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Folie à Deux

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“You know,” Kaz says, his first night out of med-bay. “I had this fantasy… when I was in the hole that you’d come for me and kill all the men who did this to me.”

“That’s unusually naive of you.”

“Yeah, I know... you would have killed one out of convenience and then convinced the other two to join up.”

“Mmm. Waste not, want not.”

“But I still think about it.”

“Would it have changed anything?”

“No, but it would have made me feel better.”

You exhale a blue cloud of smoke out into the night and cautiously slide your hand along the railing, cupping it over Kaz’s with the delicacy of a question mark. You’re not sure if this is okay yet.

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” you say, running your metal thumb over his flesh knuckles. “Afghanistan’s a big place. We won’t find them now.”

“Hn,” is all he says. You move closer, and the distance between you grows.

The First Man

With Kaz hoisted over your shoulders, you turn and in the darkness find a man staring you down. He’s shocked to see you - here, in the middle of the night, with a prisoner they’d left to the vultures. He hesitates for just a moment - his AK-47 at half mast, his eyes catching the light through the window - and that’s a moment long enough for you to put a bullet between his eyes. When he hits the ground, Kaz lets out a long, quivering hiss. At the time, you’d thought it pained, but in retrospect you realize that it was something else entirely.

“I knew…” Kaz rasps, his hand groping blindly for your face so that he can run his knuckles down the length of your jaw. “I knew you’d come for me… after all this time… I knew-”

The Second Man

It doesn’t go so smoothly the second time.

You don’t even think about it. He’s just another face. He comes at you from behind a blind corner and Quiet nails him in the neck with a tranq round. You turn in time to see him stagger left, then right, clawing mad at his bulging jugular vein before he topples, boneless, into the sand, kicking up a burst of dust when he falls. You turn him over and make a quick analysis: check the colour of the patch on his collar, scan him over for war wounds, think about how efficiently he stalked up behind you. Red with two stripes, a jagged river of burn tissue down the inside of his left arm - he’s a survivor, exactly the kind of man who would do well outside of heaven. You bring him in.

“Technician,” your Russian interpreter tells you when he comes out of the cell. “Good at pistol modification, trained interrogator.”

You don’t think anything of it. Why would you? You trained every one of your field agents in the basics back in the day, have clear memories of -

(“You want to pull the arms back at this angle when you tie him up. It’ll put pressure on the shoulder blades but if you do it right, you can pull back even this far without dislocating anything.”

“Boss, is this really necessary?”

“For a man like you? Absolutely. A man with medical training knows his way around the human body better than most of us. If you get into a tough situation, I don’t want you to panic and do something you’d regret later.”

He hands you a knife, and a shoot of bamboo. You’ll always remember -)

- that, at least. “Give him a new name,” you tell the interpreter. “He’s one of us now.”

*

In the morning, he’s dead.

*

Kaz isn’t the kind of man to regret anything he does, that’s why you’ve always kept him close by your side. So you don’t expect an apology. What you do expect, however, is an explanation.

What Kaz says is: “I recognized his face.”

He doesn’t quite look at you. You see the top of his eyes over the rim of his sunglasses, just for a second - a fleeting, but confident plea: don’t push me on this. Don’t question me. Back me up. He won’t ask for it out loud.

Ocelot pushes for you. Seated at the far end of the conference table with his booted calf hooked over one knee, Ocelot is relaxed, unwound, impersonal. He adjusts one of his gloves, making a show of examining the stitching along the side rather than giving Kaz the dignity of eye contact. They’re always like this - casting insults over their shoulders, directing their suggestions to you as if the other one isn’t in the room, always, always expecting you to mediate.

Miller,” he drawls, “you can’t make administrative decisions based on your personal feelings.”

Kaz scoffs. “Personal feelings? The man was a sadist. I saw it first hand. Bringing a man like him into the fold would just cause problems in the ranks eventually, and we can’t afford that.”

“A sadist?” Ocelot arches one of his long eyebrows. “Is that true? Or was he just inexperienced?”

“Excuse me?”

“Untrained men resort to sloppy methods in torture. They panic, or they haven’t been taught not to take pleasure in the act. A botched interrogation is hardly a reason to write an otherwise talented soldier off completely.”

Kaz’s mouth twitches - not in irritation, but with the same kind of raw-edged pain he tries, unsuccessfully, to swallow down when he twists wrong on his plastic leg. You -

(- running your thumb along the scarred edge of the skin, reach up to undo the straps.

“Don’t,” he says, voice guttering in the back of his throat. It’s dark in here, but you can see the look on his face, feel the tension in his muscles. You- )

- have his back. “Ocelot,” you say tiredly, metal hand hitting the table with a hollow clang. “- that’s quite enough.”

“No, Boss. It’s okay. Let him talk.” Kaz pushes out of his chair and takes three steps towards Ocelot, glove leather creaking around the handle of his crutch as he looms over your other lieutenant, pupils hidden by the light hitting his aviators. “Sounds like he has something to say.”

“It’s nothing I haven’t said before. Miller, you’re too hot-headed to be trusted to interrogate - or punish - our prisoners.”

“Rich, coming from you.”

“Hm? Sounds like you’re the one who has something to say.”

“Don’t lecture me about sadism, Ocelot. I’ve seen it in your eyes. You enjoy it. There’s nothing you enjoy more.”

Ocelot smiles, thinly. “Everyone enjoys the rhythm and rigour of doing something they excel at efficiently. I take pride in my work, but I’m not like you, Miller.”

“Oh? What am I like?”

“You may not enjoy it, but you do relish it. You use it to soothe your broken pride. It makes you foolish and dangerous in that room, as dangerous and foolish as that man you had put to death last night.”

“Are you calling me a hypocrite?”

With no change in his expression, Ocelot says: “Yes.”

The sound of your chair scraping against the floor stops Kaz from moving. He’s halfway through something: raising his elbow, taking a step - you can’t tell what his intention was, to move closer, or to take a swing. The Kaz you remember from the 70’s was quick to raise his fists when his pride was ruffled, but those feathers were also notoriously difficult to get under in the first place. You can’t predict him anymore. Years ago, you could triangulate the angle of his chin like lining up a rifle shot; the last decade has put lines on him you don’t recognize.

- but your gaze still carries weight. He droops beneath it, turns away as quickly as he looks back. Makes a snide, but defeated noise, in the back of his throat.

“Whatever,” he mutters. “I have work to do.”

He leaves - as noisily as possible, and putting great and strenuous effort into making sure the heavy, metal door slams shut behind him. When he’s gone, Ocelot stares at you in the dim light, lips pursed like he wants to say something but doesn’t want to be the first one to talk. You slide back into your seat, running your hand - the gloved one - over your face in frustration.

“Give him time,” you sigh. That’s all there is. What else can be done?

It takes Ocelot a while to respond. He speaks delicately:

“Personal feelings are one thing, Boss,” he says, “but whatever you feel about it, Miller is another tool in your arsenal.”

“Ocelot…”

Ocelot continues, unfettered: “He’s not effective unless properly used. You’re letting him flounder like this. Soldiers need direction. A firm hand.”

“What are you suggesting?”

Ocelot pauses, raises his hands. Flat; feigning innocence, like he doesn’t enjoy what he’s about to say. You know him better than that, however, don’t you? “I’m just saying… maybe you should give him what he wants.”

*

Kaz doesn’t answer when you knock. It’s pretty behaviour because he knows you’re just going to come in anyway. You consider not rising to his bait, but then spend so long loitering on the deck with your override key pinched between two fingers that you know you’ve already lost before you’ve begun. Kaz doesn’t react to the door sliding open, just shields his eyes against the light you bring in with you. He’s sitting on his bed, stripped down to dress shirt and pants, scanning over the monthly budget with the ledger on his lap and a pen in his mouth. You lean against the wall with your arms crossed and patiently wait for him to acknowledge you. It takes minutes - purposefully measured ones in which Kaz underlines names and figures with a deliberate languish.

You break first.

“Kaz, I don’t have all day.”

“What do you want, Boss?”

“To see how you were holding up.”

He looks at you and slowly raises one eyebrow. “That wasn’t the first time I’d had that conversation with Ocelot. I’ll survive.”

“That’s -” he looks away, picks up the pen again. You -

feel the tendons in your flesh hand contract. Your fingers twitch, long to form a fist

- sigh soft in the back of your throat and go to him, pluck the pen from his hand before it can hit the paper. “- not what I meant,” you finish.

He stares up at you through his lashes, eyes smokey with impatience. Your mouth pulls into a frown, a grimace; your patience is infinite for this man, but it’s a bit much sometimes, the way he forces you to work for every inch of ground with him and the way he throws himself at you like he’s flinging himself off a cliff and expects you to catch him by the arm, and how you can never tell which it’s going to be until you’re already standing over him trying to scale the unbreachable wall of his deeply treasured pain.

“Kaz, talk to me.”

“You don’t think I would have come to you if I needed to talk?”

“Obviously not.”

Kaz reaches for his pen, but you jerk your hand away, hold it above your shoulder. The ledger tumbles from his lap and hits the floor at an angle that crumples the paper.

“If you didn’t need to talk about it, you would have told me what that man did and why you had him killed.”

“So you think I made a bad call?”

“I think that it causes confusion in the ranks when men are put to death without a clear explanation from us.”

Kaz leans forward and reaches for his crutch, doesn’t break eye-contact. “You didn’t answer my question: did I make a bad call?”

The atmosphere between you is suffocating when you’re alone like this. You feel like he’s stealing all your air when he looks at you. Your hand feels natural around Kaz’s hip when you stop to help him down, but not when you tug him in for a kiss; you feel like -

(“Kaz is an organized man, but he’ll burn the candle at both ends if you let him. I’ve seen him work for three and a half days without sleep, running on nothing but coffee and field rations and even then, the only reason he slept was because I slung him over my shoulders, threw him in a tent and sat on him until he shut up.”

“So you want me to watch him?”

“Mmm. Not for long. Just make sure he doesn’t trick everyone into letting him take a triple shift while I’m gone. And…”

“Boss?”

“Heh - never let him start talking if you expect to win an argument. Giving Kaz a verbal in is like letting him strike up a match to light a sewer.”)

- he needs so much from you, that it’s like lighting a match in a dark sewer: it burns hard, burns quick, sucks up all the oxygen and still doesn’t show you where you’re going. Almost unconsciously, you take a step back when he goes to stand and accidentally drop the pen. The space you put between is more than your arm, but only just.

“I think you acted rashly,” you say, neutral.

Kaz tips his head and peers at you, into you. “... why are you so calm?”

“I understand why you did what you did, Kaz. What would yelling at you accomplish?”

“Ha, rich! Snake - either you agree with me and you back me up, or you think I made a bad call and you dress me down. Stop it with this in-between crap.”

“You want me to reprimand you?”

“I want you to - debate with me. Start shit with me! Anything but… brushing me aside in front of Ocelot and the men! Pretending you have no problems with anything I do. What? You think I can’t handle it?”

“Kaz, that’s not it…”

“Then what is it!?”

That’s a good question. You look him over - up and down, twice - eyes lingering over where he’s folded up the loose sleeve of his dress shirt, pinned it to his shoulder so that it doesn’t get all tangled up inside his coat. His beard is uneven, overgrown. His hair is flat and greasy. The contrast is fascinating - his uniform: not a fold out of place, but beneath it he’s falling apart.

No, you don’t think he can handle it. You should, you think, order him on bed rest, strip him of his command until he can prove that he can sleep for eight hours uninterrupted. The only reason you don’t is because - well, if you did, what would happen? What would he do? Work is the only thing keeping him alive.

The silence between you grows thick. Kaz takes an unsteady step closer and stares you down with burning, furious eyes. It’s as if he can see the lines of your thought process through your skin.

“... hit me,” he says quietly.

“What?”

He tosses his head back. Almost smiles. “I’ve been disobedient. So why don’t you hit me?”

Your fist twitches on instinct because you’re still so keyed up. You have to take a deep breath to stop yourself from obeying him.

“Stop this.”

Something glints in his eyes, fierce and competitive. Never let him start talking if you want to win “You’re afraid to do it. You’re afraid to hit me. I saw it, you - you fucking recoiled!”

Kaz-”

“You wouldn’t have hesitated before. What’s changed?”

You. You’ve changed. I’m not- “You… weren’t like this before” you say uselessly. Of course he didn’t used to be like this. There is a distance of nine years yawning between the two of you. You don’t know him anymore.

“Like what?” Kaz wonders with a vicious curl to his lip. “Insubordinate? Pushy? Prone to emotional outbursts? I know I’m fucked up, Boss, you don’t have to remind me of what I lost, but why won’t you -” he grits his teeth. “Why don’t you -”

“Kaz-”

“- do something about,

You hit him. A firm backhand with your flesh knuckles that snaps his head to one side. He’s shocked at first, crawls a hand up the edge of his jaw to feel the tender skin. He’s shaking when he looks at you again.

“Not… not like that,” he rasps, glancing at you from the corner of his eyes. They dip down to eye your prosthetic, almost hungrily. “With your other hand.”

You do it again. It rocks his head back and even expecting it, his body does not absorb the blow gracefully. He crumbles, tries to get his arm beneath him and fails, hits the floor hard, eyes wide. “A-again,” he says.

“Get up.”

He scrambles back, braces himself against his desk so he can crawl to his feet. You hit him before he’s got his footing. Instead of letting him fall, you catch him with your metal arm: snug around his neck. You kick the desk’s chair out from under it and push Kaz up on the table, hold him in place with your body.

“Why didn’t you consult me about the execution?” you ask. You speak low to him. Calm, voice edged with just the slightest blade of threat. This is what they taught you the voice that always gets you results during interrogations. It hits on something primal inside a human being, drums up the deep, dark feelings of being stalked by a predator, of being helpless beneath a parent’s raised hand; even Kaz can’t help but respond to it, and he knows you best. He shivers in full-body anticipation and whispers:

“If… if I had… what would you have done with… him?”

“What would you have wanted me to do?”

Kaz’s eyes fall shut. He says: “Exactly… what he did… to me…”

You settle between his knees, push him back a little so that you can set your unoccupied hand on his thigh. He sucks in a ragged breath when you whisper, right into his ear: “tell me.”

“Cut off… a few fingers,” he hisses. “Get the… fingernails first. Rusted… metal beneath them. Leave it like that. Sepsis only takes a week to turn deadly, e-every… every soldier knows that.”

You shift your hand on his throat, massage your thumb over the jugular. “And after that?”

Kaz takes deep gulps, keeps going. His voice gets breathy and starts coming in pants. “K-keep him in a room where he… can’t track the passage of days… give him enough light to… to panic about the symptoms.”

You slide your flesh hand up the hard plane of his torso, running your thumb along the seam of his shirt until it finds the back of the pin keeping his empty sleeve in place. You click it open and let the whole thing spool free.

“We… we let him wonder if after everything he’s survived if this… if this is how he’s going to fucking die… from a wound so minor he… laughs when we inflict it. Give him time to really savour it… the slow realization that even if we let him live, he’s gonna lose the hand - gonna lose th-the -” Kaz chokes when your fingers brush over the ridge of his stump. The flesh feels cracked and ragged even through a crisp layer of fabric.

“Lose what?”

“The… the arm!” Kaz rasps. “We’d chop off his... fucking… arm… but only… shit, Boss… only when it got so bad he… he would be begging us to do it.”

You ease off your grip, lift your thumb to give him air. He gasps for breath, so hard he accidentally slams his head against the bulkhead behind him, eyes spinning. You grab his face in both hands to steady him, thread your fingers through his hair lovingly and rest your forehead against his.

“Thank you for telling me that, Kaz.”

He nods numbly, mutters an affirmative under his breath.

“- but you know that it would have been impossible. That kind of eye for an eye retribution solves nothing. It wouldn’t have made you feel better.”

“I know…” Kaz nods again, then smiles. “... so, really, Boss - I did the right thing by having him executed.”

Intellectually, you realize that he’s just played a rhetorical trick on you, pinned you down in a trap of circular logic. Before you can argue, he opens his eyes. The way he looks - peaceful, lucid, grateful - that stills your tongue. Ocelot’s voice echoes inside your skull.

Why don’t you give him what he wants?

“Glad we had that talk, Boss,” Kaz says. Sincerely. Well, okay.

You kiss the bruise forming just beneath his left eye, and don’t stop there.

*

The first time you fought - not the first time, but… the first time…

After you brought Quiet back to base, he refused to see you for two weeks. It was easy enough to bear. You almost didn’t notice, you spent so much time out in the field, or shaking hands with the steady instream of eager new recruits. When you finally stood face to face with him again, you only noticed the passage of time because of how thick his facial hair had grown in. Every time you see him he looks better, and he looks worse. Often in equal measures.

You said:

“Kaz, about the woman…”

And he -

- he snaps his hand up to silence you. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

You stand in the center of his office - mouth silent, feet heavy, arms useless - as he scribbles away at his paperwork. When he sets down his pen, you observe:

“You’re still upset.”

“I’ll get over it,” he says cooly, pushing out of his seat. He slowly limps around the edge of his desk so that the only thing between you is empty air. “One thing, though. There’s just one thing I need you to promise me.”

“Of course.”

“Boss,” he sighs, “I just need to know that you’re with me.”

“I’m with you, Kaz.”

“No, you aren’t.” He slumps against the edge of his desk and takes his sunglasses off, sets them beside him, next to where he’s leant his cane. When he looks at you, you realize that this is the first time you’ve really gotten a good look at his eyes since rescuing him. He guards them jealously: squeezes them shut when you slide the shades off, makes you kiss him in the dark, refuses to submit to any eye-tests, to find out what was done to him. With the lamplight reflecting off his pale irises, his eyes look like glass; you can’t see past them.

He starts again: “Don’t make me… don’t make me start at the bottom again here, Snake. After everything we went through… I thought that you knew by now. You can talk to me. You can tell me what you’re thinking.”

His voice is delicate, trembling like he’s naked. No, not naked; Kaz has never had a problem being naked. His voice is trembling like he’s pulled off his skin - every layer of flesh, like the words are stripping him down to his bones. You think of -

… sawing through a breastbone, sweat running down your brow, pooling in the cavity beneath your eye. It overflows every time you blink, runs down your cheeks like tears, makes your vision blurry. You’re breathing hard and listening to the wind smash the cheap blinds against the window frame. I’ve never done this on a human before is what you should have said. You thrust your hands into the chest cavity, bite the inside of your mouth. I’ve only ever done this on cadavers, animals, not - the heart contracts beneath your palms. It flutters like a trapped butterfly, desperately beating its wings to escape. It feels like, you think, it sounds like the backbeat of an old love song, like when they turn up the bass so loud in a bar that you feel it all the way in your spine. That’s what you think days after the man is dead, whenever you hear a song on the radio. You -

You blink. Kaz is staring at you, his naked eyes half lidded, his bottom lip twisted. You’ve been quiet too long and because of that, you’ve proven him right. You’re not here with him. Where are you? Kaz’s fingers tighten around the edge of the desk and he turns his head. He tries again.

“Didn’t I tell you again and again… you don’t have to do all this shit alone, Snake. And if you’re doing it alone I… I-” he stutters here, squares his jaw. “- then I’m doing it alone too and I’ve been doing this alone for too goddamn long.”

It costs him a lot to let you hear that wet hitch in his voice, the one that betrays the thinness of the threads he’s hanging by. You respond to that fragility almost unconsciously: your legs take you across the room, your hands close around the frame of his face. When his eyes flutter shut, you brush your thumbs across the lids of his eyes before kissing him. He lets you kiss him however you want to: gentle, tongue along his lower lip, a firm hand guiding his jawline, anchoring him. I’m right here, is what you’re trying to say. Where are you?

Kaz laughs when you part. It doesn’t come out gracefully. It’s rough all the way through. “Y’know, back in the day didn’t you scold me all the time for trying to use this method to solve arguments?”

You wind your arms around his waist and pull him close, whisper into his hair: “a good commander uses his opponent’s tactics against him.”

“God,” he breathes, “shut up.”

- after that first time you thought it was settled. You thought you knew what he wanted.

*

“A state is not - like the ground which it occupies - a piece of property, but a society of men whom no one has any right to command or to dispose of except the state itself.”

You nod and take a drag off your Phantom Cigar, eye closed against the bright light. The wormwood smoke burns on the way down. You suck it behind your tongue and swallow, hold it in, let the fumes slither out your nostrils. Paz pauses for a moment to cough politely. She continues reading in her spun-sugar light voice. It bounces off each word with a weightless vibrancy you find soothing. That’s why you come here when -

“ - a state is a trunk, with its own roots,” she says, “to incorporate it into another state, like a graft, is to destroy its existence as a moral person… re… reducing it to a thing.”

- when everything else gets too loud. When you can’t think -

Paz coughs again. “Such incorpora… such incorporation thus contradicts the… idea of the origina - origi… nal… I am sorry -”

You blink your eye open to see her pouting at you, fingers scooped up into her palms. Not quite fists, but close as she ever gets.

“Snake!” she admonishes. “Must you really smoke that thing in here!?”

“Oh,” you take the filter from your mouth and slowly lower the cigar. You turn it around in your fingers, fascinated by the way the lit end splits the smoke as it rises. “Yeah, right. It’s just that it helps…”

She stares at you sympathetically through her bangs. “With the pain..?” she ventures, her fingers dancing along the length of her wound almost unconsciously.

“Yeah,” you answer, clicking the cigar off. “With the pain. I’m done now. Keep reading.”

Instead of indulging your request, she folds the book shut on her lap and sighs. “You know, at first I thought that this was my chance - if I could not convince you to read ‘Perpetual Peace’, then I could read it for you… but you are not even listening!”

“Sorry Paz, I’ve… got a lot on my mind.”

She cocks her head to the side, hair fluttering like wheat in the breeze. “… of course. Things have been very difficult for the MSF lately. I am sorry for bothering you with this, it is just hard for me, being cooped up in this room. You have done so much for me... I wish that I could help.”

You unhook your ankle from its rest on your knee and lean forward to pull the blanket up over Paz’s hips, to tuck her in. She shivers even in the brutal Seychelles heat, pale and emaciated from her wounds. Logically you know that she’s over thirty now, but she still looks like a teenager: wide-eyed and deer-legged, so thoroughly inhabiting the hollow shell of her false persona that you’re afraid it’s the only part of her that’s left.

“You are helping. Don’t worry about it,” you say kindly.

She stares at you with utterly sincere concern and asks, after a moment: “Snake… did you and Commander Miller have a fight?”

“What?” How could she -

“Usually,” she turns her face away, tugs at the ends of her hair, “if you have got a lot on your mind, you speak with Miller, so it is natural to conclude that if you are hiding in here, the problem must be with him.”

“Hn,” you ease back, letting your eyes drift towards the window above. Through the plexiglass, you can make out the shadow of the Base Development platform in the distance. “Yeah, we fought. We’ve been fighting a lot lately.”

“What about?”

“Stuff you’d rather not know about, Paz. People in our line of work sometimes have to do ugly things. Kaz and I don’t… always see eye to eye on it.”

You see her nodding from your peripheral vision.

“It’s strange,” she murmurs. “I was only out for a few days, but everyone has changed so much. Miller… he used to be so bright and vibrant - like he could fill a room with his smile. To be honest, I found him quite irritating most of the time. But now… he’s so…”

far away. Even when you’re touching him, you can’t touch him. You feel like this about almost everything these days - like when you reach out for it, there’s a pane of glass in the way. That’s why you come here, to this room, when it gets to be too much. When you need to breathe.

“Kaz is sick,” you say. “He needs some time to lick his wounds.”

“No,” Paz replies, setting you with a burning looking at you that draws your eyes back to her. She clutches the bedsheet in her thin fingers. “When you have been hurt like that it is only more painful to be alone. When I… when the CIA men took me I… well, afterwards, the only reason I survived was because Professor Galvez took care of me. Miller is the same way. He needs you, Snake. And it can only be you.”

“Why does it have to be me?”

“Because… you are the only one he trusts.”

- and if you’re doing it alone I… I- - then I’m doing it alone too and I’ve been ---- alone for too long.

“And to you, Miller is…”

You stare at her. Her eyelashes flutter as her eyes pull open, looking caught. “I mean… you and him, your relationship is…”

Paz?”

She clasps her hands together and leans her cheek against them. “Ah... once I saw you two in the sick bay,” she admits. “You had just come back from a mission and were being stubborn as usual. He was… trying to convince you to take stronger pain medication, but for some reason you refused and he became cross with you. I did not hear the whole conversation, but…” She shakes her head and buries her face in her hands, beet red. “Oh, it is terribly embarrassing. Do not make me say it.”

“Hmph. I did always tell him to be more discreet-”

“Do not worry, Snake - I have not told anyone, and I do not think anything of it… except that you must be there for him. You must help him through his pain. Promise me that you will try.”

“I -” you are trying. You -

“Hit me-” he says and you feel energy spike through your metal hand like it’s got real tendons in it. “Give him what he wants,” Ocelot whispers, voice silk smooth with confidence. If you’re not careful, he’ll burn the candle at both ends and scorch you both in the process. The crack your hand makes against the side of his face echoes against the metal walls of the room, against the bone walls of your skull. Why did you do it? Did you want to do it, or were you pushed? It felt good to let go, just for a moment. It felt good to be the de - no, what he wants from you is not what you want, but maybe it’s what he needs so you can, for him you can -

You come to shaking, sweat beaded at your temples. You blink your eye against the brightness of the late afternoon sun only -

- only it’s dark, pitch dark in the room. It’s empty, barren - except for the faint red lights refracting through the window, casting dark caverns across the empty cot where the blankets are all crumpled and folded up from where you pulled them up over Paz’s gored stomach. No, no, (you fumble your hands along the bedside table, knock all the empty pill bottles and photographs to the floor and you) that’s not (slam your palm on the switch for the overhead lights) right -

When you open your eyes, Paz is looking at you with her big, blue eyes. In the wash of fluorescent lighting she looks white and thin as paper. “Snake,” she says. “It’s not just Miller who is wounded. You need him as well. You need each other.”

“Y… yeah,” you swallow a mouthful of sour spit. She’s right. Even hollowed out like this - half a person - she is wise beyond her years.

Wasted from exertion, Paz lays her head back and closes her eyes. Her hair fans out around her in a halo. Skinny arms folded, hands on her heart like a dying saint: Christina Mirabilis ready to rise from her coffin. A true angel of peace.

With a shaky exhale, she says: “It is a good thing, for all of us I think, that Peace Day will be so soon.”

“Yeah.”

*

You remember - the last memory you have before it all went down: your hands soaked in blood up to the elbow, breathing hard but trying to hide it... when you were a child you had asthma briefly. Back then it was still considered a psychosomatic illness so your father, he made you run laps on Sundays until you -

“I don’t have a father, or a mother, not that I remember. I --- -- and then joined the military at age ---- I -”

“ -- JACK --”

--- don’t have a name. Stopped using that code name you’re so fond of years ago...”

- you know how to steady your breathing, how to swallow back your hyperventilating so no one notices that anything is wrong, till your lungs are burning and feel like they’re going to burst. You needed to be the calm one in that helicopter. There was you, and the FSLN kid, and Paz, and Commander Miller Kaz and the Boss you, staring at your hands with blank, dark eyes… eye?

There’s still blood on the Boss’ hands - a faint splattering along the top of his knuckles, left hand. And another smear on his ribcage, from where he dragged Commander Miller to the chopper. You remember noticing these details because, aside from that, he’s a pristine statue of calm - a gathering storm - and you - you haven’t killed a single man today and still: you’re covered in blood. And still: and still -

“Give it back!”

Chico’s eyes are darting back and forth as Morpho bucks the helicopter hard to port and everything inside not nailed down rocks to the left. Miller is shaking your shoulders, pleading, begging with you, as if you’re the one who can give it all back. And you’re just staring at him with an empty eye and even emptier hands. You don’t have anything for him except a black hole of -

“- this is how it always ends. We shouldn’t have stayed still so long.”

“A little late for regrets like that, isn’t it Boss?”

[a sigh] “... you’re right, Kaz. Tell the R&D team to prepare ZEKE for submersion. And you… you have some calls to make.”

No, that’s not right. You were on the other side of the cabin, with Paz. When Commander Miller Kaz rounded on her, you grabbed him by the waist, pulled him close, wheeled him around so that -

You’ve never seen him angry, not really angry, but you knew - you knew that he was like this -

- he reels in your arms, jerks back and forward, gets his elbows in your ribcage. You feel like you’re trying to stop a grenade from exploding, to hold the force inside the cracked cast iron after the pin’s been pulled. He spits some nasty words and you -

(the Boss is just staring at his hands, out at the burning water. Why doesn’t he say something!?)

- and then she’s on her feet, stumbling towards the open hatch of the helicopter, her sutures flexing and leaking with every unsteady step. You hands fall away from Kaz’s waist and you reach out to her. It’s okay, Paz, it’s okay, we got it out, you don’t have to -

You haven’t killed anyone today, but your arms are soaked in blood and still, still -

(- she died anyway.)

But the thing is, the thing that you’re absolutely certain of is that he used to listen to you.

*

“Are they even still alive?”

“It depends on how you define ‘life’,” Code Talker says in his slow, raspy voice. You’re wheeling him through the dim quarantine room where you’ve taken all the Soviet soldiers “Puppeteered” by the SKULLS unit. Kaz is at one of your shoulders, Ocelot at the other, and Huey is trailing behind uncertainly, wrenching his hands together with barely caged anxiety and glaring at you when he thinks you’re not looking. He begged to be taken along on the examination, but since he’s gotten here he’s contributed nothing except to make Commander Miller’s mood darker.

“How would you define it?” Ocelot asks lazily. He’s eyeing Code Talker from the corners of his eyes, voice airy, like he’s above this conversation, just asking to be polite. “You’re a man of science and faith, after all.”

“Hrmm… it is a complicated question. Life means a very different thing for the smallest one celled organism than it does to a human being.”

Code Talker’s blind eyes stare ahead, but his hand trails out to his side to brush along the edge of one of the gurneys. The Puppet tied down there gurgles and tries to reach for him, straining against the leather bonds. You clench the wheelchair’s handles tighter and veer the old man away from the patients.

“At its most base level, life is the presence of biological processes, but even our most specific definitions of life have become controversial. A virus does not have cells, but it engages in forms of reproduction. Is it alive? A human who has entered a vegetative state has a body that continues to perform cell reproduction and other self-sustaining biological processes, but they may never wake up. Are they alive?”

“Philosophical death,” Kaz murmurs, stalling to lean over one of the restrained soldiers. He tilts his head to stare into its empty eyes, his lip twisting at the way it mindlessly snaps its jaw. “If something lacks consciousness, but still responds to stimuli, you call it a ‘zombie’.”

Zombies,” Ocelot scoffs. “Miller, this isn’t the movies. We’re talking about real life here.”

“I’m not talking about the kind of thing you see in the movies,” Kaz retorts. “It was a theory put forth by Robert Kirk: if you poke someone with a sharp stick and they feel nothing, but they still respond as if they felt it, that would make them a Philosophical Zombie. It opened a lot of debates about mind and body dualism - if a philosophical zombie is indistinguishable from a conscious person, what is consciousness?”

Ocelot curls a knuckle under his chin and nods. “I see. It’s like the debate about the soul updated for modern philosophers.”

“Exactly - is human consciousness something with metaphysical property, or is it something derived from the physical experience of being human?”

“Strangelove once said -” Huey shrinks the moment you turn to look at him. The room falls silent except for the faint moans of the Puppets and Kaz’s cane striking the floor three times as he rounds the gurney to glower at the Doctor.

“Go on,” Kaz sneers. “Tell us what Strangelove said.”

Huey gulps, then fiddles with the controls on his leg augments. “She uh,” he rears up and paces ahead to place himself at the center of the group like he’s giving a speech at a conference. The heavy whirr of his steps drown out the soldiers’ soft groans. “Any of you ever watch that old show Star Trek?”

“I love Star Trek,” Code Talker says gravely.

“Well, in Star Trek they had this transportation technology where they would beam objects and people from one point to the other by breaking them down into complex energy patterns that would reconvert into matter once they arrived at their location.” Huey makes the motion of travelling from one point to the other with his hands, fluttering his fingers to represent the vertical lines of transporter special effect in the old show. “For intellectuals who watched the show, it raised a lot of questions: like, if every time they travelled they were being reconstructed again and again, what did that mean for their brain and consciousness?”

“Wasn’t the transporter just a way of saving money because they couldn’t afford to show a shuttle in every episode?” Kaz wonders, leaning heavy on his cane. “The writers didn’t exactly think it through.”

Huey waves him off. “Is that really what’s important, Commander Miller? Do you ever think about anything but profit?”

You can see Kaz bristle from the peripheral of your vision. Code Talker cuts him off before he can respond.

“All science and philosophy is derived from humans straining against our limitations. The boundaries of the world as we perceive it. Even unconsciously, the writers realized this quandary they had unintentionally written into their universe. It is not Spock - the man of rational science - who opposes the transporter, but Doctor McCoy. Humanist, emotional - a physicalist.”

“Right -” Huey grins, emboldened by how long Ocelot’s let him get away with pontificating without interruption. “I think it’s fair to say that memories are what make us individuals. A unique set of experiences and learned knowledge. But where are memories stored? Not in the physical mass of our brain, but in neural communication and maybe even the methylation of our DNA. There’s nothing that imprints a memory in our mind except for the more ephemeral active processes that fuel it. A memory isn’t like putting a piece of paper in a filing cabinet, it’s more like… a radio broadcast. And once the signal’s been interrupted -”

“- it can disrupt the whole broadcast. Permanently.” Ocelot finishes. “That’s why Electroconvulsive Therapy can erase memories.”

“Hn, your area of expertise,” Kaz jibes.

“Believe me, Miller, there are far more subtle ways of erasing a man’s memories. Far more reliable methods too. Perception is malleable. It’s rarely necessary to resort to physical means.”

You reach out to grab Kaz’s arm and run your thumb over the pulse beneath his elbow. Even through two layers of fabric you can feel it pounding like a drum. “Let Doctor Emmerich finish his thesis, you two. He doesn’t get to take many field trips these days.”

They both sigh - Kaz, loudly and petulantly. Ocelot does it more quietly, but with such a purposefully pitched hiss that it’s clear he is fatally bored with a conversation that has absolutely no material application.

Huey is losing steam and has started going a little pale, green at the gills. Sweat-stains are forming in the pits of his dress shirt even though it’s less than 10 degrees in the room. He wipes his face, arm shuddering the whole time. You can’t stand watching him suffer like this, so you throw him a bone. “What does this all have to do with Strangelove, Huey?”

“O-oh, yeah… well… sh-she… she was really fascinated by the idea that if memories could be recreated accurately, then it could be possible to recreate the essence of a flesh and blood person in AI. When a fellow technician asked her what she thought about the Star Trek transportation problem, she said: ‘I don’t think that it’s a problem at all’.”

Huey’s quavering impression of Strangelove’s crisp, british accent is terrible, but when you hear it a shudder goes through your spine anyway, like you’re inhabiting a room with a ghost. You hear it: the echo of her lilting, assured voice haunting the edges of Huey’s mushy consonants. It sends you suddenly spiralling. You realize that you’re still holding Kaz’s arm, gripping it a little too hard now. He’s looking at you, worried but trying not to show it. Huey keeps talking, oblivious to the change in your expression. You try to listen, but -

“The, uh, the idea is that the transporter essentially kills a person every time they use it and makes an entirely new person with an exact copy of their DNA, their cells, their memories - but is it really the same person, if everything that makes them them has been broken down, scrambled up and reconstituted?”

- you’re thinking about a room with a large window at one end, white walls. A british flag pinned loosely to the drywall. There’s light streaming through the white curtains. White flowers wilting beside you. You hear a tape playing and -

“Strangelove thought that it was a ludicrous proposition. If it was indistinguishable from the original person, and if it thought it was the original person, then what did it matter, she said.”

“Hm, Just like Miller’s ‘zombie’,” Ocelot mutters.

“Exactly. That was the philosophy she brought to her AI research. And that’s… th-that’s why she-” Huey’s voice begins to crack. “W-was so… brilliant -”

Two voices. One is… one is Strangelove, you know her, but the other...

“...Poisonous... I.... to get rid of it. I chase it back to its nest.”

“ -- which was the basic principle behind the mammal pod, so --”

“You can't. The snake's too vicious. It's killed many People.”

One voice is Doctor Strangelove, but the other is someone you’ve never heard before. She sounds like -

Ocelot claps his hands and Huey full-body shudders. “Interesting lecture, Doctor,” he says, “but I think you’ve been out a little past your curfew. Why don’t we head back to R&D and tuck you in? Your Battle Gear is doing its second field test tomorrow so you have a long day ahead.”

“... I chase it away.”

“It will bite you unless you kill it.”

- the room is so bright in the day that you feel like everything inside it is going to float away if you try to touch it. You can’t close your eyes. You can’t open your eyes. You can’t raise your arms, you can only listen to -

- the other voice, you don’t know her. She’s -

(“The Boss, your mentor, your master. She took you in at the age of fifteen and taught you everything she knew. You killed her and for that they gave you her code name.”)

I CHASE IT AWAY

Just like the puppets, your arms are strapped down to the gurney. When you try to move, the straps cut into your wrists, your ankles. You gasp for air. “Calm down,” the doctor is saying. “Calm down, soon you will be whole and healthy and you can go -”

JACK, GO HOME!

Huey is quietly panicking as Ocelot slings a friendly arm around his shoulder and begins leading him out of the room. You should have been the one to give the order, to send him off, but your tongue is too heavy. Words get clogged in your throat sometimes and your head gets so loud that you just can’t -

“W-wait - you said that I could come along and… and help!”

“Ocelot’s right. You’re done here, Doctor Emmerich. Code Talker can take it from here.”

Kaz gently tugs his arm away from you and that wakes you up. The sound of his voice - cracked and worn down, but still steady after all these years - it’s the sound of his voice that centers you, reminds you where you are. You breathe in, turn away to hide how difficult that breath is. You’re the man standing in the room - not the one laying down, clinging to the last dying strains of consciousness.

“Boss,” Kaz says softly, “you’ve been quiet. Are you thinking about...?”

You shake your head, hoping that it’s too dark for him to see the sweat on your brow. “Interesting conversation,” you respond, “But ultimately the only thing that matters is what we see and feel. Your senses, your instincts, your awareness in the moment. If these men don’t have that, I don’t think you can call it ‘living’.”

Kaz chuckles. “Somehow I’m not surprised you see it like that. So what do you think - are these men a lost cause?”

You cast a glance back at Code Talker. He can’t meet your gaze, but he raises his chin to acknowledge your attention. It’s eerie, the way he can see from all angles. Even Quiet’s preternatural sight only goes in one direction.

“Code Talker? You’re the expert. Is rehabilitation possible?”

He hesitates before answering. “I… wished to speak with you about that.” He pauses again, folds his hands. “Both of you.”

Kaz’s shoulders tense up instantly. Apparently this conversation is only new to you. You sway to the left, just a thread - enough that you and Kaz are close enough to share body heat in the refrigerated room.

“You may have noticed that Parasite therapy and exposure has disparate effects depending on the individual.”

“Yes,” you nod. “Those SKULLS Unit men and women I fought were more lucid than these soldiers. Still, they were like corpses. But Quiet… if you didn’t know, you’d think she was a normal human being.”

“The woman you call Quiet and the SKULLS Unit were both results of extensive research into the application of parasite therapy. They were treated in a laboratory by doctors who had access to the most intimate details of my many decades of research. Even with so much knowledge and technology at their disposal, you can see that the procedure is highly sensitive and, in most cases, it destroys all cognitive function.”

Kaz turns away from the conversation. You keep an eye on him as pulls his arm tight to his body and turns his face into the high collar of his coat.

“And what about people who are exposed incidentally, like these soldiers?”

“In almost every case they lose their sense of self and fall under the thrall of the parasites’ main host.”

You cross the aisle to examine another of the afflicted soldiers. You recognize this one: he’s in a Captain’s uniform, stained with black mud down the front. He threw himself at you mouth first in the ruins of security post outside OKB Zero. Quiet put a live round in his knee and the leg exploded on you in a bright spray of blood and cartilage. Now he’s staring at the ceiling with filmy eyes, his mouth mawing open and shut in a slow chew cycle as he scrabbles his fingers uselessly, twisting his arm against the pinch of the IV in his wrist.

“Why wasn’t I affected?” you ask quietly, memory of the parasite mist burning at the bottom of your lungs. You’ve been close to the SKULLS many times, close enough to see the shape of their twitching pupils beneath the light in their eyes.

“You did not spend long enough in the mist.”

“Then how long does it take?”

“Ten minutes. Fifteen at most. Longer than half an hour, the person is a lost cause.”

“I’m sensing a ‘but’ here.”

Code Talker hums an affirmative. “There is one person I know of who spent hours inside the mist and suffered almost no side effects from parasite exposure.” His milk-white eyes turn in their sockets and bore into Kaz’s back.

“No,” Kaz whispers.

“Kaz?” You reach for him and he pulls away. While you weren’t looking he’d drawn into himself even more, curled up and vibrating anger in tangible waves. Unreachable.

“No,” he says again, firmer this time.

“Kazuhira, if you would only let me examine your ey -”

No.”

“If I could understand what it was that made you so resilient to parasitic infection, I could help these men -”

Kaz spins around, hissing. “Old man, I already told you no.”

“I do not suggest this only for their sake. Kazuhira, you cannot keep living like this.”

“Weren’t you the one who told me that I should live with my pain? Learn how to coexist with it, like a parasite.”

“Do not twist my words when you know the true meaning, Kazuhira. Co-existing with your personal ghosts is not the same as what you are doing. If you do not face your pain head on, your coexistence will not reach a state of homeostasis. Your pain will prey on you like a tape-worm. It will hollow you out.”

“We already had this conversation once and I don’t want to have it again. Especially not -” Kaz whirls around and sees you staring at him. You don’t know what to say, what to do - you’ve been standing here with your flesh hand extended, waiting for him to turn back to you. His face pales. “- n-not in front of the Boss,” he stutters.

Code Talker lifts his chin and gestures to the space between the two of you. “This is the man that you told me you share life and death with. Why are you so afraid to let him see you weak?”

Kaz flinches. “What!?”

“Shielding your heart against him is another thing that will eat you from the inside.”

Several emotions ripple through the tensed lines of Kaz’s face. The first is sorrow, the last is the brutal, bitter clench of outrage. He says nothing as he sweeps past the both of you and slams his way out of the quarantine, leaving the air chilled in his wake.

The fingers in your prosthetic twitch. You grope for your phantom cigar and fiddle with the ‘on’ switch. “... and here I thought that you two got along,” is what you say to Code Talker.

The old man sighs. “I recognize Kazuhira. I recognize his anger, and his frustration at no longer being the man he thought he was.”

“I can see that, but there’s no reason to press his buttons like that.”

“It’s the unpleasant emotions that truly make us who we are. They gather inside a person like a storm. If one does not ride them through to their conclusion, it becomes a hurricane. You are too afraid to press his buttons and this is putting pressure on your partnership.”

You can’t stand it anymore: the stale cold air inside this room, the yawning emptiness that grows around you every day. The senseless, mindless noises that fill this room like static. You snap the cigar on and take a long, shaky drag. Code Talker wheels closer and tips his head up to peer at you. When he speaks, his tone is plaintive.

“Please try to convince him. You are the only one he listens to.”

“Maybe that was true once, but not anymore.”

“You do not hear how he speaks about you when you are not around. You can make him listen.”

You turn the cigar between your fingers. The smoke creates a screen between you and him, like the white curtain in the white room, filtering the light, making everything seem as insubstantial and untouchable as clouds -

“Yeah,” you say. He’s right. Kaz needs help and you’re the only one who can give him what he needs.

“You must speak with him soon,” Code Talker advises. “He is heading for a crash. And when it happens, you will not be the only one to suffer collateral damage.”

*

When it does happen, Kaz stays out all night and watches the coffins burn, down to the very last ember.

You don’t sleep either. You take a long walk around the platform, saluting the mourning soldiers out on night watch. You look for Quiet, but her cell is empty and - for once - completely silent.

When the sun starts coming up over the water, you go to see Kaz.

“You can say it, Boss,” he says as you come to stand beside him.

You don’t, mostly because you’re not certain what he wants you to say. You get caught in moments like this more and more frequently these days, words tangling in your throat, especially when it comes to Kaz who runs hot and cold when you don’t give him the answer he wants, the advice he expects. His shoulders hunch when the silence drags on too long, so lost in his own pain that he’s bracing against blows you have no intention of throwing.

Say it,” he rasps. “I fucked up.”

“You weren’t wrong that something suspicious was going on,” you say as way of peace offering. That just makes him angrier. At himself, not you.

“Don’t go soft on me based on theoretical variables, Boss. The only thing that ever matters are results, and the result here was…”

He moves to leave but you catch him by the shoulders and spin him back around. You hold him tight when he struggles against you, pulling him close to your chest as he twists in your arms, gets his elbow in your ribcage. You lock your arms around his waist like you’re trying to stop a grenade from exploding. He spits something into your shoulder, but you hold tight until he stops struggling and starts shuddering. He folds into the hollow of your neck, shoulders rocking from some silent violence brewing inside him. At first you think he’s crying - and maybe he was, just for a moment - but the gross hacking that rolls out from his throat is actually mirthless laughter.

Boss,” he whispers.

“Kaz.”

“Do you know what folie à deux is?”

You do, but you let him speak. He’s going somewhere with this and the least you can do is let him show you. He leans back and you loosen your grip on his hips, let him slip free from your arms and face the ocean. Kaz doesn’t stray far. He stays close enough that you could easily reel him back in if you need to.

“It’s a madness shared by two. When I first met you I thought… well, you know what I thought. I thought you were nuts. That everyone following you must be suffering from some form of delusional Stockholm Syndrome. Even when I gave in, I never gave… Snake, you know how hard I fought.”

His voice sheds some of its gravel when he talks about the MSF days, even like this when the two of you are surrounded by the corpses of your own men. He shifts on his crutch and turns his head towards the sunrise. You can see a brittle smile forming on his profile.

“- but it was me, y’know. My ambitions got out of hand and you just kept going along with everything I said. I couldn’t believe how much you let me get away with. But I didn’t think about it. I just assumed that if I went too far, you’d smack me down. I was navigator, but you were the captain; that’s how much faith I had in you. I never thought that I could push you, influence you… n-not in any way that mattered at least. I never thought I could drag you down.”

“You didn’t drag me down, Kaz. You’ve never dragged me down.”

“Don’t patronize me, Boss. Not right now.”

“I’m not patronizing you. Look what you accomplished without me. You built this, Kaz, all of this, while I was sleeping. You survived.”

“Did I? I lost nine years, Snake, but it felt like -” he snaps his fingers, “- like nothing. Like I blinked, closed my eyes for just a second and when I opened them, a decade had passed. Like I was in that coma with you. But -” he laughs brokenly. “I’m a hypocrite. I begged you to let me in, but I didn’t do you the same courtesy. And here I am - the one responsible for their deaths.”

“You saying that you want to go crazy together again, Kaz?”

He shakes his head. “No, Snake. I’m saying the exact opposite.” He turns to face you, crutch balanced against his hip. In the morning light, you can see his eyes beneath the shades, but his expression is as inscrutable as his voice is fragile. Very slowly, he reaches out and runs his hand through your beard. He pulls it away, fingers grey with human remains. Oh.

You grab his wrist to stop him, but he yanks hard against you. “No, Boss - let me…”

“Kaz -”

“Every step of this, Boss… we’ll do every step of this together. I told you all those years ago, I’m with you. If you went down,” he presses his eyes shut. “Boss, if you went down and you didn’t take me with you this time… I couldn’t stand it.”

He stares at you with such total and complete trust that suddenly it -

(- feels wrong and you’re not sure why. There’s nothing suspicious or even particularly intimate about what you’ve just seen. But still, the sight burns embarrassment into your face.

The Boss, he’d been stewing on a bench alone all night, nursing just one beer but three cigars in a row, staring off to the side, away from the party and off towards the dark horizon that hid the shore. After making his usual rounds, Commander Miller sidles up next to him, close in a way that only he would dare. They’re talking quietly - you can tell because their shoulders are touching, their thighs are touching and Miller tips his chin right into the Boss’ space and whispers. And you… take a deep breath and -

- turn away, pretend you didn’t see it.

But but this… is your memory, isn’t it? What were you and Kaz discussing that night, two weeks after your “Angel of Peace” plunged into the Ocean? It had to have been important, so why can’t you remember? It feels so close, like if you reach out you can touch it but your hands won’t move. It feels so -)

- wrong, like Kaz is talking past you, looking past you, at something you can’t see in the distance. Your fingers fall away from his and he puts his hand to his mouth. He licks the ash off his fingers slowly, staring steadily at you the entire time. When he goes to collect more, you hold his wrist and guide his hand this time. The ash gets all over you as well. You entwine your fingers with his to pick it all up and run the edge of your thumb along his bottom lip to nudge his mouth open. Kaz licks your hand; you spread the ash over his teeth, pry his mouth open gently to slide two fingers in, to feel the pinch of his teeth clamp down on your knuckles as he sighs around them. You spread your fingers, curl them around his gums and then close your other hand around his throat so that you can massage it, force him to swallow. You make sure you get all the ash in, feed it down his throat so that you will both carry it with you. A shared burden, a shared crime. This, this part of him belongs to you, and no one else.

Kaz opens his eyes and they’re so wide and bright and adoring. He’s staring at you like he’s never seen the sun before. He hasn’t looked at you like this in… not since -

(it’s so quiet between the two of you, pin drop silent between you. the sun streaming in through the port-hole window of the med-bay, both of you bathed in glittering-dust as you slowly reach out to pinch the bridge of his sunglasses between thumb and forefinger, reach out to pluck them right off his face. And his eyes light up when you -)

- 1975.

When you pull away, he kisses the center of your palm. “Snake…” he whispers. “As long as I’m with you, I don’t care about anything else.”

*

“I don’t want to tell you how to handle your own man, Boss, but if you don’t take control of this situation soon, Miller’s going to become unmanageable. You’re not the man you were when you first knew him and he smells that weakness on you like blood in the water.”

“Ocelot, enough with the innuendo and suggestion. It’s only you and me out here, just say what you think.”

Ocelot sighs dramatically and raises his pistol to take aim at the furthest target on the firing range. “His judgement is skewed. Fatally.” He takes a shot and nails the target in the head. The shot resounds like thunder in the windless evening calm.

“You were unnecessarily harsh on him about what happened with Eli,” you reply.

“Yes, only because you go too soft on him.” Ocelot takes another shot. This time, the bullet sails through the target's chest; left side, where the heart would be.

“The middle between two extremes is not always the answer, Ocelot. You’re smarter than that. You were being cruel on purpose.”

“It’s true. We don’t live in a world where black and white morals exist, and that’s Miller’s problem. For all his pretensions of neutrality, he gets… fragile when he has to make hard choices. But he’s irrational - he’ll get blood on anyone’s hands but yours. He’s lost in the idea of you - what he wants you to be - and it interferes with your work.”

“Ocelot-”

“He’s using you, Boss. He’s taking advantage of the fact that you haven’t fully recovered from your coma yet to get what he wants from you.”

“Kaz wouldn’t do that.”

“Wouldn’t he? Boss, I need to ask: if Diamond Dogs is a gun, whose finger is really on the trigger?”

“We-”

Ocelot spins his pistol around one finger and catches it muzzle first, handing it to you by the hilt. “Two people can’t hold a gun, Boss,” he says. “You know that better than anyone. It’s sloppy. Think back, really think back: is that how you ran the MSF?”

I was navigator, but you were the captain; that’s how much faith I had in you.

You take the weapon and turn it in your hands, thinking about -

- the first time you held a gun. Your father held your arms steady and said: “a gun is a tool, just like anything el-” Like anything else. Like violence, like affection, like torture. Trauma, when used in quick, precise strikes can -

No, no, that’s not right. It was The Boss. She put a rifle in your hands and told how to breathe, how to relax your elbows so that you didn’t dislocate a shoulder when the recoil hit. You -

- raise the pistol and take a shot. Your bionic arm barely registers the recoil, keeps your shot unnaturally steady. The bullet embeds itself in the target’s head, half an inch off from Ocelot’s round.

“If it happens again,” you tell Ocelot, giving the gun back. “I’ll handle it.”

*

A week later and Huey is gone. Quiet’s gone too. The death of over thirty men and women is still heavy in the air like fog before a rainstorm. And Kaz...

Kaz isn’t speaking to you again.

The Medical Platform seems haunted without the familiar sound of Quiet’s radio playing. You find yourself humming her favourite songs to yourself when you pass by her cell. The last time you saw her, she smiled at you: bright, unassuming, uncomplicated. She pat you on the back - gingerly, like she’d never in her life tried to be genuinely supportive of someone - before leaping out of the helicopter. When she hit the deck, she looked back at you and she smiled, and that smile demanded absolutely nothing from you. You don’t know what to do with it, especially now that she’s gone.

Kaz isn’t speaking to you, but you won’t go to him because you know what he wants -

You’re starting to tire of the looks Ocelot’s been giving you lately. He promised that he wouldn’t say “I told you so, Boss”, but he finds silent ways to communicate it anyway. Rolling his eyes when Kaz stomps out of staff meetings after saying no more than three words to you, dropping passive aggressive barbs into your radio correspondence when Kaz refuses to take the microphone. You’ll never say it out loud, but he’s right. This pattern between you and Kaz of battle and reconciliation needs to stop. It’s making you tired, and it’s making Kaz crazy. You need to get your finger on the trigger, to wrest control of your working relationship into your hands, and your hands alone. Ocelot is right: only one person can hold a gun. And Paz was right: you’re the only one who can help Kaz now.

After dark, you use your override key to slip into his room. You’re unannounced, but still he doesn’t look at you, doesn’t speak to you, he doesn’t even start at the sound of his door sliding open. He’s still done up in full dress uniform, obsessively going over the budget even at quarter to midnight. Something spikes through you at the sight of his shoulders rolling as he scribbles figures and equations in the margins of his ledger. It’s half empathy, half anger, both so potent that for a moment your head spins and it threatens to take you under. Work is the only thing keeping him alive, but he’s working himself to death. What the hell are you supposed to do with him, if you can’t even get him to -

“You can’t keep doing this, Kaz.”

- look at you. You slam your metal hand on his desk, hard enough that it flutters the papers and makes the pens inside the hollow of the top drawer shudder and clack against each other. He sighs and stops working. Drops his pen and buries his face in his hand. He breathes loudly through his nostrils, obviously trying to steady his tone before he speaks. He doesn’t quite affect an even-handed demeanour when he finally opens his mouth, but you’re impressed by how little his voice trembles.

“What do you want me to say, Boss? You let a murderer walk away from Mother Base and there’s nothing you can do to take that back. It’s already done and I can’t change your mind.”

“Then why have you been avoiding me?”

He rubs his temple, still hunched over his paperwork. “... because you aren’t going to change my mind either. I’m not going to forget this, and I’m not going to forgive it. All I can try to do is get over it.”

Oh. You stand awkwardly at his side for a few moments before taking your hand away from the desk. He’s right - in that case, there really is nothing to say. You exhale a heavy, frustrated breath and swallow back everything you came here to say.

When you turn to go, Kaz wheels his chair around and grabs the end of your scarf to stop you. “Wait.”

You glance back. He isn’t looking at you. “That doesn’t mean I want you to go,” he murmurs, tightening his fingers and twisting the fabric around his knuckles.

You… hesitate, because you know what’s he’s asking you. Your gaze flickers towards the bottles on his desk; he’s always taking too little oxycodone, or too much. He wants you to hurt him, and he always finds a way to make you do it, even when you don’t want -

He needs you, Snake. And it can only be you.

You must help him through his pain. Promise me that you will try

- no, you want to do this. This is what you came here to do.

You take his chin in your fingers and turn his face. You use your other hand to remove his sunglasses, so that you can see his eyes. “Want a shave?”

It’s obviously not what he was expecting. He raises an eyebrow at you, so you smile at him. “You look terrible, Kaz. Like this, the men can tell you aren’t sleeping. Aren’t taking care of yourself.”

“You gonna take care of me, Boss?”

You set his shades down on the desk. “Yeah. Don’t I always? Come on.”

He sighs and submits. He lets you push his coat off his shoulder, lets you unbutton his uniform jacket, his dress shirt, pull his tie loose. You carefully unhook the holster of his pistol and strip him down to his undershirt. He holds himself self-consciously like this, half-naked in the honest light. You can’t help but run your gaze over the places where the shirt clings to his ribcage and where his upper-arm has begun to hollow from loss of muscle definition. He’s been skipping meals to work overtime for months and it’s begun to show on his frame, which gets leaner by the week.

You spend too long staring and Kaz begins to shrink beneath your heavy, hungry eyes. “Snake,” he mumbles. “Cut it out.”

You slide an arm around his waist and help him to the bathroom where you sit him on a stool and go about preparing the tools you’ll need. You fill the sink, clean the straight-razor, lather up the soap… you don’t have access to luxuries like shaving cream this far out in the middle of the Indian Ocean; everyone on Mother Base shaves with water and soap. Another change from the MSF days when Kaz insisted on setting aside a portion of the budget to make sure that the men were as comfortable as possible.

“Boss…” Kaz begins, “about Quiet…”

“Shhh,” you kneel down and shut him up by rubbing a damp cloth over his jaw. “You already said your piece, Kaz. Just close your eyes and let me -” you press a kiss to his forehead as the cloth skims over his mouth. “- take care of you.”

He obeys with a quiet sigh. It turns into a moan when you caress the length of his throat through the wet fabric. By the time you scrape the blade along his rough skin, he’s completely placid: eyes shut, limbs loose, breathing deep and steady. Despite all the anger and the lies and the distance between you he still trusts you implicitly like this - with a naked blade pressed to the pulse of his carotid artery.

The sight of him like this should quiet your blood. The calm between you should chip away at the calcified layers of your frustration, you know it should, you want it to. He’s literally baring his neck for you. He forgives you physically even if he can’t do it in his heart or with his mouth. That should be enough, you tell yourself. You want it to be enough. Instead it makes your nerves run vividly hot. Why can’t he ever just say sorry? Why does he always have to make it so difficult for yo -

You are so, so careful with the blade. You glide it beneath his chin more softly than you’ve ever touched him. When you nick the skin beneath his left cheekbone, you press a gentle kiss to it and lap up the blood. Then you kiss the corner of his mouth. He smiles against your lips.

Finished, you set down the blade and drunk the cloth in the warm water. Your hands twist the ends to wring the water out, but something stills them mid-motion. A memory, a -

(“For a man like you? Absolutely. A man with medical training knows his way around the human body better than most of us. If you get into a tough situation, I don’t want you to panic and do something you’d regret later.”

He hands you a knife, and a shoot of bamboo.

“Torture doesn’t produce reliable information, remember that.”

“Then why do it?”

“Sometimes on the battlefield, it’s important to send a message. Trauma when used in quick, precise strikes can burn a memory in. Torture is about control.”)

- feeling. You pad around Kaz quietly, come up behind him with a soft, comforting hand in the small of his back so that he’s not expecting it when you clap the wet cloth around his face and yank it tight over his mouth and nose. His eyes snap open and he immediately panics, urging against you with his elbow and shoulders.

“Why did you call that trial without consulting me, Kaz?” you growl into his ear. He can’t answer because you’ve pulled the cloth too tight around his face for his jaw to open all the way. He grunts and twists powerfully against you, so you knock the stool out from under him to destroy his leverage. He cries out when his knees hit the floor. You shove him down for a moment so that you can grip both ends of the cloth behind his head in one fist. You wrap your prosthetic around his waist, heft him to his feet and pin him against the edge of the filled sink.

“You’d already played judge, jury and executioner before you even told me what Huey did.”

You dunk him under the water, count out the seconds as you hold him down: six, seven, eight - he’s gasping hard enough that it wracks his whole body, makes him convulse in your arms. You ease up your grip on the cloth so that he can get a little air, enough that he won’t go unconscious.

Boss,” he pleads wetly, “Boss, st-sto -

“I get what you were trying to do: you were trying to route me into agreeing with you. If Huey was already damned in the eyes of the men, you didn’t think I’d dare refuse to satisfy their bloodlust.”

He’s shaking his head so you pull the cloth tight again, yank his head back so that his cheek slots against yours. “Don’t lie to me, Kaz. If you want to be the navigator you need to trust me to be the one with my hand on the gun. You need to come to me with decisions like this. You need to talk to me. I don’t want this to be the only way to get you to let me in. To get you to stop trying -”

He’s lost in the idea of you - what he wants you to be - and it interferes with your work.

He’s taking advantage of you ---- to get what he wants from you.

You dunk him under again. “- to force me to be what you want me to be,” you hiss, pushing him deeper as he thrashes, churns up the water until your uniform is soaked down the front and the floor is slippery with soapy puddles. You keep him under until you can feel his strength begin to fade. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eigh -

You let go of him and he comes up sobbing, hyperventilating. You take a step back and give him space to fill his lungs. He tries to cling to the sink with his one arm, but it buckles under him and he collapses, catching himself against the wall. You kneel over him, straddling his hips so you can grip his face and force him to look at you.

“Promise me:” you whisper, stroking his hair. “No more silent treatment.”

He nods, still gulping for oxygen.

“Remember, Kaz. Every step of this… we’ll do every step of this together. You’re the one who said that.”

“O-of course, Boss. Th-that’s all… that’s all I want…”

You let him crawl into your arms. He’s still shivering: clammy skin, teeth chattering. He clings to you, trying to get back all the warmth you stole from him. For once you feel like he’s here with you, really here with you: the two of you wrapped up in each other, sharing warmth, sharing guilt. He kisses you and accidentally snares your lip so hard it draws blood. You turn it into an open mouthed bite and fill his mouth with your blood the same way you did with the ashes. His breathing hitches into a cracked sob as he whispers your name like a prayer. Snake, Snake - and yes, that’s it, that’s the skin you inhabit, the man who Kazuhira Miller belongs to. You let him breathe that shape into you, suck up all his desperation and drink down how much he needs you until you’re filled to the brim with it. Until you are Big Boss.

As he drags you down, you watch the shape of your shadow distort on the wall.

*

That’s when the third man comes in.