It had been nine years.
Kazuhira Miller’s left arm was handcuffed to the wall in an outpost in Afghanistan, his right sleeve and left pant leg empty. The bag on his head gave a sign that this was the prisoner he was looking for, but Snake recognized his arm, the curve of his torso, the brush of blonde hair at the nape of his neck. When Snake held his face and Kaz met his gaze, his pupils struggled to dilate in the light.
In the half-minute between that moment and drawing the hooks of his aviators over his ears, there was something of a vacuum. Like clouds passing over the sun, for approximately thirty seconds Kaz showed something different. The willpower that it took to endure what he had over the previous twelve days were no longer holding him steady. He let them go and in those thirty seconds Kazuhira Miller was the most vulnerable he would ever be. When his shades hid his eyes as a shield, he began to stitch himself back together.
"What took you so long?"
Snake handled this memory like a worry token in his pocket.
The first time they saw each other again was weeks later. Snake showered, shared a few CQC moves with the new recruits, and made his way up the stairs of the command tower to Kaz’s quarters. The commanding officer happened to be leaning into the porthole window over the Seychelles, head dropped against the glass, snoring softly at his desk with his sunglasses and beret still on. Snake took a seat across from him and listened to his tapes.
Kaz wasn’t taking care of himself like he used to. Listening to the XO’s voice in his ears, Snake could see the grease in the hair of the man in front of him, the overgrown stubble on his chin, the grime under his nails and the callouses forming on his palm. The sun set in the late afternoon, casting a long oval over the wall, his desk, and the contours of Kaz’s jaw. He’d aged a lot in nine years.
Snake watched the sunbeam disappear. The clouds were still orange when Kaz finally shifted his shoulder and slid against the glass. The loss of balance snapped his chin up and his eyes open. Three seconds ticked off as he took in his surroundings and spoke. “Boss,” his voice was raspy before he cleared his throat. With a glance over the ocean he asked, “how long was I out?”
“About an hour,” said Snake, removing the headphones from his ears. “Maybe longer.”
“Shit,” Kaz hooked his beret on his thumb before he ran his hand through his hair. “Asleep on the job. Rookie mistake. Sorry, Boss. It won’t happen again.”
While Kaz figured himself out, Snake removed the briefing file from his walkman and replaced it with a blank tape. The big red record button snapped louder than the others. “Come on,” he said, and stood to open the door. He let Kaz lever himself from his crutch onto his feet and escorted him out to the open deck of Mother Base.
The dark was coming on fast with the sun past the horizon, and tiny stars began to show in the sky. Much of the command deck was still under construction, so Snake couldn’t take Kaz to the top to enjoy the view. Kaz’s arrhythmic steps took him across the platform where leaned his hip up against the railing. He sighed and gazed out into the dark behind tinted glasses. “What do you think?”
Snake followed his gaze out over the open waters. It was small, now, but he had seen the construction plans. They had been delivered to his bunk where he slept in the barracks with the other soldiers between missions. Before long, the new Mother Base would be three times the size of the old one.
“It’ll never be what it was,” Kaz continued after a long silence, “but the Caribbean… the Seychelles… no one can put the Diamond Dogs down. Not Cipher, not anybody.”
Snake remembered Kaz on the beach in the Caribbean, everything a warm orange - how he slipped into a box with him from behind and used his hands to tease him until Snake flipped him over and took control. Kaz loved it when things were rough and desperate. He liked to play games, wrestle, and tie hands together. More often it was Kaz rendered prone and helpless, since Snake sometimes had flashbacks if he felt too vulnerable, resulting in bruised ribs and chipped teeth.
With one arm and one leg gone, that would be more difficult in the future.
As if reading his mind, Kaz turned to look at Snake. If he had something to say, it disappeared when Snake cupped his face with one hand. Kaz’s coarse stubble scraped his calloused palm. A warm breath puffed over his thumb as Snake drew it across his lip.
There was no point asking Kaz if he was okay. There wasn’t much that was worth saying, so Snake kissed him instead.
Kaz responded by shifting his weight from the railing and pressing against Snake. He kissed back with a passion Snake hadn’t expected, biting on his lower lip and pressing their noses together. It was sloppy and warm and desperate and Snake tasted blood.
“Don’t pity me,” Kaz said when he pulled back, speaking against Snake’s mouth. He growled, threatening that there would be problems if he was treated any different. Kaz panted as they met each other's eyes from either side of his aviators.
“I won’t,” Snake replied, his heart pounding like he was a teenage girl. He could spend the rest of the night just kissing and he would be content, head swimming and lovesick.
“Good,” Kaz said with a breath as he pulled back from Snake and shifted his weight onto his crutch. “Not that I… thanks, Boss.” Kaz bumped Snake with his shoulder as he passed, limping back toward the door to his personal quarters. The door slid open before Kaz looked back. “Are you waiting for an invitation?”
Snake wouldn’t run, but he managed to get to the door before it closed.
The incident in 1975 had not been kind to Snake in ways that it had been merciful to Kaz. Aside from all the cosmetic differences - a horn-like shrapnel piece and new scars all over - it was hard to tell what were resulting effects of the brain damage. He had forgotten all of the languages he knew except for English and Spanish. On top of all of that, Snake didn’t talk like he used to. Snake barely talked at all anymore.
As they lay in bed together, Snake handled a cigar, considering it as Kaz talked about revenge. Kaz knew he was listening, since Snake hummed his agreement here and there or cast him a look. In fact, Snake had a hard time not looking at Kaz. Missing two limbs and the worlds’ greatest soldier still couldn’t help himself -- and it was clear in his expression that he liked what he saw. Kaz lay back and let him take it in. Snake’s eyes revealed an interest as though Kaz was a stranger out of his league, but it was clear in his performance that Snake was no stranger.
Snake was home. The sex was tame but they had to figure each other out again, especially since one of them was missing some parts. Things could get back to mostly normal, in time. The cost to get it all had been high, and Kaz wondered if it might be going too smoothly, now that his chance for vengeance came closer.
“I thought you might never come back, you know,” he confessed. “I thought everything we did would be for nothing.”
Snake folded his fingers through Kaz’s and kissed his knuckles. His little treasons began after that.
Snake brought Quiet back to Mother Base. She was fond of disapparating into the Skulls’ particle gas, which caused a spike of anxiety through Kaz’s chest every time. It was hard for him to sleep with the ache of his phantom pain, and the vivid dreams about the last of his family dying to the Skulls descended on him like a shroud without fail.
“You look like hell,” Ocelot commented, dropping a pile of paperwork on Kaz’s desk where the XO sat with his head in his hand, pen between his fingers.
“Thanks,” Kaz said, without looking up, and waited for Ocelot to leave.
The gunslinger took his time in that, pausing in the doorway. “You know -”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Kaz hissed. “Get out!”
Ocelot managed to withhold his sigh, but Kaz could imagine him rolling his eyes with a shrug as he left the room and the door slid shut behind him. As soon as he was gone, Kaz took a small glass and a bottle of bourbon from his desk, one at a time, and poured himself a drink. He thought about Snake, about their time in the Caribbean, and his attitude back then, and decided that there were two reasons Snake would have brought Quiet to Mother Base.
One: he just did have that much faith in Ocelot and followed his lead in this and other suggestions in the future, or two:
Snake had changed.
While the first option seemed just as plausible as the second, it also had unhappier connotations and also didn’t account for the many other disparities Kaz had noticed since V had come to. There was time, brain damage and culture shock to account for since the Boss’ return.
Kaz and Snake had disagreed in the past, settling their scores with conversations or sauna brawls, but Kaz had never felt so humiliated in his own home as he had when the Boss rejected his concerns in front of their men. Snake had ignored Kaz’s concerns and his fears as though they were coming from a grunt, not his business partner. Had it been because of Ocelot whispering over his shoulder, swaying him away from Kaz? Or, Kaz thought, had the coma helped him forget the way things had been. Those nine years probably didn’t feel so long ago to Snake.
On the helicopter back from Afghanistan, Snake had implored him to “tell me what to do, like you used to,” sounding defeated in the times. Snake had never recovered from it from that early bewilderment. The second Mother Base saw a different Snake, and had a different heart. Of course Kaz had changed, too, but he’d never forgotten that he needed Snake. Snake may have forgotten that he needed Kaz.
Another glass of bourbon, tossed back and burning and Kaz decided that the new Boss was too fresh. He’d talk to him about this and other transgressions of their partnership once Skullface was gone for good. Things were too complicated yet.
The more time that passed since their reunion, the more distant Kaz became, but if anything was wrong he kept it to himself. Whenever Snake needed him he was there, telling him about his iDroid over the radio or at his desk in the command tower signing papers with his left hand.
Kaz is there when he is needed, growling in Snake’s ear while Kaz grips his arm with his left hand, guiding him. Snake closes his eyes and pulls the trigger.
“Someone has to take care of the business,” Kaz scolded Snake, his eyes warmer than they had been for weeks. “We had to organize teams and call in troops for overtime to get Sahelanthropus back to base, incorporate their leftover soldiers. Do you have any idea how much paperwork that is?”
His stubble had filled out into the beginnings of a beard that came in blonde and scraggly. Snake took Kaz’s chin in his hand and moved his face to him. “Do you want a shave?”
Snake could see the silhouette of Kaz’s eyes behind his aviators, peering back at him. He could see as the proposal sunk in and the thoughts about soldiers’ pension funds fell away. “Now’s as good a time as any,” he replied at length.
Snake hadn’t shaved in a while and certainly wasn’t accustomed to performing the routine on someone else, but he was as good at it as he was at most things. The XO kept his eyes shut, tilting his head this way and that as instructed. Snake’s tape player on Kaz’s desk recorded every sound.
Snake told him many things, silently. He confessed how a soldier is a gun and he couldn’t pull the trigger on Skullface until Kaz took his arm; about how powerless he’d felt then, like the day he’d crawled from his hospital bed. In his thoughts, Snake said how he was concerned that Kaz looked too much toward the past. He asked for Kaz to tell him he’d done the right thing - with Quiet, with the children, with the kikongo quarantine.
“You’re pretty good at this,” Kaz said, running a hand over his face, looking at his reflection in a table mirror he had stuffed into his desk drawer at some point. “Thanks, Boss.”
“It’s nothing,” Snake said, and washed his hands. Having Quiet on the base had put Kaz’s guard up, and Snake had wondered if he’d ever have another chance to see it down. All it had taken was a high dose of revenge and Kaz still wasn’t happy. He already seemed to know that it hadn’t been the solution to his pain, but what would make him happy now?
Kaz smiles, polite, carrying his guitar by it’s neck as he walks into Paz’s room. She caught a flu, Snake tells him. She’ll be fine. Not contagious anymore but she still needs rest.
“No problem,” Kaz says, his smile broad as could be: a man with a plan. “I’m here to sing her a lullaby. I won’t be long.”
Snake nods and they pass each other. He looks back into the room to see Kaz pull a chair up to the bed. Paz looks at him, sea blue eyes and blonde eyelashes. Kaz smiles at her and tests the strings.
“Hey,” Snake is snapped out of his memory with Kaz patting him on the face twice. Somehow he had gotten up and leaned on Snake for balance without breaking his flashback. They meet each others’ eyes and Kaz’s are blue, with blonde eyelashes. “Are you staying? Pequod hasn’t been relieved.” He gestured with his chin toward his desk where Kaz’s radio is hissing static.
Snake responded with a nod - at least, maybe he did - before wrapping his arm around Kaz to bring him back to his chair and deposit him in it. Two strides more and he answered the radio with a “yeah?”
“Oh, Boss!” The soldier stammered. It must have been their first time speaking. “U-uh-”
“Bring him home,” Snake said, and turned off the radio.
“I swear your people skills used to be better,” Kaz said as Snake crossed the room to him. He chuckled to himself before Snake kneeled and pulled his chin to face him. Kaz’s breath came out in a rush, warm over the back of his fingers. He likes this Snake thought. How did I forget?
The kissing was heavy as soon as it started, Kaz yanking off his clothes and sucking on his lips like he was drowning and Snake was an oxygen tank. It had been months since they’d had sex and it hurt how badly Snake wanted it, how much Kaz seemed to need it. He bit at Snake’s neck and pulled his hair, ran his nails down his back. When Snake grabbed his arm and pinned it to the bed Kaz’s eyes went wide and Snake almost hesitated, but he was met with a groan and Kaz bucking his hips up into him.
“Yeah,” he hissed. “Don’t you fucking pity me. Not now. Not you.”
So that’s what he meant.
It was approaching thirty-two hours since Kaz had slept. He felt hollow and wounded, aching like his heart had been removed, but he knew where it was. Snake had been so distracted in his grief that he may not have even noticed that he’d taken it. He’d stood at attention for hours, staring into the fire of every soldier as they were cremated, his thousand-yard-stare seeing something else. Kaz had been the one barking orders on his behalf for their burial at sea. It had kept him awake, at least. He wasn’t sure what was holding Snake up, but he’d always been as much an animal as a man.
They would take the ashes of the dead and make them into diamonds, at the Boss’s instruction. Kaz was sure it could be done, he’d just have to make some calls. It was something he should have been doing instead of asking Snake to take a moment to talk to him privately. Just this once he promised himself, I’ll take time for the both of us.
He has two arms and two legs when he calls Snake on the radio. Let’s go down to the beach, just the two of us. The sunsets are so pretty here. Big Boss doesn’t seem enthusiastic, but he shows up anyway. He has bruises and burns over his face and his arms that are still healing. Kaz was sending him on missions to recover tanks and AI parts from the rogue CIA weapons; something about coming close to death several times in an afternoon always managed to settle him down. Well, long enough that Kaz could wrest some meager sliver of control out of their relationship, even if it involved getting his sunglasses shattered. This way he could pretend it was on his terms.
“There was something I never told you,” Kaz confesses, his back pressed flush against the Boss’s chest, the hairs on his arms tickling his chin. “You were always my…”
Snake escorted Kaz back to his office where he sat against the desk and propped his crutch up next to him. He hooked his fingers around the waistband of Snake’s pants and tugged him closer. That one blue eye regarded him silently, following Kaz’s hand as he unsnapped the buckles from his bulletproof vest. Kaz pushed his thigh against Snake’s hip as his left hand slowly undressed him, working his way slowly up from the waist.
“There were a lot of missionaries in Japan when I was growing up,” Kaz talked as he worked, and the Boss listened. “They knew me well back home. I think they targeted me. They knew it might be hard, being in my position and all. They told me stories, but I didn’t read the bible for myself until I moved to America.
“There was this one story,” the buckle clipped loudly as Kaz opened it, “about a woman who runs to Jesus after he’s at someone else’s home. She’s a sinner, and she throws herself at his feet, kisses them and washes them with her hair. The idea is that because she has so little and is desperate to be forgiven, she gives him all she can in her own way, and that desperation is what gives away that she needs forgiveness the most.”
When Kaz undid the last buckle, Snake shifted to remove the vest, but Kaz grabbed his collar and held it. When the boss stilled, Kaz drew his thumb over his chin and across the dust on his cheeks before swiping it over his own tongue. The dust tasted like sand and sulfur. He imagined that he could hear the Boss’s voice in his head. Kaz, are you asking me to forgive you?
Snake said nothing.
Kaz straightened his back and leaned up to kiss him, licking the remains off of his mouth. Snake was still, breathing softly until Kaz reached to hook his arm around Snake’s neck. “Don’t you have anything to say?”
Snake was silent, but he accepted the bait: moving in to overshadow Kaz, his hands on the desk on either side to trap him in. Everything smelled like sulfur. Those soldiers they had lost would always be inside him, too.
There was a hole in Kazuhira Miller’s heart that Snake had seen briefly, after the coma. Snake imagined the vacuum was like a piece of glass that had never been recovered by his broken heart after losing the MSF. It was like a crack in a window, where a curtain would try to suck through. Sometimes, in the long days that they worked together for Diamond Dogs, Snake could catch a glimpse of it.
It seemed as though overnight, in the early spring, something snapped. That hole in Kaz’s broken heart had suddenly tripled in size to let a typhoon in - as furious as the ones that used to crash over Mother Base in the Caribbean. It showed itself in a taut chord in his voice while Snake was debriefed, and the significant ebb and flow of whether Kaz could even look at him or not. His trembling hands dropped his cane when he tried to walk off and when Snake handed it back to him, Kaz grabbed it back with a snarl. Ocelot had left indefinitely, and Snake had no one to help him understand why Kaz's grip was white-knuckled on the handle.
Miller's fugue lasted for months and affected his work, affected everyone on Mother Base, and decimated morale. Snake overheard the soldiers talking about the heavy unhappiness of their commander, and the creative and destructive ways he took it out on them. Soldiers trickled out of Diamond Dogs at a steady stream, their loyalty to Big Boss causing their only hesitation - but the Boss was often away in the field. The commander never left.
They needed to talk. When Snake went to Kaz's office, he was too busy for discussions of anything aside from business matters. He might get Snake to sign off on something or other, and never look him in the eyes. Snake sat in his chair across from Kaz and meditated for a long time on the right words he could use until Kaz got tired of his breathing and kicked him out. Snake could fight him on it, he knew he could - maybe Kaz even wanted it - but he didn't take the bait. He just obeyed.
It was summer when Kaz summoned Snake to his office as soon as he touched down from the helicopter with DD. Snake followed his orders and reported to his room on the command centre. When he got there, Kaz had made it halfway through a bottle of something hard, enough to add a comedic swing to his gestures as he spoke.
“Sit down, Snake,” he said, and pointed to the chair across from him. Snake did as he was told, and switched the tape in his walkman to a fresh one. Kaz peered from the corner of his eye as the red button clacked into place. “I have a theoretical question for you.” He paused. Snake said nothing.
“So there was a man who wanted to start a business,” Kaz began, taking two glasses out of his desk drawer and pouring bourbon for the both of them. “An empire. He had a dream and was on his way to seeing it through. Let’s call this man Ben.” He slammed the bottle down on the table. “Ben was on his way to building things up for himself when another man named Jim came along and destroyed his life. Not only did he lose everything he had created up to that point, but all of his connections. Ben couldn’t show his face or he’d be killed, or worse. Ben was so good at his job that Jim decided he wanted him for himself, to run his own independent empire. So Jim made an offer. Ben could join him and live his dream, or die in obscurity.”
Kaz looked at Snake and the two of them regarded each other in silence for a moment. Kaz then took a long drink and Snake glanced down into his glass.
“Anyway,” Kaz said, his drunken animation turning to tension, “the answer is obvious, right? In the years after that, Ben and Jim became close. They were a unit. They took care of each other. I could sit here all night and tell you about all of the things that they did together. They won things. They lost things. But they kept each other. And later - years later. It turned out that much of that… was a lie.” Kaz rolled his glass in his hand and gazed out of the window, where it was beginning to rain over mother base. It pattered white noise to match the quiet gears turning in the walkman as it recorded all of the words and all of the silence.
“So what now?” Kaz tipped his head back and emptied his glass.
Snake stared into the bourbon in his glass and considered. If he had lied to Kaz, as he’d suggested, what had it been? What had he done? When he glanced up at his XO, Kaz was staring at him. He wasn’t going to tell.
Kaz let Snake think. He poured himself another glass of bourbon and drank it slowly, gazing out of the window. The tape recorder hummed softly. Snake shuffled through the charred remains of his memory, sifting through one remarkable moment after another since meeting Kaz. Was it one of these? Was it before that?
By the time Kaz is finished his second glass, he had pawed through some of his paperwork and stuffed it into a briefcase he retrieved from under his desk. He fished a couple of baubles out from the drawers and tossed them in as well. Mementos. Snake stopped being able to think by the time Kaz rose to his feet and took his crutch.
“I’ll ask in another way,” he said. Any cheerfulness he’d had early in the evening had soured, his mouth set in the frown of a bitter man in constant pain. “If you weren’t Big Boss … who would you be?”
Snake couldn’t answer that either.
Kaz called a helicopter to pick him up over the radio, and summoned in a soldier nearby to take his things. The man barely spared Snake a glance as he fetched the briefcase, but Kaz did. Kaz glanced over his shoulder once before he went, and Snake met his eyes. The answer he wanted was in the typhoon inside him, he was sure, where a vacuum had been months ago. Then, Kaz sighed, turned, and walked out into the storm.
He’d transferred himself out of Diamond Dogs, into FOXHOUND. He’d arranged himself a replacement and fulfilled all of his duties. His resignation letter from his position as Mother Base XO was formal and told Snake absolutely nothing. There were no hints and no memories that could tell him what he wanted to know.
Kaz was long gone by the time the tape recorder stopped, snapping off with a loud clack, at the end of the strip.