Ah - there you are.” Snake grabs his face and tilts it so that he can examine it better in the light. “That’s my Kaz.”

“Yeah,” Kaz breathes out and lets his eyelids fall shut. He feels more himself than he has in ten years. “Yours.”

Chapter Text

1995

“H-hey Snake, you got a light?”

“Yeah.”

Snake hands Fox a cigarette and lights it himself. The flash of yellow light makes the shadows jump the sharp planes of Fox’s pale features, revealing how deep the lacerations on his neck really run. He’d been tied to a pipe with chicken wire around his wrists, ankles and jugular when Snake found him. It’s a wonder he can even talk, the wire had been pulled so tight. Snake stares at Fox with wide, unfettered eyes as the older agent leans his head back against the brick and puts the crumpled cigarette to his lips. The skin of his neck is so tattered that it moves around his breath like a loose sleeve, a dead exoskeleton ready to be shucked.

“Fox,” Snake says lowly. “What the hell did they do to you?”

Fox exhales an expert smoke ring despite his wounds. “Nothing too bad. Been through worse. Just need a smoke break then I’m outta here.”

“You’ve been through worse? Looks like what you’ve been through is the wringer. Can you even walk?” Fox’s ankles are cut half an inch deep in places. Snake’s staring at his rolled up pant cuffs, and how they’re caked with drying blood. Fox’s eyes follow the direction of Snake’s gaze, but his expression remains blank.

“Huh. You’re right. It looks pretty bad.”

“Let me patch you up,” Snake says, grounding his smoke out on the wall.

“You sure you got the time?”

“Doesn’t matter.” Snake maneuvers his knife to cut a few strips from the leg of his own uniform. “I’m not gonna argue with you about this.”

Fox nods. Snake's surprised that he doesn’t protest even for show. Then again, FOXHOUND agents were generally above such posturing. No one got sent on assignment by Big Boss himself without having earned every inch of their post. Snake pops open one of his procured Outer Heaven rations, searching for something that could be used to make a rough saline solution. As he’s heating up the emergency disinfectant he’s souped up, Fox says:

“Hey. Mind if I tell you a story?”

Snake chuckles. “What, like a bedtime story? C’mon, Fox - stay with me here.”

“Don’t worry. I’m awake. This just… made me think of something.”

Snake nods. He’s more worried than he’s letting on - keeping Fox talking is probably the best thing for him at the moment. Snake wants to monitor the tenor of his voice, make sure he isn’t getting delusional. It takes a moment for Fox to continue. He’s taking a long, languid drag off the borrowed cigarette.

“Do you know what a Tiger Cage is?”

“Yeah. Kind of torture device used in Vietnam POW camps, right?”

“Sort of. More like a trash can, where they put prisoners when they were done with them. Mesh cages rooted deep in the mud, about five and a half feet long and just a foot or two off the ground. When they didn’t think they could get anymore information out of a guy, they’d put him in one and leave him there until he died, usually in a puddle of his own excrement and blood.”

“Oh good. It’s this kind of story.”

“Mmm. Yeah. The only kind I know unfortunately. Wish I had some milk and cookies for you, rookie.”

“Glad you’re lucid enough to make fun of me. Listen - I’m about to wrap your ankles. This is gonna hurt, so brace yourself.”

“I’m fine,” Fox says calmly. There’s no hitch, no waver in his voice. He’s a consummate professional - he isn’t even breaking a sweat through the pain. Damn, Snake thinks. He really is the best.

“So. You were going to tell me about Tiger Cages?” Snake adjusts the angle of Fox’s left leg so that he can tie a better knot.

“Yeah. Well… when I was a kid… I pissed a soldier off by… dropping something I shouldn’t have dropped, stepping on his toes, I don’t remember... the offense doesn’t matter, I guess. Anyway, he threw me into a Tiger Cage. Pulled the corpse right out of it and threw me in. It had been raining like hell the last few days so the cage was half flooded with this real dark, thick mud so if I laid down I would have drowned.”

Snake works diligently to clean and dress the wounds as Fox talks. He’s tempted to check Fox’s face, to see what’s going on in his eyes, around the edges of his mouth as he tells this story. The man’s voice is cool and smooth as a slab of marble.

Fox says: “I knew the soldier didn’t mean to leave me in there long enough to die, but I probably would have. It was the first time I was able to clearly conceptualize death. Instead of yelling for help, I shoved my arms beneath the water line - the mud was slippery, smelled like shit, but the rainstorms had made the earth around the roots of the cafe soft and malleable. So I started digging. I dug until my fingers were bloody and ragged, till I chipped off most of my fingernails. But you know what? I didn’t even feel the pain - just the dead certainty that when it was all over, I would still be alive.”

Snake yanks the knot tight on Fox’s left ankle and starts working on his right. He keeps an eye on Fox’s impassive face from the corner of his vision. He’s sweating a bit. The beads of perspiration are visible in the hollow beneath his chin, but his skin doesn’t feel feverish.

“An experience like that shows you the kind of person you are. Shows you whether desperation strips you down to fear or aggression.”

“Survival instinct, huh?” Snake grunts. There was a test in FOXHOUND basic meant to test just such a thing: a group of them had been drugged at dinner one night only to wake up in a wooden box buried three feet underground with a random tool, two hours of air and an emergency radio set to Colonel Campbell’s frequency strapped to them. Snake’s journey out of the make-shift grave had been so fevered that he’d nearly slit the throat of the soldier assigned to guard the RV point. He couldn’t imagine the effect of a similar experience on a child.

“Mmm. Like an animal.” Fox raises a hand with great effort and jabs a thumb towards the FOXHOUND emblem on the arm of his tattered uniform. “Like the rest of us. That’s how I knew.”

“Knew what?”

“That this is where I belonged.”

“In… FOXHOUND?”

Fox hesitates a moment. He finishes off his smoke with a laboured inhale and a thoughtful expression. When the cigarette is drowned by its own ash, he flicks away the butt and says: “You know, Snake. Not just anyone can do what we can. And there’s nothing else I can do.”

“I find that hard to believe. You’re a resourceful guy.”

Fox grunts. “You ever taken a stab at civilian life, rookie? It’s not so easy.”

Snake relaxes and falls back against the wall, shoulder to shoulder with Fox. “I thought,” he begins, tone guarded, “about… raising dogs.”

Fox shoots him a surprised look. “Raising dogs? Really?”

Snake fetches himself a smoke and pointedly avoids eye contact. Fox actually laughs - kindly, and honestly. The life is coming back into his voice like colour being painted onto a black and white photograph. He laughs, and slaps Snake lightly on the back. “- you’d be good at it. You’re really… gentle. Someone like me… I’ve forgotten how to be that way.”

“That’s strange,” Snake says without thinking. “Miller said almost the exact same thing.”

Fox gets real quiet. Snake catches him turning away, his expression darkening beneath his shaggy bangs. Snake feels suddenly self-conscious at allowing himself to be so unguarded with a more experienced agent just because, what, he did the man a solid and gave him a smoke? Fox isn’t that much older than him. It’s easy to forget how vast his experience is in comparison.

Finally, Fox speaks. “Snake…” he says quietly. “Don’t trust Miller.”

Snake meets Fox’s gaze and sees that the man is dead serious. “... why?”

Fox presses his eyes shut, looking more pained than he did when Snake soaked his wounds. His lips flatten. “FOXHOUND’s not a family, Snake. It’s a pack of wolves. Tell me: what kind of animal fakes a wound?”

“A domesticated dog might, but certainly not a wild wolf.”

“Hnh. Exactly.”

Snake doesn’t quite understand the implication - and he certainly doesn’t have the time to unwind it in the middle of a mission - but he decides not to pry. He’s a rookie, after all, and the personal lives and vendettas of his senior officers are none of his business.

Fox groans softly as he braces his hand on one knee and rises to his feet. He stretches out his limbs one at a time and then tightens his bandanna. The fabric is bright red, like a warning sign. He could afford to flaunt colour the way others couldn't; anyone unfortunate enough to catch sight of him wouldn’t live long enough to sound the alarm.

“It’s a long way out of a hot zone. Spare another smoke?”

Snake frowns; he’s actually running low, but Gray Fox looks like a dead man walking. It would be cruel to deny him a simple request. Begrudgingly, Snake hands over his third last cigarette. Fox nods gratefully and stores it under the fold of his bandanna, right behind his ear.

“When the time comes, Snake, you need to do what we can that other people can’t: don’t think. Just survive.”

“When what time comes, Fox?”

Fox cocks his head back. Even in the near-darkness of the storage room they’re stowed away in, his face looks like it’s cut from glass. His mouth cracks into a wide, wolfish grin and he rubs at the wounds on his throat. “Don’t worry, Snake. You’ll know.”

 

[The room is silent except for the quiet breathing. Someone sleeping? At 3:21:32 breathing is disturbed.]

“What the... is someone there?"

[Scuffling; a gun being cocked, safety switched off.]

“Boss?”

[no answer]

“... Ocelot?”

[no answer]

“Of course not. If you were Ocelot, you’d want to let me know immediately that you’d been watching me sleep.”

[no answer]

“I know you’re in my room. If you’re here to kill me, just get it over with. Do I... ha, do I look like I can fight? If not - well, either way, there’s no point staying hidden.”

[no answer]

“.... Snake...?”

[no answer]

“Snake, is that you?”

[something moves through the air. two feet hit the floor, quietly.]

“Who the hell are you?”

“I’m the person Big Boss sent to retrieve you.”

“.... I don’t know you.”

“No. You don’t.”

“So, why should I trust you?”

“Because Big Boss trusts me. And you trust Big Boss.”

“...”

“I’m the person Big Boss sends to do his most important jobs, and I don’t fail him.”

“What makes you think that I’m going to believe a word you say?”

“He said you would probably react that way.”

“Well, relay my apologies to Snake then: I’m sorry for being so fucking predictable.”

“Tell him yourself.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“Yes, you are. As I said: I don’t go home empty-handed.”

“Really? Good luck dragging Mother Base’s X.O. off into the night with our entire security team on your tail, then. If Snake wants me, he has to come get me himself.”

[a flurry of sharp movements punctuated by the slick whisper of a knife being drawn - Miller grunts.]

“Miller. Don’t touch that button.”

“... hmph, you gonna cut my other hand off?”

“...”

Go ahead. Someone recently told me the only thing I’m good for is my brain.”

[the next sound is a thorough crack - cartilage, not bone snapping. a fist smacking against clothed flesh once, twice, three times. a body is slammed up against the metal wall. rough breathing.]

“... Big Boss says the time has come.”

“The time for what!?”

“He said that you should know better than anyone: the time to rebuild Outer Heaven.”

[it takes a while for miller to respond]

“... oh.”

[CLICK]

1996

It’s 7:16pm on a Tuesday night when Solid Snake lets Master Miller in from the rain.

It’s an entirely unexpected visit. Callers are rare enough that David slips a .45 into the waist of his pants before he answers the intercom. When Miller’s voice comes over the cracked connection - a little hesitant - David knocks his head against the wall, sighing at the depth of his own paranoia. Get a grip Snake. Anyone you’d call an enemy is a man that you put in the ground yourself.

There’s a weird background noise to Miller’s voice over the intercom, but David doesn’t think much about it until he hears the extra set of feet padding down the hall after his uneven gait. They’re light and they bounce along at twice the speed of a human’s. David’s not surprised to see a dog when he swings the door open, but he’s... surprised to see a dog.

“Hey David,” Miller greets him jovially. “Nice evening, huh?” He’s soaking wet. Between his crutch and the leash, of course he had no way to carry an umbrella. The dog beside him is visibly aged, but he circles behind Miller with the giddy impatience of a puppy despite his arthritic limp. He makes sure that David is looking at him before he barks twice and then shakes the water from his fur, drenching Miller a second time.

DD!” Miller grouses. “You couldn’t do that somewhere else? I - I promise, he’s better trained than he looks.”

“I… didn’t know you had a dog.” David says, awkwardly. The last time he and Miller had been alone together was the night David was caught drunk at FOXHOUND HQ. Miller, in fact, had been making extravagant excuses to prevent them ever being alone in a room again right up until David’s suspension. A house call was… unexpected.

Miller wrenches water from the bottom of his coat with a long-suffering sigh. “I don’t have a dog,” he says. “I took this one on as a favour.” He glances at David over the rim of his sunglasses. “Hey - kid, are you gonna invite me in or what?”

“Oh. Right.”

Honestly, David wasn’t going to invite him in. His apartment is a disaster, a ghost town. The only thing in his bedroom is a sleeping bag and a stack of borrowed books. His living room has a radio and a small, metal table that he uses to tune up his guns. He doesn’t want Miller to ask him about the empty cupboards, the fact that he only owns one pair of boots or the layer of dust covering his stove. He spends most of his time drunk, or outside. The weekend before, he’d taken a bus out beyond the city limits, right to the end of the line, and went walking in Kanisku with nothing but two packs of smokes and a knife. He’d hiked up nearly the entire length of the Kootenai River Valley - fell asleep beneath the open sky, drummed up fish from the frigid rivers, worried about nothing except the next place his foot would fall along the path. He stared at the stars and thought about how Nanabozho went north forever, and considered not going back himself. He only turned around when he realized that he’d finished his last cigarette.

He invites Miller in because of the dog. DD trots in like he owns the place, his fur still dripping rainwater. David has always felt more human around dogs than people. He used to help out at a rescue shelter when he lived with the Reeses in Grant’s Pass. “The best way to keep you out of juvie,” his foster mother said. It was a joke, but David often suspected that it was the way he behaved with the dogs that convinced them to keep him until he was eighteen instead of shipping him off the first chance they got like most of the homes he’d been in.

“What breed is he?” David asks, genuinely curious.

“He’s a, uh, huskie,” Miller doesn’t sound quite certain. “Yeah, definitely a huskie.”

Snake quirks an eyebrow and examines the dog’s profile as Miller kneels to unhook his collar. “Sure he’s a purebreed? Looks like he might have more than a little wolf in him.”

“You’re imagining things.”

“It’s just that he’s… kinda big. Wolfdogs and huskies might look similar, but they’ve got entirely different temperaments. Wolfdogs can be quite a handful.”

“Mmm, well - this one’s a good dog. Old, though. Probably on his last legs. He - DD, DD, get down!” The moment Miller takes the leash off, DD skitters across the floor leaps for David’s chest, pawing at his shoulders so that he can lick his face. “Sorry,” Miller drags himself to his feet and gestures vaguely. “He really likes… people like you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Kid, do you like dogs or not?”

David has gotten to his knees so that he and DD can interact at eye-level. He notices for the first time that the dog is missing an eye. “Yeah. I’ve always wanted a dog.” Or twenty, he adds silently.

“Good. That makes this easy then. I actually came here to ask a favour: I’m leaving the country, and I need someone to take my dog.”

David’s eyes snap up in surprise. Miller’s staring down at him completely stone-faced. “You’re serious.”

“Whaddaya say? He’s pretty cute, huh?”

“I-” okay, yeah, the dog is really cute. DD dips forward to lick David on the cheek and then nuzzle at his ear. When David gets to his feet, the dog leans back and obediently goes to heel, his thick tail thumping excitedly against the fake hardwood. “You couldn’t have asked me this over the phone, why?”

“I thought that if you saw the dog first you’d have a harder time saying no,” Miller admits with a casual shrug. He loops his cane over his elbow and goes to pull up a seat at the island in David’s tiny kitchen. The stool he corrals is one of the only two seats in the entire apartment. “C’mon - sit down and have a drink with me. We’ll talk about it.”

“You know, this is my apartment, Master. Just because you were my drill sergeant once doesn’t mean you can order me around on my home-ground. I’m not exactly military anymore, you know.” And as soon as my suspension’s over and my papers are all in order, I’m outta here.

“Well… I’m not military anymore either, David. Just tendered my resignation this morning.”

David blinks in surprise. The whispers in FOXHOUND when David was still serving were that Miller was poised to take over Campbell’s old X.O. position. “Really?”

“Mmm hmm. So think of this as some final advice from your former teacher on how to be a good host: when a nice old man comes in from the rain, you offer him either a warm drink, or a stiff drink.”

Despite his sardonic protestations, David begins checking his fridge, DD following along behind him the whole time. He frowns at the contents therein: coffee creamer and vodka. He considers offering Miller a vodka on the rocks, but remembers what happened the last two times he interacted with Master Miller with a little liquor in the mix. He slams the fridge shut and goes to search his equally desolate cupboards.

“Oh, come on, you can’t be that old,” David says, a bit more rakishly than he intended. Wisecracking keeps the tremble out of his voice. He feels better already, painting his words with false light. “Master, you don’t look a day over -”

“Careful, kid.”

“- thirty-five,” David finishes. It’s almost true. Miller smiles ruefully and taps his finger against the surface of the island.

“I’m turning fifty this year. Which makes me a goddamn senior citizen entitled to a cup of coffee.”

“Actually, in Washington State you’re not considered a senior until sixty.”

“I wish we were in training again, David, so I could fail your ass back to basic.”

“I have green chai,” David says firmly. “So you’re getting a cup of green chai.” He actually does have coffee, but something here is telling him that this evening is going to go a lot smoother if he nudges back against Miller’s characteristically pushy nature. If neither of them are military men anymore, there’s not really any point in allowing their interactions to be ruled by the rigid confines of hierarchical rank.

He fills the kettle and sets it on the stove. He only owns two mugs: one is plain black, chipped; the other is a gaudy tourist souvenir he bought when attending Green Beret training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Before being sent to Iraq, North Carolina from the West Coast was the furthest he’d travelled in his life. He cherished the memory of that first flight over the US heartland, watching the land change colour and character over the course of five short hours. He felt like he was seeing the whole world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour. At eighteen, David had believed such worldliness to be the path to inner peace. He was a lot more worldly now, but he didn’t feel any wiser, or any happier.

DD follows him to the stove and back again before finally returning to Miller’s side to settle at his feet. David joins the older man at the island; he hands Miller the tourist mug and enjoys the incredulous expression on his face as he looks the hideous, neon shapes over.

David wraps both hands around his mug to absorb the heat. “You’re... leaving the country?”

Miller is dunking his teabag to stir up the leaves. “Yup.”

“For how long?”

“I don’t know. Maybe for good.”

That gets David’s attention. His chest seizes up as suddenly the mood in the apartment shifts entirely; this isn’t an ordinary friendly house-call, Miller has come to say goodbye. “Where... are you going?”

“... home,” Miller answers, hesitantly.

“Home?”

“Mmm. Yeah - I never told you, I guess. I’m not actually American. I figure I’ve been here long enough. I realized recently that there’s not really any reason for me to keep working for FOXHOUND, since the only reason I was there was…”

“Because of Big Boss,” David says darkly. Miller nods and takes a sip of his tea.

“Roy’s fine with it. Most everyone is fine with it. But I’m not, so I’m going… home.”

“Where’s home?”

Miller wags his finger and tsks. “David, I’m not going to make it that easy for you.”

“What?”

“With Big Boss gone, there’s not a person in FOXHOUND who knows who I really am. I’ve been living on forged documentation for nearly two decades now.” Miller’s tone is playful, but the edges of his words are sharp. He’s not joking around.

“... I can’t believe that.”

“Well, it’s true. Disappointed that I’m not as straight-laced as I pretend?”

David shakes his head. It seems right, somehow. Miller’s the kind of guy who always asks your opinion but never offers his own. David tries to think about what he really knows about Master Miller, beyond his favourite brand of whiskey and his taste in literature. Every bit of information he’d ever learned about the man’s past had just created more questions.

“Nah. But you think I’m gonna sell you out?”

“Of course not, David. But…” Miller sighs and sets his chin in his palm. The outline of his pupils are visible through the shades; his expression is wistful, regretful. “When you keep secrets like that for so long, it becomes a part of you.” He stares at the blank wall for a while before he seems to regain his cheer. He paints on a grin and slams his hand on the table with renewed resolve: “How about this. If you guess where I’m originally from, I’ll tell you my real name.”

“You’re not American, and your name isn’t McDonnel Benedict Miller. Next you’re going to tell me you’re not a natural blonde.”

“Very funny,” Miller retorts flatly. “... but, Miller’s actually my father’s name. It’s not the name I was born with, but it’s still mine.”

You don’t know his name or where he’s from or why he looks so goddamn sad when he says something like that.

“How many guesses do I get?”

“Three.”

“Okay.” David takes a drink of his tea and works through the evidence in his head. He says: “First guess: Colombia.”

Miller’s eyes flutter wide and David can’t keep himself from smirking. Got it in one. “Uh huh. I-interesting guess,” Miller stutters a bit and straightens in his seat. “What makes you say Colombia?”

“You speak flawless Spanish. And the fact that you want me to guess probably means that your appearance is somewhat unusual compared to an American’s average conception of your countrymen. Colombia has a high indigenous population compared to other Spanish-speaking Latin countries like Brazil or Costa Rica, so a light-eyed blonde man like you would stick out.”

“Heh,” Miller regains his composure with an amused shake of his head. “Your reasoning is sound, but you’re way off kid.”

“You looked shocked when I said it.”

“Well,” Miller dips down to pat DD between the ears. “I spent some time in Colombia when I was your age.”

David files away that newest piece of information. He knows that Campbell met Big Boss in San Hieronymo near Colombia in 1970. He also knows that Campbell didn’t meet Miller until the 90’s, and that Big Boss was gone from South America by the mid-70s. So if Miller was due to turn fifty this year, that meant that he must have met Big Boss when he was… twenty-four? twenty-five…?

But what does that mean? David feels like he’s been handed a very important puzzle piece, but he can’t make head or tails of it. He watches Miller’s expression soften into a very real smile as he rubs his knuckles between his dog’s ears. David sets down his mug and pins Miller with a serious look.

“Master, you…”

Miller interrupts him. “David - me and DD have been out on the town for a while. Wanna grab him a bowl of water?”

David meets Miller’s expectant grin with a flat stare - how blatantly could you possibly change the subject? Miller completely refuses to acknowledge the look - of course. David sighs and gets to his feet. DD’s ears go alert and he jumps up to follow him to the sink. David fills a bowl with cool water and sets it down for him. Then he remembers something.

“Hey Master… I actually have something for you. Wait a minute.”

He goes to his room and returns with a faded, but otherwise well-maintained, copy of Yukio Mishima’s Decay of the Angel. Miller adjusts his aviators before taking the book back.

As David hands it over, he says: “East Germany?”

“Is that a guess?”

“Mmm.”

“Well,” Miller flips through his book a few times before looking up at David. “I actually can see how you’d think that. Restless kids from ex-Axis countries ended up all over in the 70s. But no. That’d be a little obvious, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah,” David knew the guess was a throwaway, but that was part of his strategy. He pauses, then asks: “am I on the right track?”

“After all this time you expect me to give you a clue? That’s like cheating, kiddo.” Miller slaps the novel onto the table between them with a resounding thud. As David slides back into his seat, Miller taps the book’s cover with the back of his knuckles and asks: “So. What did you think?”

David rolls his shoulders back and sighs. “That’s a loaded question.”

“Did you actually read it?”

“Of course I read it. Why else would I be giving it back to you?”

“Oh, I’m just used to…” Miller waves his hand, dismissing his own thought before it gets going. “Nevermind.”

DD - having made an investigative round of the apartment on David’s heels - pads back into the kitchen and nudges his nose into the palm of David’s hand. David concedes to pet his muzzle and ruffle the fur of his neck. He’s rewarded with DD’s continued trust: the old dog curls up under his stool this time.

He addresses Miller. “You couldn’t have leant me something a bit lighter while I was trying to literally drink myself to death?”

Miller laughs. “I doubt it would have had a much more heartening effect on you had you read it in better circumstances. I read it in ‘72 when I… didn’t have much to worry about - comparatively - and it still made me want to down a quart of tequila and go walking off into the woods for a few years. But I think it’s important that we-”

‘Read books that make us feel like shit sometimes’?” David finishes in his best impression of Miller’s performative flippancy. Miller’s brow furrows.

“Are you making fun of me?”

“No,” David diverts away from the question; the truth is, he was actually trying to flirt. “But I think only you’d hand a “rookie” a book that romanticizes suicide after the state you saw me in.”

“Hmm. Did you actually consider killing yourself, David?”

It’s easy for David to shake his head ‘no’. He gets the feeling that if he ever stuck a gun in his mouth, he’d end up chewing off the hand that held it. If he wanted to die, he would have let Big Boss do it back in Outer Heaven. What’s hard to admit is that even though being awake and alone with himself has been a struggle, he’s slept pretty easy these past few months.

“Well -” Miller says, “- the Japanese have a saying: "If one has a will to die, one could do anything”. I was hoping you’d… do anything. But it looks like my concerns were misplaced. You’re more like the Boss than he anticipated, I think.”

David flinches at that. “You know… I’m not sure that I -” he turns his mug around as he tries to formulate a thought to derail any brewing conversations about Big Boss. “- understood all of the cultural subtleties. I get Mishima’s point - the past is more beautiful the further away you are from it. Clinging to it is a delusion that ‘decays’ the present. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that Mishima himself was endorsing the delusion.”

“Well, in Japan... when the war was over, they were forced to adapt to survive. Some level of conscious Westernization had been a policy since before the Meiji Restoration, but those last few steps were imposed by America, during a state of defeat. Mishima’s an extreme example, but that push and pull between traditional values and the necessity of change was really one of the driving cultural conflicts in Japan in the last century.”

Miller is silent a moment. He stares into his tea and runs his thumb along the rim of the hideous mug. “And that’s the thing, isn’t it?” he continues. “Everyone has their own personal golden age. Even when you can see the cracks in it, it’s impossible to entirely wipe the shine off.” He couldn’t make it more obvious that he was talking about himself if he put a blaring, neon sign above his head.

“Master…”

David studies his old teacher’s profile in the harsh glare of his kitchen’s fluorescent overheads. Beneath the unflattering light, he begins to look his age. His skin is remarkably sun-damaged, David notices, and holds a tan even in the middle of a rainy, west coast January. He looks wistful as he stares out the window at the storm - relaxed, accessible. David’s not certain how to feel at the moment: he’s a little annoyed, honestly, that after so many months Master Miller would barge into his house unannounced and pick at his personal issues while dangling his own secrets - not even secrets, something as simple as his real name - just out of reach like a damned game.

It’s that curiosity and frustration that continues to draw him to Miller. David knows that humility is important, but that’s been a luxury he could easily afford in his very isolated life. The things that he is good at - combat, languages, marksmanship, animals - have always come to him very easily. There are a lot of traits that have separated him him from others in his past, but that ease of purpose… that silent confidence… it’s...

Miller makes him feel unbalanced, out of his depth. Even more so because it’s clear that that is the desired effect of their interactions - it’s a challenge offered. David wants to unwind his exterior like it’s a puzzle, a mission, one of Miller’s own obstacle courses...

“Is that why you’re leaving?” he asks. “Trying to escape the shadow of your own golden age?”

Miller starts, shaken out of his brief reverie. “You’re awfully interested in my past all of a sudden, kid.”

“Yeah, well…” David stands up. He rounds the kitchen island and pushes Miller’s mug away so that he can brace his hand on the counter and lean over him. The moment lingers as David gives Miller a chance to pull back. When he doesn’t, David takes a chance and kisses him. Not the way he did last time - this time he’s sober, so he’s more careful about it. Turn me down now, the kiss says, but I’ll try to make this worth your while.

Miller waits out the entire kiss before putting his hand up between them. “David,” he says tiredly. “You really need to stop this. I’m old enough to be your father. And then some.”

“You know… if you’re going to pull that card, shouldn’t you be the one to put the brakes on it?”

“Excuse me?”

“Calling me ‘kid’ and ‘kiddo’, then putting all the responsibility on me. Master… if I’m a kid, then shut this down.”

Miller actually sputters. “You… you think I’ve been… encouraging this?”

Really? “You haven’t been discouraging it.” He feels like it wouldn’t be fair to remind Miller that he’d jerked him off in the back of his car three months earlier, not when David had the advantage.

“David -” Miller gropes for his cane and stumbles to his feet without breaking eye contact. His arm sweeps over the table in the process and sends his mug crashing to the ground. DD makes an inquisitive noise and snaps his head up, startled, with his ears and tail to alert. Miller steadies on his feet and makes a quiet noise of irritation as he looks from David, to the spilt tea, to his dog and back again. “It’s okay, DD-” he says soothingly, his voice much, much softer than the lines on his face. “Go back to sleep, boy.”

DD obediently puts his head on his paws, but his large, yellow eye follows Miller as he limps past David. “You know - I just came here to check up on you out of the goodness of my heart, because I suspected that you weren’t doing well.”

David crosses his arms, skeptical. “Didn’t you just tell me that those fears were misplaced?”

“I’m not afraid that you’re gonna put a bullet in your head, no, but you’re obviously fucked without the military to tell you what to do. Like this -” Miller waves his cane towards David’s bedroom. “You haven’t even put a bed down. You’re trying to tell me that you’re equipped to enter civilian life like this? What did I tell you about not letting it show? David, you’re not even trying. And just because I’ve showed you a crumb of kindness, you’ve latched onto me.”

David’s chest goes tight as a wave of hot anger courses down the center of his rib cage. He rears himself up to his full height and speaks without thinking. “Wasn’t that your intent?”

What?”

“You’ve been off since you got here, Master. I don’t think this visit is for my benefit at all. Why show someone a ‘crumb of kindness’ if you don’t mean anything by it? You’ve done this to me before - you open up, but the moment I push back you get hostile. I think you need someone to talk to, but you have no idea how to ask for it. Telling me not to let it show… don’t patronize me with this hot and cold crap.”

“I -”

“I’m not an idiot. You’re only upset because I caught you. But something’s changed. What are you so afraid of?”

All the authority drains from Miller’s countenance. He draws into himself a bit, pulling his crutch close as if to maintain his last few layers of armour. He begins to laugh, but it’s not a very confident noise, almost like it’s been cracked down the center with a very precise hammer strike. “David,” he scolds very quietly. “Think you’ve got me all figured out, do you?”

He looks so absolutely pathetic for a moment that David finds it unbearably attractive - Miller standing in the half-light with his pale hair feathering as it dries, his wordless insistence on wearing sunglasses indoors almost comical with his veneer slipping… it’s such obvious theater and it doesn’t actually work unless he’s got the dialed turned up to 11. David closes the distance between them and pushes Miller the rest of the way into his bedroom with the same motion that he kisses him.

It’s a coarse kiss, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. David’s never been certain the right way to do this except to let his partner guide him - to predict their needs based on subtle physical clues; it’s the opposite of fighting someone one on one, but it requires the same set of skills. The correct way to unravel someone as pathologically guarded as Master Miller is to kiss him sincerely. That, David understands innately, is exactly what he needs right now. His calculation proves accurate: the moment his grip on Miller’s arm softens is the moment that Miller's lips unfold.

David elbows the door shut behind them and spins Miller to push him gently against the wall. He rakes his fingers through the fine hairs at the base of his pony-tail and tugs it loose as he kisses him again. Miller sighs when they part.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been kissed like that,” he says.

“Like what?”

“Heh… oh, you know. Nicely.”

David raises an eyebrow at that suspicious statement. Was Miller being kissed un-nicely with some measure of regularity?

Miller frowns. “Don’t look at me like that. I don’t like to be kissed nicely.”

“Bullshit,” David says. “Everyone likes to be treated nicely. It’s a basic instinct to crave affection - everyone and everything needs to be handled gently once in awhile.”

“Where did you pick up an attitude like that in the military?”

David glances away and wonders what telling the truth would actually cost right now. Not much at this point, he wagers. He smiles faintly and answers: “... from helping stray dogs.”

“Ha!” Miller barks out a short, ugly laugh. “Is that what you think I am? A stray dog?”

“That’s obviously not what I meant.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not offended. Soldiers are called ‘dogs of war’, right? So doesn’t that make you a stray dog as well? Look around you - you’re lost without a master. Now what? You want to follow me home and hope I’ll tell you what to do?”

“No, I -”

Miller’s lip quirks unkindly and he brushes back David’s overgrown bangs with the broad side of his thumb. The gesture is uncomfortably paternal. “Your instincts aren’t wrong,” he whispers. “I’m very, very good at telling people what to do.”

Miller doesn’t kiss him, but he tips back his chin in a way that definitely invites a kiss. Instead, David raises his hands and rests the tips on his fingers on the ridge of Miller’s sunglasses. He takes each arm of the shades between his thumb and forefinger and slowly begins to ease them off. Miller’s breath hitches a bit, but he doesn’t stop it from happening. David hooks the glasses into the neck of his shirt before dipping in to press their lips together. When they part, Miller slowly opens his eyes.

“Oh,” David says.

“Yeah,” Miller replies.

David reaches down to retrieve the glasses, but Miller stops him.

“You wanted to see, kid.”

“I did. But you’re just going to laugh off any question I ask you about it, so there’s not much point, is there?”

“Oh - is that what I’m like?”

“Yeah… but that’s fine. I think I am finally starting to get you.”

“No,” Miller says quietly. “You don’t know me, David. You don’t know the first thing about me. You don’t know where I’m from, you don’t know my real name and you have no idea what I’ve done.”

“Then why don’t you tell me?”

“... because I don’t want to.”

- and that’s the end of it. Somewhere between the door slamming shut and David touching his glasses, all of Miller’s walls have come back up. David’s not certain what he did or said, but he’s got a pretty good guess. Probably should have just kissed him again. Miller retrieves his shades and slips them back on, saying nothing. David reluctantly steps aside to give the man some space. He’s disappointed, not because he was looking to get laid, but because he knows that he’s tainted his and Miller’s strange, occasionally comfortable equilibrium. In about five minutes, Miller is going to walk out of his door and out of his life, potentially forever. Everyone David has ever met who he felt could understand him is either dead or MIA, which, he supposes, is an eventuality he should have been more prepared for when Big Boss first scouted him.

David pushes his bedroom door open to find DD whining on the other side. David leans down and pets him before going to retrieve Miller’s cane for him. Miller accepts it with wordless gratitude and begins silently pulling on his coat. As he sets his hand on the door handle, David calls after him.

“You’re from Japan.”

Miller freezes in the doorway.

“Heh -” David can’t entirely couch the satisfaction out of his voice. “You honestly didn’t think I’d get it right.”

Miller shrugs self-deprecatingly. “Ah - I suppose I gave myself away, didn’t I?”

“The way you spoke about Japan’s post-war identity crisis seemed pretty personally charged, yeah, but that’s not what tipped me off.”

Miller turns back to look at him curiously.

“You said that you read Decay of the Angel in 1972. The copy you leant me is a first edition english translation - and it’s from ‘74. You’re meticulous enough that I believe you know more than two languages, but being fluent enough in the Japanese alphabet to read a book that dense in your twenties seems like a tall order for someone who didn’t grow up reading it.”

“That’s a pretty obscure detail to latch on to.” Miller grins at him - one of those brilliant, gleaming smiles that he reserves for moments in which he is honestly proud of his students. He says: “Good work, Solid Snake. I hope this victory brings you peace.”

“... you’re not going to tell me your name, are you?” David says resigned.

Miller slumps against the door and shakes his head. “No. Not after all that. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Miller… why did you even come here?”

“I had something to tell you. Something important. But I... changed my mind.”

David tries to catch his gaze, but it’s impossible. Miller seems to be lost in thought - he’s staring out the window again. After a while, he straightens and taps his cane against the floor - two solid, hard strikes, as if he’s the one gearing himself up to leave.

“You’re an exceptionally good read of people, David,” he says. “Use that talent responsibly. And -” Miller gives David a brief, one-finger salute before he leaves. “- take care of DD for me.”

With that, he’s gone.

David sighs and goes to pet DD between the ears. “I never actually agreed to keep you,” he informs the dog. DD’s tail is wagging, but his eye is on the door, tracking after his master. “I know,” David murmurs sympathetically. “I know…”

He shuffles through his pockets for a smoke. Probably better that he took off, David thinks - anyone who made him want to smoke as much as Miller did was a relationship doomed to fail. David sits cross-legged and leans against the wall, patting his thigh to invite DD to sit with him. The dog does takes the invitation.

“Hey -” David says, “you like hiking, DD?”

DD barks enthusiastically. David takes it as a ‘yes’.

Chapter Text

1976

It’s hard to resist his natural instinct to flirt with her the moment she swings off her motorcycle. She’s leggy and busty, and the way she peels off her bike gloves says that she puts a lot of effort into making sure that men notice both these things. With the sun setting over the Mediterranean as a backdrop, she looks a little like a supermodel from some tawdry American cable show, even in her grease-stained jumpsuit. Kaz is torn between a reflex to let her know that her act is working as intended, and a sudden flash of familiarity; that odd sensation you get when you meet someone who’s much better at playing a game you thought yourself good at.

So instead of flirting, Kaz decides to be the regular kind of charming. He runs a hand through his hair to make sure that it’s perfectly coiffed before offering her his hand.

“I’m -”

“I know who you are.”

She doesn’t shake his hand, but she does give him a half-lidded smile that completely diffuses his confidence.

“O-Oh, yeah?”

“Kazuhira Miller, born in Yokosuka Japan, August 1946. Did a BA at Berkeley - something in humanities, I believe. You minored in history. Currently your passport reads Benedict Miller.” She tips her head to one side and makes a cute show of recalling information that she clearly has memorized. “Benedict Miller, however, was born in 1941, in Napa, California.”

“You, uh, do your research.”

She tosses her long, blonde hair over one shoulder and winks. The gesture is sort of heart-stopping, despite the obvious artifice. “I was curious. I’d been keeping tabs on John for ten years, but I’d never known him to -” she pauses and looks Kaz up and down. “... stay in one place for very long.”

What the hell is that supposed to mean? Kaz doesn’t let himself get distracted the innuendo there. Play it cool, Kazuhira.

“So - what do I call you?”

“EVA,” she answers with a thin lipped smile. Kaz’s heart jumps. Of course, of course: it’s her. “The woman”. Well, Kaz has no idea if she’s “the” woman, or even if there is “a” “woman”... he remembers getting a tape signed with her name years ago, and he remembers Snake being consistently evasive about it until Kaz was forced to drop the issue. So he assumed that this must have been the woman - because obviously there had been a woman, right? A woman who broke Snake’s heart, who still had some strange emotional and sexual hold over him. That’s why he was so cagey about... and why he never….

- that’s what Kaz had always figured because, hey, why would anyone exhibit so much meticulous self control when women like Cécile Cosima Caminades were practically throwing themselves at his feet if he hadn’t been burned bad in the past? Whatever Kaz meant to say to her, to ask her, it’s all caught up in his throat beneath a cascade of entirely inappropriate and, honestly, petty questions. What was he like when he was younger? What did you do to him? How often did you see him? Was he really that naive? Did he do the same thing to you too? The thing where no matter what crazy thing he says to you, you’d follow him to the ends of the earth? Even when he’s not around? Even when he’s -

“Ah-” is what Kaz says. “That’s a… really… pretty name.”

“Uh huh.”

“That’s not what I meant to say. Can you give me a do-over?”

“No, because you’re cute,” she says in what is, impossibly, a neutrally flirtatious tone. She adds: “And you know you’re cute. Which is a type to watch out for. We could talk in circles for an hour if I let you get away with that. And we have business.”

She smoothly produces an 8x11 envelope from the pack on her bike. With a demonstratively ginger gesture, she passes it to him, her smile immaculate. Kaz takes the envelope with obvious trepidation and looks it over front and back to make certain that it’s sealed properly. That’s it? he asks himself. And of course that’s it - she’s just one part of Zero’s shadowy, international web. An important cog in the machine, but a solitary piece none the less.

Kaz clutches the envelope to his chest and tries to think of an excuse to keep her here a few minutes longer. She’s a key to understanding every mistake they made, every judgement in error that tripped them up… when it was all said and done - the air cleared - all Snake had said about the “Patriots”, ultimately, was: “As you can see, Zero and I had different ideas, so I’m putting it all behind me.” But here is a woman who’s had both an inside and outside window into everything that’s happened. There’s gotta be some way to crack her armour of courtesy.

Damnit. It’s been fifteen years since I had this much trouble talking to a beautiful woman.

“Uh,” he says prolifically as she turns to hitch back up onto her motorcycle. She tosses him a curious glance over her shoulder. The only question that crystallizes is not the most important one, but it’s the one that haunts Kaz every single day, no matter how much he tries to distract himself with business. His voice cracks a little halfway through. “Do you… know where he is?”

Her expression softens, unwinds a bit. Something changes in her eyes when turns to face him fully again - before they were like mirrors, now she - she looks sympathetic, and a little like she’s seeing him, finally. She leans against her bike and crosses her long, long legs. She says: “Yes.”

“Can you…?”

“You seem sweet,” she replies, “and it’s not my call to make. But even if it were, I’m not sure you can be trusted with that responsibility.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me-” Kaz grits his teeth to stop himself from raising his voice. His composure is shuddering like the surface of still water, disturbed by a stone. The ripples are apparent in how his fingers crush the edges of the envelope. EVA is undisturbed; she speaks plainly.

“... you collaborated with Zero.”

“But you trust Zero to take care of him now?”

“Well,” she chuckles. “I know Zero.”

“Yeah, well I know Zero too - and you know what he did for Snake? Not a goddamn thing, except kick him while he was down and then shift the blame on somebody else. I’m not like him - you might not know me, but Snake does. And I-” Kaz runs out of steam, and is not certain he trusts himself to finish that sentence.

EVA purses her lips and examines him for a long, chilly moment. Then she uncrosses her legs and walks towards him - one foot in front of the other, a deliberate sway to her hips. She comes right up to him, but she has to raise her chin to meet his eyes. Before he can react - recover, really, she is incredibly fucking hot - she plucks the sunglasses right off his nose.

“Mr Miller,” she says kindly. “John likes you. And he trusted you. But you are in over your head right now. You do understand that.”

“… I…”

“I can help you get out of Europe. But I can’t tell you where he is. I’m very sorry, but it’s not negotiable.”

And well, that was that. The lady was persuasive. She hands Kaz his sunglasses back and he examines them a moment before putting them back on. They reflect the light flawlessly, but she saw right through them anyway. He twists the arm joints between thumb and forefinger, makes sure that he’s not looking at EVA when he asks: “How is he?”

EVA draws back and pulls her arms close to her chest. “That’s... complicated.”

“... yeah.”

“Could you… imagine him completely still? But still, without purpose?”

Snake did “still” the same way his namesake did. Coiled, poised, ready. “No.”

EVA sighs ruefully. “Neither could I.”

1986

Naturally, EVA looks stunning even on the other side of fifty. Kaz wishes that he could say the same thing about his rapidly impending forties. The confidence and smoothness with which she moves to push off her motorcycle makes him feel even more insecure about his empty coat-sleeve and cumbersome crutch than usual. She stalls her bike and approaches him with a familiarity that’s perhaps a bit too casual considering that this is only the second time they’ve met.

“You’re looking well,” she says.

“Don’t mock me,” Kaz growls back, more viciously than he intended to.

“I’m not,” and she sounds quite sincere. “There’s light in your eyes. That’s more than can be said for most men and women in our line of work.” She hands him a sealed, leather envelope. It’s a perfect mirror of their meeting ten years ago, only this time Kaz knows exactly what he’s getting into.

He takes the envelope and tucks it beneath his arm, trying not to look too eager or possessive of the information. EVA juts her hips out to one side and puts her hands on her waist, staring at Kaz over the top of her very stylish tortoiseshell sunglasses.

“... why are you sticking around?” he wonders sharply.

EVA raises both of her perfectly shaped eyebrows. “You looked like you had more to say.”

She’s not wrong. Kaz glances aside - looks at the red horizon for a moment, wondering if it’s worth it to have this conversation with someone who so had thoroughly dispelled his bullshit after so little interaction… but she’s implicitly offering to speak freely with him - no catch! - so he takes the opportunity.

“... what do you think of all this?” he asks.

Her expression changes very subtly. It’s a half-centimetre shift in her lips that belies her true feelings. “I trust him,” she says simply. After a moment, she clarifies: “I believe in him.”

“How can you, when you hadn’t heard from him in years?”

Her smile returns, although it’s faint. “I love him when I see him,” she shrugs. “The rest of the time I hardly think about him.”

Kaz can believe it, but he can’t imagine it. For him, Big Boss’ shadow looms larger and darker in his absence. Being around Snake sometimes is like getting a weird sort of contact high; like any hard drug, you’re only obsessed when you don’t have it.

She’s silent, as if she’s waiting for a reply. Kaz waits her out, until he feels too self-conscious not to.

“What do you expect me to say to that?” he snaps. I love him all the time? Congratulations on staying sane even though you’ve obviously been exposed to Big Boss’ dick?

Her face twitches and she turns away. “No… no… I -” She curls into herself slowly, caging her stomach between her arms. Kaz can only see her in profile now; her lips are trembling. “It’s not that,” she whispers. “Mr Miller can you.... tell me about Eli?”

Oh, Kaz curses himself, feeling like a complete asshole. Of course, of course. It hits him too - he feels so guilty about how everything turned out with the kids that it feels like a literal blade stuck into his ribs sometimes. Most days, he has to pretend it didn’t even happen otherwise he’d get nothing done. He can feel the muscles in his heart contracting and expanding as it thrums loud as a drum in his ears.

“We… we tried our best…” he says helplessly.

“I don’t blame any of you,” she says in a tone of voice that makes it exactly clear who she blames. “I just… want to know what he was like.”

Kaz relaxes his demeanour - something he has done very, very rarely in the last two years. He can’t imagine what it must be like for her, to have to ask a virtual stranger to tell her about a boy she considers her son.

“Despite everything that happened… everything he put us through...” Kaz says. “I thought that Eli was exceptional.”

EVA glances back towards him, her smile bright but fragile. “Was he?”

“Yeah. Let me tell you all about it.”

It’s not exactly a lie.

1996

Ten years later, she's asking:

“Tell me about David.” She's looking ahead and running a hand through her short-cropped hair.

Kaz sighs and accepts her offer of a cigarette when she hands it to him. He hasn’t smoked proper since 1978. He puffs on it experimentally, but fails to inhale. That’s fine - she’s not a habitual smoker either.

“I think…” Kaz begins.

EVA gives him a suspicious sidelong glance. They’re standing together beneath the outcropping of Kaz’s old apartment building, waiting for the storm to pass. It hasn’t even been two hours since David saw him off. He’s honestly not sure how to answer her question. “I think that no matter what happens… he’s going to be okay.”

“Is that your honest assessment, Master Miller?”

“Would I lie?” he shoots her a charming grin.

She laughs at him honestly and snatches back her cigarette. “After all these years,” she says, “I think I’m finally beginning to understand what he sees in you.”

“Is that a good thing?”

EVA leans in close and grabs Kaz’s chin between her manicured nails. The pads of her fingers are more calloused than they look. His breath catches in his throat; even at her age, even though she’s ten years older than him, she still knows how to smoulder, how to trap a man with her gaze and her body language. And, well, hell - Kaz has always had a weakness for blondes.

“No,” she murmurs, tapping him cutely on the nose. “No, it isn’t.”

And, well, doesn’t that say it all.

Chapter Text


“Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life
into a line of poetry written with a
splash of blood.”
- Yukio Mishima, ‘Runaway Horses’

 

1975

Kaz drifts awake to the acrid scent of cigar smoke. Both fresh, and stale.

Because he hadn’t intended to fall asleep, it takes a few seconds for him to remember where he is. It’s dark and he’s two inches away from a cool, metal wall. He notices the sliver of yellow light reflected off it before he registers the warmth of a body pressed up against the small of his back. He turns his head to see Snake sitting on the edge of the cot in full camo, smoking a cigar.

“Ah! Boss, how long have you been there!?” Kaz starts and his sunglasses tumble off from where they’d been precariously resting - half-on, half-off - as he slept.

Snake leans forward and taps some ash onto the floor. “Haven’t been keeping track. You looked comfy.”

“I-” Kaz turns over and papers scatter. “I… uh, fell asleep working, apparently.”

“In my bed.”

“Yeah, well, I was -” Kaz yawns and settles back down, leaning his chin on his palm, and begins organizing the dented paperwork. “I was waiting for you so we could go over some of the numbers again.”

“I stopped by the shooting gallery and went out to examine the southern battlements. Turned off my radio. Had some… thinking to do.”

“Mmm, that’s fine.” Kaz wakes up in inches, rolling his neck and stretching out his shoulders. “I probably needed the rest. You wanna turn on a lamp so we can read?”

Snake doesn’t move. “Don’t you ever sleep on your own time?”

“Sleep is an outdated construct of the pre-globalized world. We have coffee now, Boss, and lots of it.”

“Coffee is no substitute for rest. Drink enough of it and it’ll only amplify your exhaustion. I bet if we went to do target practice right now, your average would be off the mark of your best by at least 5%. That might not seem like much in a simulation, but in a live battle that could mean the difference between survival and a bullet in your head.”

Kaz has not been awake nearly long enough to process all of the bullcrap that just came out of Snake’s mouth. He grounds the palm of one hand into his eyes and groans. “Nngh, Boss, if you really want me to go back to sleep, lecturing me about shit I already know isn’t a half-bad strategy.”

Snake chuckles, “isn’t that why ‘I’m the best’?”

Kaz gathers up all of the scattered financial and personnel reports and snaps them firmly onto his clipboard, which he then uses to smack Snake in the back of the head as hard as he can from his very un-optimal position. It’s enough to make Snake choke on a mouthful of smoke, lurch forwards off the cot and throw his arms up to shield himself from another attack. Kaz can’t stop from snickering as he rolls into a sitting position.

“You’re losing your edge, Snake, if even I can get the drop on you like that. Guess it’s true what they say - reality never lives up to the legend.”

“Hmph,” Snake flicks ash from his cigar, his shoulders hunched. “The people who get legends written about them… are not the kind of people who ever asked to be considered legendary in the first place.”

Kaz raises an eyebrow. Even in the darkness, he can tell that Snake is frowning up a storm. As his eyes adjust to the light, Kaz can see that there’s a dark smear on his cheek too - right beneath the eyepatch. It might be blood, or gunpowder. It’s probably dirt. Kaz feels a little guilty for getting on the Boss’ case when he’s only a few hours out of the hot-zone. He eases back and pats his hand on the cot mattress, inviting Snake to sit with him.

“Yeah, yeah - I’m very well educated on the dangers of iconoclasm. Don’t worry - I’m not about to start calling you El Snake. C’mere.”

Snake takes a drag off his cigar and regards Kaz with cautious suspicion. Kaz sighs.

“Boss, c’mon, I’m not gonna hit you again.”

“Not sure how I feel having to negotiate the safety of my own bed,” Snake grumbles as he lowers himself onto the cot.

“I promise,” Kaz purrs, running his hands up the length of Snake’s scapular muscles. “I’ll make it worth your while.”

“You say that about literally everything, Kaz,” Snake responds. “The promise starts to lose its allure after a while.” He’s playing at being grumpy, but when Kaz uses his thumbs to grind out the knots at the center of his trapezius, he fails to muffle the groan of relief it drags out of him.

Kaz grins to himself, triumphant. “Well? Have I disappointed you yet?”

Snake doesn’t answer, which is honestly for the best. Kaz has disappointed him: once or twice and very recently. Instead, Snake stubs out his cigar, relaxes his shoulders and helps Kaz ease him out of his shirt. He’s tired and achey enough that he gives himself over to Kaz’s nimble ministrations without the pretense of argument. His back is a mess up around his shoulders, the way it often gets if he’s had to drag himself through tall grass by his forearms for an extended period of time. Of course - he’d been out doing recon on a new job for two days, it was ridiculous that after that, he’d pile a round in the shooting range on top of it. For all he gives Kaz a hard time about his schedule, Big Boss is - in his own way - a workaholic too.

“Ugh, this knot’s a doozy. Hey Boss, lean over and let me just...”

Snake complies and Kaz uses his elbow to twist a deep-tissue massage along the ridge of his right shoulder. Snake lets out a shuddering, breathy moan so primal and unguarded that it’s very nearly erotic. Kaz can’t help but be smug about it; Big Boss seems larger than life sometimes - the core of the MSF is built on his hypnotic personality after all - but Kaz gets to see what’s beneath the legendary veneer. He gets to slip past the walls, peel back the layers - more than that, Snake lets him do it. Which is only fair, Kaz thinks, considering how Big Boss smashed right through every single one of his own barriers without even asking. Kaz finishes the work with his elbow and pats Snake’s spine to signal that it’s okay for him to sit up. Snake stretches out his arms as he rises. Kaz begins rubbing the kinks out of his neck, moving his hands in perfect concert to give a good, even work-over.

“How did you get so good at this anyway?” Snake wonders, voice mellow and throaty.

Kaz freezes, his fingers pressing deep marks into Snake’s sun-darkened skin. “Er,” he laughs a little. “That’s not exactly a nice story, Boss.”

“Mmm?”

“Well… my mom, right? She… served a lotta soldiers. There’s more to that job than just the obvious stuff, especially when there’s a language barrier and you’re trying to keep bored young men with guns and pent up aggression gentle and happy.”

“I see,” Snake grumbles. “Americans like to think that they’re above abusing military power like that, but it’s hard for occupying soldiers to resist exercising it to get what they want.”

“Exactly. My mom, she picked up a lot of interesting skills doing the work that she did, and she learned a lot about survival too. But... when I was a kid she had to do all this heavy lifting.” Kaz kneads the heel of his palm into the base of Snake’s spine for emphasis. “ - loading store stock off the truck, carrying huge buckets up and down the street so we’d have drinking water… and she had to carry me everywhere until I could walk, of course. She didn’t have anyone around to help. I could tell that she was always in a lot of pain. When I asked how I could help, she… taught me how to do this.”

Snake rolls his head from one side to the other. He doesn’t respond, but he also doesn’t do anything to dissuade Kaz from talking. Kaz oftens wonders how much Snake actually listens to him when he starts going on like this, always wonders if there’s some invisible line that he’ll cross someday, testing the edges of Big Boss’ patience for listening to boring stories about his childhood. It’s a delicate privilege, and an addictive one. Kaz has never had a confidant before (yeah, confidant: the safest way - he’d decided a while ago - to define his relationship with Snake); he’s never had anyone who he felt safe enough pouring out his troubles to - it was hard to put the cork back in once he’d been invited to pop it out.

“But y’know,” Kaz continues, thoughtfully. “ - I never could get her to stop working herself so hard even when she got sick, not even when I finally got big enough to help. I had nearly a head in height over her by the time I was twelve, but she never let me take on the burden myself. She always split the work fifty-fifty. No matter how much I argued, even though she was turning into a bent over little old lady. Right up until she was bed-ridden for good.”

“Hnh,” Snake snorts. “I can see where you got your stubbornness from.”

“Yeah, well,” Kaz finishes up the massage and flicks Snake in the back of the head. “You’re one to talk.”

Snake laughs again, low and rumbling. He reaches for his discarded shirt and digs through the breast pockets to retrieve his half-finished cigar and zippo. The flame is a shock of light and colour in the near-darkness of Snake’s quarters. It illuminates - just for a few seconds - the dense map of scars and bruises marring his upper back. Kaz drags his fingers across a few of the older scars, the most familiar ones. He traces the circumference of a bullet-hole that nearly impacted the cervical vertebrae and marvels at how many close calls Snake has had in just forty years. He was damn lucky to even be alive.

- suddenly, the moment feels almost too familiar, too intimate. Kaz’s heart starts hammering and he gets light-headed and queasy, like he’s being suspended above a deep cavern by a rope that’s about to be cut. The sensation is halfway between a pleasant adrenaline rush and bone-chilling dread - like it might feel good to just let go and plummet all the way down, but he’s terrified of what will happen if he hits the bottom.

Kaz starts talking again just to diffuse the tension. He digs around for a topic guaranteed to get on Snake’s nerves. “But really - I’m grateful to my mom for more than just that. My ability to give a killer massage has helped me win favour in more important circles, if you know what I mean.”

Snake glances at him from the corner of his eye. “You used your massages to win over your fellow soldiers in the JSDF?”

As usual, Kaz can’t tell if Snake’s making fun of him, or if he’s really that guileless. He sighs. “No, Boss. On ladies, I mean. Female soldiers get the same aches from holding guns that male soldiers do, y’know... and women, they never expect men to do stuff like that for them. A ‘massage’ is usually considered a woman’s job. So you see - there’s a reason it’s so rare for me to strike out once a girl gives me a chance.”

“Hnh. I see.” Snake’s jaw clenches a bit - he’s made it very clear exactly what he thinks of Kaz’s track record with women. Kaz keeps going.

“- so you should feel honoured, because I don’t do this for just anyone, Boss.”

“Actually,” Snake bites out. “ - it sounds exactly like you do do this for ‘just’ ‘anyone’.”

“Aw, you know what I meant. If you’re that jealous, I can teach you all my secrets. You could probably afford to get laid more often.”

Kaz -” Snake’s tone is a warning one - for all the shit he talks, Big Boss is shockingly easy to tease. Kaz ruffles his hair, a little patronizingly.

Boss, Boss - hey, I’m just kidding. You’ve got your own… bizarre animal magnetism thing going on, and that works for you. Some women totally like the unwashed jungle-man thing. Natural musk and all that.”

Snake grumbles unintelligibly; Kaz can see the flush lighting up his skin even in the darkness. Satisfied that he’s levied the mood, Kaz slumps over and leans his cheek against Snake’s shoulder. He could very easily hook a hand over Snake’s hip, run the other one over the width of his thigh until it slipped between his legs... if he turned his head, he could press his lips against the nape of Snake’s neck and ghost them over the skin, picking up the taste of dirt and salt. He could so easily change the tenor of this moment with just a single touch...

- but he doesn’t. He’s content to close his eyes and simply listen to Snake’s breathing even out as he takes another drag off his cigar. It’s not something that Kaz is willing to admit to anyone, how much he enjoys this. It just isn’t the kind of thing Kazuhira Miller does - quietly sharing space, listening to someone’s heartbeat, savouring the warmth of their skin and not doing anything about it… he trusts Snake not to blow his cover, to keep it a secret that even an infamous playboy like Commander Miller needs a little gentle human contact once in awhile.

A few minutes pass in silence. Snake gets close to polishing off his cigar and Kaz feels himself slipping under again, falling back into restful half-consciousness. He’s pulled awake by Big Boss saying his name.

“Mmm?” he responds, sleepily.

“Kaz. Don’t fall asleep. We still need to talk.”

“We are talking,” Kaz slurs. “We’ve been talking.”

“About MSF business.”

That wakes Kaz all the way back up. He braces his palms on the bed and pushes himself upright, pulling his feet up beneath him so that he can sit cross-legged. “Yeah, okay. Okay. But didn’t you…” Kaz yawns, “- didn’t you just scold me about how I never stop working?”

Snake doesn’t look at him. He’s got his arms slung over his thighs, and he’s tapping his cigar against his knee in an erratic pattern. Something’s wrong.

“Boss…?”

“Kaz. It’s been quiet around here lately, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get too comfortable. Not after what happened. We can’t put a bandaid over the wound Zero dealt us.”

Kaz is nodding along. Snake’s not saying anything he hasn’t said himself.

“Additionally,” Snake continues, “we need to consider how what we’ve built here looks to the global community…”

“Ugggh,” Kaz rubs between his eyes. He knows where this is going. “Don’t tell me Huey’s been bugging you with that UN Inspection shit of his.”

“You think it’s a bad idea?”

“Boss, it’s the worst idea. Please don’t tell me to list all the reasons why.”

“No, I know. I just thought that it’d be... professional for us to consult with each other before smacking him down.”

“I told him no. Why’d he even go to you?”

“Why did he even go to me?” There’s something sharp in Snake’s tone that pulls Kaz’s attention immediately, like a knot being yanked tight. Snake gets to his feet. He rears up to his full height and takes a very long drag off the stub of his cigar before tossing it away. “He went to me because the MSF is my organization too, Kaz.”

“Yeah,” Kaz scoffs. “But that’s my point. This is a military - what are we supposed to be here? His parents? Oh no, Mom said no - better go ask Dad.” It takes a half-second for Kaz to realize what he’s just implied. He smacks himself lightly on the side of the head and tries to recover. “Not that we’re - I mean, you’re not - it’s not like... I’m not Mom.” Kaz finishes weakly.

Snake’s arms are crossed. Even in the darkness, Kaz can tell that his expression has not budged. Oh, this is bad - usually that kind of freudian slip up is the kind of thing Snake wouldn’t hesitate to jokingly bust him about.

“It’s more like,” Snake says, words clipped. “I’m your boss and you made an executive decision without consulting me.”

“... excuse me?” Kaz can’t help it - the particular tone of voice Snake is using right now is really stoking the embers of his temper. He’s used to the way Snake is most of the time, but once in awhile Snake gets really… authoritative. Less like a boss, and more like a father - which is messed up for multiple reasons.

“Kaz - you can’t just assume to speak for me.”

“That’s not what I -”

“I don’t assume to speak for you.”

“Boss - I didn’t think -”

“No, you didn’t. However you feel about Huey’s intentions, this is a major decision. I would never disregard your opinion on a financial matter that could change the course of the MSF, so you shouldn’t brush off important suggestions like this without consulting me first.”

Kaz can’t believe it - he can’t believe how fucking condescending Snake is being when just five minutes ago he… it’s a super-power, honestly, the way Big Boss can turn on a fucking dime like this. Just like his frigging namesake, he lays in the grass and lulls his prey into a false sense of security before springing. “What? Do you wanna do it?” Kaz snaps, throwing up his arms. “You wanna let Huey have the fucking UN in to examine our incredibly illegal nuclear equipped walking battle tank!? Is that what you want, Boss!?”

“Of course not.”

“Yeah, well - in that case, I made the right call, so I have no idea why you’re riding my ass so hard about this!”

“It’s the principle of the matter, Kaz, not the ‘rightness’ of it. You told Huey no without even asking me what I thought. I feel like we’ve been through something similar lately… you, making sweeping business decisions behind my back. It turned out badly last time.”

Kaz inhales sharply. He has to bite his tongue to stop himself from cussing Snake out. It doesn’t work - the moment he opens his mouth, it slips out anyway. “You… I can’t believe yo- you know what!? Fuck you, Snake.” Kaz gropes the mattress until he finds his shades. He slips them on, grabs his clipboard and heads for the door. Snake stops him from leaving, because of course he does; and not like a normal person would stop him from leaving either - Snake grabs him in a CQC hold and pushes him up against the wall, bracing his forearm against his jugular so that if he tries to jerk free, he’ll get strangled for his trouble.

“Why are you so angry right now?” Snake asks calmly.

Kaz grounds his teeth together. “Because you’re talking to me like I’m a goddamn kid.”

“I don’t think you’re a kid, Kaz, but you really need to stop and think once in awhile, instead of-” Snake actually trails off when he sees the look Kaz is giving him from beneath his shades.

“Instead of what?” Kaz hisses.

Snake eases up the pressure of his neck. He tips his head - eye narrowed - to examine Kaz’s face more carefully. “Kaz, you -”

Kaz headbutts him before he can say anything stupid. Snake doesn’t stumble far enough back for there to be room to throw a punch, so Kaz knees him in the gut instead. A brief scuffle ensues in which Kaz completely embarrasses himself: Snake is still in his mission mindset, and Kaz hasn’t been awake long enough to have the reflexes to counter the flip that lands him on his back. Snake lifts him up by the front of his uniform and slams him against the wall again. This time, he pins his arms down to keep him still.

“Kaz,” he says, tone infuriatingly patient. “There’s no reason to rebel against me like this.”

What?”

“That’s what was going with Cipher, wasn’t it? You were too impatient to try to change my mind, so you went behind my back to get what you wanted. Kaz - I wouldn’t give you so much free rein if I didn’t think you were good at what you do, if I didn’t trust you. But it’s difficult for me to trust you if you keep treating business decisions like contests that can be won, especially now.”

“Oh, I see -” Kaz snarls. “First you’re my boss, now you’re my psychologist.”

“No,” Snake says softly. “I’m your friend.”

And there it is! The absolute absurdity of that statement hits Kaz right in the goddamn funny-bone. He starts laughing - ordering me around, condescending to me, pressing bruises into my arms and neck, making sure that I remember my fucking place… and he calls himself my friend!

Kaz can’t believe that just five minutes ago he was feeling heart-palpitations of fondness for this man, that five seconds ago he was so mad that he would have torn out Snake’s throat given the chance. There’s a fine line that he walks every day of his life: the very narrow margin between “there is nowhere else I’d rather be” and “I have no choice but to be here; otherwise I’d be dead.” Kaz has gotten so good at balancing the tightrope that sometimes he tricks himself into thinking that he’s got both feet planted on solid ground. Right now he feels trapped, pinned, weirdly elated - it’s always so confusing, when he pulls back far enough to see the strings Big Boss has got hooked into him.

Snake’s grip loosens in response to Kaz’s half-hysterical cackling. The moment he drops his hands, Kaz snares his fingers in the waist of his pants and yanks him back. He mashes their mouths together - no finesse, just physicality. He wouldn’t dare kiss anyone but Big Boss with this little artifice, but this is the only kind of thing Snake really responds to. You can’t give yourself to Big Boss in bits and pieces - he demands the whole package up front.

“Kaz,” Snake starts to say something, but Kaz kisses him again, bites his lip this time. “Kaz,” Snake tries again. “Kaz, we’re not done talking-”

“Snake…” Kaz wraps his arms around Snake’s neck and cages him in. He puts his mouth close to Snake’s ear and whispers: “Shut the hell up.”

 

[a tape found amongst K. Miller’s dropped belongings after he was captured by the Red Army in Afghanistan, 1984. retrieved by REDACTED]

SIDE A: [several recordings of an acoustic guitar song, at various states of revision. some recordings are overlaid with a theremin and/or a young girl humming along]

SIDE B: [K. Miller speaking in Japanese. rough translation incld.]

“I have this dream sometimes that you come for me.

Instead of getting a call from [english] “Ocelot” [/english], I wake up in the middle of the night with your hand over my mouth and you holding me down so I don’t overreact. And I do overreact. I don’t trust anything anymore - I’m not sure that I’d even trust your face if I saw it.

But then you call me by my name, and I calm down because your voice... no matter what happens I’ll always trust your voice.

I -”

[tape skips, this part was recorded over. he begins again.]

“I realized what this sounds like.

It’s not like that.

You call me by my name and then you light a cigar and you tell me: ‘It’s time. I’ve come back to make everything right. Get your gun, Kaz, we’ve got work to do.’

When I look at you, I can see that you are surrounded by light*-”

[*speaker uses a japanese idiom here that is difficult to translate literally. the idea is to achieve enlightenment and see the full truth of something “all of a sudden”.]

[tape skips again.]

“I lied, it is like that. It’s a little like that.

I know it’s not like me. Don’t expect me to be all [this metaphor is impossible to translate. the closest english idiom is “Wine, Roses and that Jazz”].

I dream that you push me back down and we [fuck] the way you always want to - slow, you know - like it matters. You ask me if I would help you burn the world down. I laugh because it’s funny - that’s exactly what I wanted to hear you say. Of course, because it’s my dream.

I tell you not to worry. I would follow you anywhere. I would do anything for you. And not because you’re [in english] “Big Boss” [/end english]. I’ll do it because you’re [Snake].

After what they did to us, I’ve got nothing left - except you, [Snake], and what I know what you’re capable of. What we’re capable of when we work together.

You’re my home, the only home I’ve got left. I know that you’re just as lost as I am. As long as we’re together, we can build it again. We can get it all back. I’ll be your home too. I’ll -”

[skip]

“I know it’s my fault.”

[skip]

“When it’s all over I finally get the call from Ocelot.

He tells me that you died on the table in Zero’s secret hospital. I realize that I’m in bed with a ghost, and you’ve come to take me with you to hell.

I could fight back. All I have to do is renounce you. All I have to do is wake up. But I don’t.

In the morning, the squad - what’s left of the [english] MSF [/english] - comes to find me. My body is entwined with your skeleton*.

[*speaker is making reference to a famous kaidan about the consequences of having a relationship with a ghost.]

[skip.]

[in english] “Jesus Christ, was I ever drunk when I recorded that.

I... I’ve gotta stop this. I -”

[skip.]

“But, well... I know you can’t speak Japanese for shit, Boss, so if you wanna find out how I really felt, heh, I guess you have some studying to do.

But Boss I...

... y’know, despite everything... I missed you. I miss you. I think about you every goddamn day and...

... well, not all of it’s good.

But still I...

[skip]

”Shit. Nevermind.”

[muttering to self] I’m gonna erase this tomor-.”

[CLICK]

1996

Kaz drifts awake to the sound of helicopter blades slowing. The flight from Chechnya to Zanzibar Land’s Command base in Tselinoyarsk isn’t particularly long, but Kaz has had a rough fourty-six hours. He wasn’t certain what he expected to find waiting for him in Zanzibar Land, but he sure as hell hadn’t been prepared to find Big Boss fighting a goddamn war. He’d spent the last three months just playing catch-up; it feels like he’s slept maybe twice since his plane touched down in the Ukraine in January.

“The people asked me to help,” Snake explained in his defense, with a literal twinkle in his eye like he was Santa Claus: bringing the freedom of autonomous military rule to the children.

Kaz has no doubt that he was asked to fend off the CIS’s attempts to reabsorb Tselinoyarsk back into the various ex-Soviet nations that it bordered, but he wasn’t so positive that the civilians who’d issued the plea understood what they were getting into when they’d implicitly enlisted Big Boss and his army of misfit Black Ops orphans to defend them. What Kaz wanted to say to him was: Boss, a lot of people ask you to do a lot of things for them. You don’t always have to take advantage of that.

What he actually said was: Well, okay, what do you need me to do?

“You alright back there Commander?” Pequod calls from the cockpit. Kaz tips up his sunglasses and rubs the sleep out of his eyes. Pequod is one of the only survivors of the original Diamond Dogs, alive mostly thanks to his ability to keep his damn mouth about shit that doesn’t involve him. Kaz gets the feeling sometimes that Pequod drinks a bit too much on his off-hours, like he thinks more about what went down in Outer Heaven than he lets on. That when he looks at Big Boss, he’s always searching for the ghost of a horn, for scars that have never been there. Kaz doesn’t feel too bad about it. It’s nice to have a pilot around who’s firmly on his paycheque, a man who won’t blab to Snake when Kaz doesn’t take exactly the route he promised.

“ETA?” Kaz asks groggily.

“We’re nearly at the LZ, Commander. Just a few minutes, so you’d better rise and shine.”

Kaz sighs and slings his satchel over one shoulder. “Yeah, yeah, I’m up. Thanks, Pequod.”

As they circle the LZ, Kaz is surprised to see that Big Boss is actually waiting for him on the platform. Snake had been out on the Kazakh border running an Operation when Kaz left for his business trip and shouldn’t have been back for another week at least. Kaz feels his heart clench up, like cold fingers squeezing it tight. He swallows down the feeling before it can become genuine panic and puts on his professional face. Big Boss looks pleased to see him, so it’s a good bet that he has no idea what Kaz actually did in Chechnya yet.

Snake comes to meet him as the chopper touches down. He doesn’t move to help Kaz dismount the palette, which is fine; better than fine, really - Kaz lost his taste for that sort of closeness in the 80s.

“Hey, Boss -” he gives Snake an ironic little half salute and asks: “what happened in Kazakhstan?”

Big Boss is rolling a charred cigar nub between two fingers, waiting for Pequod to take the chopper up again before he speaks. “It’s under control,” he says simply.

“Really? That was fast.”

Snake turns and jerks his chin, signalling for Kaz to follow him. The helicopter pad is a temporary one: built on a high clearing a ten minute walk from the main compound. Fighting a war on five fronts means that there’s not a whole lot of man-power left to clear the tempestuous jungle terrain back home. The best they’ve been able to do is hack a narrow path through the thick underbrush.

“Opposite of ‘fast’, actually. We’re digging in at the mountain base long-term. I left the Operation in good hands. Remember that ex-Spetsnaz who defected to us in November?”

Kaz has met him once or twice. Big Russian guy, kinda anti-social. “The grenadier?”

Big Boss nods. “He knows the area well. Has experience with asymmetrical warfare. Was mentored by an old Finnish veteran when he was young.”

“A Fin,” Kaz exclaims, “willingly training a Russian in guerilla warfare? It really is a whole new world out there.”

“Well - our man’s actually Estonian. Ended up in the Spetsnaz because there was nowhere else for someone with his skills to make a living, but there’s a reason he defected. Now that his homeland’s free, he owes Russia nothing.”

“He never owed Russia anything,” Kaz mutters, raising his head so that he can admire the tall spire of the Zanzibar Tower building - half finished, but already a monolith dominating the skyline.

Big Boss hums in agreement. “Well, he knows that now. That’s why he’s with us.”

They walk together - shoulder to shoulder - through the construction site. It’s mostly empty this late in the evening, but the few men still hammering away at their stations stop to salute them as they pass. There are over a hundred languages represented in the Zanzibar Land Free Forces, but every single man here knows the English word ‘Boss’.

As they cross beneath the support beams of the unfinished tower, Snake chuckles. Kaz shoots him a curious look over the top of his aviators.

“What’s so funny?”

“Still not quite used to having you around again like this.”

Kaz quirks an eyebrow. “Define ‘like this’, Boss.”

Snake waves his hand, gestures to the jungle canopy fracturing the fading sunlight above them. “Not that I’m dwelling on the past, but this is kind of nostalgic. I always thought you looked most right in the middle of a jungle. It suits you, better than the four walls of an office ever have. You may have an accountant’s mind, Kaz, but you’ve got the soul of a guerilla fighter.”

Kaz can’t help but let out a real laugh at that, even though he’s far too old to be susceptible to even this kind of sweet-talk anymore. “Yeah -” he jabs Snake lightly with the elbow of his crutch. “I’ve always thought you looked most at home in a jungle too: unwashed, unshaven and covered head to toe in shit.”

Kaz -”

“But you’re right, Boss: this really is where I belong.” Not cooped up in an office. Not even here, specifically. But two steps behind you, always. It’s something he forgets when he’s been away for too long. He feels young again just hearing Big Boss laughing at his own shitty metaphors.

They enter the Compound as the fog begins rolling in. Hazy nights always remind Kaz simultaneously of Costa Rica and Washington; even worse, the damp air crawls right into the marrow of his bones and stirs up the ghost of his phantom limb syndrome. He shivers a bit as they pass through a cloud of mist, imagining that he can feel the moisture clinging to the spaces between his aching joints. He’s grateful when Snake corrals him into HQ’s back door and leads him towards the elevator.

Well, we’re taking care of business right away, I see. As they approach the Command Office, Kaz bites the inside of his mouth to keep his breathing even. It’s better if he approaches this kind of thing with an almost oblivious veneer of confidence. Snake knows him well enough that it’s not gonna fool him, but Big Boss is more and more like a predator animal these days - you can escape with your throat intact as long as you don’t show weakness. Big Boss is completely silent as he unlocks the door and flicks the light on. Kaz lingers in the doorway and watches Snake shrug out of his beret and jacket, admiring the way the fatigues frame his broad figure - his wide chest, his trim waist, his giant fucking arms…

Oh shit. When Big Boss turns back to look at him, his demeanour has changed entirely. He - very slowly - leans against the desk and crosses his arms, his one eye glinting as he stares Kaz down. It feels like the temperature has dropped ten degrees in the room.

“Tell me what happened in Chechnya, Kaz,” he says, voice all bristle-hard like it gets when he speaks real low.

“Sounds like you already know.”

“I do. But I want to hear it from you. I want you to explain yourself.”

Kaz slams the door shut behind him and strides across the room confidently. He pulls a stack of paperwork from his satchel and slaps it down on Big Boss’s desk.

“I arranged for the Chechen rebels to make a trade route with the Vor v Zakone through our territory like they wanted,” he says. “We’ll get a 10% profit cut from the Vor v and the Chechens are gonna pay us in big guns - they’re only looking for concealable weapons at the moment, so any heavy artillery that passes through belongs to us.”

Big Boss frowns. “Kaz…” he growls, flexing his fingers, “I thought I told you not to do that.” Kaz has to steel himself from flinching at the sound of his name said like that.

“When I brought the proposal to you, I was just being polite. I wanted to make sure we both knew the score. The deal was already in motion - I thought I’d made that clear.”

“I don’t like dealing with criminal organizations. They always give a little bit more than they take, so that they have insurance to blackmail you with later. We can’t afford to get mixed up with dirty deals like that.”

“You think I didn’t account for that?” Kaz barks out a short laugh and brushes back his hair. “Boss, who the hell do you think I am?”

“That’s a good question, Kaz. Who the hell do you think you are?”

They stare at each other a moment. Kaz looks away first. “Boss - this is really our only option, unless you wanna uproot. The CIS combined forces are gonna flush us out of the jungle on our eastern border any day now if we don’t get our hands on something big.”

“Kaz...”

“Additionally, we need the money bad. You wanna hire the locals to do some farming? Help clear the forest? Well, we need to pay them.”

Kaz -”

“I know you’re okay with pulling back - temporarily ceding some of the empty land near Pakistan - but since I arranged this deal, we don’t have to. We get what we want, and the Chechen rebels get to fight the Russians with their own guns - everyone wins. It’s almost poetic.”

“Are you just going to keep talking?”

“Listen -” Kaz taps his fingers on the paperwork for emphasis. “We need weapons. And where would we have gotten the weapons, Boss, if we didn’t deal with them?”

“We would have done the same thing we always do - we would have done it ourselves. You think we couldn’t have salvaged the situation?”

Kaz sighs, shaking his head. “How did you make it to sixty still this naive? We’ve never done it ‘ourselves’. I’ve always kept my thumb in every pie I could get my greedy little hands in. Where do you think we got the Outer Heaven money, huh?” He steps back and sweeps his cane around the room to demonstrate his point - to remind Snake that despite everything, he’d built his current legacy on Kaz’s “dirty” money.

“- I made bad deals with racists and warlords and bilked them blind when the bill came round. This is the same thing. It’s the same thing I did in South America. It’s the same thing I did in Africa. It’s the same thing I always do.” - and because he’s not looking to have a long argument about it, Kaz heads for the door. He’s said his piece - Snake can follow him if he wants to fight about it.

Instead, Big Boss steps behind the desk and eases down into his chair. It creaks beneath his weight. “Mmm hmm. And that’s justification in your mind?”

Kaz yanks the door open. “Heh - well, you know what they say, Boss,” he retorts flippantly. “Always better to beg forgiveness than ask permission!” He’s chuckling as he says it, so he’s not prepared for the cold, steel edge with which Big Boss calls him back into the room.

“Go ahead, then.”

Kaz freezes in the doorway, his satchel digging a painfully into the upper ridges of his ribs. Is he serious? “Boss -”

“Close the door, Kaz.”

Kaz does as he’s told because there is a blade of genuine anger beneath Snake’s sheath of practiced calm. When Kaz’s hand falls away from the door handle, its trembling - from adrenaline, more than any sort of fear. Kaz has always been the one with a temper, not Snake - when the Boss actually gets mad about something, things get… interesting. Besides, Kaz tells himself, what can he do to me at this point that’s any worse than what he’s already done?

With that thought steadying him, Kaz is able to turn and face Snake without an inch of contriteness. “Okay, Boss, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that I was going to do it either way.”

“That’s quite the weasel worded apology, Master Miller.”

“I’m not sorry that I did it, so I’m not gonna apologize for that. But… I regret that I had to go behind your back. I apologize for not being more... forthright.”

“Yeah. That’s caused problems in the past.”

Kaz winces. Touche, Boss.

Big Boss opens his cigar box with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. He traces the fading inscription along the edge slowly before popping the top and rolling out a fat, expensive Havana. Even when they were sitting on all the Diamond Dogs money in the early 90’s, this is the only thing Big Boss has ever treated himself to. Every cent they make goes towards the Revolution.

Snake clips the cigar between his teeth and spits the end across the room so that it lands at Kaz’s feet. “Apology not accepted,” he says as he clicks his zippo on. It doesn’t light on the first try, as usual.

“What are you going to do?” Kaz asks snidely. “Choke me out?”

“Come on, Kaz. No need to be like that,” Snake’s voice rumbles around the circumference of his cigar. “It’s easy: all I want is for you to beg forgiveness.”

The zippo ignites after the sixth crack. Snake inhales deep, exhales a hazy puff of smoke with shuddering borders. He lifts his chin, like he’s inviting Kaz to a friendly fist fight. Kaz would rather have a fist fight, honestly - like when they were young and stupid. Things always seemed so fresh and new between them after they’d beat each other black and blue. That’s not really been an option since he lost his arm, however.

Kaz swallows down a well of familiar anger. Calm down, Kazuhira, he tells himself. Snake has a right to be angry - Kaz knew that this would be his reaction. Was counting on it, honestly. All he has to do is weather this storm; a pithy price to pay to do his goddamn job unfettered.

“Okay,” Kaz says. He crosses the room slowly, carefully - the off-beat of his cane clanging like a bell in the suffocating atmosphere of the small office. Big Boss spins his chair around to meet him as he rounds the desk. Kaz lets his satchel and cane fall to the floor, then he drops to his knees.

“What are you doing?”

“Don’t get excited. I’m not down here to suck you off,” Kaz drawls. He pauses, then adds - hopefully: “unless you want me to…?”

Big Boss frowns. “The idea is for you to show humility. Why would I let you do something you take such obvious pride in?”

Kaz curses under his breath at the missed opportunity. Big Boss isn’t wrong - a demeaning blow job would be preferable to what he’s actually about to do.

He takes a deep breath and eases into position to sit seiza. He can feel a violent flush heating his face as he slowly lowers himself into a seated saikeirei bow. His form is clumsy - for one thing, he only has one arm, for another thing, he hasn’t done this since he was sixteen years old. Lessons drilled in at a young age last a lifetime. His forehead doesn’t quite hit the floor, but it’s close enough that he can feel the chill stored in the hewn stone radiating against his skin. He counts the seconds out between breaths - one, two, three, four - and manages to resist glancing at Snake as he pulls himself to his knees again. He stares carefully and politely at the wall, like the nice little Japanese boy he never quite managed to be.

“Hn,” Snake says thoughtfully. “Not good enough.”

Kaz finally lets his temper flare. He grits his teeth, but admirably manages to maintain eye contact with the wall. “You know, Snake, where I’m from it’s basically not possible express humility more dramatically than this, short of killing yourself.”

“Where you’re from… a nation that still hasn’t apologized for any of the atrocities they committed in the war. You want me to accept that currency?”

What -”

“Grand gestures help save face, Kaz, but uneducated Americans like me need words to understand things.”

Kaz honestly can’t believe that Snake is being this consciously ignorant, this inflammatory, especially since it’s not something he even gives a shit about personally so he’s only doing it to rub salt in a wound, to show how easy Kaz is to goad even after all these years. Kaz curls his lip, but keeps staring ahead.

“If you’re that concerned with sincerity, why don’t you just do the American thing and kick in my kneecap so I have no choice but to bow?”

Big Boss actually laughs. Oh fuck you, Kaz thinks. Don’t you dare laugh at my jokes right now.

Snake crosses one leg over the other and thrusts his foot forward so that it nudges up under Kaz’s chin, forcing him to look up. “If we’re going to go with American style humiliation, why don’t you kiss my boots?”

Kaz forces a crooked grin, showing his teeth. “So you are getting off on this.”

Big Boss shoves the toe of his boot into Kaz’s mouth to stop him from talking. Kaz coughs around it, pulls back to keep himself from swallowing a clump of moss. The taste of dirt is mostly invisible, sterile - it’s the sour sting of new boot leather that really roils Kaz’s gut. He grabs the boot, twists his hand to grasp either side of the sole so that he has a better angle to approach from. Fine - if this is how Snake wants it, he’ll lick his damn boots mirror-clean.

He gets a start by dragging his lips over the arch of the boot’s toe: measured, deliberate, tender. Snake makes a disapproving noise and taps a bit of ash onto his head. “You’re kissing my boot the way you kiss women, Kaz. Kiss it like you kiss me.”

Kaz rolls up all the dirt in his mouth and spits it out. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“You know what it means.”

Yeah, he does. Don’t kiss my boot like you’re trying to impress it. Kiss my boot like it’s the only thing that you see. Kaz takes a deep breath before approaching the problem a second time. He’s so focused on how he’s going to lap up the mud in a convincing and satisfactory manner - starts lapping it up with forced zeal - that he’s not prepared for it when Big Boss yanks the boot away, and then pulls back to kick him in the face. The blow sends him reeling; his head gets knocked so hard against the desk that his sunglasses go flying. Big Boss stops him from crumpling to the floor by grabbing a handful of his hair.

“Kaz - you would really rather lick my boot than apologize to me?.”

Kaz can’t answer because his mouth is full of dirt and blood. Big Boss twists the grip on his hair, eliciting a foamy, pained groan from between his split lips.

“It’s three easy words, Kaz: ‘Please, forgive me’.”

Kaz spits, but doesn’t quite make the goal of Snake’s face. The blood and spittle lands on the collar of his uniform. “Fuck you. I’m not… apologizing when… I was… right…”

“You probably were right, but that’s not what I’m angry about. And it’s not what you’re angry about either. What’s really going on here?”

Are you fucking seriou- Kaz gathers his thoughts and tries to breathe through the pain. “Boss,” he says, a little nasal and worn out. “Boss, come… come down here and I’ll… tell you…”

Snake falls for it. He leans over and pulls Kaz close. Close enough that this time when Kaz spits, it nearly gets in his eye. A bit of it drips down into his beard, staining the white hairs bright red. Snake doesn’t react immediately. He keeps his grip on Kaz’s hair firm and grounds out his cigar on the edge of the table. He wipes the blood-flecked spit from his face. Then he calmly lifts Kaz all the way to his feet by his hair. He’s practiced enough at this that he manages to avoid ripping any of it out, however the pressure is beginning to give Kaz tension headache. It’s almost a relief when Snake spins him around and throws him over the desk, bringing an arm up around his neck.

“This is about the children, isn’t it?” Big Boss asks. Kaz recognizes this tone of voice -he used to hear it every day over the radio, directed at other people. He’s being interrogated.

“Jesus, Boss, we had that argument a month ago. You think I’m still mad about it?”

“Yes,” Big Boss answers easily.

Kaz laughs - or tries to, at least. It’s hard to laugh with an arm clamped around your throat. “Well, I was right about that one too.”

“Kaz, you don’t know the first thing about what those children have been through. What they’ve seen.”

“I think I know a thing or two about it.”

“And I think that you have an ulterior motive.”

“Oh, like you don’t have any ulterior mo -”

Kaz is interrupted by the sharp and sudden sound of someone clearing their throat. He and Snake both look up, shocked that someone managed to enter the room without them noticing. Snake - when he sees who it is - does not loosen his grip on Kaz’s neck.

“I’m sorry for interrupting,” says Gray Fox. Of course - who else could it be? The man looks and moves like a ghost. “Boss - we need to talk about tomorrow’s diversionary operation.”

Kaz isn’t prepared for how carelessly Big Boss drops him; he doesn’t get his arm under his body in time and hits the desk hard chin first. He welcomes the long slump towards the floor - when he gets all the way there, he lays down and puts his hand over his eyes to shield them from the searing brightness of the overhead fluorescent lights. He only half listens to Fox and Snake’s conversation. His blood is still thrumming loud in his ears from the adrenaline, the anger and the pain.

“Of course. But first, Frank, could I get your opinion on an argument between the Commander and I?”

“... sir?”

“Commander Miller wants to take on multiple factory contracts - run them through dummy companies - and send the kids to work in them.”

“Sweatshops,” Fox says matter-of-factly.

“Yes. He used a lot of euphemisms at the time, but that’s essentially what he’s proposing.”

Fox waits a beat before responding. He speaks gingerly when he does answer. “... as long as we set high standards for the work conditions and keep reasonable hours, I don’t actually see the harm.”

“I’m surprised to hear you, of all people, say that.”

“We can’t give them a proper education, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to teach them a few practical skills. Not all of them will spend their entire lives in Zanzibar Land.”

Kaz’s ears perk up and he turns his head towards the conversation. He can’t see any higher than their knees. Not that it matters - it isn’t like Gray Fox has more than one facial expression. Kaz gropes for anything in his tone, his word-choice, his stance, trying to figure out what Big Boss’ lieutenant gains by pretending to agree with him.

“Interesting perspective,” Big Boss muses. “Thank you Frank.”

“Yes.”

“Meet me in the Operations Room.” Big Boss exits the office without a single glance back. The resounding strike of his boot-heels echo down the hall as he stalks towards the elevator. Gray Fox lingers until the sound has disappeared, then he crosses the room and offers Kaz his hand.

“Commander Miller.”

Kaz squeezes his eyes shut and takes three deep breaths. “I don’t need your pity,” he hisses. When he opens his eyes again, Fox has withdrawn his hand. His expression is as glacial as usual, but his brows are furrowed just the slightest bit.

“It’s not pity, Kazuhira,” he says, and then he’s gone.

When he's certain that he's alone, Kaz drags himself to his feet. He pats himself down, assessing the damage: nose bleeding, but not broken. Gums bleeding too, but no cracked teeth. Bruises on his knees and elbow. Black eye, probably. He limps across the room to retrieve his aviators. Then he stares blankly at the ceiling and says, as if to convince himself it's true: "I'm getting too fucking old for this."

 

[CLICK]

[ringtone, fifteen seconds. the commander picks up to the sound of a cipher machine. he sighs.]

“- hey Boss.”

“Commander Miller.”

“Where are you calling from?”

“Closer than you expect.”

“Heh. We’ve got to stop meeting like this. What if someone caught us.”

“Kaz. I don’t have long to talk. Make this quick - I’m calling about those Immigration Papers I delegated to you...”

“Mmm. Oh yeah.

“Are they in order?”

“They’re in order, all right.”

“Kaz...?”

“Boss, let’s be real. We’re not helping that woman across the Iron Curtain.”

“Oh?”

“What does Jaeger think is going to happen? He brings a celebrity like Gustava Heffner state-side. He marries her. He plays house with her and that little girl who’s parents he killed? It’s a fantasy, Boss, doomed to failure. I’m not gonna help him construct a ridiculous fiction like that.”

“You make it sound like it’s for his own good.”

“It’s for hers as well - he’s going to ruin her life.”

“So this is philanthropy?”

“Heh. Oh, you know me Boss - I’m nothing if not charitable.”

“And...?”

“And... does he think that after all this... when we’re so close... does he think he can just go off and live a ‘normal life’? He doesn’t get to do that. No one walks away from Outer Heaven. Not anymore.”

“...”

“... Snake?”

“Hnh. You’re right of course. Arrived at the same conclusion myself.”

"Making the gesture out of respect for the work he's done for you?"

"Something like that."

“Well... in that case, I saved you the trouble.”

“Saved him the trouble too.”

[CLICK]

1996

It was easier than you’d expect to avoid Big Boss in his own nation if you really put some effort into it. Kaz has his own office in the basement of the central Compound, down where they store all the tapes and microfilm they haven’t had time to organize and categorize yet. He sometimes can’t stand to think of how much documentation they lost when Outer Heaven went down in flames, even though intellectually he knows that it’s best that they destroy their paper trail every few years, even though he’s the one who suggested they burn everything. He left FOXHOUND with a luggage case full of all the file folders and tapes Roy was dumb enough to let him get away with. The first thing he did before going to see David was wheel the entire thing into an industrial incinerator and watch it burn. He had to walk half an hour in the rain to wash the scent of smoke out of his clothes. He didn’t want David to ask any inconvenient questions. When he -

- when he went to see David...

Kaz brushes his thumb over the half-healed split in his bottom lip. He -

Everyone likes to be treated nicely.

- he honestly has been trying to do his best not to think about his last interaction with David. He’d really underestimated the kid’s ability to get an accurate read on people when he was stone cold sober. He should have brought a bottle of brandy with him along with DD. Maybe then...

It’s a basic instinct to crave affection -

… he wasn’t lying in his assessment to EVA. He really did think that David was uniquely self-possessed. Almost like… he felt everything so deeply that it all slid off him like teflon. He couldn’t let it in or it would destroy him, and that was something he seemed to understand about himself. Kaz wasn’t sure if he was attracted to that, or feverishly jealous. He-

- everyone and everything needs to be handled gently once in awhile.

- he needed to talk to Big Boss. The Intel team has been on fire the last few days; most interesting bit of info was a harried missive from Doctor Drago Pettrovich Madnar, desperately seeking asylum from his former jailor. Interesting, but not surprising… their armies had always been built on the backs of POW-turned-loyalists, a fact that Kazuhira Miller knew better than anyone.

But with Dr. Madnar?… Kaz was skeptical. Something about Madnar rubbed him the wrong way: the persecution complex, the way he shrugged blame off, hid beneath layers of justification. Kaz had seen the zeal with which he built TX-55; Madnar reminded him more than a little bit of Huey Emmerich.

Kaz puts away his work, retrieves his cane and forges out into sunlight for the first time in nearly a week. He doesn’t go in search of Big Boss directly - instead, he looks for Frank Jaeger. He finds Fox hanging out near the swamp behind HQ, surrounded by a group of six children. Kaz takes his time approaching, admittedly curious about the taciturn soldier’s off-hours behaviour.

Fox is sitting on the root of a dead kapok tree, ankle braced on his knee while he shows the children how to carve wooden figures with a broad-bladed knife. Kaz instantly recognizes the shape of a Kokeshi doll - domed head, sloped, featureless body; the figure Fox is making is squatter than what Kaz is used to, with a wider head. It’s a style of Kokeshi popular in the Indochina peninsula. Kaz has long suspected that he and Fox had a few things in common besides their complicated loyalty to Big Boss. Laos? Thailand… actually, considering where is he right now, probably Vietnam.

The yellow mid-morning light makes Fox’s paper-pale skin sallow, casts deep shadows beneath his high cheekbones and the cavern of his mutilated nose. Viewed from the wrong angle, his face is kind of monstrous, but the wayward orphans of Zanzibar Land follow him everywhere when they can find him.

One of the kids twists their knife in the wrong direction and slices a few layers of skin off their thumb. Fox immediately sheaths his own blade and drops to his knees to help. Kaz can hear snippets of the conversation over the breeze.

“... salt or honey. Tree oil will disinfect it as well. Don’t put it in your mouth. Hold it to a clean part of your clothing. You nicked a vein, so it won’t stop bleeding on its own. Aneke - cut a bit of your skirt off. We’ll make a bandage.”

Kaz realizes that it’s a dual lesson - he’s teaching the children to be confident with their blades, and to not fear wounds. A soldier’s kindness is insidious. The girl Fox called to snaps to attention when he says her name and begins hacking at her skirt with an efficiency that makes Kaz a little sad to see in someone so young. She has an Afrikaans name and dark, tightly coiled hair - a survivor from Outer Heaven. Her hands are stained yellow, probably from handling Trinitrotoluene raw, another impoverished “half-breed” with no nation to call her own.

Kaz waits until the wounded boy is all wrapped up before making his presence known. He clangs his cane against the trunk of a short, squat tree, pulling attention from the entire group. He doesn’t have to worry about any of the children following after Fox - Commander Miller has a bad reputation as a curmudgeon who’ll assign work or - even worse - reading assignments to any kid unfortunate to pass under his watchful gaze, unlike Big Boss who lets them run wild doing whatever the hell they want.

Fox brushes grass off his knees as he rises and hands the wounded boy his finished Kokeshi doll before coming to meet Kaz. “Are you looking for Big Boss?” he wonders.

Kaz takes a moment to answer. He’s still staring at the kids, brandishing their blades the way American kids hold action figures and NERF guns.

“So…” Kaz begins conversationally, “you’d really send them to work in a sweatshop?”

Fox stares at Kaz, unblinking. “I understand what you’re trying to do, Commander Miller.”

“Do you, now.”

“Big Boss is content to let them get accustomed to the war machine, to become a part of it. You think there’s another way. I know what you tried to do at your base in Seychelles, and how it played out. You’re trying to be subtle this time.”

“Think you’ve got me all figured out, huh?”

Fox looks him up and down. It’s a quick assessment - like a wild dog searching for old wounds in their prey. He brushes his overlong bangs to one side as he glances back at the children. “I admire that you’re making an attempt, but Big Boss is right.”

Kaz furrows his brow. “Right about what?”

“Those children… they’ve already seen too much. Too much war. Too much of what humanity is capable of. There’s no way that they’ll ever be able to return to a normal life.”

“If you really believe that, why did you agree with me?”

Fox actually smiles - it’s a very faint expression, and a surprisingly gentle one. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying.” Then he says: “- and I thought that maybe you’d need to see it for yourself. To understand why you’re still here.”

A full-on chill runs down the length of Kaz’s spine at that. He takes a half-step back, physically recoiling from the aura that Jaeger is radiating. Kaz finally sees past his veneer, right through his preternatural calm, his translucent skin, right down to the crack that runs down the center of him. They all have a crack down the center of them, one that lets all the darkness in, one that they desperately try to fill with the feeling they get when Big Boss speaks to them.

Kaz stutters a bit over his next words. “J-just… just tell me where the hell Snake is. I need to talk to him, alright?”

Fox’s smiles doesn’t falter as he points Kaz in the right direction.

*

Big Boss is in the underground hanger.

He’s down in the pit, examining the “Junk”; the extant pieces - trophies and souvenirs really - from all of the Gears they’d built or taken down over the years... a bent piece of Sahelanthropus’ uranium armour, the railgun from Huey’s Battle Gear, ZEKE’s damaged black box and, of course, Peace Walker’s AI core. It’s the last one that Snake is standing in front of. Kaz pauses on the walkway for a moment and stares at him - his Boss, framed by his mentor’s second gravestone, Strangelove’s coffin; a symbol of things they’d lost, and things that they’d torn down and destroyed with their own hands.

“Kaz, there you are.” Big Boss greets him and holds out one of his gloved hands to wave him over.

Kaz scoffs as he saunters up behind him. “You don’t get points for hearing my old, crippled ass sneak up behind you, Boss.”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, actually.” Big Boss doesn’t look directly at him when Kaz comes to stand beside him. He curls a finger beneath his bearded chin, thoughtfully. “I’ve put in a requisition with Doctor Voskresensky to construct you some new prosthetics. Plural.”

Kaz blinks at Snake. “You… bought me bionic limbs?”

“You’ve been walking around wearing this false fragility like a badge for far too long. We’re entering a new era - I don’t want you dwelling on the past anymore.”

Kaz directs his eyes to the floor and wrenches his hand around the handle of his cane. Years ago, he would have been ecstatic about this gesture. Longer ago than that, he would have been insanely furious. Right now he feels… nothing, really. He wishes that he could feel violated to some degree - who is Snake to make this decision for him? But if Big Boss wants him whole, he can’t argue.

“Fine,” he says, glib. “But you know, I won’t be so easy to pick out like this if I start wearing better prosthetics."

“No,” Snake murmurs. “I always know when it’s you.”

Kaz drags his teeth along his wounded lip and says nothing. After a few minutes, Big Boss lets out a long, gravelly sigh. “... I shouldn’t have brought you here.”

“Don’t send me away,” Kaz replies firmly.

“Then what do I do with you?”

Kaz pushes up his shades so that he can rub the bridge of his nose. What indeed? “Boss - I’ll cancel the gun running deal.”

“Mmm hmm. What ever happened to ‘shit costs money’?”

“There are other ways to get the money.”

That finally gets Snake to look at him.

“I’ve got… something up my sleeve,” Kaz says hesitantly. “But you’re gonna have to trust me.”

Really?”

“I know, I know - but it’s… it involves blackmailing someone who really deserves it. It’s a thread I’ve left hanging since my Diamond Dogs days. I just was never sure I wanted to pull the trigger on it.”

“That all you can tell me?”

Kaz nods.

“Will you do it even if I tell you no?”

“If you’re gonna tell me no every time I give you a solution to a problem you can’t fix, I really wonder why you even bother with me, Boss.”

Snake takes a step towards him and grabs the empty arm of Kaz’s jacket - right above the knot - to pull him near. He stops Kaz from slipping his shades back on and stares at him intently - eye to eyes. Kaz stares back, trying his best to give nothing away.

“... okay,” Snake says, finally.

Kaz lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “That easy?”

“You’re not as good at lying to me as you think you are, Kaz. Whatever it is, I’ll find out eventually.”

“And then what?”

Snake grins - that old, familiar lopsided smile: half feral, half innocent. It’s a smile that always works on Kaz, no matter how many times he sees it, no matter how old they get. That grin cuts down to the core of who Big Boss is: a warrior king, a stray dog, the only person Kaz would ever willingly admit defeat to. Kaz closes the distance between them with a hungry kiss. He’s used to being rebuffed more often than not - especially with a lover on the wrong side of sixty - but Big Boss is obviously in a mood today and responds so fiercely that it splits Kaz’s lip back open. Snake hooks his hands around Kaz’s waist and spins him around so that they’re leaning against the AI Pod, Kaz's arm pinned at the wrist by his head.

“And then what?” Kaz asks again when they part, his voice more husky than he intended.

Big Boss nuzzles the soft skin beneath his ear and laughs. His deep chuckle is more a vibration than an actual sound. The reverb works its way deep into Kaz’s bones and makes him shiver in anticipation. “I guess we’ll wait and see, won’t we?”

It sounds more like an invitation than a threat.

(Secret Recording of Donald Anderson and Kazuhira Miller )

AUDIO ONLY

[CLICK]

“Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice.”

“Short notice? It’s been nearly a year since you first contacted me with this bullshit.”

“Don’t call it bullshit until you hear what I’m offering, SIGINT.”

[a beat of silence]

“So that’s how you’re going to play it. For a moment there, I thought this was going to be a civil exchange, Kazuhira Miller.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed that you know who I am? Unlike you, I’m nobody. I’m not even on the family register. I don’t have a birth certificate, let alone a fancy position high up in the US Government.”

“I’m not that petty. I just wanted to make sure we were on even ground.”

“We’ll never be on even ground, Anderson. Not when we’re standing on opposite sides of the only war that matters anymore.”

“Listen - you don’t know the first thing about me, or what my investment in this conflict is. You weren’t there, man. Don’t presume to have insider knowledge on what went down between us just because you got caught in the crossfire.”

“I know more than you think. I know that with Zero out of the picture, you think that you’re safe. I know that you’re not - you and Dr. Clark have been sitting cozy assuming that the hatchet got buried along with the Major, but as long as he’s still breathing, you’ve got a target on your chest. And I’m real close with the man holding the trigger to that gun, so you might wanna listen to what I have to say.”

“.... go on then.”

“The PATRIOTS.”

“How do you-”

“- it’s an imperfect system. The woman who built it -”

“Yes.”

“We called her Doctor Strangelove. She worked for us before she worked for you. She had certain... regrets before the unfortunate circumstance of her death. I have proof of this, if you don’t believe me.”

“I believe you.”

“Heh - having doubts yourself?”

“What would even be the point of having doubts after I’ve gone this far? I know who I am.”

“That’s what I thought. In that case, I thought you might be interested to know that before she took off, she left a... flaw in the system. An ‘egg’ is what she called it - a system destroying bug that could be ‘hatched’ if someone knew what they were looking for.”

“... if you’re telling the truth -”

“I am. I have her last will and testament - a bread-crumb trail that could lead a clever mind to find this ‘egg’ and crack it open before it has a chance to fester. The knowledge is way outside my skill base and, I'm betting, outside of yours. But there's a promising young man who just got an early scholarship to MIT this year who's got a fresh perspective on programming and a blood connection to the PATRIOTS... yeah, you've been keeping an eye on him too, I see.”

[both are silent for a while. when anderson speaks, he sounds almost panicked]

“Well then - if we’re going to do this, let’s do it.”

“Hey, hey... now that I know you want it, the real conversation begins. I’m not gonna give something like this away for free.”

“Shit... you know, Zero always said that every time he talked to you, he felt like he needed a nice, long shower afterwards.”

“It’s funny that he of all people accused me of sleazy dealing. I learned a lot of my best tricks from him.”

“Okay, then. What’s the catch. I know there’s a catch - with your type, there always is.”

“This information is on an optical disk. The optical disk is sitting in a vault somewhere in one of my secure offshore account's safe-boxes. On this piece of paper is a PIN number that will open that safe-box for you. If I give you this number, you memorize it, then you let me watch you eat the paper its written on. And then you tell no one about this meeting. I mean that literally. Now, the catch is that the safe-box only opens in the instance of my death. And Big Boss’ death. ”

“You’re that certain you won’t outlive him?”

[miller doesn’t answer]

“I see.”

[another protracted silence]

“... why would you give me something like this? You’re Big Boss’ right hand man. Why would you...?”

“You know how Zero adored Snake, but inevitably ended up fighting him? How Ocelot wanted to destroy him so much that it turned to unfaltering loyalty? Well, no one knows Snake better than me. I’ve lived in his pocket for twenty years now, right at his side. There’s no one who loves him like I do, so can you imagine how it is on the days that I remember what I felt like when the scales first fell from my eyes? Today’s one of those days. The day I contacted you to set up this meeting was too.”

“Goddamn...”

“So you see - it’s not really betrayal. If you ever see a day that you’ll be able to use this, both Big Boss and I will already be dead. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, and since he’ll be dead, he’ll never know.”

[anderson sighs]

“Well then. How much do you want?”

[the sound of a pen scribbling]

“Shit... that much, really? You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Miller.”

“I do. But it’s a small price to pay for world peace, don’t you think?”

“... Jesus, Mary and Joseph - you’re a real asshole, you know that?”

“You might be surprised, but I don't actually hear that very often.”

[CLICK]

Chapter Text

1979

He knocks on the hotel room door twice, but kind of half-heartedly. Half-heartedly enough that if she’s in the bathroom or on the balcony, he can totally ditch this whole stupid idea and head back to his own hovel of a hostel and… and drink all this brandy myself I guess, Kaz thinks to himself sardonically, holding up the bottle of Cardenal Mendoza - aged fifteen years - he’d bought down the street. It’s a heavy, ornamental bottle; the liquor inside is almost the colour of fresh blood - not a brand Kaz would drink on his own time, but the clerk had promised him a complex and saccharine bouquet based on prunes, with a hint of toffee and cream sherry. With his luck, it would turn out to be Cécile’s least favourite kind of liqueur.

Kaz glances up and down the hall while he waits for her to answer, instinctively looking for the most efficient escape route. The only thing worse than her not answering at all is her answering to find him half way down the hall. He’s about to duck for the fire-escape when he hears the soft sound of footsteps padding along the carpet. He freezes in place, not sure what to do with his hands. What he decides to do is hide the bottle of brandy behind him - an action that he’s halfway through when the door creaks open to expose a sliver of Cécile Cosima Caminades’ flawless, doll-like face.

Sí? ¿Cómo puedo ay -” she stops short when she recognizes him. Her eyes go wide and her mouth falls open - like she’s seen a ghost. “... Monsieur Miller!?”

Kaz runs a hand through his hair and tries to smile the way he used to. “Er, hey Cécile. Long time no see, huh?”

She pulls the door open the rest of the way. She’s dressed in a silk bathrobe, cream-coloured and embroidered with pink lilies. It’s fallen open a bit to reveal a rather extravagant négligée: lace cups, ribbon at the waist, a skirt made of material so sheer the outline of her underwear is visible through the pleats. If it were any other woman, Kaz would ask if she was expecting company; with Cécile, somehow he’s not surprised that she spends her free time lounging around looking like a Victoria’s Secret model. A way to unwind and relax from a profession that usually saw her dressed down in worn-out khakis.

Kaz clears his throat and politely averts his eyes. Cécile seems to remember herself. Blushing, she rushes to tie the front of her robe closed. When she raises her face again, her expression has morphed from shocked to skeptical. “Monsieur Miller,” she says again, slower this time, relishing the way the ‘r’s trill beneath the weight of her thick french accent. “How ever did you find me?”

“Well, I was in the city and I saw that you were part of an academic delegation giving a talk at the University of Seville so I, I uh -” it sounds creepier out loud, he realizes, “- I still have a spy network, and I… had them track you down so that we… could…”

He trails off when he realizes that she’s staring at the arm that’s still behind his back. Sheepishly, he pulls out the liquor bottle and gives it a festive little shake. Cécile raises an eyebrow and purses her lips.

“So we could what, Monsieur Miller?”

“Hey - i-it’s, it’s not what it looks like.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Look - I know what I’ve been like in the past, but honest Cécile, I just thought that you would…”

She crosses her arms and stares at him. Kaz bites his lip because this is the hard part.

“I just thought that you would… like to know what happened…”

Cécile relaxes her arms. Her expression unknots and she raises one hand to tug at a lock of her long, blonde hair.

“- what happened… after the MSF -”

Oui,” she begins nodding. “Ou - Yes - I want to -”

“- and to hear about that,” Kaz interrupts, holding up the brandy again. “You’re gonna want to be more than a little drunk.”

She lets him in.

*

Cécile does not disapprove of the brandy.

They crack the bottle open and sit at opposite ends of the lush hotel room’s fancy, antique sofa. Kaz is very aware of the foot and a half of space between them, and of the way Cécile’s bathrobe rides up to expose her smooth, sun-kissed thighs as she tucks one leg beneath her. He runs a hand along the fading scars on his jawline, almost subconsciously.

“It’s no Armagnac,” she grouses, scrunching up her nose. “but... not bad at all. You were always such a boor, Miller, I suppose this is the first time you’ve set hands on such a fine brandy.”

“Yeah,” Kaz admits, “I usually drink beer or whiskey.”

“Mm, really? What brand of whiskey?”

Kaz takes a deep breath and knocks back his first shot. He swallows without wincing - it's got a punch to it all right, but he’s accustomed to the burn of hard liquor these days. “The cheapest I can get,” he answers, pouring out another shot for them both. She watches him, her expression softening with both sympathy and pity. Their fingers brush as he hands her the shot glass.

“... whatever became of Paz?” she asks in a very small voice.

“How honest do you want me to be you, Cécile?”

Cécile rolls her teeth over her bottom lip. Her slim fingers shudder almost imperceptibly around her shot glass. She’s not taking the decision lightly. Finally, she says: “please, Monsieur Miller. I want to hear everything.”

“You sure about that?”

“I may be a civilian, but I was your comrade, oui? Don’t I deserve the whole truth?”

Kaz sighs. He runs his hand over his eyes, beneath his aviators. It hurts to think about Paz, about Camp Zero, about what went down in that helicopter. “We… we went back for her,” he explains, leaving out the part where they weren’t exactly rescuing her. “But she… didn’t make it.”

“Despite what she did, I always felt a great deal for her. She was a very sad girl. I hope that her death was not too…” Cécile casts around for an english word to express what she means. “I hope she did not die painfully.”

“She did,” Kaz says darkly. Cécile presses her eyes shut and takes her shot of brandy. It goes down a lot easier than the first. Kaz follows suit.

Cécile gropes for the bottle; this time, she’s the one who fills the glasses. “Amanda?”

“Amanda’s fine. Still fighting Somoza. But -”

“Chico?”

Kaz shakes his head. Cécile takes another shot.

“If you’re gonna take one for everyone who’s died,” Kaz warns her, “we’re gonna end this night in the hospital.”

Cécile smacks his knee as she dips down to grab the bottle. “Do not condescend to me, you phallocrate! I can take care of myself.”

Kaz pulls back and raises his hands defensively. “Woah, okay there. Didn’t mean to imply you couldn’t.”

Cécile snorts delicately and drinks her shot of brandy. She thrusts the empty shot glass in his face. “What happened to Chico?” she demands.

Kaz tells her. About everything - sparing only the most absolutely gruesome details. About Chico’s attempted heroism, about how Paz hadn’t sold them out in the end, about how Huey had… Cécile processes it in near silence, nursing her brandy shot and massaging a lock of golden hair between her thumb and forefinger. Her fingernails are blunt, practical, but she is sporting a perfect french manicure.

“... what happened to… his nom de guerre was Morpho, I believe?”

“Our pilot?”

Oui. He was training me how to fly the ‘Crocodile’.”

Kaz shakes his head.

Cécile takes a shot. “What about… Mosquito? He was Cuban, I believe? Lovely singing voice?”

“Dead,” Kaz says, regretfully. He and Mosquito often performed old hit songs from the 50s and 60s together at the monthly birthday parties. Kaz takes a shot with Cécile this time.

They go on in this fashion for some time, Cécile asking after MSF members she’d gotten to know, mostly from the Intel team, or women. A few of the R&D staff who worked under Strangelove. They get over halfway into the bottle when Kaz notices that his head is swimming. This is how he’s always gotten drunk - all at once, after having downed so much liquor that it’s already too late to salvage the situation. Cécile is swaying a little in her seat, but she is still poised, straight-backed, lucid.

Kaz shrugs his coat off finally, feeling too flushed and heated from the booze to stand the way it traps the humidity of a balmy, Spanish evening. Cécile’s gaze follows the motion of the coat as it slides off his arms and gets thrown over the back of the sofa. Her eyes narrow and Kaz realizes that she recognizes it - it’s a ratty old leather thing, slightly too short for Kaz in the arms, and a bit too wide in the shoulders. She twists her shot glass between her fingers and Kaz feels himself shrink beneath her discerning gaze - those piercing, blue eyes are used to searching for subtle patterns in dense foliage; they don’t miss anything.

“You haven’t asked about…” Kaz trails off. He really doesn’t want her to ask about him. Cécile snatches Kaz’s empty shot glass from him and places it on the coffee table just out of his reach. She helps herself to another shot, however.

“Tell me then,” she holds her drink aloft, steeling herself for more tragic news. “What happened to Snake?”

“Not dead,” Kaz glances away. “But I haven’t seen him in…” one thousand five hundred fourteen days since the MSF went down - “... four years.”

“Surely he did not leave you behind?”

Kaz shakes his head. “He’s… he survived the explosion, but he’s in a coma. Was in a coma, at least, last time I checked. Zer - the man who hired Paz took him. Keeping him in some top secret hospital to hide him from the people who burned the MSF, but I-”

Monsieur Miller?”

It’s not until Cécile cuts him off that Kaz realizes that his hands are trembling, that a dangerous shudder has worked its way into his voice. He always had such a good cap on his temper, back before Cipher fucked them over. Cécile’s never seen him angry; she seems distressed at how tightly he’s clenched his left hand into a fist, tight enough the veins are bulging out from the skin. He shuts his eyes and inhales a steadying breath. He flexes his hand open and spreads it over his knee.

“I haven’t seen him. I’m not allowed to see him. Not until he wakes up.”

“I have heard that sometimes people do not wake up from comas,” Cécile says. Kaz opens his eyes and makes himself smile. He hopes that the expression is not too bitter.

“Yeah, well, Snake’s gonna wake up. I believe that’s true.” Don’t believe in God; believe in Big Boss. At least his retribution is real, and always earned.

“And you… you are waiting for him?”

It sounds so hokey when Cécile says it out loud. Kaz slumps in his seat and shrugs. “What else am I gonna do?”

Cécile twists her lip, examining Kaz as if he’s a particularly interesting species of bird. “This is, I admit, a different side of you. To think that someone who plays themselves off as such a shallow coureur de jupons would hold a torch like this for nearly five years.”

Kaz is drunk enough that it takes him a few seconds to fully process through that entire statement. The different parts of it light up in his brain in the wrong order, almost like his mind is trying very hard not to make sense of it, retain some sort of plausible deniability. “Ce-Cécile,” he stammers, “I think that you’re misusing that english phrase...”

Non, non - I do believe that I have used it correctly. You are in mourning, forbidden to see your paramour.”

“Cécile, what are yo -”

“It is a very long time - I admit, I would never wait for any man so long, not even a man like Snake. I’m impressed… I never would have thought you capable of such a thing.”

Kaz gives up. She obviously saw more than she had ever let on. He wonders, briefly, what Mother Base must have looked like from her point of view: there she was, a pretty civilian girl who knew how to demure, so under-estimated by everyone around her… the act Paz had died to perfect was something that came to Cécile effortlessly.

He accepts it when she hands him back his shot glass, filled anew. “How did you…?”

Cécile laughs - a soft, lilting sound, almost like she’s relieved to be able to say something with levity finally. “I used to flirt with Snake for sport, oui? I quickly realized that it would get me nowhere, but I continued because each time I did it, you would get so grognon...ah, grumpy.”

“That’s because I was trying to get with you!”

“Hmm,” Cécile taps her forefinger against her chin. “Strange that you never got so forlorn when I hit on Morpho, or that handsome medic, or Eagle Ray, or Doctor Strangelove -”

“Wait, you and Strangelove -?”

“We’re not talking about me, Monsieur Miller.”

“Cécile, it’s because I never noticed you hitting on all those other guy - people.”

Oui - my point exactly. You were not watching Snake because he was with me at those times…. you were watching me because I was with Snake.”

And, well, there’s not much Kaz can say to argue that. It’s true - he was something of a hypocrite in that sense; he couldn’t stand the idea of Big Boss’ eye straying somewhere else. It flattered his ego to be the sole exception to the legendary soldier’s self-imposed semi-celibacy. The thought of Snake getting it on with someone Kaz had failed to seduce himself was the about worst thing he could have imagined back then: it would have wounded both his pride and his heart. God - things were so simple in Costa Rica, if that’s all he had to worry about.

Kaz chuckles humourlessly and drinks his shot. “Anyone ever tell you that you could have had a great career in espionage, Cécile? Honestly - even at your age, it’s not too late to start.”

“I think what is more likely is that you are not as clever as you think you are.”

“Maybe,” Kaz mutters, holding up the empty shot glass. The way it bends the light is fascinating through his blurry, drunken vision.

He feels the couch dip, doesn’t quite register what that means until Cécile’s face comes into view. She crawls into his lap and gingerly slides off his aviators, setting them down carefully on the coffee table. His reflexes are so shot from liquor that he actually fumbles and drops his shot glass on her. She ignores the impact, merely rolling it off her shoulders and dipping in so that she can press her lips against his. Her plump lips are moist - eager - and the kiss is tinged with inviting intent.

“Cécile, what are you -” Kaz puts his hands on her shoulders, trying to slow the whole thing down. There’s something off here, but Cécile doesn’t answer him. “Ne parlez pas…” she whispers - sounding a little annoyed - and kisses him again. Her hair falls in curtains around his face as she dances her slender fingers up under the hem of his t-shirt. She traces the lines of his abs and sets her thumbs gently on the center of his chest.

He does the thing that he’s been lowkey fantasizing about since she opened the door and slides his hands up the length of her thighs to push aside the silky fabric of her négligée and robe to expose her ass. Her breath hitches when he gives it a little squeeze. She drags her fingers down his back and presses against him, rolling her hips into his as she kisses him with renewed vigour.

It’s been so long since he’s been touched with any tenderness or expertise - anything more than mutual masturbation with no eye contact, honestly - that he moans from just that. He’s transported back to a sunny Costa Rica afternoon, bantering with Cécile about recipes as she sunbathes out on the mess hall’s roof; he’s trying to hide how hungrily his eyes are wandering up and down her body and she’s grinning because she knows how men react to her, and she doesn’t care...

Kaz has a hand cupped over one of her breasts and a thumb in the waistband of her panties when he actually stops to think critically about what’s happening. All at once, he backs off.

“Wait, wait -” when he tries to pull away, she traps his bottom lip between her teeth. Goddamn. “Cécile, slow down a sec. Is this a pity fuck?”

With his lips off limit, she begins peppering kisses up and down the length of his jaw. “Mmm? I do not recognize this english idiom.”

Oh, that’s bullshit, “- Cécile, I mean… are you having sex with me because you feel sorry for me?”

That finally stops her in her tracks. She pulls back all the way - not quite entirely out of his lap, but far enough that her robe tumbles back down and hides her legs. Her eyes are wide - she looks caught.

“Ah - merde -” she swears under her breath. “It’s uh - hmm, I suppose… that is one way of putting it, but you make it sound so… crass.”

“It is crass. Jesus, Cécile, what do you think I am!?”

“A friend,” she says honestly. “A friend who is lonely and lost.”

Kaz swallows down something thick in his throat - he’s definitely two of those, and kind of flattered to be considered the third.

“Also,” she continues with an embarrassed giggle, “I must admit that in my inebriated state, the thought of you and Snake together, it makes you much more attractive.”

“Are you serious?”

She rolls her shoulders and looks away, all fake-abashed. “Come now, Monsieur Miller - as if you didn’t get excited at the idea that my relationship with Doctor Strangelove may have been more than amis platoniques.”

“That’s… not the same thing.”

Cécile jabs him right in the ribcage with her fore-finger, possessed of the sort of haughty exasperation she always used to wield at him back in the MSF days. “It is exactly the same thing,” she says and slides all the way off him. Kaz sighs, only a little disappointed, and moves to swing his legs off the couch to put a little distance between them, to cool off.

“I always wondered -” Cécile muses, more drunkenly than she’d appeared before, “what he was like in bed.”

“Uhhhh,” Kaz says prolifically. Cécile snuggles up against him, leaning her head on his shoulder. “Not as good as you’re imagining, probably,” he mumbles, trying to diffuse the conversation as quickly as possible. He’s never actually verbalized anything about his and Snake’s relationship - not even between them, really. Every time Snake tried to start some sort of obnoxious conversation about it, Kaz brushed him off with the same practiced ease used on his one night stands.

“Mmm,” Cécile grabs one of Kaz’s arms and makes him wrap it around her shoulders. “- but… like a wild beast, non? Like an animal.”

“I-” and, yeah, that comparison had definitely occurred to Kaz in the past. Thinking about it definitely wasn’t helping him cool down. “S-something like that, yeah. But we… he and I had -”

Attraction chimique?”

“An understanding,” Kaz corrects, voice going soft. “He and I understood each other. We… saw each other… in a way other people didn’t. A way other people couldn’t.” Is that even true, Kazuhria? he asks himself.

“I’m sorry. It is probably painful for you to talk about him like this, after all this time. I have been… inconsiderate.”

Kaz finally relaxes his arm around her shoulders, cups her arm with his hand and lets her snuggle against him proper, less like a potential lover and more like a sister. That’s the thought that finally kills his boner.

“Nah, it’s probably healthy. I’ve been -” pretending, drinking, fantasizing about violence, “ - not well. Maybe talking about it’s better than bottling it up.”

Men,” Cécile says disdainfully. She’s quiet for a long time after that. She plays with the ends of her bath-robe’s belt, tying them and untying them again and again. After a while, she speaks.

“What are you,” she enunciates each word carefully, “doing in Spain at all, Monsieur Miller?”

Kaz isn’t prepared for the question. He says, unconvincingly: “Uh, y’know, just… passing through. Admiring the arts.”

“You are on your way to Basque, oui?”

He looks away, to hide his eyes from her. “That obvious?”

“Where else in Spain these days are men like you needed?” She lifts one end of her belt and lets it fall, watches it spool against her waist. “Seville is so peaceful. Strange to think that just a train ride away it is a virtual warzone.”

“Well… Franco is barely four years in the grave. It’s gonna take the country a long time to heal.”

She nods. “Ah - how is your prénom pronounced again? Kazuhira?”

Kaz winces a little as she over-pronounces the ‘z’ and softens the ‘r’ more than necessary. It’s been a long time since he’s heard anyone use his real name - not since his last conversation with Zero. The man had called him ‘Kazuhira’ almost mockingly - like he was addressing a child.

“May I call you Kazuhira?” Cécile asks.

“Just Kaz is fine, Cécile.”

“Kaz,” she rolls the syllable around her mouth a few times. “Kaz - can I tell you a story?”

“If you pour me another shot of brandy, sure.”

She elbows him, probably a little harder than necessary, but she lurches forward to grab the bottle anyway. She takes a generous swig from it, then hands it to him. He raises an eyebrow and she stares him down. “You worried about germs from my spit? A little late for that now.”

Kaz takes the bottle and downs a mouthful. It tastes stronger, somehow, without the shot glass to temper their intake. Cécile snatches it back from him and begins her story: “I watched this movie once. ‘Hour of the Wolf’...”

“Isn’t that Ingmar Bergman? I didn’t take you for the art film type.”

Cécile elbows him again. Kaz is beginning to rethink their current position. “Connard! I earned my Masters from one of the finest universities in Paris, I’ll have you know.”

“Right, sorry, sorry.”

“But… you are correct. I much prefer sweeping, romantic films. Like Doctor Zhivago or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But Strangelove - she liked strange films. Science fiction. Arthouse. Psychological thrillers with philosophical undertones. I lied to her once and told her that I had quite enjoyed Monsieur Bergman’s film Persona, although I had it all twisted around. I thought that she was talking about the actress Ingrid Bergman and was quite confused. Before I knew it, she and I were working through his whole filmography.” Cécile takes a drink, hands the bottle over.

“Why would you tell a lie like that?” Kaz wonders, taking a far longer gulp than he really should with how drunk he is.

“I could not stand the idea that Strangelove - a Brit! - was more cultured than I! And, perhaps... perhaps I wished for her to think highly of me. Do not look at me like that Monsieur Miller! I think we have established that you are very familiar with the desire to both compete with and impress an older peer.”

Kaz takes another too long drink. “So. ’Hour of the Wolf’?”

“Have you seen it?”

Kaz shakes his head. Cécile gestures for him to hand her the bottle and he complies.

“In the movie a young woman moves with her husband to a new house after some sort of tragedy, which is not specified. But her husband, he is… dément. Thinks that he is seeing demons and ghosts. Obsessed with a woman from his past,” Cécile takes a drink. “His young wife, she does not share his delusions, but she tries her best to be understanding with him. She stays up with him, reads what he writes about his demons, goes on strange trips with him to terrifying places where people worship his ex-lover as if she is a goddess.”

Cécile looks at Kaz meaningfully.

“Wait… am I… the young wife in this scenario?”

She takes a sip of brandy and passes the bottle to him again. “In the end, the young wife loses patience with her husband’s violence, his obsessions. Her husband… he is betrayed by the obsessions of his past, torn apart by them. Lost in the woods. The wife, she escapes but she is not free of him. She is afraid that she has taken on his demons. That she now shares his madness, even though she will never see him again.”

Kaz is staring at her intently now, hand clasped around the bottle tight. Cécile’s looking straight ahead, chin tipped slightly to the side so that her hair tumbles over one shoulder and casts her face in orange shadow.

“Usually with these kinds of movies that Strangelove would show me, I would follow along just enough that I could fake my way through polite conversation afterward. I think this is the same tactic that Doctor Emmerich used with her as well.”

“Go figure,” Kaz grumbles.

“- but with this one, I saw something familiar in it. You and I are of a similar age, so you of course know… children born in the ruins of the war are not often born to happy marriages.”

Kaz gently sets down the brandy and lets Cécile cuddle up against him again. He feels a little strange talking post-war with someone from a country that had been occupied by the Axis. So many of the horrors of his childhood were Allied-induced. All it does it remind him how deep and long-lasting the scars of war truly are - here they are, in a country still bleeding from a wound inflicted over fourty years ago when their own nations were wearing only moderately impressive bandages.

“My father was a very brave man -” Cécile says sadly. “He, like many passionate and patriotic Parisians participated in La Résistance. My mother was from la campange and so her resistance had not been so direct. She did not understand the terrible things he had seen, or the hold they had on him. You could say that he was haunted. When the ghosts came, he would turn to -” Cécile raises her hand to tap her nails against the bottle “- drink. I was his little treasure - named after Saint Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. His own mother had been a concert violinist before the war. He never raised a hand to me, or said an off-colour word. But to my mother? He was a monstre.”

“Cécile, I’m sorry -”

She waves her hand to silence him. “Do not be. When I was still very young, my mother took me and she ran away. She instilled in me that it is important for women to be independent. For women to be able to stand on their own two feet without the support of men.”

Cécile’s tone was not as hopeful as one would imagine telling a story of feminist triumph. Kaz glances at her. “I’m sensing there’s a but coming.”

“But!” Cécile flips her hair as she turns to look at him. “My mother herself soon turned to drink as well. Never as severely as my father did, but - just like the woman in Monsieur Bergman’s film, my father’s ghosts haunted her.”

“I see.”

“The young wife in the film… I cannot remember the quote exactly, but she said something to the effect of: ‘if you live with someone, will you eventually become like them? Because you love them, you try to think like them and to see like them and so it will change you.’ She wonders if... she not tried so hard to see what he saw, if she could have protected him from it.”

Kaz is suddenly hit in the gut with a memory: sitting beneath a lamp in Snake’s quarters, helping him thread a jigsaw into a new fake scar - this one, along the length of his thigh rather than down the center of his torso. Kaz made the mistake of joking: ‘What was wrong with the old one, Boss?’ He can still remember the look Snake gave him - one of those sharp, chilling glares that were almost an act of violence in themselves. ‘You know what, Kaz.’

He’d tried so long to understand what the hell it was that kept Snake so rooted in the past - it was like he was still standing in that field, eternally holding a gun to his mentor’s face. Kaz tried to imagine what it would be like for him if every day he was in two places at once - doing morning drills with the newest MSF recruits while in the back of his mind, he was also remembering the things his mother said to him when she was on her death-bed. Is that what it was like for Snake: replaying his worst memories over and over again until they didn’t make sense anymore? Until they were just the base components of pain and trauma - worn out mechanisms that no longer fit together. Was it really that he was stronger than everyone else? Or was he just uniquely fragile? Was there any point even trying to understa-

“Cécile I’m not -” Kaz tries to laugh, but it comes out thin and weak. “I’m not chasing down Snake’s ghosts. I’m just -”

“Why don’t you do something else then?” Cécile asks seriously. “You are a talented man! You have more skills than to hold a gun.”

“Yeah right. And do I have any proof of that? I’m thirty-two with no job experience outside the JSDF. That’s a resume with nearly a decade blank on it. I can’t exactly put training rebels, or managing the MSF on my job applications.”

“You’re resourceful! You could figure something out if you really put your mind to it! I think -” she rears back and flicks him in his nose. Kaz isn’t prepared for the blow and cups his hands over his face in shock.

“Ow!”

“I think actually that you do not want to leave. You want to carry Snake’s burdens like this. You wish to fight his demons. But how long will you wait? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years?”

Kaz keeps his hands cupped around his face. He doesn’t have an answer for that. He’s been living the last four years day-to-day, hand-to-mouth. He counts the days to remind himself how long it’s been because he hasn’t actually felt it, not until he walked past the sign board outside the University of Seville’s campus and saw Cécile’s name on the guest list. Her career has taken her from trudging through jungles with mud-stained ankles to giving lectures at some of the most prestigious universities in Europe. At the age of thirty, her beauty has matured - her face is softer, more regal. Just four years has transformed her from a perky post-grad to a luminous professional, although maybe that last part’s just the liquor talking.

But what has four years done for Kaz? Crawling through the dirt and mud, taking money from desperate revolutionaries, following at Big Boss’ heels even though Big Boss isn’t here to reward him with approval... it’s like he’s standing still. He’s already sacrificed more days to Snake’s absence than he spent with the man in the flesh. Maybe he does know how Snake felt now. How long will he wait - five years? Ten years? Twenty years, with one foot in the waking world and one foot trapped on a helicopter that is always exploding over the churning waters of the South Atlantic?

Cécile grabs his hands and slowly peels them off his face. “I admire Snake as well, Kaz, but he does not own your life.”

“No,” Kaz replies quietly, voice shaking a bit. “He owns my death. It’s a very important distinction.”

1996

Kaz falls back onto the hotel bed with a heavy sigh. He presses his eyes shut and tries to wash away the miry, sick feeling that clings to him after meetings like the one he just had. Spinning webs of double-crosses, lies, blackmail - it’s half-exhilarating, half gut-churning; the power-high makes the scummy feeling of dread that settles in the stomach immediately afterwards almost worth it.

He’s not afraid of the Boss finding out what he did, not right away at least. He trusts Anderson to keep his lips zipped tight on this deal even under pain of torture. He’s more worried about Ocelot. Part of him is convinced that Ocelot already knows - like the man is maybe precognitive and suspected that Kaz would make a move like this years before it even occurred to him to do it. He trusts Ocelot not to go running immediately to Big Boss, however. His position is so delicate, so complicated - something like this? He’d sit on it until it could do the most damage possible to Zero’s system. As petty as their personal feud had gotten at times, Ocelot is a consummate professional and would never waste something this big on someone he held in so little regard as Kazuhira Miller.

But if Snake did find out?”

“And then what?”

Kaz inhales sharply at the memory. He runs his thumb along his lower lip, scraping the tender bump there with his nail. Lip wounds heal quickly, but Kaz has been worrying at this one with his teeth and thumbnail so often he was beginning to wonder if it would leave a scar. A small part of him wants it to leave a scar - the rest of him is disgusted, ashamed of how far he’ll still go for a scrap of Snake’s attention. God, it’s been so long since they’d really had it out.

Shit, Kazuhira. You’re fifty now, pull yourself together.

The Japanese used to count age on the New Year back when he was born. He’d pestered his mother for an American-style birthday when they started to come into vogue in the late 50s. “One year after the end of the war,” she’d said. “ - almost exactly, but I can’t remember the day.” It’s August 20th now - he’s pretty certain his half-century has just ticked by.

At his age it’s embarrassing - no, pathetic - that his pace still quickens at the memory of Snake’s swift and brutal violence, at the feeling of strong fingers twisting in his hair, the taste of blood in his mouth… part of it was the youthful invigoration of being on the battlefield again; the other part of it was that Snake - in his profound lack of awareness - still treated him like he was twenty-five, the fucker. In some ways, their dynamic has barely changed in twenty years. It feels more like synergy than stagnation when they’re together, but with a little distance between them, the thing it feels like most is insanity.

“And then what?”

Kaz knows that he’s just signed his death warrant. Years ago, Code Talker had challenged his choice, suggested point blank that Kaz would probably have been more comfortable on Zero’s payroll. The thought of kowtowing honestly to a man like Zero still roils his guts even after all these years, especially after the shit he’d seen in Angola, but he had to admit that there was a sort of beauty at the core of the PATRIOTS - it was clean, tidy, it didn’t discriminate.

As long as Snake was alive, Kaz would stand dutifully at his side, but if the bastard was gonna drag them both down in a blaze of glory, Kaz couldn’t abide by him getting what he wanted after the fact on top of it all. It was a pyrrhic victory, sure, but that was the only kind that Kaz was ever going to get against Big Boss.

“I shouldn’t have brought you here.”

“No Boss,” Kaz murmurs out loud. “You probably shouldn’t have.” No reason to feel guilty: Kaz had made Big Boss promise to never lie to him again - a promise he’d, surprisingly, kept quite dutifully. Big Boss had made no reciprocal request, however; he’d always had a fairly pedestrian understanding of contract law.

Kaz rolls over in the bed and runs his hand over the scratchy, ugly fabric of the duvet cover. He briefly considers going back out and finding a bar, picking up someone to spend the night with. He was fairly confident that he could seduce someone pretty easily, especially in a city like Washington, D.C.. A war vet who hardly looks his age, with an obvious story behind his wounds? And Kaz has so many great stories about what, exactly, happened to his limbs. Sex would be a welcome distraction and, hey, if he was on an immature mission to spite Snake as petulantly as possible, he might as well go full hog. It’s been awhile since he’s come “home” with someone else’s marks all over him.

He laughs to himself - at himself, really, for being so petty. Yeah, yeah, Kazuhira - mope about Snake still treating you like you’re a young man who doesn’t know any better while you lay here imagining that you’re still as sexually desirable as you were when you were twenty-seven. Get over yourself.

Instead of getting up, Kaz stares at the phone for a while, deliberating. He drags himself up and sets a pillow against the baseboard so he can lean against it comfortably, then he picks up the phone and presses ‘9’ to dial out. He types in the digits confidently - it’s been more than half a year, but Kaz has always had a good head for memorizing numbers.

The ring-tone goes on long enough that Kaz is pretty certain he’s not going to pick up. He’s a little shocked that the number’s not been disconnected, to be honest. He’s about to hang up when David answers.

“Who is this?”

The kid’s voice is rough and full of bristle. Kaz’s heart actually leaps at the sound of it - Big Boss’ voice has smoothed out over the years, almost like he’s finally grown into it, like his voice was ill-fitting when he was younger and so it scraped against his throat on the way out. David’s voice still has that quality to it - he sounds almost exactly like Snake had when Kaz first met him. It always gets to him the first time he hears it after a while, and it always sounds so wrong on David.

Kaz moves the receiver away for a moment so that he can steady the hitch in his breathing. Then he greets David with false cheer.

“Evenin’, David - I hope you haven’t been drinking!”

It takes David a moment to reply to that and Kaz wonders if maybe he should have been a bit nicer.

“No,” David says finally. “No I just got in. I was out for a jog.”

“Alone?”

“With DD.”

“The old boy’s still kicking, then?”

“Yeah. You were right, though - he’s definitely on his last legs. Figure he’s got another half year in him, so I’ve been trying my best to make his last few months good ones.”

“His previous owner would have appreciated your dedication,” Kaz assures, thinking momentarily of Venom Snake napping on the upper echelons of the Combat Deck with DD curled around his shoulders. Better David never find out that he was the one who killed DD’s previous owner.

“Master Miller…” David is speaking lowly, “where are you calling from?”

“East Coast. I’m on layover for a connecting flight.”

“Are you back in America then?”

“No, I just had to fly in briefly to deal with some inheritance issues over my father’s estate.”

“Really? I’d gotten the impression that your father died a long time ago.”

“He did - offed himself over twenty years ago and left his entire fortune to a Vietnam veteran’s fund. But the relative tending to his house recently passed away and I was the only person they could find to take responsibility for it.” Lies always worked best when nestled between a few stray truths. Kaz wasn’t actually certain that his father’s family even knew he existed. There were still Millers who remembered the old Colonel kicking around in the Californian valley, but using his dead half-brother’s identity hadn’t come back to bite him in the ass yet, so he figured that none of them really cared anymore.

“... how’s Japan?”

“Good,” Kaz lies easily. “The weather’s a hell of a lot better than Washington, I can tell you that, and I’ve been frugal with my retirement fund so I haven’t had to search for a job yet. Spent the spring in the village my mother grew up in. It’s down on the south-east coast, so the shore-line is breath-taking.”

“Huhn,” David replies prolifically. David’s bright, but he’s not naturally suspicious. He wasn’t like his “father” - he wasn’t going to follow up on Kaz’s lies, to make sure that he was telling the truth. That knowledge was freeing.

“You sound like you didn’t actually believe I was in Japan.”

“Last time we talked you told me that everything you’d ever said to me was a lie. Forgive me for being a little skeptical after all that.”

“Not everything was a lie, David.”

“Enough of it was.”

“Look, if you don’t want to talk to me you’re free to hang up. But if you’re gonna stay on the line, you’d better cut the attitude kiddo.”

David sighs - more of a rattling grumble, really. “Fine.”

“Just ‘fine’?”

“... it’s good to hear from you again.”

“Well, now that we’ve got all that out of the way-” Kaz lowers his tone, couches a bit of flirtation into it. “- kid, what are you wearing?”

He can hear David’s jaw clench. “That’s not funny and you know it.”

Well it was worth a try. “Sorry, sorry. It’s... good to hear from you as well, David. I thought you’d have moved on by now. What are you still doing, practically living down the street from FOXHOUND HQ?”

“I was going to move - had my eye on a little cabin up near Banff, but then someone saddled me with a dog who’s too sick and old to put on a plane and too wild-tempered to take on a bus. So I guess I’m staying put for a while.”

“Hah!”

“I… bought a bed,” David says hesitantly.

“Good. Sleeping on the floor was going to wreck your back.”

“Hmm.”

“You still smoke like a chimney?”

“... yeah.”

“You should quit. That stuff’s like pouring tar directly into your lungs, y’know.”

“Pft. Do you really think I’m going to live long enough to get lung cancer?”

“You could, if your retirement’s really as permanent as you seem to want it to be. You’re otherwise a perfect physical specimen.” And, Kaz adds silently, you’re the clone of a man who’s been chain smoking cigars since he was fifteen with no sign of ill effects yet. If that first part doesn’t off you young, I guess you’re gold.

“Right...” David’s voice trails off and he falls quiet. He’s quiet long enough to make it awkward, long enough that Kaz wonders if he actually hung up over that little lecture.

“David, are yo-”

“About my retirement,” David interrupts. “I’ve been… thinking about what you said.”

“What part of it? I said a lot.”

“Yeah, you always do.”

“Ha ha, kid.”

“I was… thinking about how you said I was ‘fucked’ without the military telling me what to do.”

Kaz’s eyes go wide and he tightens his hand around the receiver. What the hell was that shitty feeling crawling around at the bottom of his stomach? Oh, right: guilt. He opens his mouth to apologize - to explain that he’d been angry, caged, like a wounded dog backed into a corner. He’d just been saying whatever he could to cut David as deep as he could.

What he says instead is: “... go on.”

“I’m worried that you were right.”

This is a delicate moment - what to do? He’d been so cocksure back in the autumn of ‘93 when Snake asked him: “Do you think David would join us in Outer Heaven?”

“Like, do you think I could convince him?”

“... could you?”

Boss - trust me. I know what I’m doing. Trust me, trust me, trust me - at this point, Snake should consider: “Boss, trust me” code for “Boss, absolutely do not trust me on this”. Kaz had not been prepared for the way David subtly slipped under his skin, and not just because the kid’s direly misplaced attraction to him blatantly flattered his ego; being around David made him feel peculiarly normal, like maybe the best thing for his nerves would be to drag the kid out on a manly, platonic fishing trip some weekend and consciously ramp down the sexual tension. He gets this weird feeling like they could be friends, which is why he let his guard down-

- the other problem with David is that he’s nothing like his father. Nothing like his brother, either, for that matter. Oh - he enjoyed violence all right, enjoyed how easily he could dominate another human being with just a few cracks of the wrist, Kaz could see it in his eyes. But he knew how to compartmentalize. He practiced the art of compartmentalization almost desperately - if anyone could make it out of this mess with his “soul” intact and put lie to Big Boss’ assertion that it was the battlefield or death for people like them, it was David. David had a romanticized preoccupation with the “normal” world: he worried that he didn’t belong there, but he wasn’t yet so damaged that he believed himself banished from it.

And that’s why, Kaz presses his eyes shut and takes a deep breath. We can’t just let him go. We can’t...

“Master, are you okay?”

“David…” Kaz uses his “teacher” voice - the tone of voice that makes his students snap to attention in an almost Pavlovian fashion. “David, of course I was right.”

“... Sir?”

“I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t think it was true.

1997

“That can’t be true.”

Kaz is glad that he’s the one going first down the stairs because the exquisite expression of irritation that crosses his face would really contrast with the pleasant rapport he’s been trying his best to fake with Doctor Madnar since he arrived in Zanzibar Land. “Make him feel welcome,”Big Boss had said. “Make him feel comfortable.”

Not really necessary, Kaz thought at the time. Doctor Madnar had glanced briefly at Big Boss from beneath his thick brow and overgrown eyebrows with an expression that was equal measures terror and worship. As far as he knew, Big Boss was a man who returned from the dead - was rebirthed in fire and emerged from the immolating flames a new man, a whole man. A human Phoenix. You’d think a guy so smart would put two and two together, but then again in Kaz’s experience brilliant scientists often had glaring blind spots as if to compensate for their staggering intellect.

And, well, it’s not like he’d figured it out on his own either.

“I assure you, Doctor, I wouldn’t lie to you about something like this. The woman was truly ahead of her time.”

“Impossibly ahead of her time from what you’ve said. Even today, America and Japan have only made the tiniest of baby-steps towards true Artificial Intelligence. How could a scientist in the 70’s have created something that nearly approached true sentience.”

“She was working with many of the same tools we’re working with today,” Kaz explains, keeping his tone chipper. “The Peace Walker project was such a debacle thanks to us that the CIA didn’t just scrap it - they suppressed the technology involved. And, well, there are other reasons - bigger reasons, scary reasons - that the world is about twenty years behind what they should be in AI development, but that information is pretty high above your pay grade, Doctor.”

Madnar just snorts - well, he’ll believe it when he sees it. Kaz rolls his eyes one last time as he digs out his X.O. override keycard and swipes it over the lock to the underground hangar’s service door. It takes a moment to register his permissions; even Big Boss’ keycard has to go through several seconds of encryption this deep in Zanzibar Land’s heart.

In the silence that precedes the door opening, Kaz catches something moving out of the corner of his eye - human sized and shimmering bright against the far wall of the hallway. He whirls around, hyper-alert suddenly. Doctor Madnar leaps back as Kaz nearly beams him in the eye with his bionic arm.

“Watch it!” Madnar flattens himself against the wall. Kaz flips up his sunglasses for a moment and scans the length of the hallway with narrowed eyes. Madnar’s shift from annoyance to fear is so tangible Kaz can feel it radiating off him in waves. “... C-Commander Miller? What is it? Are we safe?”

“... yeah,” Kaz mutters, not entirely convinced himself. He thought he’d seen… he hadn’t seen something like that since 1985. It had to be a trick of the light. Code Talker had fixed his eyes before he left, he’d promised that he’d fixed them. Kaz was just a little light-blind these days, it wasn’t possible for him to see… he shakes his head and slides his aviators back into place. When he turns to face Madnar, he’s smiling again.

“Yeah, we’re fine, sorry. Thought I saw a Poisonous Zanzibar Hamster.”

“A… poisonous… hamster?”

“It’s a particularly nasty kind of rodent that lives in the jungle around here. No one knows what it’s real name is. Someone started calling them “poisonous hamsters” and it stuck. They wreak havoc on our rations and under no circumstances can we let one get into the Metal Gear hangar - they’ll chew up all the wires, cost us tens of thousands of dollars. It’s happened before.”

Madnar rubs his nose and frowns. “That was worth nearly giving me a black eye?”

Kaz shrugs, “sorry, honestly not used to having two arms again yet.” He flexes his mechanical arm, savours the way the joints click when he wrenches them tighter. “I haven’t had the prosthetics for long.”

Madnar seems to accept this explanation. The door finally beeps positive and pops open.

“Good timing,” Madnar murmurs.

“After you, Doctor,” Kaz holds out his arm like a gentleman. If there is something stalking them, he doesn’t want to let Madnar out of his sight. Whatever misgivings Kaz has about him, they need him.

They enter the underground hangar from the top rungs of the catwalk. Madnar’s breath catches in his throat immediately - Big Boss has had the R&D team already start work on the outer casing for the new mech. The armour is segmented and flexible, so it can be readjusted if Madnar’s new plans don’t quite fit one way or the other. What Madnar’s looking at, however, are the scraps from the other gears, the older gears, hanging along the back wall. He doesn’t seem disappointed that his TX-55 is the only model they hadn’t managed to salvage a piece of.

“Is that a piece from… Sahelanthropus?” Madnar wonders, voice trembling. And there it is - that change in his voice that belies it, the lust for weapons development. The need to create something that doesn’t just change the world, but dominates it. There are so many ways for a man to leave a mark on history, but violence is by far the path of least resistance.

“Mmm. We’re gonna move it to a more secure chamber once the real construction begins down here. Can’t risk setting it off.”

“Uranium enriched Metallic Archaea,” Madnar mumbles. He realizes that Kaz is staring at him and clears his throat, tearing his eyes from Sahelanthropus’ severed thigh-bone with great difficulty. “I was given access to some of Doctor Emmerich’s notes when I was working on the TX-55. Er - very limited access,” he clarifies. “I was a prisoner after all.”

His tone is probing, hopeful. Kaz sighs.

“Don’t expect us to show you everything right away, Doctor. The Boss still isn’t sure he trusts you as far as he can throw you. If you wanna see everything we’ve got locked up here in Zanzibar, you’re gonna have to earn it. We can’t have you going back to the civilized world with a head full of our secrets - I know what weapons scientists are like. Minds like steel traps.”

Madnar raises his nose and makes an exaggerated spitting noise. “What use have I for the civilized world now, Commander Miller? I betrayed my homeland for the false kindness offered by the West. For my trouble, the West has rejected me and now I can never see my daughter again. Where else can I go? My genius, my talents, my life - they belong to Big Boss now.”

Kaz nods appraisingly. The Doctor knows the script well. It helps that there is a degree of sincerity in it. He’s about to reply when he feels a breeze brush by his cheek. He turns his head around and sees something that looks like an orange palm print on the railing near the stairs. When he blinks, it’s gone.

“Commander Miller? Can I go take a closer look? I want to examine this ‘AI Mammal Pod’ of yours.”

“Uh, wait a sec.” Kaz sets his hand on his radio and fiddles with the transceiver, wondering if he should call for Fox. He banishes that thought quickly - he’s learned to bear many ignominies he never thought himself capable of throughout his years with Big Boss, but proving himself a paranoid old crank in front of Big Boss’ new(er) right hand man was not an acceptable one.

He clicks his radio to Big Boss’ frequency, but doesn’t turn it on. Sometimes they’ll subtly tune each other in if something important or suspicious is happening, to save time explaining it later - like if a soldier has done something so severe they need to be “debriefed” by both the C.O. and X.O., or, say, if a defected scientist starts talking shit in an unguarded manner. It’s an artefact from their MSF days, when virtually the only time Kaz turned off his radio connection to Snake was if he was doing the taxes or trying to get laid.

Madnar is staring at him with barely veiled impatience. Kaz waves him towards the stairs.

“Yeah, sorry - thought I was getting a ring. Let’s go. Watch the stairs, though - last step’s a doozy.”

Kaz corrals Madnar down the steps carefully, all but placing his hands on the man’s shoulders to protect him from whatever was (whatever might be, Miller, don’t get ahead of yourself) in the room with them. Madnar’s steps are brisk the moment he hits the work floor. When he reaches the AI core, he paces around it eagerly with one knuckle under his wooly chin. He nods appraisingly.

“Hmm - the armour is ingenious. Nearly seamless, smooth, compact - from the struts at the bottom I assume that it was mobile? Could be moved easily and docked into any machine as long as it had the correct ports?”

Kaz is making an analytical sweep of the room and can’t really indulge the Doctor in polite conversation. “Yeah,” he says, trying not to sound as distracted as he is. “- something like that. You can tell all that just from looking at it?”

“I’m very good at what I do, Commander Miller. I had also considered making the TX-55’s black box mobile, but your Boss set very demanding deadlines in Outer Heaven. I ran out of time to even consider creating a universal dock for it. Although, at the time I might not have been so willing to give your organization the ability to easily rebuild. It will be different this time.”

Madnar’s words are going in one ear and out the other. Kaz catches it again - the outline of a human being, unmistakable this time. It’s weaving between the pillars, working its way closer. Kaz can see it clearly now - this isn’t like with Quiet; the intruder must be wearing some sort of stealth camouflage. What Kaz is seeing is the faint after-image of heat radiating off their body when they move.

But how?

- then he feels it. The subtle sting, the uncomfortable sensation of something very small moving under the ciliary of his eyes, crawling in the sclera, like what a needle feels like being pulled beneath skin that’s been numbed. How…?

The intruder weaves again - more