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Broken Adonis

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It's a transgression of the worst kind. A breach of autonomy and trust so personal, so egregious, indignant rage doesn't even come close to describing how he feels. It's one of those types of anger and shock that's gone to such extremes that it leaves a catatonic calm in its wake.

Nine years is enough time to push any man to obsessive introspection, but of the dozens of ways he'd considered their reunion might play out, this one hadn't been among them. It's so goddamn unbelievable and unnecessary that it borders on the absurd, and Kaz feels winded, like he's been punched in the gut and can't seem to catch his breath.

"Kaz...?"

Despite the comfort Venom's soft voice offers, Kaz cringes. Any noise, any disturbance in the air, and the ropes of panic begin to constrict his chest, his fist clenching and his muscles tensed with the instinct to fight. He still feels like he's being attacked, he's still on edge with the feeling that he should be defending himself from something. The moment he's made the decision that he'd really rather be alone, in the same instant he's terrified by the concept of solitude, his muscles poised in preparation to grasp frantically at Venom if he leans so much as a centimeter away. Of all the emotions battling for dominance within him, all he ultimately feels is numb. Shell shocked and completely blindsided, nothing could have prepared him for knowing how to handle this. He doesn't even have the strength to respond to Venom's gentle coaxing.

In the wake of being reunited with his partner, Kaz was already prepared to be angry, relieved, determined. What he hadn't been prepared to feel was gutted and betrayed and protectively indignant and - did they really think he wouldn't fucking notice?

The insulting implications of how little they thought he knew Big Boss, how imperceptive they assumed he was...Ocelot lied straight to his fucking face when asked directly, that goddamn spying, traitorous son of a bitch -

"Kaz, talk to me."

God, they even fucked with his voice. They wouldn't even let him keep that. Now he just sounds like Big Boss.

Kaz looks up, opens his mouth and closes it again. The only thing he can think to say in this moment is What have they done to you? but with so many unknowns as to why Cipher would do something so heinous, he understands it's best to just keep silent and play along. He's not supposed to know, that much is clear.

Venom reaches his flesh hand out and briefly grazes his fingers along Kaz's remaining forearm. "May I?" he inquires, respectfully withdrawing his hand just a little, making Kaz instantly crave that touch again.

Kaz hesitates, then nods once, unable to make eye contact. Unable to look into that face and not see the ghost of the man he used to be. Venom's bionic hand wraps gently around his forearm and Kaz nearly jumps out of his skin at the contact, blushing furiously and mumbling a quick apology under his breath as Venom stills and fixes a concerned eye on him. Kaz forces himself to relax, allows Venom to rotate his arm so that his palm is facing upward. Warm fingertips delicately drag up the inside of his forearm, tracing the fine blue veins just beneath the skin, and Kaz gives a subtle shudder. Big Boss never would have touched him like this. God, it's so obvious -

"Always did love your wrists," Venom murmurs as he rubs the pad of his thumb back and forth over Kaz's pulse, and Kaz flinches. That's not Big Boss, either. That's still all him

Venom's hand smooths up the inside of his arm, thumb brushing over the tender puncture mark in the crook of his elbow where the IV had been while he was recovering. Venom's fingertips are softer. Not quite as calloused. Where the Boss' touch had been coarse and scratchy, Venom's is soft as moth wings. Kaz shudders when those fingers trace back down the inside of his arm, find the cruel lacerations and bruises around his wrist from where he'd been handcuffed. He cringes at the dull pain, and Venom hesitantly lifts Kaz's wrist to his lips, closes his eye and brushes his scarred mouth along the contusions there. 

Big Boss liked to leave ligature marks there. Your medic liked to treat them and kiss them better.

Kaz's breath hitches and he exhales a shuddering sigh, his stifled moan a whispered grunt in the back of his throat. He hates how much he's missed this tenderness. Now all he feels is disgust. At himself for only appreciating this now, at Big Boss for letting this happen, at Cipher for once again, ripping away any illusion of freedom he ever had, for ripping away the autonomy of this human being in front of him.

He feels like he doesn't deserve this man. He can't pretend like he doesn't know, he can't lie straight to Venom's face. He needs to distance himself from Venom as much as possible because it's the only way to protect him. But Christ, those scarred lips are so warm and perfect against his wrist, and goddamn it if it actually isn't making the wounds there feel a little bit better. He wants to pull away but instead finds himself leaning into that touch, that warmth. In the next instant, Venom's arms are cautiously easing around him, pulling Kaz against his chest as hands begin idly kneading at his spine, and his lungs constrict with a hollow sob that he absolutely will not let escape. 

"Is this okay?" Venom whispers, and Kaz nods into his chest, his arm wrapping around Venom's back with the frenzied determination of nine years' worth of longing.

Kaz inhales sharply against another sob that threatens to escape, but he knows Venom can feel the moisture of tears against his chest anyway. The hands kneading at his back find their way up his spine, ghost over the back of his neck, begin threading through his damp hair from the first shower he's had in weeks. He feels the coarse tickle of Venom's beard against his neck, and he instinctively tilts his jaw back so Venom can nudge his nose along the line of his throat. 

"Snake..." he mutters, and immediately flinches.

It doesn't feel right to call him that. He wants to address him by his real name, can feel it hanging on the tip of his tongue, it physically hurts him not being able to say it, but he knows it's a risk he can't take. What does one say when the crudeness of spoken language could never come close to encompassing emotions so divine?

After a long silence, Kaz merely whispers, "I missed you."


 

Isla Chepillo, Panamanian Coast

 

You can tell a lot about a man by the way he plays cards.

And he plays them frustratingly close to his heart.

The man puts the term poker face to shame, his expression too flawlessly neutral when you watch him during down time. Even the subtle dilation of his pupils won't give him away from behind the protective mirror of those aviators, which he never seems to take off. He never gives away even the slightest indication he's sitting on that ace - a weapon he'll use to shoot you down the moment he's managed to convince you he's vulnerable. It's safe to say he plays cards like he fights on the battlefield. You hear whispers of samurai, and you can't help but think it's an apt description. After all, you were there with Big Boss when he hauled the bloodied warrior off of that battlefield himself.

Where some of the other soldiers still regard him with suspicion, you're intrigued by his business savvy - not to mention a little grateful. Since you'd joined up with the Boss, resources had been less than satisfactory, and you'd had to get a little creative in operating a substantial infirmary out of tents and temporary provisions. But just a couple of months with the MSF and the charismatic young XO had managed to get his hands on a lease for an old facility formerly occupied by some of Noriega's old 'business associates,' and considering the American government's tolerance of the colonel's extracurricular activities in exchange for intel, it was unlikely that la CIA would be sniffing around any time soon. Hot indoor showers and sleeping with an actual roof over your head was a luxury you hadn't been afforded in too long. Make no mistake, the new XO is as resourceful as he is charming.

He's captivating. As beguiling almost as the Boss himself, more than you'd dare to admit out loud. That he was able to effortlessly ensnare Big Boss so instantly and so completely - that Big Boss was pushed to extortion and attempted murder just to keep him under his thumb - made you realize there was an almost unnatural magnetism about this man to have pushed the legendary mercenary to such uncharacteristically irrational extremes. It's unnerving, really, to the point where you'd almost call his seductive nature manipulative, but there's something so...pure...so...intrinsically good about Kazuhira Miller that the word doesn't exactly fit. He's shrewd and coy and will bend to questionable levels in order to achieve what he wants, but a man so loyal to his convictions is a man who engenders an honest passion at his very core, and you admire that.

You hear womanizer tossed around in casual conversation, but it doesn't sit well with you. It's no secret that he likes to get his dick wet, but you don't miss how he always does it with a very pronounced and noticeable degree of respect. Perhaps your infatuation with him has biased your perception, maybe you're really just romanticizing him, but he doesn't entirely fit the profile of the predator the rumors make him out to be, and you begin to wonder where this maxim came from.

Come to think of it, you've never heard him utter a single slur or support a derogatory stereotype, never treated any of the local women with disrespect, never even shared war stories with the men when they're having vile conversations about their trysts during downtime. A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell. It's clear he's unaccustomed to rejection, but on the rare occasion that his advances are ignored or that he's causing even the slightest hint of discomfort, he doesn't respond with petulance or entitlement or condescending arrogance like you're used to seeing in straight men - instead he graciously backs off, accompanied by a humble apology and a respectful distance. Monogamy may not be his strong point, but he's very clearly conscientious of consent, and if he doesn't explicitly have it, he loses all interest. No, you decide - definitely not a womanizer - but it becomes apparent that he tries to be discreet about how honorable he genuinely is, as if it's a trait so ignoble it has to be kept secret.

You start to pick things up about him. Little things at first, like how he loves curry but is insanely picky about it, to the point where he'll rarely eat it unless he's prepared it himself. The same with miso soup. He always wears his sunglasses because he's trying to hide that small vestige of something incongruous about his appearance, and he found it was easier to hide the exotic quality of his eyes than his blond hair or white skin - skin that betrays his origins as much as those eyes - tanning a healthy amber-olive on the occasions that he strips down to the waist in the heady tropical heat. He has a tendency to shy away from his mixed breeding, and you have no idea why because that's the most intoxicating thing about him, but get him drunk enough and his speech will be peppered with sporadic Japanese that entices you even more.

His laughter is infectious. His voice is comforting. You discover that his awful singing is really just an act likely to annoy the living piss out of people, but that his actual singing voice is strikingly pleasant - something you accidentally discover upon entering the showers one day when he thinks he's in there alone. At first you think it's just the forgiving acoustics of the room, but you walk up on him again, when he's in his office with his back turned to the door so he doesn't immediately notice your presence, singing the Animals' cover of Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood in a harmonious baritone that feels like butter melting over your heart.

Instead of surreptitiously slipping back out and returning with a courteous knock, you do something stupid -

"Fitting song for you, Commander."

The moment it's out of your mouth, you're struck with the overwhelming urge to repeatedly ram your forehead into the wall. Why? Why did you do that?

But he turns then, after stiffening slightly at the unexpected intrusion, and you're met with that intoxicating fucking smile, those straight white teeth flashing in the dim light filtering through the blinds, and he taps the stack of documents he's holding against the desk to straighten them and lays them down flat before him.

"Ronan," he addresses you lightly, and the way he says your name - when did he learn your fucking real name? - causes your voice to betray you when you open your mouth to speak. You hide the undignified croak that makes its way halfway up your throat with the manliest cough you can manage, allowing yourself time to remember why the fuck you're in his office in the first place.

You manage to stumble out a concise reminder for the commander to stop by for a routine health assessment at his convenience, your eyes lingering just a little too long on those impossibly soft lips as you snap a salute and take your leave before you can do something embarrassing like compliment the way his scarf flatters his skin tone. You convince yourself that the playfully intoned Sure thing, doc that follows you out the door is just a figment of your imagination.

You played it cool when he sidled in just before shift change, kept your head bent over your clipboard and watched him from the corner of your eye as he smoothly removed his belt and holster before hoisting himself up on your table. Having him on your exam table excites you for reasons you'd rather not explore. It isn't like you haven't done this plenty of times before, it isn't like you haven't patched him up, stitched him closed, right alongside Big Boss after they've gotten into another one of their regular brawls. You've seen him bleed plenty of times.

The last time he was here, you were sewing up a nasty laceration over his ribcage that Big Boss inflicted, trying your best to ignore the way he steadily watched your hands as you worked. He didn't squirm, didn't even flinch, just laid back and calmly watched as though he were hypnotized by the methodical movement of your stitching. He seemed vaguely disoriented, as though he were unsure how to react to nonviolent human contact, as though yours was the first gentle touch he'd ever experienced. When you were done, he laid still for a moment, seemingly admiring your handiwork, then glanced up at you over the rims of his sunglasses and softly commended you on your impeccable sutures. You'd quickly turned away under the pretense of disposing of your gloves in order to hide the flush that heated your cheeks, and having him here now, you're terrified your resolve will break and your face will give you away just as easily.

You begin to reach forward to tug his scarf loose but catch yourself just in time, recognizing the impropriety of the instinct at the last minute - doctors don't undress their patients, you fool, this isn't some twink you've picked up in the club for a quick suck and fuck - and you smoothly turn the action into a vague gesture as you instruct him to remove it so your fingers can gently probe at his throat, routinely checking the lymph nodes. You keep your face as straight as possible, avoid those eyes burning into you as you convince yourself that his pulse isn't drumming erratically against your fingertips, that's just your own frantic heartbeat making your head swim in his presence. You love the soft heat of his skin, and you can't help it, you think about what it would feel like to press your mouth to that pulse. The thought makes you so dizzy that you have to bite the inside of your cheek to maintain your composure as you mentally walk yourself through the clinical checklist lest you lose yourself to the gratifyingly pliable nature of his supple flesh.

"Any unusual lesions or rashes, muscle stiffness, difficulty breathing?" You break the uncomfortable silence with a monotonous tone that suggests recitation, it's a question you ask dozens of soldiers everyday. He seems puzzled and vaguely startled at the lack of context, and you coolly drop your gaze when his eyes meet yours.

"We're in the jungle," you explain with a quaint but practical smile. "An insect bite is just as likely to kill you as the guerrillas, only one is more subtle than the other."

"Ah of course," he laughs softly. "...No, nothing of the sort."

You can't shake the feeling that it's too intimate, but you tell yourself you're just flustered and trapped inside your own head, there's no way he's into men - into you - he's only staring at you with that steady blue gaze behind the tint of his aviators because...because -

He's already unfastening the front of his uniform when he sees you lift the stethoscope from where it's draped over your neck, he's been here plenty of times and knows the routine well. You refuse to make eye contact as you press the diaphragm of your stethoscope to the sculpted planes of his exposed chest, suppressing a smile as you listen to the healthy sounds it returns - Christ, he's a healthy man - and you're not just admiring him from a personal perspective but from a clinical one as well. You're evaluating him sexually through a physician's eyes (how absolutely professional of you), and you entertain the idea that such perfection could yield ultimate stamina - ha - under physical duress. You could assign a goddamn metronome to that slow resting heart rate, he has the lungs of an athlete and you could listen to the sounds they make for hours.

"Breathe deep for me," you instruct, and you wince inwardly at the huskiness your voice has adopted at the gradual quickening of his heartbeat as his lungs expand with air, you hope the casual way you clear your throat makes it seem like you're just hoarse from the humid environment.

Your hand moves with the confident rise and fall of his chest as that penetrating stare never leaves your face, and suddenly you realize that he's toying with you - toying with you like any one of those local village girls who can't seem to resist him no matter how hard they try. He must know, must have known this whole time you've been casting sidelong glances his way, as discreet as you've tried to be about it, he fucking knows and instead of embarrassment or obliviousness or apologetic respect you surprise yourself by owning it. And when you flit your eyes upward to meet his for the first time since he's smoothly eased himself onto your exam table, there's an extended moment where you silently struggle with each other for dominance, holding each other's gaze in a silent dare, a challenge to see who will be the first to retreat.

Because Kazuhira Miller is a cocky man, and that is exactly why you've repeatedly found yourself entertaining thoughts of grabbing his shoulder, forcing him around and up against the wall, kicking his legs apart as you reach around the front of him to unfasten his pants and -

"Another deep breath, please."

You're the one that breaks eye contact first, but not in a bashful way. You make it casual, methodical, you're just a medic and he's just a patient and you've got a lot of soldiers you need to see this afternoon, no time to waste. You sling the stethoscope back over your neck and tug the penlight from your breast pocket - he stiffens because he knows he's going to have to remove his sunglasses now and it makes him nervous - but you pretend not to notice, waiting patiently as he hesitantly slides them from his face. Your breath catches at how alluringly feline he looks, all cat eyes and high cheekbones, and his face has that innocent softness that blond faces tend to have, a sort of golden youthfulness that makes you think he'll age really well. A seemingly nervous smile lights his lips at your thumb's delicate touch on his brow as you check his pupillary response, but he never breaks the stare, continuing to test you with that unwavering scrutiny.

"You took quite a beating in the last drill," you say idly - you're using your clinician's voice now, that impassive, soft voice you reserve for patients, especially when they seem uncomfortable.

"Nothing I couldn't handle," he says with a dismissive shrug.

"Any migraines? Nausea, dizziness or blurred vision?"

He shakes his head once at each symptom you rattle off, and you click the penlight off and return it to your pocket. Your hand gently grips his jaw and you turn his face to the side, then the other, examining the mostly-healed bruising around his cheekbones and eyes from the last training session. So malleable. So responsive to your touch.

"Just taking precautions," you say in a convincingly detached tone. "We like to keep our soldiers healthy."

(I like to keep you safe).  

A coy smirk tugs at the corner of his mouth, and he slides his sunglasses back on a little too hastily.

"Lie back for me," you instruct, and you don't miss the barely perceptible part to his lips as you grip him by the shoulders and guide him back.

To the untrained ear it would have gone unnoticed, but as a doctor you're accustomed to listening for even the subtlest respiratory response and he's definitely breathing heavier than he was a moment ago. You can still feel those eyes on you as he eases back, you're surprised you can even keep your hands steady as you press your fingers into his bruised stomach. "Any excessive pain?" you ask serenely, and he shakes his head and shifts slightly under your touch. 

"No hemorrhaging?" 

It's subtle, but there's a definite flush that heats his cheeks at the question, and he hastily shakes his head. "Are you this thorough with all the soldiers?" he asks, and you wonder if he's using playfulness to mask embarrassment. 

"Mhmm," you hum dismissively, continuing to press your fingertips into his belly even though you've already assessed everything's intact. You just like the contoured lines of his abdominal muscles, you can't help but wonder how gratifying it would be to trace them with your tongue

"I had to do an emergency splenectomy on Swordfish last week," you say coolly as you withdraw your hands, catching yourself just before you give yourself away by overdoing it. "It's best to catch these things in time - you can sit up now."

And then when you snap the gloves onto your hands, you pretend not to notice his swift intake of breath, the gorgeous flush that spreads across his cheeks again. You know he's not a modest man, nerves and embarrassment are not things that would typically make him blush. The only other alternative would be...excitement? He starts calmly rolling up his sleeve before you even ask, and you're genuinely disappointed that these routine assessments don't include a more...thorough physical examination, your mind immediately wanders to more exciting reasons you'd need to don a pair of sterile gloves other than the mundane process of drawing blood.

There's a whisper of a grunt that dies in the back of his throat when you gently tighten the tourniquet around his arm, and you bite the inside of your cheek against the way your cock twitches at his display of mild discomfort. He seems to find some wicked delight in being touched by you through latex gloves, there's the sudden pliability of surrender when you delicately take his wrist and extend his arm out to swab at the flesh at the inside of his elbow. He doesn't even blink at the needle stick, and finally tears his eyes away from your face to distantly watch as you almost lovingly push the needle into his vein, seemingly dazed as he watches his blood fill the tube. You can't shake that subtle feeling of intimacy again, and you hope he doesn't notice your thumb's spasmodic instinct to lightly caress the side of his elbow as you cup it in your hand - it was a twitch, just a twitch, you've seen a lot of patients today and your joints are getting stiff, you just need to crack your knuckles - but when his eyes briefly slide back in your direction, it's a battle with yourself to keep your face neutral, if your face flushes now you're done -

"Most people at least flinch." Your voice is surprisingly neutral, a conversational observation in the heat of the moment as a last-ditch attempt at saving yourself from awkwardness.

You see the briefest quirk of an eyebrow behind his sunglasses. "Is it disappointing that I don't?"

Ah, there it is. That reliable tendency of his to throw you a curveball in a tense situation - no moment stolen with Commander Miller would ever be complete without that quick-witted cheek of his.

"Because we can start over and I can fake it, if that's what you'd prefer."

And, apparently, he's a man who just doesn't know when to quit. You don't miss the implied if that's what gets you off from the suggestive cadence in his tone.

You hold his gaze just long enough to show how unperturbed you are by that cocky smirk, then nonchalantly detach the filled vacuum tube and slide the needle out of his vein. You press a square of cotton to the cruel little puncture mark that has yielded a small bead of blood against his skin, holding it there with your thumb for precisely three seconds too long as you throw his own petulance back in his face, your eyes traveling back to meet his while your fingers twitch another not-caress against his elbow through the sheath of your latex glove, and perhaps he's exaggerating it for your benefit, but you feel the swell of victory warm your chest when you're rewarded with the pronounced shudder that tenses his body. 

"All done, Commander."

Your voice isn't exactly brusque, but it's assertive enough to engender the message of finality. Maybe it's your imagination - maybe he actually wilts with disappointment, his face fallen with an expression that laments But we were just getting started. You like it this way. Leave him aching for more, it gives you the upper hand. He plays it cool, slides off the exam table to his feet as he refastens the front of his uniform and rolls his sleeve back down. Makes a show of retying the knot in his ascot. You're too busy with the notations on your clipboard to notice, your face settled into the most bored expression you can manage under pressure.

The moment he's out the door, your relief hits you like a ton of bricks straight to the chest, knocking the wind out of you as you double over and brace yourself on the stainless steel medical cart against the wall. How positively unprofessional of you, you goddamn quack, you deviant, how absolutely lewd of you that a mundane fifteen minutes with the Commander on your table gets your pants tented like you're an awkward fourteen-year-old again. What the hell kind of doctor are you anyway? You barricade yourself in the adjacent bathroom, sagging against the heavy door as you fumble with the fastenings of your pants, rooting your hand down the front so you can frantically jerk one out in the short respite you have before shift change.

Womanizer. Womanizer! Hah. Never mind his hypnotic power over women, what about what he does to men?

After a few days, you reevaluate exactly what was happening in that room. He wasn't toying with you, of course he wasn't flirting with you, how absolutely absurd that you parsed it that way, he's just your commander and he was evaluating your performance. That's it. Wishful thinking leads to inaccurate memories. He's not even into men.

It's when you spy them sparring with katanas on the beach that you begin to second-guess that assumption. You didn't even know either one of them was proficient in swordplay, though for the cultured deputy commander, it doesn't really surprise you. You'd actually be surprised if he wasn't. He moves with a gracefulness that is downright erotic. He may as well be dancing. You also know his skill greatly surpasses that of Big Boss, you can see this clearly from an objective standpoint as you watch them from a distance, but for some reason, Miller holds back. Every time he has the advantage, he doesn't take it. Almost as if he's letting the Boss win. You wonder briefly why he does this when he easily has the upper hand, and in an instant you have your answer as he's forced to his knees, his blade just out of reach, Snake approaching him from behind to grab a fistful of blond hair and roughly yank his head back to press the sharp edge of his blade to the deputy's throat.

"Still want me to play your kaishaku, samurai?" the Boss growls.

The defeated commander's chest heaves with swift, heavy panting, and from this distance you can just see the way he blissfully closes his eyes, only for a second, before answering breathlessly in Japanese. You don't understand, but by the tone of his voice and the ultimate surrender in his body language, you imagine it was something along the lines of Never anyone else.

You must have blinked because that was all the time it took for the faux-vulnerable samurai to have the Boss on his back, relieved of his own sword and pinned between his subcommander's knees, and you tell yourself you only see some suggestive eroticism to it because it's still your wishful thinking playing tricks on you, these are just two warriors sparring -

And when the Boss hooks a possessive arm around Miller's neck to forcefully pull him down and lick the blood trickling from the superficial laceration on his throat, you abruptly turn around and slip away before you can be seen, a pressure building in your chest that makes it difficult to breathe.

When you pass him on his way to his office later, you feign ignorance at the slight bit of red staining his scarf, casually pointing it out as you ask if he had trouble shaving this morning. He reacts as smoothly as ever, gingerly reaching up and brushing a finger beneath his scarf to dab at the blood, giving you a brief glimpse of the damage. The cut on his throat isn't serious, but a little deeper than you'd originally thought, and you seize the opportunity to get him on your table again, glibly suggesting that he stop by to have you clean it up for him.

His eyes linger on you for just a second too long, and by the way his lips curve at the suggestion, you know he finds your invitation as transparent as your feigned innocence.

"Sure thing, doc."

He says it with such delicate softness that it feels as though he's reached inside your chest and clenched his hand around your heart.

Truth be told, you didn't actually expect him to come. So when Antelope pokes his head in thirty minutes later with a brusque "Heron, you're up. Commander's asking for you specifically," you're not nearly as nervous as you are pleasantly surprised.

As jittery as he makes you, there's something about him that brings out an impulsive confidence in you, that cockiness of your youth that you thought you'd long outgrown. He's pretty good at being the playboy, but you were conning your way past the door staff at the gay bars when you were just sixteen, and you're older than him, so you've been doing this longer. You intend to play his game just as well and do it with a flourish and a smile, so you don't even bother with pretense this time.

He hoists himself onto your table and you don't say a single word to him before you're boldly reaching up to tug the knot of his scarf loose. He cants his head to the side at your audacity but allows it, and you defiantly hold his gaze as you slowly drag the fabric away from his neck and carelessly cast it aside. You won't leave anything to be misinterpreted this time, you won't give him the victory of making you second-guess yourself later. You stare at him as though it's a challenge. And maybe it is. He stares right back at you as your gloved hand delicately grips his chin and tilts it back, your thumb lightly caressing the inflamed flesh around the open wound, and perhaps he does it for your benefit, but he makes a small whisper of a sound in the back of his throat and yields the slightest of cringes when you dab at the cut with antiseptic. Actually, you know he does it for your benefit, because of all the times you've sewn him up without a local anesthetic and he's hardly so much as blinked.

It's not serious enough to need sutures, but you take your time lazily dragging antiseptic gauze over the cut in slow, delicate caresses, your other hand steadying his neck with your thumb resting gently on that unbelievable jawline to hold his chin back - if you moved your thumb just a fraction, you could almost be choking him - and after securing a butterfly closure to the wound, you gruffly whisper, "All done, Commander."

For a few seconds, he doesn't move from the exam table. He just sits eerily still, holding that challenge of a stare as you retrieve his scarf and hold it out to him. Finally, he accepts it, his fingers grazing against yours with just enough pressure that you know it's intentional, and his eyes never leave yours as he drapes it around his neck, not bothering to retie the knot, then slips down to his feet.

Five minutes stolen alone with the commander and you've achieved...absolutely nothing. You're not entirely sure what you were trying to accomplish with this. You're not entirely sure why he even came, when it's obvious he's on to you. You turn to snap your gloves off, and the moment you've disposed of them, he's swept you back against the wall, caging you there with one arm braced next to your head. He pushes his sunglasses onto the top of his head with his free hand, and the effect is still striking since you so rarely see the half of his face hidden behind them. Your eyes flit to his lips for just a second, and that's all the encouragement he needs before he's leaning dangerously close.

"Commander - " you breathe, but if there was a sentence there, you don't finish it because his arm is wrapping around you, crushing your arm against your side so you can't resist.

His grip is uncomfortable around your ribcage, applying just enough pressure that the tension gives you barely enough room to breathe, but the kiss he places at the corner of your mouth is agonizingly gentle, soft as rose petals. What little breath you had left in your constricted lungs is reduced to a wisp of a gasp at his unexpected tenderness, and you're so dizzy that when he actually fits his mouth to yours, sucking softly on your bottom lip, you submit to him completely.

You can't breathe. He's crushing you and kissing you and you can't fucking breathe and just when you think you're going to black out, he relents a little, his arm around you loosening just enough to allow your lungs to expand so that when his lips leave yours, you take the opportunity to choke back a desperate lungful of air. It's you who closes the distance the second time, tilting your head downward and parting your lips for him, and a small chuckle dies in the back of his throat when you moan into his mouth. It's shocking, really, his...precision. He kisses the way he fights - with effortless grace, but calculating, deliberate. Most of the men you've kissed were all impatient, insistent, teeth clashing and rough bites but the commander has built his reputation on being a tease, and tease is exactly what his lips do to yours, all soft, whispering probing, as though asking silent permission. And when his tongue slides cautiously against yours, delicately exploring the inside of your mouth like he's savoring you, the embarrassing sound that comes out of you might almost be considered a whimper.

You can't help it, you wonder if he kisses the Boss like this.

Perhaps that's a pang of jealousy that cramps your chest, and you know it's irrational because he was never yours to begin with. Big Boss had him first and they've obviously built something meaningful with one another but you certainly can't fathom for one second that he'd kiss just anyone the way he's kissing you now. Your free hand finds its way around the back of his head, tangling a fistful of soft blond hair to hold him in place - he may be Big Boss's, but he's all yours in this moment and you intend to make the most of it. You moan in disappointment when his lips leave yours but he's right back to placing another kiss to the corner of your mouth, making a careful, tentative trail along your jawline to your throat, where he ends in a harmless nibble that makes your knees so weak, you're grateful he's holding you up.

Somehow you end up in his quarters. You're so dizzy and your heart's pounding so violently that you don't even remember how you got here, but he's backing you toward the bed and your head's spinning and your cock is so hard that you think you might collapse if you don't sit down so when the back of your knees hit the mattress, you obediently sink down onto it. Maybe a second passes, not even long enough to really be considered a hesitation, and you don't give yourself time to think about it - his eyes serenely watch your nimble, deft fingers with something akin to hunger as you swiftly go to unfasten his belt, but his hand suddenly stays yours and your eyes shift up to his in question.

"No," he says softly. "Do it slow." It's but a whisper, but carries the authority of a command.

You hold his gaze for just a moment, then give a dutiful nod. "Yes, Commander," you whisper back.

His hand comes to rest gently on the side of your head as you gradually pull the leather through the loop, his fingers idly brushing along your cropped hair, sending a shudder through your entire body. He seems to take some pleasure in this, and the caress becomes more focused, causing you to lean your cheek into his palm as your shaking hands slowly drag his belt and holster from his waist. He's already unfastening the front of his jacket, slipping it off his shoulders along with his scarf before you've even safely stashed his gun to the side. Your hands go to his hips, then smooth around to his ass, giving it a firm squeeze as you drag him closer to you so you can press feathery kisses to the soft skin below his navel. God, he's so soft, there isn't even a trail of hair there like you're used to, and you wonder for a second if he's vain enough to remove all of his body hair or if it's natural. You run the tip of your tongue along the waistline of his pants, then trace a straight line up to his navel, eliciting a gratifying hiss from him. His hand on the side of your head grasps feebly at you, fingertips ghosting over your hair and sending another one of those delightful chills through your body.

Do it slow, he said. So he likes foreplay, and you intend to torture him with it.

You drag your lips along the valley of his oblique muscles, run your tongue over his faint scars - some of them you remember well, you sewed them closed, after all - memorize the flawless planes of his stomach with your mouth until he's panting and trembling. In your careful exploration, you find a tender spot halfway between his navel and his hipbone that causes him to flinch as a high-pitched sound dies in his throat, and you hide your smile behind another kiss there as you discover that the cocky, dauntless, willful Master Miller is ticklish.

And you intend to find every last spot on his body that makes him squirm.

You graze your fingertips along that spot, causing him to hiss through his teeth and cringe as his hand wraps around the back of your head, but your curious fingers don't stop, dragging a searching line over his skin, teasing a circle around his navel as his muscles tense and twitch beneath your touch. Every time you coax a whimper and a squirm from him, you punish him with a soft bite to the spot your fingers just teased, and soon the bulge in his pants has become so painfully insistent that you press your palm to it, resulting in a wanton moan from him. The fastening of his pants is a simple hook and bar closure rather than a cumbersome button, and you take advantage of the convenience of it, lifting your eyes up and holding his gaze as you lazily tug the fabric loose with your teeth. This seems to unravel him entirely, a low groan sounding in his throat and a deep crease forming in the center of his brow as you slowly drag the zipper down and tuck his pants open, playfully slipping a single finger underneath the waistband of his boxer briefs and tracing the inside of the elastic as you stare up at him. When your finger slightly grazes the head of his cock, his eyes flutter shut and he makes a strangled sound as he braces himself against you with his other hand clamped around your shoulder.

You tug the fabric down and his cock springs free, and something between a gasp and a strangled 'Oh-'  dies in your throat at the simple beauty of him. He isn't painfully large but decent enough that your jaw's in for a workout. What's striking is how...pretty it is, the absolute symmetry of him is breathtaking, and do they even circumcise in Japan? It doesn't matter - you reflexively trace your finger around the head of his cock and gently press your lips to the moist tip, some combination of a groan and a whimper sounding from the back of his throat as you tease him with the heat of your mouth. Christ, he even keeps himself immaculate down here as well, with only a small patch of neatly-trimmed golden curls to testify to the fact that he actually doesn't coax that color out of a box every two weeks as rumor might suggest. You press light kisses along his length, his small groans becoming a persistent mantra as his hand painfully tightens on your shoulder, his thumb digging into your collarbone while his hand on your head guides your mouth harder against him.

You snap your eyes back up to his face, daring a flash of defiance in your expression as you smooth your hands back around to his ass, giving it a firm squeeze to steady him on the spot. "Patience, Commander," you challenge softly.

His nostrils flare and he narrows his eyes at you so that he looks even more feline than usual, but he doesn't reprimand you or say anything at all - only continues staring intensely down at you, the way a lion might stalk its prey. You feel significantly vulnerable under that gaze, and you know he feels your hands shaking, but you're in too deep and there's no backing out now. You inch his pants further down his thighs so that your hands can touch bare flesh, and you stroke the smooth, taut flesh of his ass as you place another series of feathery kisses along his length, starting at the tip and ending with a brief nuzzle in the golden down between his legs. He smells strongly of starch and laundry, and you're surprised that someone so reputed for their promiscuity would be so consistently fresh. Of course he'd have to be prepared for anything at any time, if his reputation is anything close to being true.

"Ah - " he gasps, his breathing slow and heavy as his chest heaves with each labored pant. "You can stop tormenting me any time now," he says through clenched teeth.

You mercifully run the tip of your tongue along the underside of his cock, and finally you take him in your mouth, gently tracing around the ridge of the head with your tongue. You take him inch by agonizing inch until he's nudging at the back of your throat, and not once do you break eye contact with him to even so much as blink, because you know the sight of your wide-eyed gaze staring up at him while your mouth is stuffed full of him is enough to make him come undone.

"Fuck," he breathes, his fingers sifting over your hair and curling around the back of your neck to steady you in place.

Your heart gives a small jolt as he slightly thrusts his hips forward, nearly triggering your gag reflex. Oh Christ, he's going to fuck my mouth, you think, and though there's a distant glimmer of excitement that pools in your chest, it's overwhelmed by the swell of panic. Maybe when you were younger and just some punk kid in med school eager for any action you could get you would have been down for it, but now you're unsure if you still have the vibrant stamina to endure choking on some guy's cock. He generously relents though, and maybe you're just imagining it, but you think you see a flicker of compassion soften his eyes as he gazes down at you, his thumb tracing a soothing caress up and down the side of your neck. You slowly blink up at him in silent gratitude, then continue gently sucking him off the way you like to be sucked off, stroking him in long, slow sweeps of your tongue, interspersed with the sporadic graze of your teeth.

Mere seconds pass before he's staying your head with his hand on your jaw, guiding your mouth from him so he can grip you around the middle and fling you back on the bed with the effortless finesse of CQC, and he kicks his boots off and descends upon you with the ferocity of a rabid animal, urgently freeing you of your clothes. You dazedly prop yourself up on your elbows and stare down at him as he yanks your pants and briefs down your thighs, his movements hurried but still surprisingly gentle, and when he shoves your shoulder with the heel of his palm, you dutifully fall back against the pillows and let him nip at your neck and collarbone. Your fingers hungrily grasp at his chest and graze over those gorgeous nipples, you want them in your mouth but he traps you beneath him, curling his fingers around your wrists to guide them above your head and pin them there while he devours your throat.

"Commander - " you gasp, and he gives your neck a sharp bite that will certainly leave a mark.

"Say it again," he growls.

You meet his eyes and steadily hold his gaze. You want him to know you mean it. "Commander." You try to make your voice as assertive as possible, but it comes out breathless and husky instead, full of need.

You grunt when he suddenly leans back and flips you over onto your stomach, and your heart skips when his hands knead your cheeks apart. This wasn't how you'd envisioned this happening, you can't remember the last time you bottomed, much less for someone fourteen years your junior. But you're not about to get picky over someone you've practically pined over for weeks, and when you feel the slick press of his tongue against your opening, any apprehension you may have had disappears as you sink your face into the pillow and moan. Holy fuck, he knows how to do it, when the hell was the last time someone even did this for you? You groan and bite into the pillow as you arch your hips up for him, meeting the gentle rhythm of his tongue gliding over your entrance. God it feels good, you want to grind your cock into the mattress and rub yourself out but you want to press yourself harder against his tongue at the same time. His thumbs caress your cheeks as he spreads you open, sporadically pausing his teasing licks to give your ass gentle bites, and you're so terrified you're going to come before he can even get started that you let out a pleading whimper that gets muffled into the pillow.

"Commander..." you keen, and you subconsciously snake your hand down beneath you to palm your neglected cock.

You feel the brief pinch of his teeth again, and he gives your hip a reassuring squeeze. "Not yet," he murmurs, and there's a tenderness to his tone that's reassuring. "It's alright, we can always wait out your refractory period if you come too soon. Maybe I could put on a little show for you while we wait," he teases. "Lift your bottom up a little more, I like that."

He gives your backside a playful pat, and you have no choice but to comply before you're rewarded with the flat of his tongue sweeping over your opening again, then tentatively probing inside until your hips are flexing against him in desperate need. You're about to rip his goddamn pillow apart with your teeth, you're so consumed with bliss you feel positively stupid, you're face down with your ass in the air while your commander fucks you with his tongue and it's so surreal you expect to wake up any minute. You can feel his teeth marks throbbing in your flesh, you relish each new bite he gives you, followed up by a delicate kiss before he goes back to working you open with his tongue. You groan in disappointment when his tongue ceases its assault so he can lean over you and rummage through his bedside drawer, but his fingers are soon probing your entrance as his lips tickle the base of your spine. You almost don't register the rip of the condom wrapper for what it is before you're petulantly looking over your shoulder at him.

"Seriously?" you say just a little too harshly. "I just had your cock in my mouth and you just had your tongue in my ass. I think we're past that."

He cocks his head to the side as he rolls the condom on and frowns. "And it's usually a risk I don't take. Either way, I'm not leaving my fluids inside you, and I'm certainly not pulling out."

Jesus Christ.

"I've seen your blood work, I know you don't have anything," you say in defeat, and you're almost pouting.

He only smirks and gives your bottom another playful pat, leaning forward so he can work a light trail of kisses up your spine before brushing his lips over your ear. "Flip over, I want to see your face while I do this."

There's no arguing with him at this point, and you wouldn't put it past him to pull rank in the bedroom anyway. The moment you're on your back, he maneuvers your leg over his shoulder and you wince when you feel his cock nudging at your entrance. You haven't been prepped all that much but you can handle it, if you just close your eyes and focus on regulating your breathing it's not so bad, he's easing inside and thankfully he's being merciful about it and - 

"Ah!" You yelp and hiss through your teeth as a sharp pain slices through you, and his hand gives your calf a reassuring squeeze as he goes still.

"Am I hurting you?" he asks softly.

"Just give me a minute." It's not like you're new to this, you were a goddamn champ in college, you can tough it out.

"Been a while, hmm?" He isn't making fun of you, but is rather surprisingly compassionate, waiting patiently for your body to adjust. His free hand goes to your cock and lazily strokes it until it's fully erect, and without thinking, your fingers are wrapping around his, moving in unison with his hand as he eases himself further inside you. 

"You can make it hurt a little," you breathe.

Make it hurt, because this is too intimate. You need something to dull the flutter of affection that swells within your chest, you need to stave off that warmth because this is your commander, for fuck's sake, developing those feelings for him could only end badly for you. 

But his fingers are entwined so warmly with yours as you both stroke your cock, his hand bracing your leg against his shoulder keeps giving you these tender little squeezes and he's fucking you gently and it feels like it should mean something when you know it doesn't. It doesn't help that he keeps making eye contact, that he's watching you with that heavy-lidded gaze, so you focus your eyes on what your hands are doing, concentrate a little too hard on matching his rhythm so you don't have to look up and see all the emotion in his eyes - or worse - reveal the emotion in yours. 

"Fuck, just hurt me, Commander," you plead, and he smirks at you as he withdraws his hand from beneath yours so he can brace himself as he leans over you. 

Your free hand finds his thigh, fingers impulsively stroking muscled flesh, and when he snaps his hips into you, you dig your fingernails into him so tightly that it's bound to leave a lasting mark. He thrusts into you at just the right angle so that he pounds against your prostate with a force that makes you dizzy, it hurts and you feel gratifyingly stretched and your leg shouldn't bend like that and your thigh muscles are starting to get sore and fuck it, you might be too old for this but when was the last time you were fucked silly? Yeah, you needed this. Each thrust is assertive and deep, but he keeps a slow, steady rhythm, lowers his face close to yours so that your foreheads are almost touching and it's too intimate again, and you avert your eyes just in time for his lips to brush against yours. 

What the hell is he playing at? Should've just stayed face down - you pump your cock vigorously in a desperate attempt to bring yourself to climax, this is getting too real and you don't know how much longer you can withstand him gazing down at you like that. He picks up the pace, pumps you harder as he presses his forehead to yours, and you realize there's no avoiding it anymore so you just stare back into his eyes, nip at his bottom lip and flex your hips to meet each of his thrusts. 

His hand slides underneath your head and curls around the back of your neck, cradling it in his palm. "Say my name," he commands.

"Commander Miller - ah!

He inclines his head and his teeth clamp cruelly into your neck, and you hope you can find an effective way of hiding the marks that will surely result.

"My name," he growls through clenched teeth. 

"Ka - Kazuhira," you gasp. 

He moans and presses his forehead to yours again, his thrusts become quicker and deeper, his breathing coming in heavy gasps, you see his brows knit together and you let go, the warmth of your seed spilling onto your belly as you mutter something vile and dirty in your climax. Your insides feel raw as they clench spasmodically around him - you're going to be sore for a day or two, no doubt - and though your eyes are closed, you can still feel him staring at you, reveling in your helplessness as he thrusts into you until you feel his own cock pulsing inside you with his release. He gently maneuvers your leg from his shoulder and falls against your chest, and your hand finds its way to the back of his head, absently stroking his hair as you feel yourself drifting off to sleep.

It's rather blissful, really - his warm, heavy breaths ghosting over your neck, the comforting press of his body against you. You worked a fifteen hour shift today and you're exhausted - 

No. You can't sleep here

Because that would be inappropriate. This was just...a casual thing, a fling, he's your goddamn commander, for Christ's sake. Once you're confident you can walk again, you slide out from under him and stalk into the adjacent bathroom to clean yourself off. The welts in your neck are already starting to purple - scarves for a while, you think - and once you're convinced that you've made yourself as presentable as possible for the walk back to the medics' quarters, you quietly emerge to an already-sleeping Miller, so you root around the bed for your abandoned clothes. Just as you manage to find your pants, you're startled when his arm shoots out from beneath the covers and his hand wraps around your wrist. 

"Where do you think you're going?" he mumbles. 

This throws you. Is he asleep? Does he know who he's with? You don't really remember the etiquette of these situations. It would be uncouth to ask him out loud. You decide to go with the subtle approach.

"I've got rounds in the morning, Commander. I should get some sleep."

His eyes creak open and he slightly lifts his head from the pillow. "You can do that here, you know."

You freeze, your heart skipping uncomfortably. Does he mean that? No, of course not, he's still asleep, he isn't aware of who's in the room with him right now -

"Unless you genuinely want to leave." He sounds vaguely dejected, but above all, lucid

Fuck! Your mind races, you don't know what he's playing at, why the fuck did you even do this - but when his hand tugs playfully at your wrist and you stumble forward, you give up and fall back into bed. He sleepily turns onto his side and pulls you into him, wrapping his arms around you as he tucks his face into your neck. 

"I had a wonderful evening, Ro," he mutters against your jawline.

Ro?!  No one's called you that since...since -

You're unsure if you feel panicked or giddy, and it's so surreal that you just go with it. You're too exhausted and emotionally conflicted to think too hard about it right now anyway.

"Me too, Commander."

Chapter Text

It's too cold.

They took his goddamn jacket. His scarf.

Afghanistan is particularly unforgiving in the transition from winter to spring, and the moment the sun sets, it's a battle to keep from shivering. Kazuhira nearly blacks out every time the chill causes his muscles to involuntarily spasm, exacerbating the pain of his injuries. There's little mercy in the cracked stone walls and open doorways, which do nothing to retain even a fraction of warmth. He's not even allowed the comfort of drawing his remaining arm around himself in a feeble attempt at hoarding his body heat. He wonders if he should feel flattered that even with an arm and a leg missing and the exhaustion of relentless trauma, he's still considered so much of a threat that they feel they need to keep him restrained. It's at least a morbidly gratifying consolation that the next guard who comes to check on him might just find him frozen to death.

As some sort of cruel mockery, he'd been deposited on the floor not three meters away from the bed in the corner, which might provide some semblance of warmth and comfort. Not that he'd really want to be there either, considering...considering what happened there. He tries not to think about it. Tries not to dwell on the small glimmer of satisfaction he felt when one of the other guards finally caught the bastard in the act, then dragged him outside and shot the sick fuck in the head right outside the window. They didn't care about the assault itself - that's just how the Reds dealt with inconvenience, and an unceremonious execution for an insubordinate soldier who deviated so drastically from his assigned duties was deemed most efficient. Kaz wonders how much longer before he's considered just as inconvenient, and it's the back of his skull decorating that glass. He wonders if they'll even be so merciful as to grant him such a swift execution.

Looking back, he should have known the job had gone a little too smoothly. Ever since the phone rang at four in the goddamn morning - as if Kaz was ever asleep at that time anyway - he'd been wound too tight, prepared for the worst, the hairs pricking up on the back of his neck before he even picked up the receiver. Somehow he knew it wasn't a client. And then that strange, hollow voice on the other end - depthless, inhuman, almost like...like the voice of an AI. He'd stopped breathing, could swear he felt his heart stop within his chest, at first not registering the phrase he'd waited so long to hear. It was a call he'd begun to think would never come. Zero couldn't even give him the dignity of making the call himself - and why would he? - the man was nothing if not adept at protecting his own ass.

But Kaz knew his role to play, knew the risks, would walk through the fires of hell and back if it meant protecting his boss, and immediately assembled his squad within the hour, called for the chopper, understood too well that not coming back was a likely possibility. Even Ocelot seemed slightly gutted, distantly plaintive at the conviction of Kaz's utter surrender upon departure, lingering awkwardly on the helipad as he attempted to maintain an expression of forced indifference, but his eyes betraying him all the same.

"Bring him home," was all Kaz said to him before hoisting up into the chopper, a weight to his words that spoke volumes. Ocelot just nodded curtly and pressed his lips firmly together as he watched the chopper lift off.

Kaz had been prepared for the ambush a lot sooner, really. Was completely at peace with possibly sacrificing his own life if he had to. But the moment he finally allowed himself to relax -

"Commander, did intel report mist?"

Kaz readies his rifle and slows to a stop, signalling for his squad to do the same. "No," he says darkly. "Reports just came in for clear weather not two minutes ago."

He narrows his eyes, scanning the landscape as a sickly, green-tinged fog shrouds the area, accumulating too quickly to be natural. He can just make out the outline of his point man in the distance just before he disappears entirely. Ducking quickly behind a deteriorating stone fence, Kaz pushes his sunglasses on top of his head in frustration, but it does nothing to clarify his surroundings. The mist is too thick, he can barely see a few feet in front of him.

"Harrier, gimme a sitrep," Kaz growls over the radio.

There's disjointed crackling, and the response is garbled:  " -- can't -- visibility -- see skulls in the mist -- "

The radio crackles again and goes abruptly silent.

Finger tensed on his trigger, Kaz slowly stretches his left arm out to the side, fist clenched; line abreast formation. His men silently move into position, and Kaz's flesh crawls at the disturbing sounds that echo suddenly from the haze, choked gasps with a flanging effect that no human - or animal - could make. 

"Harrier, repeat! Skulls? What - "

"Jesus Christ!" Agama shouts from somewhere in the mist nearby, just as debris comes raining down on them.

No. Not debris.

Kaz instinctively swipes at the slick warmth spattering his brow, pulls bloodstained fingers away from his face. Takes about two seconds to register the arm still clutching a radio at his feet, the severed leg a few feet away. Squinting through the mist, Kaz barely distinguishes the silhouette of...something...something shaped like a man, moving awkwardly, like stop motion. The way it contorts its body makes his heart jump into his throat, everything about it screaming not human, and he immediately ducks down, flattening his back against the stone fence in an attempt to make himself as invisible as possible. Craning his neck over his shoulder, he peers over the fence in search of the figure again, but it's gone.

"Agama, do you have a visual on the enemy?" Kaz breathes into the radio.

" -- Commander? Where -- Commander?! -- "

"Agama?! Agama come in! Viper?! Osprey, someone give me a sitrep!"

The ambient crackle of radio static goes silent, and in the growing void, those flanging gasps resound even closer. The moment he hears explosions nearby, Kaz springs into action and instinctively vaults over the fence, hitting the ground at a full sprint in the direction of the sound, only to trip over the corpse of Osprey, lifeless eyes staring upward. Viper's mutilated body breaks his fall. Just close enough to be visible in the mist, Agama's disembodied head stares back at him with flattened, heavy-lidded eyes like an accusation.

Kaz is too enraged to feel horror or panic. Any instinct for fear is subdued by the growing sense of heated pressure in his chest, that same uncontrollable fury he felt the night he watched his men drop like flies around him, just before Mother Base was swallowed up by the ocean. Twelve years ago, he was just some punk kid trying to prove himself, who would sacrifice his own men as a distraction just so he could escape. Now he'd sacrifice his own life just to avenge their deaths. He clenches his teeth, tries to block out the ringing in his ears, the violent pounding of his own heartbeat as his disjointed panting turns into a guttural, primal scream. An invitation to his location. A war cry.

"Where the fuck are you!" he shouts, pushing himself back to his feet and circling around, eyes darting rapidly in an attempt to focus through the mist. "Get the fuck out here!"

The strange choking sounds ricochet around him, but they're farther away now. He recognizes the attempt to lure him to them, but he doesn't take the bait. They killed his men. They can fucking come to him. He braces his feet, stands his ground. If those things intend to kill him, he's okay with that. But like fuck he's going to be coaxed to his own slaughter like some animal. He'll die by his own rules. They can give him the dignity of facing him.

Suddenly he's knocked back, thrown off his feet with such force that the impact knocks the wind out of him. He winces, forces his lungs to expand in an agonizing attempt to draw breath. He stumbles to his feet, puzzling at the spiky rocks that seemingly just sprouted from the ground around him, surrounding him on all sides, caging him there.

"What the fuck?" he breathes, reaching a hand out and pressing his fingertips to the stone. It feels like metal.

In the next instant, the stones are exploding in a domino effect around him, knocking him back to the ground again. He struggles to get back up, but for some reason he can't make his left foot find purchase on the ground, can't feel his gun in his right hand anymore. He doesn't register the pain, only sees his aviators fallen in the dust just out of arm's reach, and he feebly reaches bloodied fingers out toward them.

But then there are insects swarming around him, those flanging gasps are coming from just above him, and one of those things materializes above him, glowing green eyes glaring down at him as it crushes his hand beneath its foot. There's a stinging in his scalp as it grasps him by the hair, raises its club above its head and -


 

Colombia, 1972

 

Voices, excruciating pain, a persistent beep that infuriates you more than anything. It's unclear which of these things is responsible for pulling you out of blissful unconsciousness, but now that you're awake, you feel the intensity of each injury screaming out at you, a sharp, invasive pain between your ribs that causes your hand to instinctively search for the source of the discomfort. Another hand promptly closes around yours, soft but strong as it maneuvers your arm back down to your side.

"Relax, you're going to aggravate your injuries," comes a soft-spoken voice just above you. You feel electrodes being detached from your body, that infernal beeping making way to a shrill, continuous note before switching off entirely.

"I'm going to pull your chest tube out," the voice continues. "It'll hurt, but I'll give you a second to brace yourself."

Your eyes creak open, but your sunglasses are missing and the tent you've wound up in does little to shield the harsh Colombian sun. You barely make out the hazy outline of a strong-jawed medic standing over you, his palm braced in the center of your chest.

"On three," he instructs tentatively, and all you can do is give an impatient nod. "One - "

He doesn't get to two. He firmly pulls the tube out and you yelp, a few choice expletives for him rolling off your tongue at the blinding pain. You instinctively raise up, but he's strong - his palm is gentle but firm in the center of your chest, restraining you from writhing off of the cot and ripping the rest of your tubes out.

"Jesus Christ, you said you'd give me time to brace myself!" you hiss, but speaking just hurts your throat and causes you to cough violently, which in turn makes the crushing pain in your ribs ten times worse.

His gloved fingertips brush a quick, apologetic caress against your chest before pushing you back down. "Shh, it's alright. I'm truly sorry about that - the worst part's over, just lie still so I can stitch you back up."

Under any other circumstances, you'd be introducing his jawline to your fist, but there's something about his voice that's instantly soothing. It's assertive, but carries an empathy and a tenderness that forces you to stop and inspect his face, to see if his expression carries the same honest compassion. Squinting in the glaring daylight, your muscles relax beneath his palm and his face becomes clear. Gunmetal blue eyes meet yours, and they hold an expressiveness and a softness that you're unaccustomed to seeing in men, especially on the battlefield. Instead of demurely looking away, he holds your gaze, irises shifting just slightly as though he's searching for something. Maybe he's just inspecting your pupils.

You flinch as an excuse to break eye contact, groaning as you struggle to breathe without aggravating the gaping hole in your ribcage. He gently holds a pad of gauze there and reaches behind him to pull a stool up to your bedside. His presence is comforting for some reason, and you take the opportunity to inspect him more closely while he's distracted with the tray of surgical implements beside him.

He's the type of guy you would have coyly danced around on the military base back at home, honestly. And not for whatever money or information you might have coaxed out of him, either. Strong jawline, straight, narrow nose, a generous mouth that looks too soft and inviting for its own good. Tall and broad-shouldered, everything about his body language and movements implies strength, making the gentle manner with which he handles you all the more unexpected and shocking. Dexterous, graceful hands deftly stitch up the gash over your ribs, and you're so hypnotized by the way his left hand delicately holds the needle driver that you forget to flinch from the mild discomfort. His forearms are nicely muscled. There's an intensity to his expression as he concentrates, something so passionate and removed that it automatically intrigues you.

His hands are too practiced, his demeanor too clinical - this is no rank and file field medic, but the real thing. You wonder what the fuck he's doing here. Definitely not Colombian military, but you wouldn't place him as an American soldier, either. Not anymore, at least, even though he still wears his standard issue dog tags, which he doesn't seem to notice have slipped out from beneath his fatigues. He's sitting close enough that you just make out the name stamped into them - Llewellyn, Ronan.

He shifts a little in his seat, pauses and blinks a couple of times as though he's fatigued, tilts his head downward to rub his brow on his sleeve. It's then that you spot the bit of cotton taped to the inner crook of his elbow, just seconds before you notice the line delivering blood into your own veins, and his eyes dart to yours before calmly shifting back to the stitching in your side, a small twitch to the corner of his mouth as he idly tugs your split flesh together.

"Universal donor," he says with a dismissive shrug. "You lost a lot of blood and we were kind of in a bind."

"Thank you." It's out of your mouth before you even realize you've spoken, and you wince inwardly at how heartfelt it sounds.

His mouth twitches again. "Just doing my job."

"Heron, is our samurai awake yet?"

Your head snaps in the direction of the gravelly voice at the entrance of the tent, but the medic keeps his head bent over you, his hands never faltering in their work. You recognize your enemy, muscles tensing instinctively as you feel yourself lifting up again in sudden hostility, but that firm, gentle hand is pressing into your chest again, guiding you back down.

"Don't." The medic's tone carries just enough of a warning that you heed the advice. "Just finishing up, Boss," he says absently, still not looking up. "I just need to give him something to prevent infection."

Your eyes linger cautiously on the enemy, then you finally tear your gaze away and glance back to the medic, who is finishing up your sutures. He leans back, impassive eyes assessing the various contusions peppering your body, gives a firm nod.

"Hm," he hums. "I think you'll live," he muses lightly, then pushes up from his stool and readies a syringe from a vial clearly labeled morphine, but the boss isn't close enough to see it.

You meet his eyes as he slides the needle into the port on one of the various tubes running into your arm, and you catch the slightest of winks as he flashes you a subtle smile. It's enough for you to know he was likely instructed to make you suffer and not give you anything for the pain, but risked it anyway out of...compassion? Why would he do that? He straightens, disposes of the syringe, peels off his gloves. You see the boss moving closer out of the corner of your eye, but you keep your expression frigid, eyes straight ahead. You have nothing to say to him.

"Heron," the Boss says softly. "If you wouldn't mind giving us some privacy."

The medic hesitates, maintains a cautious posture. 

"It's alright, I'm not gonna kill him. I just want to have a conversation."

This seems good enough, and the medic snaps a quick salute and leaves you alone with your adversary.

You really wish he could have stayed. 


 

Northern Kabul, Afghanistan, 1984

 

Everything about the way the Soviets operate is dependent on efficiency. And corpses aren't all that responsive during interrogation, so medical attention - or something resembling it - is provided where needed.

It's the searing pain of the iron cauterizing the blunted remains of his severed limbs that rouses him, his remaining arm twisted around the back of the chair in which he's been deposited, his screams muffled by the gag they've fitted between his teeth. The pain is so intense that he nearly blacks out again, but someone's grabbing a fistful of his hair, hauling his head back up before his chin can dip down toward his chest, forcing him to look into the face of his interrogator. The soldier is backlit by a blinding light, so Kaz can't make out the details of his face. He really wishes he had his sunglasses about now, vaguely remembers them laying haphazardly in the dust.

"My apologies," the soldier says, accent thick but intelligible enough. "It would seem that the parties responsible for delivering you to us failed to collect the pieces you left behind. No matter - I don't think Pyotr is quite skilled enough to sew them back on."

Now that Kaz has had time to process the situation, the soldier's words carry a significant burden of awareness. He tilts his head down, fixes bleary eyes on the bloodied, charred remains of his left leg, snaps his head back up and begins panting frantically as he's met with a mangled stump of a right arm. 

The world blurs, his surroundings slow down around him, he feels like he's missed a step going down a flight of stairs. The pain is so intense that it doesn't even register, his vision just goes black as a cold sweat breaks out over his body, the sight of the fragmented bone protruding from beneath eviscerated flesh enough to make his mind momentarily check out.

This isn't happening. He writhes against his restraints, chest heaving as he begins to hyperventilate, a hollow ache pooling in the pit of his belly and slowly creeping upward as his mouth floods with saliva, prefacing the urge to vomit. He swallows thickly, rapidly, trying to force it back down. He's not going to throw up with a goddamn gag in his mouth, he'd just have to swallow it anyway.

Why the fuck would they even gag him anyway? No one that would give a fuck is around to hear him. Just another accessory for debasement, an instrument to silently mock him. Or perhaps they just don't have the fortitude to hear him scream.

The Soviet soldier glances up, mutters something rapidly in Russian, then leans forward and braces his hand on the back of the chair so that Kaz feels caged there. He can smell the soldier's rancid breath, making his stomach lurch again, it's all he can do to keep down what little contents of his stomach remain. He senses someone come up behind him - Pyotr, probably - and winces as he feels the needle plunge into his neck, growling behind his gag at the cold sensation that spreads through him.

"Don't worry, it's just enough to take the fight out of you but keep you conscious," the soldier replies, and Kaz doesn't miss the note of derisive condescension as he says it. "I can't have you panicking on me. You'll just pass out again and there's no fun in that...is there?"

Kaz's instinct is to fight, but the fog is already settling in his head, his eyelids becoming heavy. He feels his heart rate slowing and his remaining limbs growing heavier, but it does nothing to mitigate the excruciating agony in his blunted limbs. There's a spike of sobering pain as the soldier repeatedly claps his hand against Kaz's cheek, hard and in rapid succession, and then that hand is catching his jaw in a vise grip, forcing his face upward as he drags a thumb down the side of Kaz's stinging face, mockingly tender.

"Mm," the soldier hums distantly. "Pretty."

Kaz instinctively jerks his head away, petulant, defensive, earning him another hard slap across the face. It's nothing to him, really. No worse than what he's endured at the hands of his own boss. He doesn't even flinch, just flexes his jaw as he tastes blood, doesn't give the soldier the satisfaction of so much as a grunt. The soldier laughs, a grating, sadistic sound, grips Kaz by the jaw again and tilts his chin back.

"He's a feisty one," the soldier muses. "Look at those eyes, even drugged up, he still manages to make them so furious."

The soldier straightens, rummages a hand around in his pocket, then withdraws a small vial filled with a cloudy, glowing green substance. Ethereal, the contents seem like some strange hybrid of a liquid and a mist. It's all too familiar to Kaz, invoking images of that mist at the Zero Line, those things. He tenses against his restraints, keeping his eyes suspiciously trained on the vial as the soldier leans back over him, tauntingly waving it in front of his face.

"Know what this is?" he asks. He turns it about, inspecting it, then shrugs. He looks to Kaz as though he genuinely expects an answer from a gagged man. "No? Hmph. Me neither. It was a departing gift from your captors." He leans up and unscrews the vial, averts his gaze to just over Kaz's shoulder and mutters something in Russian. "Shall we find out, then?"

Kaz's breath quickens, he squirms and begins panting rapidly as he feels a pair of hands gripping either side of his head from behind, forcibly tilting it back so that he's staring straight upward at the cracked ceiling. The soldier's face comes within his field of vision, the open end of the vial tilting precariously toward his face, and as much as he struggles, the hands holding his head remain firm, trapping him there. A guttural growl escapes him, muffled behind his gag, and the hands holding his head shift, thumbs pressing into his brow bone, tugging at the flesh to hold his eyes open. His remaining leg is secured to the chair, he's too lethargic and weak to loosen his binds, but he tries anyway. Manages to get the legs of the chair to bounce once, which only seems to annoy the soldier. The hand clamps around his jaw again, tight, so forceful he feels his teeth creak in that grip.

"This is going to happen whether you like it or not," the soldier growls, impatient, his sarcastic tone replaced by genuine anger now. "Now if you don't calm down, I'm gonna cut your other leg off, and then you'll really be fucked."

Kaz stops struggling. Wonders if it would be worth it anyway. They're just going to kill him in the end, what does it matter how much of him they hack off in the meantime? But he goes still, feels the salty sting of a single tear run from the corner of his eye, but the panicked grunts keep sounding in the back of his throat, hoarse and desperate with each frantic breath, he can't help it. He feels the initial cold spread of the substance touch his cornea, and then it's white-hot agony, god, god, it's acid, it's fucking acid, it's burning through his goddamn eyeballs, they're liquefying right inside his eye sockets, it's the most excruciating pain he's ever felt, radiating throughout his entire skull so that the frenzied sounds he's making go shrill, his voice breaks and then there's nothing. There's nothing. The pain is so intense he can't even vocalize it, mouth open in silent agony, his throat constricting as his mind blanks, muscles contorted, paralyzed, fingers twitching, clawing at air. 

He thinks he feels his eyes roll back into his head. Can feel that substance devouring him, seeping its way into his skull, feels something like dozens of little insects crawling over his eyeballs, skittering their way behind his eyes, under his eyelids, can feel them fusing to his optical nerve. Something hot and moist seeps from his eyes, he knows his eyes are bleeding.

Gradually, the pain in his eyes subsides. Not completely, but it fades to a dull burn that, compared to his other injuries, is bearable. The hands braced on either side of his head withdraw, but he doesn't move. He blinks once, twice. He can't see. He can feel the cool air on his corneas, but sees nothing but static. His heart pounds violently against his ribcage, he can't tell if it's tears or blood seeping from his eyes, or both, but he can't fucking see and the weight of this reality is crushing. He can't see his torturers. Can't even predict what they'll do to him next.

Step one in sensory deprivation.

He feels the soldier's hand on his face again, doesn't even bother jerking away as it smooths a tender caress along his temple, smoothing his hair back. He senses a shift in the space around him, the soldier is leaning forward. Smells his rank breath, feels the heat on his face, against the shell of his ear.

"There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" he says, continuing to stroke Kaz's hair, it's humiliating, patronizing, he can feel himself trembling, coming undone. Moist lips press against his temple. The voice comes again:

"So. Shall we begin?"


 

You don't realize you've been subconsciously scratching at the stitching in your side until Snake lazily gestures toward you with his cigar and offers to take care of it with a trench knife and a pair of tweezers.

Not that you're entirely opposed to the idea - admittedly, since you've conceded to joining him, you've been a little entranced by him, always receptive to sparring opportunities, lighting his cigar for him, any reason to get him close to you, even if it means sustaining a few bruises and a busted lip just to feel his body heat radiating off of him. And while the idea of him taking a knife to your prone body is a little thrilling, you're still not sure you're ready to trust him not to kill you while in such a vulnerable position. You politely decline the offer, muttering something about letting the professionals handle this one for once. You don't even bother with an excuse. A part of you wants him to know you're intentionally keeping him at arm's length, playing hard to get.

You can feel his eye on your back the whole walk down the beach toward the infirmary, can sense him weighing the possibility of you still making a run for it. It's a little insulting, honestly, especially when he's probably got sentries stationed in the jungle for just such an occasion, a tacit declaration of how little he trusts you still. Out of your compulsion to maintain even a shred of self-determination, you tell yourself you're only aligned with him as a means to an end, an enabler. It helps lessen the sting of how desperately you crave his approval when you don't even know why.

The tents designated for medical treatment are at the end of camp and out of his line of sight, at any rate. It's refreshing to at least have some privacy to lick your wounds for a change.

It's late, and the infirmary is empty save for a lone medic, seated at the very end of the tent. You immediately recognize the man who treated your injuries that day - you'd been so out of it at the time and then so distracted with Big Boss that you'd all but forgotten about him until now, but you recall his name in an instant. Ronan. It's unique, but memorable. Majestic, heroic.

(Ha, you can't spell 'Heron' without 'hero'). 

You hang back for a moment, shield yourself behind a partition and surreptitiously peer around the edge at him. He's in a director's chair that's seen better days, leaning it back on two legs with his feet propped up on a makeshift desk and absently rocking back and forth as he stares down at a clipboard in his hand. For some reason this idle fidgeting is endearing to you, gives him a youthful edge, and you become fixated on the gentle repetitive movement of his rocking, the way his left hand pensively holds the pencil to his mouth, bringing it away periodically to scribble notations into the margins of the document.

Your subconscious scratching is what gives away your position - the subtle movement in his peripherals must have startled him because he stiffens, the pencil clatters to the floor as he sweeps his feet off the desk and slams the chair back down on all legs while instinctively reaching for his sidearm. He immediately relaxes when he sees it's you, and you have to admire his reflexes, taking note to never sneak up on him. 

"At ease, soldier," you say before he can straighten into a salute as he rises from his seat. "Just wondering if I'm due to get these stitches out yet."

"Ah," he sighs, sagging a little. "Of course. Hop up," he says, patting the closest exam table, which inexplicably makes your heart jump. 

You tentatively approach the table, pulling your shirt over your head as he turns to snap on a pair of latex gloves. You feel like a goddamn nervous kid at the doctor's office, awkward and exposed as he instructs you to lie back, helps guide your arm up so he can assess how well you've healed. His soft touch is soothing, the open honesty of his face is comforting, you're unaccustomed to not having to continuously be on the defensive, and you don't quite know how to relax. It feels awkward, and it's making you a little jumpy. 

It's a welcome relief when he starts snipping away at your sutures, you relish the light tugging sensation as he carefully pulls them out. His face takes on a special intensity while he works, hints at a whole world locked away inside him that you're curious to explore. Focused, determined, but his eyes always maintain warmth. His eyelashes are dark and thick, you like the quaint way they feather against his cheekbones when he looks down, the striking contrast they have with the blue of his eyes. Your breath catches when those eyes briefly shift to meet yours, and you suddenly realize you've been relentlessly staring at him, and you're uncharacteristically embarrassed at having been caught. 

Fuck it, no sense in deflecting. You boldly say what's on your mind. 

"Why'd you do it? Give me the morphine. I know he told you not to."

He seems mildly startled at the question, a bewildered crease forming between his brows as he gives a soft chuckle. "I'm surprised you remember. Figured you were too out of it to really process anything." He gives a quaint shrug, demurely lowering his eyelids. "I took an oath. An oath I take very seriously. It always supersedes orders, regardless of who's giving them. I wasn't going to have you unnecessarily suffer, there's no purpose in that." He shrugs again, still pointedly avoiding your eyes. "It's not like it was a substantial dose anyway. Not looking to get you addicted."

Somehow you wouldn't have expected any less of him, but it's still surprising, nonetheless. That he would take that risk. For a complete stranger, no less. He just has very strong moral convictions...right? He'd have done it for anyone.

"What's a guy like you doing here?" you ask impulsively.

Stupid. That was stupid. You immediately regret it. You've heard some of the men say that to the local women, and even then, it makes you cringe. It's a dumb fucking condescending thing to say, and he must think so too because his eyes shift back down to your sutures and instantly go glacial, his mouth straightening into a flat line. It's such a profound change from his usual expression that he almost looks like an entirely different person, and your heart sinks a little.

"'A guy like me?'" he repeats hollowly. "Not sure I follow."

You wince, forcing out a nervous smile at your own awkwardness and wishing the ground would open up and swallow you whole. "I mean - you're so pure. Compassionate. It's..." 

Fuck. That's not much better, so you quit before you can embarrass yourself further. You feel like you've just made it worse, but his face softens a little anyway, the warmth returning to his eyes but his expression a conflicted mix of unreadable emotions. He meets your eyes again, the corner of his mouth twitching in a weak smile that slowly fades.

"I'm not pure," he says softly. He goes still for a moment, seems to zone out as some indescribable emotion flashes behind his eyes, but it's gone in an instant, and he returns his attention to your sutures. 

Screw it. You're already knee deep in embarrassing yourself. Why not push your luck. "Does that have something to do with why you left the American military?" 

He pulls the last suture from your flesh and goes very still, slowly dragging his eyes back to meet yours. He holds your gaze for a moment, letting the silence extend just long enough to be uncomfortable. "You read my file," he says at length.

"No. Should I have? Just...deduced as much." God, this is not the impression you want him to have of you, this implying, invasive eavesdropper. You close your eyes, shake your head. "I'm sorry," you breathe. "I've overstepped my bounds. I don't mean to pry."

To your surprise, he laughs and relaxes a little. "No...no, you're my XO, you have a right to know." He sets the surgical scissors and tweezers down, methodically snaps off his gloves and sits back, his face settling into something detached and pensive.

"I discharged my weapon offensively," he says distantly. His hand goes compulsively to his chest, unconsciously rubs his fingers over the place where you know his dog tags are resting just beneath his fatigues. "...As you may or may not know, combat medics who do so are no longer protected under the Geneva Conventions. Not that the guy didn't deserve it. I even received a commendation. But I was seen as another combatant, heralded as a hero for something I wasn't there to do. So...I completed my internship and residency, took my Distinguished Service Medal and went home as soon as my enlistment contract was up."

"Where's home?" you ask impulsively. Christ, you're just full of invasive questions tonight. Thankfully, he doesn't seem bothered by it.

"San Francisco," he replies. He seems to realize he's been fidgeting with his dog tags, awkwardly drops his hand to his lap. "Took an attending physician job at a county hospital. Typical cliché career I'd envisioned for myself when I was just some naive kid who wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. Turns out it wasn't...as fulfilling as I'd wanted it to be. Wasn't as rewarding as I'd expected. And I'll never be domestic enough to bother with starting my own private practice."

This makes you smile. The implication that he makes life decisions based on the thrill.

"What made you initially choose military life?" you ask softly. God, is that reverence in your tone? Why the hell are you so eager to know this guy?

"Didn't. Got caught in the 'medical draft' that happened during the Korean War - "

"Korean?" you blurt out. "That's impossible, what were you, like, nine?"

He laughs suddenly, flashing a row of perfect, white teeth. "You flatter me, Commander."

You feel the flush heat your cheeks at the realization of how trite you must have sounded to him. You really weren't going for flattery at all - you'd initially placed him at about your age, and only now that you're piecing together the timeline of how long it takes to become a distinguished, full-fledged doctor does it occur to you that he's much older than you'd thought. He certainly doesn't look it, which is all the more impressive considering he's got a war and a domestic career under his belt and doesn't even look fatigued.

"I'd just graduated from med school," he explains, still wearing a sheepish smile. "Guess they figured the most effective internship was one where you had bullets flying at you. As it turns out, the county hospital job was a hell of a lot more demanding, and made me feel a lot more expendable. Imagine that."

"And that ultimately led you here?"

He seems to become slightly withdrawn, eyes distant as he nods slowly. "I was...in a bad place at the time. Had been for quite a while. I'd become listless, self-destructive. Made peace with my constant state of ennui, figured it was just a part of growing up. That's when he came for me. I was on graveyard, doing eighteen hour shifts back to back anyway, because I couldn't think of anything else to do with myself. He showed up in the emergency room at some ungodly hour. Triage nurse came and said he was asking for me by name. He had a...nasty laceration, everything about it suggested it was self-inflicted. Didn't say a word to me at first, wouldn't even answer the psych consult's questions. I was about halfway through stitching him up when I figured out who he was. By the time I was finished, he laid his offer on the table. ...And I guess the rest is history."

"And you just said yes?"

He snorts softly, his eyes refocusing on you. He draws a deep breath, seems to consider what he's about to say, tentatively flicks his tongue out to moisten his bottom lip. "Don't think I don't know he's a war criminal," he says quietly. "But then..." He gestures idly toward himself. "So am I." Gestures toward you. "So are you." Sweeps his hand toward the entrance of the tent. "So are half those assholes out there. Hell, a good lot of them are deserters. Not that I blame them. But..."

He trails off, shifts on his stool as he averts his gaze to the tent entrance, through which a small sliver of the beach is visible where some of the men are still sparring under the moonlight. "The one thing that unites all of us," he continues, "is our appreciation for a man who respects us as autonomous fighters, rather than expendable tools in a profiteering business between imperialistic countries that can't even sort out their own ideologies. At least it's possible to actually make a difference here. There's nowhere else for me but here. Especially considering how the American military isn't exactly the safest place for guys like me..."

He laughs nervously, seems to forget you're there as he becomes lost in himself again.

"They find out you're a man who prefers the company of other men and...they ensure you have nothing but the company of other men...forcibly...for the duration of your conscription. At least here, nobody gives a fuck where I put my dick."

Your chest tightens, a distant swell of indignant anger, outrage at the implication that someone might have abused him. "You - you were raped?" you breathe. 

He jerks a little as he snaps out of it, a flash of something akin to horror crossing his face as he realizes he may have overshared. His brow furrows in surprised relief when he processes your concern, and he flashes that sheepish smile again and shakes his head.

"No no, not me. Thankfully. But I saw one too many comrades robbed of their dignity one too many times. That feeling of helplessness in being unable to stop it, feeling like a monster for being too afraid to intervene, then the absolute terror of knowing you might eventually be found out...it's not exactly a life I would have been eager to return to. But retirement certainly wasn't doing me any favors, either. I've found my home. I'm safe here. Safer than I would be anywhere else."

Christ. You want to touch him. You can't think of a single appropriate response that wouldn't sound trite or disingenuous, the only natural instinct you have is to touch him. You feel a vague warmth spreading within your chest, the distant tingle of admiration, perhaps a little compassion. What place is there for men like him, honestly? 

He shifts uncomfortably and gingerly rises to his feet, and you realize you've been staring at him again. It's an abrupt cue that you should probably go. Boss would be looking for you anyway, so you slide off the table and hastily pull your shirt back on, mechanically making your way toward the door as you mutter a quick thank you. Best to leave before you can embarrass yourself further and ask him any more prying questions.

But the one question that's been nagging your subconscious is now a persistent mantra in your head, your steps slow and you're turning on your heel as it rolls off your tongue before you can stop yourself.

"You said you discharged your weapon offensively. Why?"

He's not even thrown by your impulsiveness this time. Almost seems as though he expected it. He looks you squarely in the eye and replies:

"Revenge."


 

...Safe here.

"You really feel safe?" Kaz would ask him, over and over, disbelieving, he'd never really felt safe in his life. 

Except...except. Except when those arms would wrap around him, firm and strong and sure, always there when he felt weak and broken and fragile. Always there when the Boss's weren't. When in the beginning, when it seemed Snake's only goal was to see how far he could push until Kaz broke, and Ronan's warm chest and assertive embrace were the only things holding him together after the fact. 

"As safe as I'll ever get," he'd reply. Only Ro could make such a solemn phrase sound light and carefree. Then there were those warm lips pressing against the top of his head, a nuzzle into his hair. Kaz would just close his eyes and let himself be cherished. For once. 

"It's important to you. ...Being safe," he'd pointed out after a long silence one night as Kaz dozed off in his arms. Kaz opened his eyes to see him tugging lightly on the string of condoms protruding from the pocket of his pants laying crumpled beside them on the bed, and he might have actually blushed a little.

"It's not me I'm protecting," Kaz had answered. He felt Ronan's pectoral tense beneath his cheek as he craned his neck to better see his expression, and Kaz turned his face up toward him. 

"Oh?" 

Kaz smiled weakly, huffing out a small laugh. "I know you don't have anything, Ro. I've got your blood in me, for chrissake."

That took him by surprise. "Oh - I - " He laughed, an awkward, nervous sound. "You...have a remarkable memory. I didn't think you remembered." He seems almost embarrassed. Like it's shameful that he offered such a personal part of himself to do something so heroic.

"Of course I remember," Kaz sighed sleepily, turning his cheek back into Ronan's chest. "You saved my life that day. I'll do the same for you, if I have to."

 

Kaz jerks awake, his own delirious muttering rousing him from sleep - or whatever equivalent of it he's allowed through drugs and blood loss. His mouth moves, jaw flexing with the muscle memory of the words he's just said, tests the weight of them on his tongue. What a goddamn empty promise. He never even got the chance to fulfill it. I've failed you, Ro.

He blinks a couple of times, takes a moment to assess his surroundings. It's getting harder to distinguish between hallucinated dreams and reality, harder to remember what day it is, what year. Each time he wakes from a fretful sleep, he still expects to hear the hum of cranes mining resources from the ocean floor in the distance, the rhythmic crash of waves, the squawk of seagulls. The bitter chill in the air and the pain in his blunted limbs are always the first things to bring him back, a cruel reminder that doesn't ever seem to lose its edge.  

He's kept track of the days. Not out of hope, but more out of habit. It's an instinct worn into him since his youth, subconsciously noting the patterns of shift changes, when the soldiers take their evening meals. He hears the crunch of a patrolling guard's footsteps just outside the barred window, knows he will pace precisely 14 steps down the sloping alleyway that ends at the top of the stairs, will shuffle around for about thirty seconds, then make his way back up the slope to the entrance of the building and repeat ad nauseam until shift rotation. He smells the cigarette smoke from the commander taking a break outside, the acrid stench of stale piss from the various points around the building where the soldiers relieve themselves, the kerosene from the lanterns that get refilled daily. He's monitored how many times the lantern on the table just outside his room has been changed, has used it as a reference for how long he's been here.

It was around the second time it was refilled that he began to notice his vision slowly starting to return. The darkness began to fade into shades of grey, blurred shadows, then little by little, he could see outlines and distinguish movement, only the colors were all wrong. The Soviets were convinced he'd been permanently blinded, and he intended to keep up the ruse. It began to prove a lot more difficult when he started to realize that the strange colors were heat signatures. He couldn't distinguish faces all too well, but it was something, and it certainly might prove advantageous in some areas.

Unfortunately at some point the Soviets began to catch on that he could see things they couldn't, and out of paranoia and suspicion, he was relegated to the confines of a black hood. Perhaps it's better that way. Sometimes he wakes up and his normal vision is restored, but even dim light is blinding, white streaks blurring his vision so he can't focus for too long without having to squint his eyes shut again lest it yield to sharp stabbing pain behind his forehead. He can just make out the luminescence of the spotlights outside now, but beyond that, it's darkness.

The new visual acuity turned out to be something that came and went on a whim, something he found he couldn't control. Not for lack of trying. He'd experimented with focus and concentration, considered maybe it was triggered by exhaustion or anxiety, though it seemed to occur completely at random. No amount of trying could make him turn it off when he wanted to, so he'd resigned to just wait it out each time it happened, and then it was just another waiting game until it returned. 

And it's still so cold. Kaz shivers, clenching his teeth when the movement sends a blinding stab of pain through the stump of his arm. The dizziness returns, his head feels light, there's a lurch in the pit of his stomach and his esophagus contracts with the instinct to vomit, though nothing comes up since he hasn't been allowed to eat in days. It became apparent rather quickly that the Soviets didn't want information from him. They never really asked him any questions, none that their own intel couldn't easily acquire on their own. This was just for fun. Possibly for revenge. A good portion of the 40th army lined ditches thanks to the mujahideen he personally trained. He's just collateral damage.

Not that he would have told them anything anyway. They can't take anything from him that he hasn't already lost. He wonders why they don't just kill him. 

In the distance, he hears the distinct shatter of glass, drowned out by the rushing in his ears from the heavy palpitations of his heart. Might as well let the haze of pain claim him. He sags against the wall, letting the handcuffs cut mercilessly into his wrist. It's peaceful to just float for a while, let the hunger and blood loss tranquilize him into something resembling relief. 

Somewhere slightly closer, he's faintly aware of the musical shattering of glass again. It's such a pleasant sound. Like small wind chimes. It reminds him of the pretty trinkets his mother used to hang from the eaves of their balcony outside their tiny apartment when he was young. The light filtering through the window flickers almost imperceptibly. Somewhere on the other side of the building, a soldier calls out, a tentative query in Russian. Footsteps, a few more muttered words that sound as if they're cut short, followed by a faint shuffling and a muted thud. The Soviets love their beer and vodka, but unfortunately the terrain here isn't exactly forgiving when you mix drink with hard-soled combat boots. 

Somewhere outside, the light flickers again, the encroaching shadows grow longer with another shattering of glass. The camp is notably darker now. There's distinct shuffling, the patterns of the patrols are more erratic. Somewhere close by, the rapid footsteps of a running guard fades into the distance as the crackling of various radio chatter echoes off the stones.

One by one, they go dark, halted in mid-sentence.

Kaz wants to open his eyes, but the dizziness is so peaceful. Like that floating sensation just on the precipice of wakefulness, when one is struggling to stay asleep just a little longer. The darkness is nice. The silence is nice. He's become conditioned to grow anxious by the sound of footsteps, and he's glad that there are none now. The patrols around his building have gone somewhere else now. He wonders if they're fixing the lights. Electricity is so unreliable out here in the desert.

His eyes hurt behind his eyelids. His throat is dry and scratchy, they only let him have a few small drinks of water a day, and even then, it always tastes vaguely of sand. He wheezes, gives a feeble cough but barely has the energy to do so. It only makes him hurt more. He wonders where everyone went. Not a single patrol has returned yet. He coughs again, can barely make out the sound of approaching footsteps. They're lighter than usual, soft and careful to the point of being virtually noiseless. The step of an assassin.

Ah, this is it

They're finally going to kill him. God. Finally.

He smiles a little to himself as the hood is yanked from his head, the yellow glow of the single light bulb in his room causing a painful glare to blind his vision and send another stab of pain through his forehead. It's okay, the pain won't last long. He's about to get a bullet to the back of the head, and then it'll be over. 

"No more use for me, huh?" he rasps. He meant for it to sound sarcastic, cocksure, the last mocking words he'll ever utter. They don't come out nearly as proud as he'd wanted. Instead it sounds hopeless, self-effacing, desperate. 

Gentle hands on either side of his face - too gentle, and not in the disingenuous way he's been handled before - guide his head up, he can't see because of the light but one of those hands is cold and hard, the strange, alien touch of metal. 

"Kaz, it's me. I'm here to get you out." 

There's the hollow sink of disappointment in his chest. There's a chance he's just hallucinating again, imagining his Boss's voice. And he smells different. Familiar, but different. So familiar though...

Kaz struggles to focus his eyes on the face in front of him, can barely make out a vague shape, slowly comes to the realization that it isn't a hallucination. God. God, please be real. He wishes his eyes weren't betraying him right now, wishes after nine years of longing that he could see his Boss's face. Tentatively, disbelievingly, Kaz tests the name he's barely uttered in almost a decade - 

"...Snake?"

Chapter Text

There are muted voices nearby when Kaz wakes.

He has the achy restlessness of having been laying in the same position too long and tries to move, to flex his remaining fingers, but nothing happens. There's the binding sensation of sleep paralysis, then a fleeting stab of panic at the realization that he's heavily drugged, trapped in his body, helpless to the dizzy nausea that accompanies pain and blood loss, afraid he'll choke on his own goddamn vomit because he doesn't even have the ability to hoist himself upright. He can't even open his eyes, and he wonders if the Reds finally dumped him in a ditch and left him for dead.

But that's not right. He's not there anymore.

The air smells faintly of salt and antiseptic. The voices, though unintelligible through the haze, are speaking English. One of them carries a familiar southern drawl, punctuated by the occasional soft clink of spurs that would suggest he fidgeted on the spot.

" - hasn't woken up yet?

Is that legitimate concern in Ocelot's voice? It's so uncharacteristic that he doesn't even sound like himself.

Kaz doesn't quite catch the medic's response, but it's followed by the sound of more shuffling, and then the slow tempo of spurred footsteps approaches him and stops at his bedside. He's sure he feels fingertips lighting upon his temple, but he's so numb from the drugs that he could just be imagining it. 

He lets himself sink back into darkness.

It's the sudden fit of coughing that wakes him again. He's relieved to find he has control over his limbs again and reaches up in drowsy irritation to remove the oxygen mask covering his nose and mouth, but a medic is quickly at his side, doing it for him. Then his head is eased up and a paper cup is pressed to his lips. He instinctively drinks and nearly chokes, the water searing down his dried throat like rusty nails. After a couple of thick swallows, the cup is brought away and his head is allowed to fall back against the pillow.

He tests his eyes, squints them open just slightly, and though blurred, his vision has returned to normal for the moment. The lights in the room have been mercifully dimmed, and through his clouded vision, he can just make out a female recruit slipping into the room just behind the medic that tends to him.

"Commander Miller, you're awake. Good."

Her accent is vaguely exotic. New Zealand? No. There's the nasally pinched cadence of Dutch in there. South African, then. He struggles to remember the recruits he's vetted recently, and though his memory is still sluggish, he would have remembered taking on an Afrikaner woman, or any woman at all for that matter. She must have been brought in by Ocelot while Kaz was making that distraction at the Zero Line.

The medic finishes adjusting Kaz's IV line and assessing his vitals, then leaves the two of them alone, nodding to the woman on his way out.

"Where is Snake?" is predictably the first thing that tumbles out of Kaz's mouth.

"Ocelot's showing him around the new base. It shouldn't take them long, he should be in to see you soon."

It's such a shock getting a straight answer to that question that he catches himself about to say something snide out of habit. Some embarrassing sound croaks out of him instead and he recovers with a hasty clear of his throat, squinting his eyes shut against the impending sting of tears.

Horrible timing. He's not about to do this in front of this stranger.

But then his shades are being eased onto his face, causing him to stiffen from the unexpected contact, and she seems to make it a point not to directly touch him, then immediately steps back once they're in place. It helps. His walls are back up, and it's irrational to think it, she's probably just perceptive of his photosensitivity, but a part of him wonders if she knows he needs this, this barrier.

His vision clears enough to get a good look at her face.

Not a stranger.

She's distantly familiar.

The first thing that comes to mind is the fragrant scent of woodsmoke and seasoned meats, and in an instant he places her as one of the old MSF soldiers. She'd been too effective of a counselor and occasional combatant to be holed away in the mess, but once Kaz put a significant amount of GMP toward an industrial smoker for recreation on the beach, she was always on the grill during downtime, chugging Red Stripe like it was going out of style and comically swearing in Afrikaans as she passed out plates of burgers and turkey legs, sometimes even sosaties - Kaz's personal favorite - on the occasion that he could get his hands on some lamb for the weekly provisions.

"I know you," he blurts out. "Tapir, isn't it? You were on the psych team that Snake would send into the brig to reason with captured enemy soldiers."

She huffs softly in distant amusement and nods once. "Now there's a name I haven't heard in a while. I'm surprised you remember."

And then he understands why she's here. "So I guess it was decided I needed a shrink."

"With all due respect, Commander, you were tortured." It comes out halting and cautious, as though she's apologetic for having to point out the obvious.

He doesn't respond for a long moment. Instead he just stares down at his remaining hand, afraid to look at the stumps where his limbs used to be, swallowing compulsively against the hollow rise of nausea in his throat. The shrink remains respectfully silent.

"Where were you?" Kaz asks finally, his voice dangerously quiet.

"Pardon?"

"I looked for surviving soldiers after the attack," he continues, still staring down at his hand. "Even sent out feelers for old recruits when I was starting to reassemble what was left. Why didn't you respond?"

"A lot of soldiers didn't respond, Commander."

He finally snaps his eyes up to look at her. "I didn't ask about them. I'm asking about you."

If she's uncomfortable by the scrutiny, she doesn't show it. "Some of the survivors believed that Big Boss betrayed us and was responsible for the attack," she answers, boldly meeting his eyes.

"And you were among them?"

"Yes."

"But not anymore."

She gives a single shake of her head. "Not anymore."

He isn't sure how to react to such blunt honesty. He's not accustomed to anyone answering his questions directly, especially awkward, potentially incriminating questions. He fidgets with the blanket for a moment, and then his eyes fall on the clipboard that's been lain at his bedside. Beneath the scrawl of notes pertaining to his case, he sees the printed name, Dr. Nadja Steijn.

"Dr. Steijn?" he says, nodding toward the chart. "That's you? That's your real name?"

She nods. "The westerners have simply been calling me Nadine until Ocelot assigns me a new codename. You may as well, if you like." She hesitates, then gingerly takes the clipboard and grimly scans over it. "Commander, about what happened to you - "

"I won't talk about it, if that's what you were expecting to do here," he answers abruptly.

She doesn't seem surprised. She only nods impassively, offering a lengthened silence before responding again. "Would you prefer to be alone, then?"

This is new. His experience with shrinks was usually them strong-arming their way into his personal life so they could infer things that weren't even remotely accurate. A clear respect for his boundaries was not something for which he'd been prepared.

He doesn't answer, only continues staring moodily at his hand. After another extended silence, she tucks the clipboard under her arm and begins moving toward the door.

"Wait," Kaz says, just as the door slides open in front of her. Suddenly the thought of being alone terrifies him. "...wait. Could you..."

He finds he doesn't really know what he wants, just that he can't be alone right now, and she's a familiar - if vague - face. It's enough. He just doesn't want to talk.

Somehow she seems to understand this, and she crosses the room and eases herself into the seat at his bedside, where she sits in companionable silence until he drifts back to sleep.


 

Mayday, mayday! Controls unresponsive, tower, do you read?! Shit! Comms are down!

 

Kazuhira opens his eyes, blinks a couple of times through the vertigo.

Somehow he'd miraculously avoided the blast, but the ensuing collision jarred him with enough force that everything went grey for a few seconds, that strange in-between when unconsciousness is simply not an option. Blood blurs his vision and he wipes away at it in frustration, then gingerly lifts a hand to his head and feels around for the source, cringing as a sharp pain spears through him when his fingers light upon a nasty gash at his temple. He can't seem to find his equilibrium, his stomach lurching when he becomes aware of the cumbersome pressure of centrifugal force heavy on his chest, the nauseating sense of rapid free fall.

He springs to his feet, immediately thrown off balance again as the helicopter spins toward the water. Somewhere amidst the disorienting chaos of alarms and deafening radio static, Kaz has the distant recollection that helicopters are top heavy and capsize the moment they hit the water, after which it takes about two seconds before the entire thing is submerged. A numbing sense of panic follows, and he has just enough time to remember where the emergency life raft is stored before they're bouncing laterally off the surface of the water, bodies tossed limply about the cabin, and then his back slams into something soft and pliant, accompanied by a breathy grunt and a muted pop.

The chopper dips among the plumes of waves roiling up from the impact and rolls onto its side, the rotors still churning through the water, and then they're tumbling through the cabin as it upends itself entirely. He's plunged underwater before he can get a satisfactory breath, and he hasn't even had time to process which way is up before his arms are flailing into action with the urgent instinct to swim, to find an escape.

It's as though the entire world has abruptly blinked out of existence, thrusting him under into near-blackness and yawning silence, the sounds of explosions and crashes above the surface muted echoes in the distance.

It takes him all of five seconds of struggling fruitlessly to realize there's no way out. They're trapped and sinking and there's nothing he can do, and as soon as he processes this, an unexpected calm washes over him.

He stops struggling.

His body goes slack, weightless, and he numbly assesses the claustrophobic space. The flickering cabin lights cast a dim orange glow through the water, and his vision slowly adjusts to the darkness.

He sees Chico - half-lidded eyes flatly staring through the dancing reflections of light, his head hanging at an impossible angle as his limbs carelessly float upward. Kaz has some distant revelation that it was Chico that broke his fall, which had snapped his neck in the impact.

They'd just celebrated his thirteenth birthday.

All Kaz can think about is how excited Chico had been to finally be a teenager, trying to sneak cigarettes off of Amanda and Cecile so he could look cool in front of Paz, prodding Snake for a cigar with protestations of "Come on, aren't I old enough now?" and Snake holding one out to him before teasingly stretching it out of his reach.

Or how Kaz had grown to regard him as something of a kid brother - something he'd always wanted when he was younger, one of the few things he envied about the other kids back at home, who had large families and plenty of siblings to interact with - and coming to the realization that maybe he needed to straighten out his act a little, maybe stop getting so drunk at the parties and start setting a responsible example for someone so young and impressionable.

What a shitty way to die.

Kaz feels something leaden and brackish seeping into the pit of his stomach, the sobering futility of the situation. Earlier, he had his rage to numb him, it felt good to yell at Paz, to hold someone accountable so he didn't have to realize his own feckless error. So he could project his helplessness and shock and confusion onto someone else.

But she's dead now.

And so is this child, relegated to a corpse in the time it took to blink, with no preamble or fanfare. Careless. Insignificant.

It's a little vexing, how sluggish and ghostly everything tends to be underwater. It's almost like being trapped in a dream, so crudely peaceful when everything is falling apart around you and you're powerless to stop it.

Struggling only makes it worse. His lungs hurt, the hydraulic fluid seeping into the water is making his eyes and skin burn. He fights against the instinct to breathe and wonders if he should just give it up anyway and get it over with.

Then his eyes fall on Snake and Ronan. They look so ethereal in the dimly lit water, pale and angelic as they sway lethargically in the gentle current. Kaz can just make out half of Ronan's face in the murky light, eye wide and disturbingly alert and fixed directly on him. Kaz meets his gaze, opens his mouth with the reflex to say something comforting, suddenly remembers they're submerged and gets a mouthful of brine.

No point in fighting it now. In his last lucid moment, he uses what's left of his strength to outstretch his arm and take Ronan's hand. Kaz feels the faintest squeeze, almost a spasm, but it's undeniably there. He stretches his other arm out for Snake, fingers grazing over his face. He looks so peaceful.

This is fine. Everything's going to be okay. Whether it's in a blood-soaked jungle in Colombia or at the bottom of the ocean, they're all together, as it should be. It's as close to the death Kaz would have wanted for himself, really.

He closes his eyes.

In the next instant, he's being pulled backwards, a firm arm wrapped tightly around his middle as it urgently hauls him up.

His body jolts with the shock of it - who the hell else was even on the chopper with them? After Mosquito went down, Kaz is sure it was Arowana that he'd yanked onto the helicopter after him while the base literally slipped out from under their feet. He remembers assigning the dispatches for evacuation in the midst of the chaos, made it a point to put at least one soldier who excelled in the weekly HUET drills on every departing chopper.

Arowana had always been a strong swimmer. Always made split decisions under duress with the utmost composure and coldest logic. Rescue operations should prioritize those with the highest probability of survival.

Somewhere in the fog of oxygen deprivation and excruciating pain, Kaz understands that this means he will live, while Snake and Ronan will sink to the bottom of the ocean.

His attempted shout is nothing but an embarrassing eruption of bubbles. His hand slips from Ronan's, fingers desperately grazing together as they're pulled apart.

He's too exhausted and his lungs are too on fire to resist, his head is splitting in two and he can't fight anymore. His vision spikes, and flashes of white static accompany the crushing pain in his skull.

Disjointed sensations follow - the water pressure in his ears giving way to intense ringing, the sounds of rushing water and the creak of metal scraping against metal, the touch of warm air on his face, the agonizing burn of fluid being forced from his lungs. His lips are moving on instinct, and he rasps something that sounds a lot like "Don't leave them."

His vision fades, and then nothing. 

His throat is dry and cracked when he comes out of it. Even attempting a dry swallow is excruciating. He gives a couple of wet coughs, nearly cries out from the pain it causes, and finds he doesn't have much of a voice. His lungs feel like they're filled with broken shards of glass. There's the warm press of sun-heated PVC beneath his cheek, and a dizzying rocking sensation that causes him to immediately shoot up and vomit over the side of the raft he's woken up in. The sting of acid doesn't help his raw throat, the convulsions of regurgitating an empty stomach causing the pain in his lungs to spike with such intensity that his vision goes grey again. He's sure at least three ribs are broken. 

He hangs over the edge for a moment, wipes a string of viscous fluid from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand, then pushes up into a sitting position.

His stunned yelp is hoarse and cracked when he sees Snake and Ronan, bloody and unmoving in the raft with him.

Snake is unconscious, parts of his sneaking suit are singed away, he's covered in soot and blood, and the skin peeking through the destroyed parts of his suit is inflamed and starting to blister. If it's not treated soon, it'll turn into a nasty infection.

Kaz abruptly goes into autopilot, mechanically going through the rehearsed instructions of emergency drills. He takes his boss's chin in his hand, tilts his head back and tips his mouth open to make sure his airways are clear. He's at least breathing shallowly, but otherwise unresponsive.

Kaz eventually gives up trying to rouse him.

Ronan is in arguably worse shape.

Somehow his eyes are still open, glassy and staring upward at the open sky, and Kaz abruptly leans over, touches his cheek. His entire face is embedded with bits of debris and he's bleeding from dozens of different places. Kaz gently turns his face toward him, then clamps a hand over his mouth when he sees the wedge of shrapnel lodged into Ronan's hairline. Kaz has seen his fair share of war injuries, but this one is especially troubling. It's a wonder it didn't kill him instantly, and Kaz has this nauseating understanding that there's no way it's ever coming out. Which means it's just a matter of time before Ronan's dead.

He's starting to wonder if it would have been more merciful if Arowana had just let him sink.

Arowana.

He's most notably not here. Kaz squints in the rising sun, can just make out the plumes of black smoke and fire of the wreckage some distance away. Part of the enemy chopper that slammed into them is still poking above the surface of the water, but their own chopper is nowhere to be found. Stray shipping containers bob in the water around the wreckage, and Kaz realizes they went down in a shipping lane where cargo debris would have hindered the rate of submersion - likely the only reason they survived. But the soldier that rescued them is nowhere to be seen.

The pilot. Kaz's strict orders had been Don't leave them.

Arowana would have complied without question. He would have gone back for the pilot as well.

The chopper would have taken them both down with it.

Kaz thinks he's going to be sick again. He clenches his teeth, swallows thickly against the bile rising in his throat, even though the burn is excruciating.

He looks helplessly to Ronan, hovers a trembling hand over the damage in his head and wheezes a panicked sob, cursing his absolute impotence in the situation. Ronan blinks once, eyes slowly traveling to Kaz's face, and he struggles to lift his arm, wrapping his fingers around Kaz's wrist to stop him from touching the trauma to his head. They make eye contact for a moment, and there's this crushing weight of realization - This happened to him because he saved you both

Kaz can almost still feel the gentle press of Ronan's arm around his middle, hauling him back from a startled Paz, delicately coercing him to relax with a single restraining embrace. Kaz wouldn't have let anyone else do that, not even Snake, but he'd allowed himself to be maneuvered into submission. Out of harm's way when the blast came. 

A droplet of water lands on Ronan's cheek, and Kaz realizes it's his own tears. He wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand, instantly regretting it when his eyes burn with the sting of salt and pollutant. Ronan's fingers weakly squeeze his wrist, a desperate plea for his attention, and Kaz meets his eyes again. He's trying to hand him something but his left arm is mutilated to the point where the bone is visible, he can't move it too well because the nerves are shot, but he's holding something in his mangled hand.

Kaz's aviators.

They'd gotten knocked off in the collision, drifted away from him when the helicopter capsized, but somehow in the midst of trauma and chaos, Ronan had managed to grab them. Kaz stares at them for a long moment, face wet with tears, and this strange sensation bubbles up inside him, the instinct to erupt into hysterical laughter.

It's such a predictable display of selflessness. Of course Ronan would secure this trivial accessory while everything is literally burning down around them. There's this fleeting moment where Kaz thinks he might actually lose himself to uncontrollable fits of laughter, but instead a wave of exhaustion overwhelms him and he just goes numb, and soon he's silently and unobtrusively crying.

Ronan's fingers give Kaz's wrist another soft squeeze, it's the best he can do in the way of comfort, but even this gesture seems to fatigue him, so his fingers loosen and his arm falls limply to his side.

Kaz snaps out of it long enough to gingerly extract the sunglasses from his ruined hand, polishes them off, and slides them back onto his face. The lenses are a little scratched, but they otherwise made it through the crash unscathed. It helps, a little. The sun has just risen over the horizon, and its angled reflection off the water had been daggers on his corneas. It's but a small reprieve, but it's enough for now.

The sky and waters are conspicuously clear. There'd be no rush to evacuate survivors. Anyone with the resources to offer assistance would have been on MSF's extensive client list. They'd all prioritize distancing themselves from the incident before dispatching their Coast Guard to search for survivors. Or perhaps they all intended to let the situation rectify itself. A rumored military superpower fallen at the hands of its own hubris would surely fall on unsympathetic ears. There's no mistake that a lot of people would sleep better tonight knowing that a potential threat had been eliminated without anyone having to get their hands dirty.

What follows is a lethargic disassociation. Maybe it's shock. Maybe it's the effects of the thick Caribbean humidity on his already damaged lungs, the inability to draw a satisfying breath causing an oxygen-starved dizziness to cloud his senses. Kaz understands that by all accounts, he and his boss would be presumed dead. It's a comforting notion, really, considering all the things a dead man might get away with. Considering all the ways he can make them hurt. 

He searches around inside himself, trying to register grief, longing, desperation. All he finds is anger. Bubbling up just beneath the surface, a distant ache in the hollow of his chest that is only kept subdued because of his exhaustion. He blearily thinks about Paz, tries to piece together the ambiguous interactions with her after he boarded the helicopter as Mother Base fell. What was the last thing he even said to her? He's too drowsy to focus his thoughts for too long, but the last exchange between her and Snake keeps ricocheting through his mind, on eternal loop like a song that just won't get out of his head. What the hell was that about a bomb?

It's alright, we got it out.

He can still feel the hot sting of the blood she'd coughed in his face, recalls the red staining the front her jumpsuit. Her cryptic warning, and then she was gone quicker than he could register what was happening.

Somewhere in the deepest recesses of his mind, he slowly puts it together. Refuses to accept it.

Pushes that distant revelation as far back from conscious thought as possible, so he doesn't have to dwell on the horrific realization that they'd sewn a goddamn bomb up inside her, that he'd practically assaulted her while her guts were spilling out of her, that he probably would have ended up killing her anyway if Ronan hadn't pulled him back.

She'd died with him hating her, and now he'll never be able to make it right.

He instinctively takes Ronan's undamaged hand without even realizing he's doing it, sharply turning his head toward him when he feels that reassuring squeeze again.

"I'm sorry I pushed you," Kaz whispers.

It sounds so weak, so trite, so grievously insignificant in light of everything else, but right now, it's all he's got. It's the only thing he can even remotely try to redeem, and for what it's worth, he truly is sorry. He can't bear the notion that the very last instance of physical contact he might ever have with this man was one of violence and anger. Anger that wasn't even directed at him, which makes it that much worse. He wishes he could wrap his arms around him, wishes he could do something more without hurting him.

"Ro, I'm so sorry," he breathes. His voice breaks, he runs out of air, and the apology ends in the wisps of an empty gasp.

Ronan slowly blinks and gives Kaz's fingers another squeeze. His eyes are so glassy and clouded, his breathing staggered and halted. Kaz avoids thinking about how much pain he must be in, and he makes some soft sound before he can stop himself, some small expression of helpless grief. He lets go of Ronan's hand and gently runs his fingertips over his damp hair, widely avoiding the shrapnel at his hairline. It's all he can do, really. Maybe he's imagining it, but he's sure Ronan tilts his head just slightly, leans into that touch. Kaz ghosts his fingers over his temple, along his cheekbone, traces the slope of his neck. He's really doing it more to comfort himself, memorizing the lines of his face, burning that sensation into his mind so he'll always remember.

Then his fingers find the chain to Ronan's dog tags, which had shifted and wrapped itself uncomfortably around his throat. As delicately as possible, Kaz loops his fingers under the chain and works it free, taking care to avoid the contusions in his skull as he lifts the chain over his head. They musically clink together from the disturbance, and he turns them over in his hand, inspecting the engravings, runs his fingers over them. He carefully polishes the blood off of them, then goes to return them, but Ronan feebly pushes his hand away, uses what strength he has left to close Kaz's fingers over the tags in his palm. You keep them.

Kaz presses his lips together and clutches them in his fist until his knuckles turn white, swallowing hard against the lump in his throat. He recognizes the tacit acknowledgment, the surrender in the small gesture, then slips the tags into his breast pocket with a trembling hand. He wants to say something reassuring, but somehow You're gonna be okay sounds remarkably condescending, even in his head.

At least Snake still has a fighting chance. Ronan saw to that. Of course he would. It's like he didn't even think when he did it, he just reacted, some primal instinct he couldn't control, and Kaz can't help but be a little angry at him for it. There's also that small flare of guilt too, the understanding that had Ronan not dragged him back when he did, Kaz would have gotten caught in that blast as well. A part of him kind of wishes he had.

He reaches for Snake and rests his palm over the shallow rise and fall of his chest - the only movement from him since the chopper went down. Kaz mechanically checks his watch - realizes it stopped working when they went down, the face shattered in the crash. He looks up, checking the position of the sun in the sky, straight overhead now. There's this small jolt of panic in the center of his chest when he processes that they've been out here for hours, that while he was catatonic with panic and grief, Snake and Ronan's chances of ever recovering were diminishing by each passing minute. Hours, and Snake still hasn't woken up - why won't he wake up?

Kaz glances helplessly to Ronan as though absurdly looking for guidance and immediately understands the futility of it, that he's completely alone.

He closes his eyes, turns his face up to the sun. Briefly considers unholstering his sidearm and placing it against his temple, but the impulse is fleeting - in the distance, there's the faint but distinct whip of helicopter rotors approaching their position.

Finally.

It's such a welcome relief that Kaz doesn't notice the absence of Snake's heartbeat against his palm.


 

The next nine years saw it become a continuous, recurring nightmare. Kaz couldn't close his eyes, could never really get a restful sleep because the images were always waiting to replay just behind his eyelids to haunt him, blaming him. He'd awaken, thrashing around in tangled, damp sheets, unsure of where and when he was, sometimes roughly clutching the wrist of whatever poor soul he'd coerced into bed that night, their muscles poised in preparation to bolt for the door.

It always ended the same. He'd snap out of it, convince himself he was at least marginally sympathetic to the horrified expression on their face and mumble some trite apology, then politely pretend to believe whatever bullshit excuse they gave him on why they needed to leave immediately. Not that he cared. He never really craved the company anymore, and honestly not even the sex either. He'd stopped bothering to even learn their names anymore, instead identifying them by the drink they ordered beforehand. It was...efficient.

Rob Roy up with a lemon twist, now there was a good sport. She didn't react with alarm and skitter off, at least not right away. She was the nurturing type. Drawn to dark, tortured souls because she was convinced she could 'fix' them. Kaz didn't want to be fixed, was even a little insulted by her narcissism, but he played along for the night. Not because he was genuinely interested, but really just for the novelty. She was at that age where she was convinced she had all the answers, still young enough to presume to know everything. Kaz had been there once.

He'd listened to her regurgitate her textbooks on the trite mechanisms for coping with trauma, even nodded and paused at appropriate moments to thoughtfully stare into the distance, then stamped out his cigarette and ate her till she passed out. He'd let her think she'd gotten through to him, figured there was nothing to lose in giving that fleeting satisfaction to someone he'd never see again - until he'd awoken with her gingerly picking through the pockets of his pants, crumpled at the foot of the bed.

He wasn't concerned about getting robbed - any money he might have carried on his person was insignificant compared to the various stashes in offshore bank accounts, back-up assets stowed away in safe deposit boxes, business fronts that were legitimate companies whose revenue alone could have supported a modest living - but she wasn't going for his cash. He'd cringed at the familiar clink of the dog tags, reflexively shot his hand out and clutched her wrist hard enough to cause her hand to spasm and drop them.

"What are you doing?" he hissed.

Despite the brief alarm in her eyes, she managed to play it cool. "Thought your name was Miller." She tried to hide the quiver in her voice behind a playful tone, but Kaz caught it anyway.

"It is," he said tersely. He offered nothing more, merely kept his eyes locked on her, hand still gripped around her wrist so that she instinctively tried to jerk free from the pain response.

"So then who is Ronan Llewellyn? Old boyfriend?"

Something about the way she said boyfriend made Kaz's hair stand on end, a scoff and a smirk in her tone, condescending, scornful, disapproving. He released her then, shoving her away from him and snatching the tags up to shove them back into his pocket. 

"Why are you still here?" he said coolly, not taking the bait. It was a legitimate question; he was used to them taking the hint and being gone before sunrise.

She still played it cool. That cocky bravado of someone who has never experienced true hardship. Canting her head to the side, she managed a smile through her waning ego. "You can't get rid of me that easily. I really want to help you, Kaz."

He'd bristled at her use of his first name, wondering how drunk he must have been to have given it to her in the first place. Cringed even more at her relentless arrogance, christ, he'd have erupted into laughter if he hadn't been so irritated. Of all the broads and twinks he'd fucked through up to that point, this one really endeavored to be something special. He was about to actually say something along those lines but what ended up spilling out of his mouth instead was "My apologies, how much do I owe you?"

That was about when Rob Roy finally dropped the act.

He instinctively ducked at whatever it was she'd chucked at his head, numbly lit himself another cigarette as she spewed a diatribe of insults at him, smugly nodding along because he agreed - he certainly was all those vile things she called him.

Some hours after she'd stormed out and slammed the door behind her, he found himself holding the tags in his hand again, compulsively rubbing them together between his fingers, repetitively fidgeting with them in a manic state of detachment. He didn't even remember taking them back out of his pocket. He didn't even know why he felt compelled to hang on to them, couldn't even remember making a conscious decision to keep them on him at all times. It was something that just...happened, an impulse beyond his control.

He'd woken up in that pisshole of a hospital just after the crash, his head feeling like a helium balloon from all the sedatives and painkillers, knowing in the back of his mind that he'd been unnecessarily overmedicated, and it had taken a full hour of blearily staring at the two empty beds beside him before the pieces fell into place. The medical staff conveniently spoke no English when questioned, and pretended his accent was unintelligible when he addressed them in flawless Spanish.

It didn't take long for him to exhaust all of his contacts after that, expend all of the favors owed him only to reach a dead end. Frustrated and fidgeting for something to do, in a subconscious gesture of habit, he'd reached into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes when his hand closed around the dog tags instead.

What followed was akin to that feeling one gets when missing a step going down a flight of stairs - a fleeting sense of panic, the loss of equilibrium, his stomach lurching up into his throat.

He'd forgotten all about them. Didn't think he'd need to hold onto them for long because for a second there, he was convinced he'd be giving them right back.

The doctors had stabilized Snake, and Ronan seemed like he'd have a fighting chance - hell, he was still somewhat conscious when the medics went to work on him. Things actually seemed like they were going to be okay. Blinded by irrational hope - for some small moment, Kaz was actually convinced a man could survive indefinitely with shrapnel wedged in his goddamn skull.

Clutching the tags in his hand, his legs buckled underneath him and he'd pitched to one knee right in the middle of the Plaza de San Nicolas to the tune of some choice curses from the person he'd tripped up in the process, thankfully drowned out by peals of reverberating church bells. His vision dimmed, he was sure he'd be sick right there in the middle of the street, in front of all the tourists and their small children. Someone had grabbed his arm and hauled him up - a priest, ha, jesus christ - Kaz was only vaguely aware of the man addressing him in Spanish, then trying again in broken English when he received no response, the word rehabilitation the only thing that registered through Kaz's disoriented panic.

He thinks I'm a fuckin' junkie, Kaz mused, wondering how often this sort of thing happened in the area that this clergyman seemed to be wholly unsurprised and yet prepared for the very situation.

How poetic that some weeks later, Kaz found himself in some filthy motel, slumped over a table with his cheek pressed into his own pool of vomit from the third-rate blow he'd bought off a street rat who hadn't even been old enough to shave yet, who would have sunk his knife into Kaz's spine if he'd been careless enough to turn his back on the kid.

In hindsight, he wished he had.

Kaz's invitation was open to anyone - to this child who had no choice but to do this in order to survive, to the traffickers who exploited him, waiting somewhere nearby to take Kaz for everything he was worth and dump his body in the lake. But something about this American man who still wore his confidence with such ease even in his darkest hour, who spoke Spanish like a local and walked into every room like he owned the place was enough of a deterrent that ensured Kaz remained untouched.

He dreamt of his mother in the drug haze that followed.

She'd always been so pristine, so put together, black hair in sleekly styled pincurls topped off with a pillbox hat, her face framed behind a sheer birdcage veil, red lipstick perfectly applied with a brush. Where most of the women in her profession wore the title with shame, she carried it with such poise and grace, even long after she retired. Kaz hadn't even known there was a stigma attached to the profession until the neighborhood boys started in with the taunts. She'd never expressed regret or guilt for having done it, even as it ultimately killed her.

She'd been too strong for her generation. She never married. Never even dated or showed interest in doing so, though hardly for a lack of suitors, of which she had plenty. She was always perfectly content on her own, and Kaz had always admired that about her. He respected how she always challenged convention, never letting the stigma of a one-parent household pressure her into an arrangement she didn't want. 

In his dream, she was walking ahead of him, occasionally looking over her shoulder at him as he struggled to keep up. She walked at a leisurely pace, but somehow kept getting farther and farther away as much as he struggled to run after her. All he could see of her was her hazy profile, the blush of one high cheekbone, he just wanted her to stop and turn around, all he wanted was to see her face again and why won't she just stop and turn around

And then Kaz was jerked awake to the sensation of someone dabbing the dried blood from his nose, cleaning his face with a damp cloth. He cracked his eyes open to catch a blurred glimpse of soft, modestly muscled shoulders and an olive tank top, then there was the chiding tone of a familiar accented voice.

"Jesus, Miller. What the hell have you gotten into?" The tone was more disappointed than accusatory.

"...Amanda?" Kaz mumbled, struggling to completely open his eyes. The mere glow of the dim bedstand lamp was too painful. "I was...gonna come visit you," he slurred. "I've got a...contract in Granada next week."

There was a short pause, and though his eyes were closed, somehow he could tell she was frowning.

"Kaz..." The dabbing at his face stopped, and he could feel cool fingertips at his temple, smoothing his hair back. "You're in Granada."

"Right...I know. What are you doing here?"

"That smalltown gunrunner you dragged to bed last night recognized you. Said he remembered you and Snake doing a favor for his boss a while back. It's no secret I had ties with MSF, so he called me when he couldn't wake you up. Told me a former...colleague of mine was on a bender."

She leaned forward, plucked up an empty plastic baggie between her thumb and forefinger. "Putting things in his nose that he shouldn't..."

She tossed it aside, then gingerly picked up Kaz's pistol by the trigger guard. "...Playing with guns."

She set it aside, well out of Kaz's reach, then pulled his eyelid open with her thumb, causing him to recoil and flinch against the light. "He called me down here expecting me to dispose of a corpse," she scolded.

"Shoulda just minded his own fucking business."

He could feel her staring at him, could feel her tragic expression and hated it without ever even having to see it. The last thing he wanted was pity.

"What the hell happened to you, Miller?" she said softly.

At this, he opened his eyes. Shot upright in his seat as though he'd been hit. "Really? You're really asking me that, you of all people? You were never one to be naive, Amanda. I'm living. For the first time in my life. I can do what I want now without anyone breathing down my neck."

"Tch," she scoffed, shaking her head with a roll of her eyes. "Yeah, you're living alright. Living like a man who wants to die but doesn't have the courage to do it himself." 

The moment it was out of her mouth, her face fell, a flash of regret and apology in her eyes. She hadn't meant to say it, but they both knew there was a touch of truth to it. Kaz didn't even bother refuting it.

"Come on," she said, her voice subdued. "Let's get you cleaned up."

He whined feebly as she hoisted him up, tried to fight her but barely had the energy to keep his eyes open and quickly gave up. "I...I killed your brother," he mumbled into her shoulder instead.

He felt her stiffen, but she didn't respond. She set him down on the toilet seat in the adjacent bathroom and started the shower, then silently started undressing him as though he were a child. He didn't resist.

It's not like it was anything she hadn't seen before. They'd fooled around a few times, sure. Just a casual thing to blow off steam, an occasional arrangement between friends. She'd come to him because she knew he was easy and uncomplicated, and that he wouldn't expect more from her emotionally in the long run. That he'd respect her terms and her space. She appreciated his lack of entitlement toward her, and he appreciated her confidence, her strength.

"It's really good to see you," he said, training his eyes on her, trying to focus through the haze. He meant it, too. He'd spent so much time destroying himself, missing what was lost, that he'd forgotten to appreciate what was left. And it felt a little like old times, just having her there. It was comforting. He'd missed her.

She remained silent, avoided meeting his eyes, kept up this industrious air of distraction as though the task of hauling him into the shower expended all of her concentration. She shampooed his hair without saying a single word, scrubbed him down without the slightest hint of modesty or shyness, unconcerned that the awkward positioning was drenching her clothes. She then tucked a towel around his waist and sat him back down to start working the tangles out of his hair. Even managed to expertly shave his stubble with a straight razor without drawing a single drop of blood.

It was fitting that when she finally spoke again, it was with a blade to his throat.

"Why do you say you killed him?" she said quietly.

"Amanda..."

"You were with him. In his last moments. How did it happen?"

"Amanda, you don't - "

"Tell me, Kaz. Please."

And so he told her. With the detached bluntness of apathy, he recounted every second in precise detail, events that had permanently etched themselves to the inside of his skull so he could never escape them. And she listened, stone-faced, until he finished. 

"Do you think I'm a monster?" he whispered after an extended silence.

She absently shook her head, eyes vacant as she absorbed this information, letting it sink in. "I think you're under the assumption that you should be repenting for something," she said slowly, snapping her eyes back to his face. "That you think you deserve to be punished and the only way for you to earn that redemption is through suffering. But you can't keep claiming sins that aren't yours, Kaz. You can't keep pretending to be the worst person in the world when it's a title you haven't earned and don't deserve."

She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. He feebly reached out to her when she pulled away, wishing he had the energy to lunge toward her, his fingers closing on air instead.

And then she was gone.

It wasn't long afterwards that Kaz started signing his name as 'Benedict.'


 

Even with the sedatives, it's hard to stay asleep for long. It's a floating non-sleep that's filled with waking moments of urgency, the phantoms of not safe still echoing in his subconscious at the mere sound of footsteps in the hallway, the buzz of the fluorescent lights, even the slightest disturbance in the air causing him to jerk awake, the beginnings of a scream constricting his throat. It seemed the drugs were making things worse - trapping him in his nightmares, to the point where he'd rather just deal with the pain than be sedated again.

At some point food was brought to him - a small portion of very unsatisfying, unflavored oatmeal and a small glass of water - the bare minimum allowed for patients being eased back onto food. Dr. Steijn - Nadine - had frowned apologetically as it was set before him, commiserated that it wasn't much, but it was better than tearing up his stomach in the process. He'd sullenly poked at it before giving up, ignoring the concerned glare from the medic that came in to clear away his untouched tray. He's almost certain if he keeps this up that it would result in getting a feeding tube fed into his nose, but he's already so drugged up that he isn't sure he gives a fuck.

Nadine was thankfully noninvasive as he drifted in and out of sleep. She mostly worked quietly on her notes, occasionally stopping to say a few words to him. He recognized the typical tactic that shrinks used to get patients to open up, but their exchanges ended up being mostly about innocuous conversational things, like the latest episode of Magnum, P.I. He could hardly understand how she expected to successfully evaluate him that way, but he certainly wasn't going to ever speak on what happened to him. He was content to just bury it forever and move on.

A medic comes in to assess his condition and redress his bandages, and informs him he'll be released soon. Another sedative is fed into his IV and he's plunged under again.

He's roused some time later by the sensation of someone standing in close proximity to him. His hand shoots out with the instinct to fight, but another warm hand is encircling his wrist, surprisingly delicate but firm enough to keep him subdued. 

"Kaz, it's me."

(I'm here to get you out)

His heart jumps into his throat and he reluctantly tests his eyes, exhaling a sigh of relief that the strange heat-signature vision still hasn't returned. The room is darkened and he'd fallen asleep in his aviators, so he can just make out Snake's silhouette against the backdrop of light filtering in from the hallway. 

"What took you so long," he mutters.

And then he's laughing to himself, a broken, wheezing sound as tears streak down his face, there's the brief discomfort of the IV needle being slipped out of his arm and then he can feel that strange metal arm embracing him, lifting him out of the bed. He groans when his sore wounds protest at being jostled, but he'd take being thrown over Snake's shoulder to laying in a hospital bed any day. And then he's muttering delirious things in Snake's ear all the way back to his quarters, and Snake just laughs and murmurs something that Kaz can't quite make out. 

Nine years I waited for you. I never gave up on you, Boss.

Kaz isn't sure if he says it out loud or if it's lost in the fog of delirium, and he lets himself be carefully deposited on the edge of the bed as Snake disappears into the bathroom, followed by the sound of running water. Soon there's that warm hand on his face again, and he doesn't protest when his sunglasses are removed. He leans into the strong arm that lifts him up, lethargically allowing Snake to drag him the few feet to the bathroom.

He laughs again, remembers that time in that sleazy hotel room with Amanda. Christ, he's really been a mess for nine years. Always needing someone to take care of him. Maybe freedom hasn't been all it's cracked up to be. 

He lets Snake carefully undress him, makes his body as pliant as possible as Snake peels off the standard undershirt and shorts given to inpatients, then tilts his head to finally look into his boss's face.

There's a spike of shrapnel lodged into his hairline.

There's that feeling again. Of missing a step on a flight of stairs, only this time it's much more pronounced. It's more like stepping off a cliff and slamming full speed onto the rocks below.

 

What about him?

He took some shrapnel. To the head.

 

Kaz is hallucinating. He has to be. Merging the faces of the two men who meant the most to him out of guilt and longing.  

He squeezes his eyes shut and tightly grips Snake's shoulders to stay upright, then feels metal fingers at his back, steadying him. 

Why would Snake need a prosthetic? It wasn't his arm that had been damaged.

Kaz feels the sudden rush of saliva in the back of his throat and he barely has time to wrench himself away from Snake's protective grip, falling to his knee and bracing himself against the toilet with his one arm as he vomits what little he'd been able to eat earlier. 

He feels like he's drowning again. Like he's right back in the submerged helicopter, the water flooding his sinuses and invading his lungs, the rib-shattering shocks searing through his body, so excruciating that he can't even get the scream to leave his throat.

Somewhere on the fringes of what is real, Snake's flesh hand is gripping him just above his elbow, firm and strong, the only thing keeping him from shattering. There's that soft, subdued voice, repeating his name to coax him back. Then that hand is gently hauling him up, his other arm encircling Kaz's waist as a tissue is brought to his face, lightly wiping at his mouth.

It has to be a mistake. There's a logical explanation. This man is Snake. Ronan died nine years ago.

Kaz chances another tentative glance into that face again, determined to see no shrapnel at all, perhaps just a convenient shadow tricking his mind.

But it's still there.

And upon closer inspection of his face, all Kaz sees is a familiar gunmetal blue eye - not sky blue like it should be - and a generous mouth too soft and inviting for its own good. And in that instant, it becomes very clear to Kaz that while it might be possible to sew another man's face onto someone, you can never take away his natural expressions. Those will always be the same.

And the man looking down at him - down? - is beyond a doubt the very medic that Ocelot confirmed dead years ago.

Ocelot

 


 

Snake didn't really mention the guy all that much, but he gave enough detail to allow Kaz to formulate a substantial opinion, nonetheless.

Perhaps it's because the only things Snake ever did say about him were that he was responsible for Snake's ruined eye, and that he was so adept a manipulator that whatever side he was playing at the moment would be shrouded in such a convoluted web of lies that even the intrepid cowboy himself probably wouldn't be able to sort it all out. Kaz had to fill in the blanks himself after the fact - and intel had always been one of Kaz's strong points, along with having friends in high places and the ability to seduce information out of them with his honeyed tongue - and the resulting dossiers he received on the man were a little more than unnerving.

That Zero entrusted such an individual with Snake's whereabouts - his security, even - was enough to make Kaz's blood boil, and his already significant preemptive dislike of this complete stranger only intensified. Zero liked to make it personal, even teased Kaz over the phone about how much longer Snake and Ocelot had known one another, treating Kaz like a fucking child as though such a trivial detail would mean jack shit in a situation as serious as Big Boss's fucking life. This wasn't about a schoolyard rivalry or some jilted lovers' quarrel, for fuck's sake, this was about responsibility. This was about trust. Hardly a value one could responsibly apply to someone whose loyalties were as capricious as Ocelot's.

Kaz had nearly thrown the goddamn phone against the wall at the asinine comment, but knew Zero was intentionally testing him, so he didn't take the bait. But for such a distinguished gentleman, Zero sure did act petty sometimes. Kaz had actually considered that Zero's behavior might have been colored by senility. Or perhaps Zero was just a presumptuous prick about what he thought he knew of Kaz's motives, but either way, trust and business certainly were becoming very inconvenient concepts that never seemed to want to align in Kaz's life these days. Necessity always seemed to force his hand, and yet again Kaz found himself robbed of any autonomy or dignity just to protect the man he cared about the most.

It certainly was a worthy price to pay, but it didn't change the fact that he'd need to be some level of inebriated in order to meet the esteemed Revolver fucking Ocelot for the first time.

Sitting in the closest thing resembling a bar in some third-world hole with some fourth-rate whiskey, Kaz hooks the heel of his boot on the bottom rung of the barstool and leans back just enough to keep the nearest exit within his field of vision.

Always keep an escape route in mind when you head indoors.

With as much as he already knows about Ocelot, he certainly doesn't want to be potentially cornered. And when he finally hears the rhythmic jingle of cowboy spurs approaching him from behind, he snorts and knocks back the remainder of his whiskey.

"Buy you a drink?" Kaz says, not even bothering to turn around.

Ocelot comes to stand next to him, chin turned slightly upward as he inspects him in silence. Kaz snorts again. The guy's literally staring down his ridiculous nose at me, he muses. For a man with an apparent gun-twirling fetish, there's bound to be some degree of arrogance about him, but Kaz never would have expected this. How very...catlike.

"That won't be necessary, Miller. This will only take a second," he says at length.

God, even his affected drawl is obnoxious.

Kaz doesn't even acknowledge him with a nod, merely pulls a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and lights one up. He's not a smoker by habit anymore, but does it on occasion merely to put his old Zippo to use.

Since the Boss doesn't need you to light his cigars so much nowadays.

Kaz frowns, returns the cigarettes and his Zippo to his pocket and tilts his glass toward the barkeep, who refills it, keeping a lingering stare on Ocelot as he turns away. Ocelot doesn't seem to notice - or if he does, he ignores it. He seems to be a man accustomed to getting sidelong stares.

"Care to speak somewhere more private?" Ocelot says when he realizes Kaz isn't going to initiate the conversation.

Kaz only answers with a grunt, sweeping his glass off the bar and pushing off from the stool to follow Ocelot to a grimy conduit spool doubling as a table in the corner. Kaz doesn't immediately look him in the eye, instead focuses on the dust motes swirling in the harsh sunlight blaring through the open door over Ocelot's shoulder. He sets his drink down and takes a drag off his cigarette, his free hand subconsciously coming to rest over the firearm concealed beneath the length of his infantry officer's jacket as he leans back in his seat. He'd come to forgo the conspicuous holster on his belt these days - one look at him and it was easy to guess that the guy in olive drab sporting multiple scars and an unwavering penchant for never revealing his eyes would be packing heat, but he'd found it was best to keep people guessing.

"I hear you've managed to round up some of what's left of the MSF," Ocelot continues, and though he's trying his best to make his tone sound conversational, it's clear he's trying to wring Kaz for information.

"Mmm," Kaz hums into his glass, taking a drink as a pretense not to answer.

"You're not exactly the easiest man to find, you know. What brings you to Eritrea?"

The slightest of smirks twitches at Kaz's lips. He knows Ocelot is a proud man and that showing nervousness is a cardinal sin for his type, and Kaz relishes the awkward discomfort he shows at silence. He absently taps the ash from his cigarette with a swift flick of his thumb and quirks an eyebrow.

"Really?" he sneers. As if the years-long struggle for independence from Ethiopia wasn't obvious. "Jesus, man. I knew you were the fatuous type, but I never expected you to ask inane questions just to fill uncomfortable silences."

Ocelot narrows his eyes, stiffening slightly at the riposte, but ultimately he ignores it. "It can't be easy keeping the men united with the Boss gone," he presses. "Sure you can handle it on your own?"

And there it is. The smug bastard thinks he's got it all figured out. Kaz doesn't give him the victory of showing defensiveness, only snorts on a sharp exhale of smoke, recognizing the desperate grasp for dominance.

"I'm handling it just fine," he deadpans.

Kaz outgrew petty pissing contests as a means of validation the day Mother Base fell into the ocean. He isn't threatened by this man.

Ocelot gives a tight smile, as fake as his accent. "Y'know, Miller...if we're gonna be working together, you'll have to start taking me seriously at some point."

Kaz nonchalantly taps the ash from his cigarette again. "Oh, I take you seriously," he says, briefly glancing at Ocelot over the rims of his sunglasses. "About as seriously as I would anyone else who looks like they've just stepped out of a low-budget spaghetti western. You know, most people outrgrow that phase in primary school."

Ocelot presses his lips together and gives a few curt nods that seem to say So it's gonna be like that, huh?

"And you haven't answered a single one of my questions. Don't think I don't see what you're doing here, Miller. If you want a fair exchange of - "

"Where is Snake?" Kaz blurts out, his sobriety and his patience wearing thin.

Ocelot just gives him that fake smile again, so tight it could almost be a frown. "You know I can't tell you that."

Kaz knows. And he didn't really expect an answer, but he's interrogated enough people by now that he can get just as much information from what they don't say. Instead of reacting with annoyance, he just nods dismissively, as though he expected that very answer. Allows just enough of a pause to have the desired effect, then adds: "And Ronan?"

"Who?"

Now Kaz does get annoyed, and he shows it. Ocelot's obliviousness isn't exactly feigned - and why would it be? - Jesus Christ himself could have been on that helicopter when it went down but to the intrepid Revolver fucking Ocelot, the only person that existed in that moment was the beloved Big Boss. Everyone else is just cannon fodder. He'd probably even forgotten that there would have been a pilot on the goddamn chopper, too.

But it's an asinine fucking question - Kaz never expected Ocelot to know the intimate details of MSF or its soldiers, he wasn't there - but for someone so presumably adept at intel, he should have at least been privy to the fact that there were three men pulled from the wreckage that day. Three men documented in the hospital records. It's a conspicuous enough tell that Ocelot's being intentionally obtuse, and Kaz has no patience for it.

He scoffs on another exhale of smoke and sharply rolls his eyes. "The fucking medic," he says through clenched teeth. Who the fuck else?

This time, Ocelot hesitates, only for a second, but long enough that Kaz catches it. Ocelot hadn't expected to be asked about the medic. A master spy caught off guard without a premeditated answer has a very distinct look, and though Ocelot tries to pass it off as amused shock, he doesn't cover quite well enough for someone as perceptive as Kaz.

"Ah. Heron, if I recall...you two were on a first-name basis, huh?" Ocelot deflects, trying to hide behind the suggestiveness in his tone, but the words come out a little too rushed to not reveal how anxious the question made him.

That's all Kaz needed. He recognizes the non-answer for what it is, then nods and smugly taps the ash from his cigarette again. "So he's alive? Any reason why you're keeping him from me, too?"

Clearly flustered, Ocelot's smug expression hardens into one of annoyance. "Asking questions with answers you don't want to hear isn't particularly the most responsible thing for you to do right now, Miller."

Ah, another non-answer. And it's a warning tone, but Kaz won't be manipulated by this man. He got what he came for.

Kaz takes one last drag from his cigarette and narrows his eyes. Makes it a point to exhale a healthy cloud of smoke in Ocelot's face as he stands. He drains the last bit of whiskey from his glass, then throws his cigarette down on the table and stamps it out beneath the empty glass. "Sure it is, Margay."

Perhaps it was a juvenile thing to say, but Kaz couldn't help but take the cheap shot. And seeing the way Ocelot bristles at the misnomer (like a cat with the hair on its back standing up, hah), it might just make the long dark ahead a little more bearable.

Of course, never wanting to be outdone, as soon as Kaz reaches the threshold, Ocelot lays his final card on the table.

"The medic went into cardiac arrest shortly after he and the Boss were relocated. Unfortunately, the doctors were unable to resuscitate him. He sustained fatal injuries, Miller. You saw yourself. ...I'm terribly sorry. I just didn't want to break the news to you this way."

Kaz feels like the ground has been swept out from underneath him, and he reaches a feeble, trembling hand out to steady himself on the door frame.

He's lying.

Ocelot is fucking lying, because he's a goddamn liar, and that's what he does. Evading at first, only to answer once he's had time to think up a convincing fabrication.

But why would he lie about that? There's nothing to gain there, there's no purpose in it, no motive, and while Kaz can already tell Ocelot isn't above pettiness, everything the man does is motivated by what he might get out of it. Simple satisfaction seems a little too trivial to be all that rewarding in this situation. The only logical conclusion is the simplest one, that he's telling the truth.

Of course Ro wouldn't have survived, he absorbed every bit of that explosion. It was a wonder he didn't die immediately on impact.

There's the swell of something bittersweet in the pit of his chest as he remembers glancing across Big Boss's unconscious body, at Ronan's glassy eyes frantically assessing his surroundings before falling on Kaz, just before he fell unconscious.

Kaz's face was likely the very last thing Ronan saw before he died.

It makes him feel so fragile, and if someone were to touch him in this instant, he'd shatter into a million pieces that could never be put back together. His knees feel unreliable. It takes every bit of resolve he has left to not collapse into a heap on the floor. He's not going to do this in front of Ocelot. He swallows hard, breathing heavily as his stomach does somersaults, making him immediately regret that whiskey.

"I want a body," Kaz chokes, his voice hoarse and coming out as barely more than a wheeze.

"Pardon?"

Kaz swallows again and moistens his bottom lip with his tongue, then takes a deep, ragged breath. "The body. I want to see it," he says evenly.

Ocelot frowns and makes a face that's probably the closest he can get to sympathy. "Miller..." he says, and his voice has dropped to something resembling tenderness, but with an edge of condescension. "You know I can't - "

In the blink of an eye, Kaz has closed the distance between them and is hauling Ocelot out of his chair by the collar of his ridiculous duster, gripping him with the strength of a man who has nothing left but his rage. "I want the fucking body!" he demands.

Ocelot's hand instinctively goes to the gun at his hip. "Miller, we can do this the hard way if you like, but not here," he says under his breath.

Kaz abruptly steps back, releasing Ocelot as he turns and sweeps through the door. Ocelot eases his hand off of his weapon and reluctantly follows him outside.

He watches Kaz in silence for a moment, studying the man as he numbly watches a group of kids leading a camel along the beach. The city of Massawa tended to be horribly simple and picturesque even while at war, especially considering how tensions between rival liberation groups perpetually threatened to boil over. A war within a war. Ocelot could see how a place like this would be significantly advantageous to a businessman like Kazuhira Miller.

"I'm afraid that's not possible," Ocelot says finally. "Zero already disposed of - "

"Of fucking course he did," Kaz spits.

"He figured it would be better than the CIA getting hold of the body, which would lead to awkward questions and prying eyes. Figured it would be more appropriate to take care of it personally. I assure you, the medic was handled with the utmost respect."

Kaz keeps his back turned. His eyes are wet and he can't let Ocelot see it. He can't let Ocelot see him fall apart. It's too personal.

"He had no right to the body," Kaz all but whispers, his voice betraying him and breaking on the last word. He feebly tries to cover with a cough, but the feint is as transparent and as weak as he feels.

Disposed of the body, is what Ocelot had intended to say. As if Ronan were some expendable pawn in just another war casualty, as if his death wasn't the sole responsibility of Zero's carelessness, of Zero's petulant, childish sense of entitlement to Big Boss and everything he ever touched. Kaz reaches a hand into his pocket, wraps his fist around the dog tags he's kept on him since their helicopter plummeted into the ocean.

"He had no right," Kaz whispers again. "Ro had no one else. The body should have been turned over to me."

There's a brief silence from Ocelot, which can only mean he's taken off guard again. There are few things to which he doesn't have a glib response, and this is one of them.

"I...didn't know you were so close with your...soldiers," he responds cautiously. It's the safest thing he can think to say in the moment.

But Kaz isn't listening. He's gone somewhere else. It's as though a light has suddenly blinked out within him, and Ocelot is so thrown by his reaction that he falls into an awkward silence.

He was just a medic, Ocelot thinks. Who the hell was this guy to him?


 

Kaz had called it the moment Ocelot gave him that weak, bullshit story, and like an idiot, he'd allowed himself to be convinced anyway. Allowed the lying son of a bitch to make him doubt his instincts, which had never failed him before. 

He never saw a body. It was the one thing Ocelot was steadfast in denying him. Of course, of course.

But Kaz knows better than to ask questions now. He can't be sure who's listening, or what Ronan's - Venom's - objective is, so his only option is to play along. 

So he lets Snake help him into the shower. Funny, how he expertly works around Kaz's wounds as he washes him, almost like he's done this sort of thing dozens of times before. 

And despite everything, it's...pleasant. Overwhelmingly pleasant. Through his anger and betrayal, he feels relieved. 

Ro is alive.

He's wearing another man's face, but christ, he's alive. And so Kaz lets go, lets himself be handled by this man, surrenders his body to him and allows himself to be truly nurtured for the first time since that day Amanda found him overdosed in that hotel room. He lethargically complies with the way Venom gently maneuvers his body around, then lets himself be carried to bed. The shock of this discovery has drained him, so he just lets it happen. He's still jumpy, still cringes at being touched, but Venom is so conscientious, always waiting for permission, ready to withdraw and give Kaz his space if he asked.

But Kaz doesn't want space. He's too proud to say it, he finds something incredibly weak and pathetic in asking him to stay with him through the night, but Venom seems so attuned to nonverbal cues that it's not even a question. He eases Kaz back against the pillows, then silently unstraps his prosthetic. The eyepatch follows.

Kaz's breath hitches - Snake never did that. He never liked showing that one small vulnerability about him, and though Kaz was one of the only people to ever see him without it - eventually - it was always a rare occasion. The way Venom does it so freely, without any thought, it's like he's not even trying to put up a convincing act. Kaz wonders if it's some sort of test, a provocation to see if he'll say something. Why would Ro even agree to something like this?

But Venom doesn't even seem to be looking for a reaction. If anything, he's distant, locked away inside himself, almost like he's acting purely on autopilot. Kaz watches him closely as he settles down beside him, but when Venom tilts him onto his side and slides his uneven arms around him, Kaz's eyes flutter shut and a small, blissful sound hums deep in his throat. He can feel Venom's heart beating against his back, the tickle of his beard as he brushes an almost-kiss over the top of his shoulder, and it's so infuriatingly comforting that it starts to lull Kaz to sleep.

Then there's a swift jolt of panic as he suddenly recalls the dog tags - they'd been stuffed away in his pocket, in the pants the medics ended up cutting off of him to treat his injuries. They'd be headed toward the incinerator now if they weren't there already.

"Hey, it's alright," Venom murmurs, having felt Kaz's body tense against him. "You're safe now." Venom's hand smooths lazy caresses along his side, and Kaz can't help but lean into it.

Kaz knows it's a silly, trivial thing to worry about anyway, especially now. It was silly to have held onto them all those years in the first place. It had been superstitious and sentimental, two concepts Kaz had always found incredibly trite and unnecessary. But still, it seems important. It was a compulsive habit, a part of him for nine years. Something just feels wrong about letting them go.

Venom tucks Kaz closer, nudges his nose into the juncture of his neck and shoulder. "Mm. Feels good," he mumbles, the subtle vibration of his voice sending a shudder down Kaz's spine.

Christ, and it does. It's fucked up, it's so fucked up, Kaz isn't anywhere closer to answering the questions he's had for almost a decade, but he's got his medic back and it feels good. And in the distance, he can hear the waves crashing against the struts, the hum of the hydraulic cranes, the faint thud of boots on pavement as the men patrol outside, and it feels just like old times again.

Venom must hear it too, because he presses his lips to Kaz's ear and whispers, "Kaz, listen. We're home."