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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.

Chapter Text

The Afghan air is so dry and sand-drenched that it whips into you like a physical thing, snaps your head around like a backhand. You shimmy up behind an outcropping in the cliff and pull your scarf over your face. Hunkered down in your temporary shelter, you adjust your scope and peer into the distance, searching for the peaks and dips of your target base through the storm. All you can see are vague shadows, blinkered lights; the sand whisks over the desert beneath you with all the senseless ferocity nature conjures - deadly, and lacking entirely in cruelty. You’re alone with the wind and the rocks. Alone, except for -

- a flash of light in the distance: bright and sudden as a crack of lightning. A sniper sight slices through the wind current and stutters over your shoulder. Green, friendly. You brace your palm against the rock and whirl around in time to see a bullet go whizzing through the temple of a Red Army Soldier sneaking up behind you. He hits the ground and goes rolling down the side of the cliff, his limp body smashing against each outcropping until he disappears beneath the storm line. You stare after him, watch as the air around him is split apart by a black whirlwind. Listen as the searing wind is drowned out by a screeching howl, a darker noise that settles deep in the spine. You know this sound: to you, it means safety.

A moment later Quiet materializes beside you. She tips her face to the side and examines you with her supernaturally sharp eyes, searching for damage. You shake your head at her, jerk a thumb east where you heard a jeep stop beneath you earlier, a patrol you missed when the storm set in. Her eyes spill ink, the parasites surging close to the skin as she stares between the grains of sand. She nods, tosses you a fresh suppressor, and then is gone. When the sandstorm clears, she’s standing beside an abandoned vehicle and surrounded by three men: two unconscious, the third with his own knife jammed in his eye.

“- oss,” Kaz’s voice crackles over your radio. “Boss, we lost you for a minute there. You okay?”

You scale down the cliff and analyze the downed men while Quiet watches over you.

“Boss, report in.”

“I’m here, Kaz,” you mumble into your receiver, prepping your fulton balloons. “Just got caught in a storm. No damage. Almost missed a patrol, but -”

You hesitate before praising Quiet. It’s a sore subject. Still, without her you might be dead.

“Boss?”

“- I got lucky.”

When you turn around to smile at her, she’s gone.

The Third Man

Kaz lets the man sit in his cell long enough that you begin to think that maybe he won’t do anything about it.

You hope he won’t do anything about it, not without asking you first at least. It’s been harmonious between you and him since the shaving incident. He’s begun to turn to you, rather than away. His shield drops, just a few inches, when you’re alone. Even his voice is different when he speaks to you over the radio. You’re wearing him down, chipping away the armour just like Big Boss did in the old days.

Kaz lets the man sit in his cell long enough that the question becomes: what are you going to do with him?

*

“What are we going to do with him?”

“Boss, you’re not suggesting we execute him. We can’t -”

“I never said that, Kaz. But I don’t think we gain anything by keeping him here if he isn’t going to speak.”

“He never seems to run far. He’s got an ulterior motive. If we just -”

Footsteps in the hall. They You stop, cross your arms, mouth flat as the staff member rounds the corner. It’s no good to show dissent in front of the men, so you don’t. The medic gives you a nervous smile as he passes between you, feels how thick the air is, how it sparks with a brewing argument. He takes a deep breath as he -

“What are we going to do with him?”

“Take him back. Patch him up.”

“You serious?”

“I could tell when I looked at him - that was his first time in the field, and he nearly took me out. Imagine what he can do with the right motivation. Imagine what he can do for us.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes.”

“Boss… really? You’re… sure?”

The men are drinking together beneath a tarp, listening to ‘Black Magic Woman’ on the radio as the rain bounces against the makeshift roof. The Boss YOU are leaning against a tree, staring off into the distance - towards the Colombian army’s camp, where you left the arrogant POW to stew in his own juices for a while. Yeah, you haven’t been so certain of something in years. That’s what he said, what he whispered into your ear: “I was dead certain about Kaz. On the battlefield you can know who someone really is the first time you look at them.” You knew -

- a week later, making excuses - no, not excuses, educated arguments.

“I won’t take orders from some arrogant, green-behind-the-ears kid, Boss. You said it yourself, he’s -”

Mosquito shuts his mouth the moment your hand shoots up. They’re all here on the outskirts of camp - the oldest of the MSF men - huddled beneath an outcropping in the cliffs to speak about… well, not treason, but it feels like treason: questioning one of Big Boss’ orders. It’s inconceivable, but here you are, blinking against the sudden light of his zippo, watching him light his cigar slowly, deliberately, with relish.

“Go on,” is what he says.

“You said it yourself,” Alligator argues. “He’s never seen a real fight before. And his first one… we kicked his ass! How can you promote him to -”

“The title of Commander is just a word. You’re right- he’s green in the field. That’s why he’s going to be working an administrative job. We need this - someone to handle the finances, the fine print in our paperwork.”

“Boss -”

“What, Alligator - you wanna do the math?”

“N-no -”

“Then trust my judgement call.”

(Something in your chest twists; it feels wrong, giving so much authority to some kid, but you trust him. You trust Big Boss, travelled halfway across the world just to be here with him. If he says that Kazuhira Miller is going to be your Commander, well - you’re gonna call the kid Commander.)

*

The man sits in his cell for two weeks while you try to decide what to do.

Sunday morning - bright sun reflecting off the white panels of the Medical Platform’s core facility. It’s dead silent except for the soft sound of DD’s loyal feet padding behind you, two steps for every one you take.

Sunday morning... you go to the Medical Platform and - in the back of your mind you can hear it, the ringing strains of Laura Branigan’s voice quivering above the static of the radio that blares into Quiet’s cell, day and night. “‘I think you’ve got to slow down,” she sings. “Before you start to blow it.”

You’re at the edge of Quiet’s cell. She’s leaning against the bars, fiddling with something - it’s her sniper rifle, the one that you had uniquely requisitioned for her but that she is forbidden to touch except when she’s out in the field. She’s got a wedge of slate rock and she’s chipping away at the upper receiver, filing it down. When she notices you watching her, she starts and disintegrates in a cloud of parasites, letting the rifle clatter to the floor in three pieces. The radio is so loud that even if she could speak, you probably wouldn’t hear her.

(‘I think you're headed for a breakdown, so be careful not to -’)

You saunter up to the bars and give her a steady smile. She’s still watching you, even when you can’t see her. She’s always watching. The smile says: it’s okay, you’re safe, I won’t tell. It’s easy, communicating like this; words are so easy to twist, to misunderstand. Words can tell lies, hold manipulative untruths. Words can kill without the responsibility of pulling a trigger. That’s the one thing Skull Face said that actually made sense to you - his twisted vision of a Utopia began in the right place: stripping humanity of their words would create a new language where deception was impossible. There was beauty in that, all of humanity coming together, learning each other anew and from a different angle like the fumbling first touches of inexperienced lovers.

You slide your field knife out of its sheath and toss it to her. Her fingers materialize around it like a handful of black sand rushing to cover a magnet. The rest of her follows a moment later: her bones, her flesh, her skin. She’s already smiling back at you when her mouth forms over the place where her teeth attach to the gums.

(‘You don’t really remember
Was is something that he said?’)

You put your toes to the edge of the grating that once covered her cell. The room below is empty now, as if she’d never even been there. Like she hadn’t even existed. DD seems to sense your troubled mood and nudges his snout up under your hand. You scratch between his ears absent-mindedly, eyes lifting as your cast your vision towards the blinking green light above Paz’s sick room…


‘You don’t really remember
was it something they said? Something he
All the voices calling in your head
you’re heading for a break dow-’

“Good boy,” you murmur, sparing DD a kind look as you pat his neck. His tail goes thumping against the steel platform.“Stay here.” He tips his head, forlorn, but doesn’t follow you into the facility.

When you swipe the door open, you’re surprised to find Ocelot exiting Paz’s room. He stops, looking vaguely caught for a moment.

“What are you doing here?”

Ocelot smoothly adjusts one of his gloves and crosses his arms, his expression settling into a flawless and unreadable mask. “Wanted to make sure the girl was doing okay. And if she remembered anything.”

“Ocelot,” your tone is a warning one, edging the tip of a blade that promises… promises what? There’s no reason to threaten Ocelot, you trust him more than anyone in the world. He keeps your secrets, does your dirty work. He’d never disobey you. He’d never do something as drastic as torturing an innocent girl without asking you first. Not like -

You blink, rewind. Try that again.

“I wanted to make sure the girl was doing okay,” Ocelot says.

“She remember anything?”

Ocelot shakes his head, sighing. “No, and to be honest, Boss, it doesn’t look good. She hit the water pretty hard. I think this amnesia might be somatic - she might have irreparable brain damage.”

You glimpse over his shoulder, at the door. “What does the medic think?”

Ocelot shrugs. “That we should leave her alone for a bit. Pushing is only causing her more trauma. She’s been… picking at her stitches again.”

“I don’t like this. She’s been responding well to the photographs.”

“Has she? Whenever she sees something that might make her remember her past as a spy, she retreats further into her student persona. It doesn’t seem like she’s repressing - it’s more like there’s nothing there anymore.”

“Ocelot -”

“Immanuel Kant said that the universe possessed properties that the human mind can’t conceive of. Even so, the filter that we see it through is still meaningful. Right now the outside world is a metaphysical property she can’t grasp. The idea that she’s still a student is her filter - it’s the only way she can make sense of the world.”

You can’t help but chuckle at that. Ocelot is truly shameless when he argues like this. “I really doubt that’s the sort of justification Kant imagined when he wrote Critique of Pure Reason.”

“Even so, Boss, maybe this is what she wants. To believe that your ‘Peace Day’ -” Ocelot drawls the word peace, more than a little condescendingly. “- is coming soon. Maybe right now it’s best to just do what she wants.”

“Even if it’s allowing her to live inside a delusion?”

Ocelot doesn’t say anything to that. His answer is merely to look disappointed - calculatingly disappointed - and brush past you, leaving you alone in the yawning silence of the corridor.

Maybe it’s just best…

You pull your earphones over your head and click play on your iDroid’s cassette deck.

… to give someone what they want.

A crescendo of disco-inspired synth roars to life in your ears - a relic from a decade you missed most of - and drowns out the silence.

Even if it’s not good for them.

You touch the edges of your flesh fingers to the rim of one earphone and then head out into the light.


(‘You’re headed for a breakdown,’
she sings
‘So be careful not to show it’)

*

Kaz doesn’t acknowledge you sliding into his room, but only because you spend most of your nights on Base in here, with him. You cross the room and set both hands on his shoulders, rolling them over the ugly knots in the muscles there. He moans as you massage them out with the inside heel of your palms, turns his head to nuzzle against your prosthetic.

“Snake,” he sighs. You put your mouth close to his ear and whisper.

“Kaz. What do you want to do?”

He lifts his head so that he can look at you, eyes alert.

“With the man I brought in,” you clarify. “What do you want me to do with him?”

Kaz sucks in a shuddering breath. His body goes taut beneath your fingers, but you hold him steady.

“... meet me in Room 101,” he says.

“When?”

“After sundown.”

He’s been thinking about this.

“What should I bring?”

“What you usually carry.”

You raise an eyebrow. “No machete?”

Kaz turns away, turns back to his work. His shoulders are still trembling. “No,” he snarls. “That man didn’t touch my arm.”

*

“Killing Skullface didn’t make me feel any better…”

(But he still begged you for Huey’s blood.)

You remember -

- you remember when you found Quiet, when you saw her surrounded by a pile of broken bodies. Her life, weighed against the lives of ten men… is one life really worth that? But when you saw the state she was in... you saw her face, the way they’d pulled down the pants of her prison garb. You felt satisfied that they were dead. You would have done it for her if she couldn’t. Ten lives weighed against one… but now that they were dead, they couldn’t hurt anyone else.

(“Killing Skullface didn’t make me feel any better…”

But the world is better off for his absence, you know this.)

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, but if the right person takes both eyes then that solves the root of the problem, doesn’t it? So you need to be the man who makes that call. You need to be Big Boss.

*

Kaz waits for you outside the appointed room, all done up in his formal uniform and with a nervous-looking soldier at his side. When you arrive, the DD recruit hands you a bucket full of sea-water and a portable radio, then anxiously reels on his heel to leave.

“Remember what I said,” Kaz calls after him. The soldier freezes and slowly looks back over his shoulder. Kaz is boring holes into him through the panes of his aviators. “Not a word.”

The soldier gulps and pauses to look you over - look the both of you over: standing less than a foot apart, bathed in shadow and secrets. He presses his eyes shut hard before finally turning away to leave. You know what the men think of Kaz, and what they think of you, but you can’t help but wonder sometimes what they think of your relationship.

“Thanks for this, Boss,” Kaz says when he’s gone, voice soft now. He leans in close and for a moment you think he’s going to kiss you. He doesn’t; except for momentary lapses, the distance Kaz keeps between you outside the bedroom is mostly professional. Instead, he looks at you, searching your expression, your mouth, your eye for something he apparently needs to see before you do this.

When you reach out to touch his face, he brushes away, folds out of your space effortlessly. He slams his cane against the door of the cell and grunts. “Well. Let’s get this over with.” He glances at you - grinning, just a little bit. Like it’s a joke. Like he hasn’t been waiting to do this for half a year. That makes something plummet into your gut. Makes it twist around. It’s a bad idea, your hands are saying, as they flex around the hard, plastic handle of the radio. This isn’t good for him. But you take a step forward anyway, because you have to -

( - give him what he wants.)

It’s dark inside. The overhead lights have been dimmed, the temperature raised. You begin sweating the moment you step inside, but Kaz is unruffled even beneath three layers. He hooks his crutch beneath his elbow and takes the radio from you.

“Wake him up,” he says, waving you towards the prisoner.

The man is tied to a folding chair in the center of the room, stripped down to tank-top and plain slacks, a black bag over his head. His top is sweat-stained and he stinks, like he’s pissed himself recently. You round on him with the bucket of water, check him over quickly for damage, then heft the whole thing onto him. The sea-water slams into him. He wakes with a strangled yelp, thrashing against his bonds so violently that he tips himself over. Hits the floor hard on his shoulder, crying out a second time. By the time you kneel in front of him, he’s already hyperventilating. The bag expands and contracts around his head like a lung.

Behind you, Kaz flips the radio on. Turns the knob until it’s loud enough to drown out the Russian soldier’s terrified gasps, loud enough to drown out your objections, his screams -

He uses his cane to shove the radio flush against the door, which dampens it. When he’s finished, he comes to stand over you. He says: “now we’re alone.”

The soldier whimpers when he hears Kaz speak.

“You recognize my voice, don’t you?”

No response. Kaz jabs his cane into the man’s gut, twists. He says, louder: “you recognize my voice. Yes or no?”

The prisoner nods, desperately. Kaz scoffs.

“All of them pretended they didn’t understand a word of english. Different tune now, huh?”

“Pl-please-” the prisoner gasps. Kaz jabs him again.

“You say that word again and we’ll cut off your lips. Understand?”

The prisoner’s breathing evens out. After a moment, he nods again. Kaz takes a step back and turns his chin to you.

“Let him see.”

You yank the bag off the man’s head. You’re surprised how good his face looks. A fading bruise just above his left eye, from where you slammed him into a wall to knock him out… otherwise he’s immaculate. He has not suffered yet for his imprisonment. His pupils dilate wildly, adjusting to the light, scanning over your face, Kaz’s looming figure. Kaz is close enough that you can hear the soft click of his sunglasses being folded over the sound of the radio. From the corner of your vision you see his naked eyes, and the anger burning in them.

“Yeah… yeah, you know exactly who I am. What about him?” Kaz jerks his crutch towards you. “Know who he is?”

The prisoner’s lip trembles. “B-big-” he stutters, “Big Boss.”

“Heh. Didn’t I tell you? You’re really fucked now.”

“Kaz -”

“Help him up, Boss. If he’s good, you can untie him too.”

You do as Kaz says. He slips his shades back on and watches you with a guarded expression. You take the prisoner’s shoulders and drag him to sitting, the chair with him. His eyes are pulled wide, but he’s trying to keep calm. Good training on this one - he barely flinches when you draw back to regard him.

“Do you know why you’re here?” you ask him.

He steels his jaw, presses his lips tight together and nods a third time.

“Good. No point in doing this if you don’t know what you did.”

“I -” the prisoner starts to speak, but Kaz cuts him off with a smack to his shins.

“No. You don’t get to talk yet.”

You reach out and touch Kaz’s shoulder. You have no idea where this is going and that makes you uneasy. He reaches into his holster and pulls out a gun, but not the .45 AM-D114 he usually carries. Instead, he’s carrying a revolver. You raise an eyebrow at the sight of it; you never thought you’d see Kaz willingly use Ocelot’s signature weapon. He turns the gun over and holds it up to the light so the prisoner can get a good, long look at it.

“The revolver isn’t a very efficient or cost effective weapon,” Kaz says conversationally, “so normally, I wouldn’t carry it. It’s flashy, antiquated… the only reason to use one is if you’re trying to show off, or -” he pauses, dramatically and levels the gun so that it’s pointing at the prisoner. “ - if you’re trying to prove a point.”

You can see sweat beginning to bead on the prisoner’s brow.

“Boss,” Kaz lets his wrist roll towards you. The motion shucks the revolver of its cylinder, curves it open so that you can look inside. “Tell the man how many bullets are in there.”

“One,” you say truthfully, staring hard at Kaz the entire time. The corners of Kaz’s mouth twitch.

“In Russian, Boss. Remember, he’s not great with English.”

You scour your brain for the basics you’ve picked up over the last few months. “Один,” you repeat, your american accent flattening the ‘ah’ sound.

The prisoner swallows thick, keeps his mouth shut.

“Spin it, Boss.”

You take Kaz’s hand in yours. It’s to steady his grip on the gun, but you let the touch linger, let your thumb tenderly stroke the inside of his wrist - that narrow strip of skin between the hem of his shirt and glove. The prisoner’s eyes follow the motion of your fingers subtly. You see his expression change, as if he’s figured something out.

“We’re going to play a game,” Kaz says. You spin the chambers and he whips the gun up so that the cylinder slams back into the place. He limps forward and sets the muzzle against the prisoner’s temple. “I’m going to ask you four questions, and if I like the answers -” he clicks off the gun’s safety, “- I won’t pull the trigger.”

“Kaz...”

He pretends not to hear you and begins dragging the muzzle down the side of the prisoner’s face. “So, even if you give me four bad answers, that’s still a 33% chance of survival. Not bad odds, considering what you’ve been through.”

“Kaz -”

“Boss,” Kaz says, pleasantly, “you asked me what I wanted to do with him.”

“I did, but this? There isn’t any point to this.”

“C’mon, Boss -” Kaz laughs tonelessly. “The purpose of torture isn’t interrogation - it’s intimidation and behaviour modification. You taught me that.”

“Kaz, you aren’t -”

“Boss,” he says, voice knife-sharp. “- are you with me, or not?

Kaz knows the words, the exact right words, to send a sour stab of guilt right between your ribs. He’s right, you asked him to do this. And -

“ - and if you’re doing it alone I… I- - then I’m doing it alone too and I’ve -”

- you left him alone for far too long. You won’t leave him alone again.

The prisoner’s eyes flicker to catch your gaze. “Помогите мне,” he gasps. “You are… Big Boss. I… I pledge allegiance -”

Kaz pistol whips him. The blow’s not as hard as it would have been from a man with two-legged balance, but it still cuts an ugly gash into his cheek.

“You don’t look at him,” Kaz hisses. “You look at me.” He uses the barrel of the gun to force the man’s head up, sets the muzzle beneath his chin. “First question. You with me so far?” The prisoner nods, tears in his eyes. The music in the background begins to fade and the room fills with his laboured breathing. “Okay. This one’s easy. When they first brought me to you… did you have any fucking clue who I was?”

Nyet -” Kaz pulls the trigger. The prisoner screams, jerks his head away as hammers slams down. A new song blares to life on the radio. The hollow percussion bounces off the walls, drowns out the sound made by cylinder clicking over the stop, loading a fresh chamber. One down, four to go.

“It is t-t-truth!” The prisoner stutters. Kaz whips him again, holds his face in place with the body of the revolver.

“This isn’t an interrogation. I didn’t say anything about letting you off the hook just for doing something as easy as telling the truth.”

The prisoner shuts his eyes for a panicked, furtive moment. You watch the whole thing go down with your hands hanging at your side. Your prosthetic arm has never felt so heavy as it does right now, leaden with the self-inflicted responsibility you’ve given yourself to allow this to happen.

Kaz sets the muzzle against the prisoner’s lower lip. “How many people,” he asks, voice like gravel, “have you tortured? Before me.”

A rivulet of sweat breaks between the creases of the prisoner’s brow and streams down the center of his face - over the ridge of his nose, into the dip of his philtrum and around the circumference of the revolver's barrel. He seems to be weighing his answer carefully, turning over numbers, values in his mind, gauging what kind of truth his captors want to hear. The tinny drum machines on the radio throb against your eardrums, it thrums tension into the room, distorts when it hits you. You can barely think like this, how can he -

“... ten, if… also you,” the prisoner says, confidently. “That is… also truth.”

Kaz’s thumb twitches over the edge of the hammer, but he doesn’t pull the trigger this time. “Hn. Good answer. Wouldn’t have believed a lower number, to be honest, but any higher and it would’ve sounded like you were bragging.”

The prisoner lets out a sigh of relief, but it’s short lived before Kaz pistol whips him a third time, bursting the cut on his cheek open and eliciting a broken grunt of pain. “What? You feel good about that? Admitting that you’re a sadist and a murder?” Before he can nod yes or no, Kaz jams the gun between his teeth, gets the sight in under the incisors and pries them apart. It’s obviously hard work for him; Kaz has finally started sweating as he tries to balance his elbow on his crutch and lever the man’s mouth open at the same time. He falters and you catch him, hold him with both hands so that he can put all his weight into it.

“That was a question,” Kaz growls, sliding the muzzle into the prisoner’s mouth. The prisoner gags around it, so Kaz forces it deeper. There’s a brief struggle - the prisoner whining low, sweating, flexing against his bonds, trying to jerk his jaw away as an ugly noise gutters in his throat. He loses eventually, gets tired of fighting. His shoulders slouch and he pulls his head back, tries to accommodate the revolver scraping at his uvula.

There’s a lull in the music and Kaz whispers: “Cоса́ть.” It’s not a russian word you’ve heard before, but it makes the prisoner’s eyes go wide enough that you can see the veins at the edges. “Do it,” Kaz says, louder. So the prisoner does it. Begins to move his head, bob back and forth. Works his tongue along the underside of the revolver’s narrow shaft, tears in his eyes. Oh.

Kaz pulls the trigger. The sound sends a jolt down the prisoner’s whole body and he howls ugly around the gun. Starts to sob, spittle running down his chin. “Not like that. C’mon, make love to it. Do it like you mean it.” Kaz pushes the gun in deeper, cutting into the top of his gums, making him choke and cough up blood. “Do it like you want to live.” The prisoner’s mouth closes around the gun, instinctively, and he gets another sharp jab in the back of the throat. His whole body convulses and he vomits around the cylinder and down the front of his filthy shirt.

You -

- remember crawling along the slick linoleum, covered in other people’s piss and guts, Ishmael’s rough, demanding voice reverberating inside your skull. You taste bile at the back of your throat. You try to hold it back. You swallow your own tongue. You -

- look at Kaz instead. His arm is shaking from the effort of holding the gun upright, from keeping it in place. You’re the only thing keeping him on his feet. His teeth are clenched - chattering, grinding against each other. You can see veins at the edge of his sclera, eyes pulled open just like the prisoner’s. This isn’t right.

“Do you,” Kaz grounds out, “like what you do? Take pleasure in your work? Think real carefully before you answer this one.” He clicks the safety off and on to the beat of the bass-line.

This isn’t -

“This isn’t right.” You tug Kaz gently, try to shake him out of his trance. He ignores you, so you tug him harder as he forces the prisoner to deep throat the revolver.

“Kaz -”

“I’m not looking for a three point essay on the politics of torture here,” Kaz pistons the barrel of the gun down the prisoner’s throat brutally, mechanically.

Kaz -”

“Just a simple -” Kaz cocks the safety off, thrusts the gun deep, “- yes or no question.

“Kaz, STOP!”

You grab his elbow and yank him away. The gun goes flying, ripping open the side of the prisoner’s mouth and taking a chunk of his lip with it. He’s past screaming; he just moans and drops his chin to his chest, curling in on himself. You whirl Kaz around and hold him by his shoulders, clamp down with your prosthetic so that he can’t escape.

“Stop,” you say, quieter. He’s staring at you with fury, his eyes wide and disbelieving, mouth twisted into a vicious scowl that shows his teeth.

“What’s your problem, Snake!?”

“This. Isn’t. Right,” you repeat. You can’t... you can’t find the right words to explain it to him, what’s wrong with it, how it hurts you to see him like this - all torn at the edges, killing himself in inches. You grab his hand, hold it tight.

“You said that you’d let me have this. You promised -”

You squeeze his hand a bit too hard, make the joints crack. It strangles the words in his throat. You lean in close so that he can hear your breathy whispers over the pounding back-beat of the pop song on the radio. “Let me do it.”

His breath catches - you can see it even if you can’t hear it. You can feel him freeze up in your arms. “What?”

“Let me do it. Let me do this for you.”

“Don’t… don’t patronize me.”

“I’m not. I -” you - tentatively - rest your forehead against his. He bristles at the intimate contact. His gaze flashes towards the prisoner, like it matters what he thinks, like it matters what anyone thinks. You grab his face and force him to look at you. You say: “Kaz, I want to do this for you.” And Kaz, he -

(- looks at you -

- like he’s never seen the sun before -)

“Boss…” he breathes and the way he looks at you is like how he looked at you - pin drop silent between you, the sun streaming in through the porthole window to bathe you both in glittering-dust - when you reached out and took his sunglasses by the bridge -

He looks at you with something wet rimming the corners of his eyes. Not tears, though. Don’t be ridiculous, Boss, of course I’m not crying. “Jesus Christ,” he mutters, glancing away, leaning his cheek into the warmth of your palm. “Snake, you really are unbelievable, you know that?”

You let go, and he... goes. Without argument. He limps around the table at the back of the room and takes a seat behind it. You can feel his heavy, besotted gaze on you even through the impenetrable wall of his aviators.

I want to do this, you tell yourself. So if something goes wrong, Kaz, blame me. That’s right - it’s fine. You’re the man who’ll take both eyes. The man who will deliver justice. You can shoulder Kaz’s burden and afterwards you’ll hold him in arms that are soaked through with the blood he craves. That’s what it means to be Big Boss. That’s what you were made for.

You move over the prisoner and begin to untie his bonds. You’ll need his hands for what you want to do. He rolls his head around and tips his chin to call you near. The radio is murmuring news in French behind you and his cracked voice rises above it like a wave cresting on a beach.

“He… spoke of you,” the prisoner says.

You stare at him steadily.

“He... spoke you name as if you were божество… ah, some… religious figure. When alone or…” the prisoner looks away, “when he... could not help it. But… if we had known -”

“If you had known what?” you ask, precise and calm.

“If we had known -”

The radio changes over, begins playing a new song. Mellow this time, soothing. You unravel the last knot in the prisoner’s bonds and the rope falls away from him like a dead skin. He’s smart enough not to move except for bringing his arms in front of him. He rubs his wrists, looks at you with such sincere regret in his eyes that you almost believe him. Everything a man says is true when he’s afraid for his life, after all.

“If we had… kn-known - that y-you -”

“Were still alive?”

“Th-that he was… that he w-was…”

“My partner?”

“Y-your -”

“My lover? You wouldn’t have done it?”

The man nods vehemently. You glance at Kaz, whose expression is hard and unflinching. It’s for him that you grab the man’s chin and force him to look at you as you leisurely slide your knife from the sheath.

“You shouldn’t have done it anyway. It doesn’t matter who he is, this isn’t how you treat a human being.”

The prisoner’s eyes follow the motion of your knife, terrified. You set a comforting hand on his knee, pat it twice. “Don’t worry,” you say. “I’m not gonna kill you. That’s a promise.”

“I… I believe you…”

“But this is going to be rough. I didn’t bring the right tools.”

The hope drains from his face and you… you almost relish it. You think about how Kaz trembled when you touched his face to wake him that night you found him in Afghanistan. You think about -

“Get the… fingernails first. Rusted… metal beneath them.”

- how Kaz trembled in your arms, his throat in your hand, when he told you -

“Leave it like that. Sepsis only takes a week to turn deadly, e-every… every soldier knows that.”

You take his wrist in your prosthetic and he lets you. Asks: “What are… you going to…?”

“Eye for an eye,” you grunt and, without warning, you shove the tip of your blade beneath his fore-finger’s nail, pop it off with a single flick. Somehow he finds his voice again and a shredded scream rips out of him, widens the cut at the corner of his mouth. “Arm for an arm,” you continue. “We’re outside the law here. This is the only kind of justice you’ll find outside of heaven.”

Groaning, he pushes his free hand against your face. You grab that one instead and - with the mechanical and fluid ease afforded to you by the bionic prosthetic - snap his wrist. His hand twitches once and goes limp but he’s still struggling, tugging against you senselessly. A ribbon of blood spurts from his open finger and gets in your beard. He squirms, kicks at you, begins to rock the chair back and so you roll your hand down and use the ridge of his broken wrist bone to hit the button on your palm that activates its electric shock. The energy bolts through him visibly. Blue lightning sparks over his chest, makes the whole room go bright for half a second as he arches his back in a perfect, agonized curve. A noise rattles inside of him - doesn’t quite get all the way out - and he slumps in his seat: passive, eyes shut.

You slap him to make sure he doesn’t pass out.

“Stay with me,” you say as he gasps awake. “We’ll go slow this time.”

“Nyet,” he begs. “No, nyet, nyet -”

Words will get him nowhere. Words are a poor currency to pay for sins of the flesh. You twist his hand so that his thumb is facing up, then drag the tip of your knife along the place where the fingernail meets the skin. With a slow, deliberate movements you pry it open like peeling off a layer of dried glue. “O мой Бог,” he whimpers.

“Shhh,” you soothe, getting the tip of the blade under the nail.

“это пиздец,” the prisoner pants. You wrench the knife up so that the tip digs into the pulpy flesh beneath. He yells, so you hit him.

“Pl-please. I will… do anything you want…”

You keep going, slice the knife in a half-circle, digging out the skin beneath. “Is that what he said to you, when your friends did this?”

The prisoner doesn’t answer, just heaves, trying to catch his breath, trying not to sob like a child. You smile, unkindly.

“Of course that’s not what he said. I know Kaz and he has too much pride to beg for anything but death.” The blade gets down to the cuticle. You stop for a moment, let it rest there. “He’s not like you. You broke immediately, shamelessly. We’ve barely done anything to you and already you’re like this.”

The prisoner nods, then shakes his head. He’s confused. A spray of sweat hits your face when he shakes his wet hair out. You begin moving the knife again and his whole body goes rigid. “There’s no shame in that,” you tell him. “It’s a human reaction to pain. But I do think it’s strange that a man so unaccustomed to it would be assigned as a torturer. You wouldn’t trust an uneducated man with a heart surgery. This is -”

(“- 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 -”)

“- the exact same thing.” You’re languid about this... the nail peels off slowly, sticking to the base of the cuticle by a few strands of gummy flesh. You let it hang, let him watch it hang, listen to his heart hammering behind his ribs so fast that it’s like he’s a rabbit, a mouse, some sort of terrified prey animal exposed in the daylight and desperate for a place to hide.

“Three to go. Not so bad.”

“Стоп…”

“This is the easy part,” you assure him. “The hard part comes after this, when we leave you alone.” You isolate his middle finger and push the other ones down. You don’t go as slow this time, you cut down to the cuticle in one, confident push. “The hard part comes after this, when we leave you alone. When we let the wound fester.”

Why…

The nail clips off, but you keep going, digging the knife beneath the finger’s upper layer.

Sepsis only takes a week to turn deadly, every soldier knows that.

“If you think this hurts...” you watch the wrinkled skin ripple and bunch up as your blade shaves it off the bone. “That’s only because you haven’t felt what an infection is like. These wounds are gonna crawl up your arm sooner than you think. Then you’ll know what pain feels like. The way it’ll feel… you’ll be begging us to let you -”

“ - do it yourself next time.”

You blink your eyes open, breathing hard. The linoleum is stained with blood, the lights above you are sparking. You’re beneath a broken window, glass digging into your bare feet, your arm throbbing from where Ishmael snapped it back into place. The hallway is blinking dark, yellow, red, dark again. You look around wildly trying to find him as a helicopter whips close overhead behind you. You’re not sure he’s even real. He speaks to you in your own voice. When you look at your arm, you find yourself gripping your own shoulder. Do it yourself, says your voice inside your head. Do it yourse -

- you keep going, with the knife, you keep going, shear a strip of skin from the back of his hand, crack his knuckle down the center with the brunt of the blade. It makes a sick crackling sound as the cartilage pops open. His hand is covered in blood. Slick, sticky - it streams through your fingers. When your eyes hit it, something goes bright behind them and the blood turns white -

- you’re falling down the stairs. You see yourself in the window as you go and the blood on your face is thick and black. Ishmael gets his hands under your armpits and he drags you to your feet. Your emaciated legs shudder beneath your weight, fold from the pain of your sprained ankle. Do it yourself next time. You have to do it yourself, to stand on your own feet, to bear the mantle of this great man. Ishmael’s shadow dissolves before you and the room spins -

- the room spins and you slip. The blade digs deep into the prisoner’s arm and you slice it down hard, shove it as deep as you can. It gets jammed, stuck between the radius and the ulna, embedded deep in the muscles webbed between them. He’s screaming so loud it entwines with the crooning from the radio and drowns everything out. You can’t hear the slick noises of your blade sawing through his flesh, you can’t hear Kaz saying your name behind you, you can’t hear the voice of Ishmael in your head telling you to… telling you t-to… what to do -

- dragged through the fire, through the puddles on the floor either from the overhead sprinkler system or leaking from the X.O.F. soldier’s guts and heads, you can’t tell which. Your vision fractures and you see strange things: a man on fire, a floating child, another patient who speaks to you with your own voice… a week later, the first Red Soldier who comes up behind you, you grab him by the neck and crush it until he stops moving. Ishmael whispering in your ear: this time, do it yourself. You press your eyes shut and -

- when you open your eyes, the chair has been thrown back and the prisoner is between your thighs. You’re hitting him. Again and again and again.

Boss!”

Kaz’s hand is on your shoulder and you come back to yourself. You pull back, heaving, suffering palpitations. You... assess the damage. The prisoner is still conscious - nose broken, lip split in two more places, missing a few teeth. One of his eyes is hidden beneath a puffed up bruise.

“Стоп…” he gurgles. The knife is still in his arm. Your eyes track down to his ruined hand: missing three nails, the bone of his middle finger and knuckle visible where you skinned a line of flesh right off of it. His last two fingers are crushed into pulp. You don’t remembe - you struggle to you feet but the room is so hot and loud and dark and your vision reels around and around until you can see nothing at all.

You hear an empty chamber click, followed by the resounding thunderclap of a gun being fired. The sound clears your head. What you see is: Kaz standing over the prisoner, holding the revolver. The radio is off. It’s silent, except for your breathing.

“Kaz, what did you -”

“What had to be done,” Kaz slides the revolver back into its holster. “Don’t worry about it, Boss. What happened in here stays in here.”

You and Kaz stand shoulder to shoulder in the ringing silence.

Shit, Snake,” he says, voice thin. “You really did a number on him. What the hell happened? Are… are you o -”

“I don’t like what he did to you,” you interrupt. Your voice is barely louder than a murmur. It sounds like a storm on the horizon.

That stirs something in Kaz. “You…” he looks at you. “You did this… for me…” It’s not a question. Of course you did it for him, right? That’s what you said. You gather him up in your arms, breathe into his hair.

“God,” he whispers, “kiss me.” He’s clinging to you, casting his weight in a way that means he’ll fall if you drop him. “I need it… I need you to -” You -

- say no, somewhere, you say no somewhere in the back of your head but he pulls you in with his one arm, with his desperate eyes, with the way he bites down on you lip and digs nails into your scalp, sobbing upon inhale. Your eyes roll around the room and spot the dead soldier, linger over his brains spilt across the steel floor, roll back in your head as you stutter, as you -

SMACK

Kaz rears back, stumbles a step before falling hard on his hip. He doesn’t make a sound when he hits the metal. He stares up at you: afraid, amazed, aroused. You don’t remember hitting him, but there’s a line of bright red going from his lip to the dip in his chin. “Boss,” he says in the back of his throat, voice thick with primal need. You’re - on him in a blink, licking up the blood greedily, snaring his bottom lip and biting down so hard that it causes the knick you made with your fist to yawn open. He whines into your mouth, a high keening sound that mingles with the blood. It tastes sweet. You drink it in, bundle him up in your arms so tight it makes him gasp for breath. You force his mouth open with your tongue and breath into him, share your air with him. You keep him alive.

“Snake,” he hisses, pleads. “Snake -”

You slam him against the wall. Smack him again, to send his sunglasses skittering. You grab him by the chin, hold him up that way as he paws at your torso, claws his fingers into your belt and fumbles blindly at the buckle. You lick a hot line up the side of his face, tracing the shape of the bruise you beat into it. “C’mon,” he pants, bucking his hips into yours. Your hand leaves a bloody palm-print on his lapel, on his chest, streaks blood down his thigh as you grip it tight and hitch him up. He sighs when you lift him off the floor. You grip him with your flesh hand and wrap your prosthetic around his neck. His eyes light with excitement as you begin to crush it, begin to crush the life out of hi -

- you open your eyes, breathing heavy. Kaz is still on the floor staring up at you - waiting, with a finger pressed to the cut in his lip. The room wheels wildly around you - light and blood and… and Kaz is the only thing you can see clearly. So you… you don’t touch him. You’re afraid of what will happen if you touch him. You turn away, face the mess the two of you made together.

“I… need to clean this up. Go get some sleep, Kaz.”

He inhales loudly, biting down on his disappointment. You listen to him clatter and struggle to his feet, have to ball your hands into fists so that you don’t go to help him. The desire to set an arm around his waist is nearly instinctual.

“... come see me after?”

You don’t answer. It’s… you stare at the blood on your prosthetic. It’s not a good idea.

“Boss… ple…” he pauses, swallows a choked sound down his throat. This word has never been easy for him. “Please come see me after.”

“... yeah.”

When he leaves you unhook a petrol bomb from your belt and scatter the gas inside it over the corpse. Then you light a cloth and throw it onto him, take a step back as the body goes up in flames. You stand close enough to feel the heat, to hear the way the fat beneath his skin bubbles and snaps, pops like bacon. You breathe in the scent of cooked meat and black smoke and you watch as your shadow changes shape on the wall.

*

Kaz is waiting for you, sat against the wall with his hand over his eyes. You don’t wait - you go right to him. You crawl into his arms. He takes you in without a word, slings his arm over your shoulder and breathes deep, pulling you close to him. You slide your hands up over his knees, slide them along his thighs so that they lock around his back and your cheek comes to rest against the hollow of his abdomen. Then you close your eyes and lay your head there for a moment, listening to the wash of sounds a human body makes: a steady, distant roll like the crash of waves. He threads his fingers through your hair, permission for you to keep going - to push him down on the bed so that you can crawl on up, crawl over him, put your nose to his jugular and sniff at the sweat that pooled there from long hours in a room with no windows. He shivers beneath your lips, and actually laughs.

“Hn… you haven’t done that in a while…”

“What? Smell you?”

“Yeah. Don’t you remember? Every time you used to come home from a mission, you’d come up behind me and bury your nose in my hair like you were a damned dog. You’d get mud and shit all over my clean uniform, too.”

You lie. “Mmm, I remember.”

Kaz is silent a beat. When he speaks, his voice is very low. “What do I smell like now?”

“Fear,” you answer easily, pulling back. You fan his hair away from his face and grip it in both hands so that he has to look at you. “Kaz, what are you so afraid of?”

He stares at you - cheeks flushed, split lips slightly parted, but eyes hard and locked. You wish that he would just talk to you like he used to. Wish that you could just make him talk. You feel, sometimes, like you could squeeze it out of him, like if you just tightened your grip… if you just.. it would be so easy to -

(- it’s very easy to crush a human skull with your red right hand. You did it once, in Masa Village, before Eli took over and purged all the adults. You caught a man out back, behind one of the storage rooms beating a kid with the butt of his rifle and you

- saw red -

- slammed him into the wall at the wrong angle. Suddenly everything was so dark, so loud, the kid staring at you in horror as you… to stop the man from screaming, stick your fingers down his throat and squeeze his cheekbone so hard that his eye pops out. No more secrets, if you could just crush his skull in until it leaked out of him -)

You pull your hand away from Kaz’s face with a gasp. He follows you up, hooks his arm around your neck and kisses you, doesn’t notice that anything was wrong, didn’t feel the way you clamped your thumb down hard over the soft flesh of his temple. He’s already got his one good leg hooked over your hip, so you follow his lead and grind against him, pull a stuttered moan from between his lips, keep your mechanical arm braced against the head-board so you don’t -

(- it’s so easy, with your red right hand, to crush a man’s windpipe like it’s made of paper. You squeeze the soldier’s neck so hard that his tongue lolls out of his mouth. In your head, Ishmael says: Do it yourself this time.)

- so you don’t do anything you’d regret later.

You try to give Kaz what he wants but you can’t stay hard, your cock goes soft inside him. It’s not him, you just… can’t stop thinking about -

“That man didn’t touch my arm.”

“Cоса́ть.” Kaz whispers, and the prisoner’s eyes go wide enough that you can see the veins at the edges.

Kaz pants against your cheek. “Snake, what’s wrong?

You answer him with a kiss and take him in your hand so that you can stroke him to completion, trying desperately to think about nothing at all. This isn’t the first time this has happened. It won’t be the last; you’re not a young man anymore, and neither is he. The sound Kaz makes into your mouth is all you need. You roll off when he’s done shuddering through his orgasm and curl around him, keeping your bodies close on the narrow cot.

He’s looking at the ceiling, not you. After a while, you ask: “Are we gonna talk about what happened?”

“I told you. It stays in that room.”

“No, I meant -” he blinks and looks at you. In the half-light like this is the only time he doesn’t squint with his shades off. He looks so much younger with his eyes open this wide, with his hair in his face. “What happened in Afghanistan. What did that soldier do to you?”

Kaz pulls his thumb along the curve of your sternum and sighs. “Do you remember… I told you this story once, about how I bit part of an American sailor’s ear off when I was a kid.”

Often, when Kaz asks you questions like this, you’ve got a foggy sense of the past - lines on a map with no words. But this? Nothing.

“We were -” his breath hitches a bit, “- between camps. September, ‘73, the time we got in that tangle with a cartel and they burned our tents. You and I were huddled out in an abandoned barn that smelt like shit, trying to get the radio to tune in and… I could barely keep my eyes open, we’d been marching for fourty-eight hours, mostly going in circles, finding our scattered men telling them where to meet us but you and I- you-”

Yeah, you… you remember this part, but you don’t remember seeing much of Kaz in the chaos - but that’s not right, back then - unless you were on a mission - Kaz was practically attached to your hip -

“- you just kept me talking. Kept me sane. That’s the thing I never got about you, Boss - how you can make me feel so crazy one minute, and pull me back down to earth the next.”

“I don’t try to make you crazy, Kaz.”

“Yeah, that’s what you always said: Kaz, you do it to yourself.”

“Did I? ... I don’t remember.”

“I wonder,” Kaz’s fingers crawl up your neck and chin, come to rest between your eyes. He dances them over the scars on your nose and forehead. “- how many memories a person has to lose before they’re not themselves anymore.”

“Kaz?”

“If what makes us human is the sum of our knowledge and experience, then losing that without any hope of recovery is kind of like dying in a way, isn’t it?”

“Do you… think I’m not myself anymore?” Asking the question actually sends a bolt of fear through you. It’s hot liquid that settles in the bottom of your gut.

“No it’s just…” he makes a frustrated noise. “You’re right here, Snake, but… I miss you sometimes.”

“Kaz,” you trace the shape of his cheekbone. “I’m with you. Don’t worry.”

He shuts his eyes for a moment and nods. “Y-yeah.”

“So… what happened? With the American soldier?”

Something ripples through Kaz’s expression at that - resentment, confusion, hurt. He smiles bitterly before turning his back to you. “Better remember soon, Boss, because I’m not gonna humiliate myself again.”

The Guy in Charge

Something changes again after that.

Not good this time.

*

“Are you worried about Miller?” Ocelot asks, kneeling down to catch a sprout of African Peach between two fingers. He turns the leaf over and examines it. Thick drops of dew roll over the edge and splash against his glove.

You shield your eyes against the sun streaming through the grate above. A thick mist hangs in the greenhouse. It gathers around your waists and cuts the light into squares. You say: “Kaz has been…” but you can’t finish the sentence. How has Kaz been? On a rampage. Assigning triple shifts to even the D ranks, metting out latrine duty to anyone who looks at him wrong. To you? He’s been perfectly polite. Cold and clipped. You went away for a week on a mission in the Serengeti and when you came back, he’d reprogrammed the lock-code to his room so that you couldn’t get in.

“Boss?”

You shake your head. “- I don’t know. I’ve lost him again. He won’t tell me what’s happened.”

Ocelot clicks his tongue. “A shame. And you two were getting along so well for a while there too.” As he stands, DD jumps to attention and trots over to him, shoving his snout beneath Ocelot’s hand. Ocelot pets the dog enthusiastically, a small smile tugging at the corner of his lip. He almost looks human like this.

“He… needs time,” you say. It’s what you always say. Ocelot and DD start walking again, towards the tarragon plot. You follow after them, eye downcast, staring at the roots of the plants as you go. They’re shallow, tangling together as they vie for nutrients in the artificial dirt.

“Well, don’t worry. He knows his place. Knows what his role is.”

“That’s not what I -” you curl and uncurl your mechanical fist. “That’s not what I want. I don’t want to put him in his place.”

“You know…” Ocelot says delicately, “- it might not be a bad thing, this distance between you.”

Your head snaps up to see him shooting you a pitying look from the periphery of his vision. He goes on:

“It’s no good to mix business and personal affairs. It makes you short-sighted. That’s part of went wrong between you two in the 70’s, wasn’t it?”

“I -”

You reach the tarragon. DD lays on the floor, letting his front paws dangle off the platform as he sticks his nose into the yellow blossom of the nearest plant. You stare at the bright flowers swaying in the breeze and think about Colombia.

“You never watched Miller closely enough. That’s because you were looking at the wrong things.”

(“You said it yourself. He’s never seen a real fight before. And his first one… we kicked his ass! How can you promote him to -”

“I was dead certain about Kaz. On the battlefield you can know who someone really is the first time you look at them.” )

“No, you’re wrong. Kaz and I were a good team. We just -”

“ ‘Need time’?” Ocelot drawls skeptically. “How much time, Boss? It’s been six months. How much time are you going to give him? A year? Five years? You need to stop treating him like he’s made of glass. He needs you to be his Boss.”

You reach out and take a tarragon petal between your fingers. You rub it - gently at first, but you can’t stop yourself from pressing harder and harder until the flower dissolves, leaving glistening dust on the pads of your glove. You hear Ocelot shift beside you, hear him take a deep breath.

“The way you’ve been handling it so far… I hate to criticize, but what happened with that prisoner last month was…”

You glance at him. “You know about that?”

“It’s my job to know everything that happens on Mother Base.”

“I see.”

He hesitates, holds out his hands. Very diplomatic. “The body was a real mess.”

You crouch down on your haunches so that you can pet DD. You’ve been trying not to think about the night you and Kaz spent in Room 101. The thing is... you have to think about it. It’s critical to understand what went wrong. What you could have done differently. Looking back on it sets off bright sparks inside your skull. You can’t remember the order of events, aren’t sure who did what. In most of your memories, Kaz is the one standing over the body with the gun. But when you dream about it, it’s you - you’re the one who pulled the trigger.

“I don’t like what he did to you -”

DD’s fur is soft even though the fabric of your gloves. He’s warm beneath your hand. You can feel his heartbeat. He leans into your touch and wags his tail, tongue lolling out in the humid evening air.

“Boss, really now: what were you thinking?”

“Aren’t you the one who told me to give him what he wants?”

Ocelot doesn’t reply. That makes you… it’s not anger, not quite. It’s like there’s a mental block in your head that stops you from becoming frustrated with Ocelot, no matter how far he pushes you. Your oldest friend, your most trusted agent. Ocelot always has your best interests at heart. He’s loyal to you, more than anyone. He’s the one who told you to… who suggested that you...

“Ocelot, you’re the one who gave me the idea.”

He laughs, like he doesn’t believe you. “How so?”

“When we talked outside of Paz’s room.”

That earns you a look. A look that you don’t think you’ve seen on Ocelot’s face before. He’s got one eyebrow raised right up towards the hairline: shocked, genuinely. What does that mea -

You pet down DD’s back, long even strokes. “When you said that you thought we should abandon therapy with Paz… that you didn’t think it was going her any good…”

“Boss -”

You quote him: “ ‘Immanuel Kant said that the universe possessed properties that the human mind can’t conceive of. Even so, the filter that we see it through is still meaningful.’ If a delusion is the only way someone can process the world, you told me that maybe it’s fine to let that delusion go for a bit.”

Ocelot stares at you quietly for a very long time. Then he takes three step towards you and leans over to examine you face.

“What?”

“Boss, I’ve never read Immanuel Kant.”

Your hand tightens, grabs a fold of DD’s skin. Shakily, you reply: “That explains your opportunistic interpretation of him, then.”

Ocelot’s brow knits together, perplexed. “No, I mean… we never had that conversation. You must have -”

“I must have what?”

Ocelot sighs. “Imagined it -”

You don’t realize how hard you’re twisting DD’s pelt until you hear him whimpering. It’s a high and pitiful sound, but he doesn’t try to escape until you tear your hand away in horror. He leaps to his feet and canters around Ocelot, hides behind his knees, looking betrayed.

“Sometimes, after a coma, there can be negative side effects, especially with the…” he touches the tip of your horn. Even such gentle contact makes your eyes blanche for a second. You pull away from him and stand up.

“You’re telling me that you never met me outside Paz’s sickroom? I imagined all of that?”

Ocelot looks like he’s swallowed vomit. He moves his hands through the air, rolling his wrists as his face contorts. You can practically hear his thought process: how to say this kindly. How to make sure the Boss doesn’t think that I think he’s crazy. Even though we both know -

- he is.

“Paz died in Costa Rica,” is what he says. Blunt, and staring straight at you. “Nine years ago. Remember, Boss?”

(- and then she’s on her feet, stumbling towards the open hatch of the helicopter, her sutures flexing and leaking with every unsteady step. Your 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 grab your forehead as a blinding spike of pain goes through it. All that, all that and she died anyway.

“Of course,” you growl. “Of course she died. I know that.”

“Boss…”

You spit at him, like a rabid dog would. DD flinches at the sight of it.“You’re dismissed, Ocelot.”

“It’s not -”

“I said: you’re dismissed.”

He clips his mouth shut, lips pressed into such a tight line they disappear. “Whatever you say, Boss,” he demures, bowing like a performer showing himself off-stage. DD follows at his heels and soon you’re alone. It’s good, that’s fine - the sun, the mist, the silence, the heady scent of peat and damp leaves, it quiets your brain. You slide your earphones over your head and flip on the newest tape in your collection. The tension drains from your nerves the moment the music hits your ears. Everything makes more sense when you’re alone.

Ocelot wasn’t trying to be cruel, there’s no reason to blame him. He’s right: you lost more things to that helicopter crash than just your arm and your soldiers.

(Kaz asks you: “- how many memories does a person has to lose before they’re not themselves anymore?”)

It was a dream. A hallucination. Now that you think back, the entire day seems hazy, like a mirage shimmering in the distance. Ocelot waiting for you outside the sickroom, Quiet’s empty cell, Kaz’s hand around the hilt of the revolver… all of it, you must have -

- imagined it.

*

Kaz receives you in his office.

When you approach him, the look he gives you is complete indifference. It would be easier if he were angry at you. You know how to handle his anger, how to bridle it, to bend beneath it. You know how to hold it in your hands and turn it into something you can use. This is unbearable. This feeling lives at the bottom of your ribcage. It’s sharper than violence.

“You need something, Boss?”

The expression he shoots you is perfectly hollow; this is the same way he talks to any other soldier. His casual tone is a sharpened blade, you remember it from the 70’s: a big ol’ smile beaming bright as he hands you your quarterly performance report -

(No, that’s not… that’s not right.)

You throw a file-folder on his desk. “We need to go through the new recruit intakes. Go over staff reassignments.”

Kaz stares up at you through his eyelashes. Stares at you like he’s trying to outlast you, like if he stays silent long enough you’ll give up trying to talk to him and just leave. It won’t work, you tell him with your eyes, with your steady hand rooted on the surface of the desk. You’re more patient than him, and your patience for him is infinite.

He capitulates with a soft exhale and gestures for you to sit down. “I already filed my suggestions in the central data-bank, but if you insist -”

“I do.”

And there it is - Kaz’s eyes flash brilliant for a moment. For a single, beautiful second he’s furious with you. It disappears as quickly as it began, but you hold on to it, cling to it like a buoy in a storm. You reel it out like a rope as the two of you talk - strictly business, cheques and balances, the strengths and weaknesses of your men and women… he flips, disinterested, through the folder you presented him until he hits the page you were waiting for.

He rushes past it at first, but you watch the recognition dawn on his face in steps. One eyebrow twitches. His hand freezes in the air, a page trapped between his thumb and forefinger. Then his eyes goes wide. He flicks the pages back frantically, slams his finger down in the middle of the soldier’s face.

“I -” his breath is coming out fluttery. “I… know him -”

Of course he knows him - the man is the commander of the Red Army unit that took him from the SKULLS. It’s the man who ordered his torture. Kaz’s face contorts in pained confusion.

“How do I… know him…?”

You did your research, tracked the man down in his office in Da Ghwandai Kar and put your arm around his neck while he signed off on a requisition forum. You recognized his face as well, because he was also in charge of the unit that -

(- when you found Quiet, when you saw her surrounded by a pile of broken bodies… when you saw the state she was in... her face, and the way they’d pulled down the pants of her prison garb -)

“He’s the fourth man,” you say. Kaz looks up at you slowly, his mask of perfect disinterest shattering for a second time. It’s not anger this time. It’s something deeper than that.

“You…”

“It didn’t feel right, leaving a loose end like that.”

Kaz breathes in hard through his nose, smacks the folder shut. He puts his hand up under his aviators and rubs his face, palm into the hollow of each eye, lower lip trembling as he tries to compose himself.

“Boss,” he whispers. “You really didn’t have to -”

You grab his wrist, yank it hard so that he’s pulled half over the desk, so that you can put your face close to his. His sunglasses tumble off and hit the desk between you. “Kaz, talk to me. Tell me what’s happened.”

His naked eyes search your face, but you have no idea what he’s looking for. You stare back, your gaze temperate, understanding; you’re saying to him: it’s okay, you’re safe, trust me. You try to communicate it with the way your grip on his wrist softens, in the way your thumb runs - gently - over his pulse. It’s impossible to talk to him, sometimes, because Kaz puts too much stake in the currency of words.

“Tell me what’s wrong.”

He relents, retreats a half inch, his expression crumbling into something more vulnerable, like sand being pulled out by the tide. You don’t let him go. You want to see his eyes as he carefully chooses his words.

“... do you remember,” he begins, “how Paz used to help out around the Sick Bay?”

“Yes.” You remember it so clearly that hearing her name evokes the balmy scent of summer off the Caribbean coast.

“Then you… remember how during the month before she hijacked ZEKE, the month leading up to Peace Day, she and I were working on a song together?”

You can hear her humming to herself as she sorts the the bandages. Her voice is beautiful, like bird-song. Her hair catches the light like it’s full of stars. Having her here is so important. It proves that this army can build just as well as it destroys. Your guns aren’t just for killing, they’re for saving lives as well. That’s what Paz represents, singing songs of peace and love beneath the forward guns as the sun rises over the South Atlantic.

“I couldn’t forget a name as silly as ‘Love Deterrence’,” you reply with a grin. Kaz doesn’t respond to the jibe. He tries to jerk his hand away, so you let him go.

“I was thinking about the day she accidentally let Nuke into the Sick Bay,” he says, slipping his sunglasses back on. “And that damned cat got behind the wall panels and wouldn’t come out. You remember that?”

Like it was yesterday. “- and you were fifteen minutes late for morning drills because you had to help me find the cat before he got into something important. The -” Boss was so cranky, your mouth wants to say. You stop - every part of you stops as you try to unwind the memory. The Boss can’t have been upset, because you’re the Boss and you were there. You were in the Sick Bay that morning, telling Kaz to check behind the defibrillator while Paz wound her tiny hands together and apologized over and over again -

Kaz’s mouth goes flat. “I really should have known,” he murmurs to himself, leaning over the desk to touch the tip of your horn. He drags a finger down its length, catching every rivulet with the seam in his glove. “Then again, we see what we want to see, don’t we?”

“Kaz?”

He settles back into his seat with a defeated noise. “What do you want me to do with this?” he asks brusquely, waving his hand over the face of the Red Army commander.

“I don’t know yet,” you answer. It’s the truth. What you wanted was for him to talk to yo - “He needed to be removed from the field. I read the HEC reports on this man and his units have been wreaking havoc on both their Mujahadeen prisoners and the local civilians.”

“So you brought him here instead?”

“He won’t be the first murderer we’ve turned around. And -”

Kaz lifts his eyebrows. “And?”

“It wasn’t just you, Kaz. This man was in charge of the unit that took Quiet.”

Kaz’s incredulous expression does not change, so you keep talking.

“When I found her, they’d treated her savagely. No remorse. The way that she killed them…” your eyes flash dark. Behind them, you can see her stabbbing their captain viciously, mechanically, fifteen times in a row. “- it said a lot about how they conducted themselves. It’s easy to excuse these kind of things when you’re telling yourself that it’s just ‘following orders’. So I removed the ‘orders’ from their chain of command.”

Kaz looks at you with silent deliberation. It’s nearly mathematical, the way his gaze rakes over you. You can’t read what his face means - the curl in his lip, the ripple in his brow, the way his eyes narrow minutely. Kaz puts too much stake in words, hides behind them so expertly that he’s learned how to lie with every movement that he makes. After a protracted silence, he lets out a long, rocky breath and he looks you straight in the eye.

And he says, very softly: “Who’s Quiet?”

The question hits as hard as a gunshot in the dark. You mind goes numb immediately and the moment stretches out in front of you like you’re staring up at a wide and empty sky that is impossible to touch. Your blood runs high in your face and a sound loud as storm wind rises in your ears. You can’t speak, can’t admonish Kaz for being so petty as to pretend she didn’t even exist. But -

- but he… he looks so concerned, like Ocelot looked when you told him you forgot that Paz was dead. You try to stand, groping clumsily at the edge of the desk. When you stumble back into your seat, Kaz shoots up out of his and limps over to you urgently. He sets his hand on your head, runs his fingers through your hair.

“Snake, what’s wrong?”

“Quiet was the sniper I fought in Aabe Shifap Ruins…”

“Those ruins are abandoned, Boss. You only passed through them once, when you went to collect Emmerich.”

You’re shaking your head. “Kaz, I brought her back here. You were furious with me, but she worked for us -”

“We only have one female sniper, and no one with a code name like that.”

“She -”

“- why would I be furious at you for recruiting a talented soldier?”

“She was… an XOF assassin…”

Kaz quirks an eyebrow. He lets his hand slide down your face so that he’s cupping your jaw. He tips your face up so that you can look at each other. “Snake, listen. You’ve been working long hours lately. I’ve been piling too many jobs on you, it’s obvious that the stress is taking it’s toll.”

“Kaz, I didn’t -” imagine her. Not like Paz. Quiet was real. She -

“As your X.O., I order you to take a week on rest leave.”

- she lived on the Medical Platform. She got Shibani’s necklace out of the chlorine plot. She was the one who saw the parasites first, tried to cut them out of Reckless Jackal’s throat. All evidence of her presence on the Base have been erased, but you know that she was real.

“After a week, we’ll get you a check-up with the Medic, huh? Make sure the shrapnel hasn’t pushed deeper. You know this thing can cause hallucinations, right?”

He sounds honest. He sounds earnest. He looks -

“Don’t worry Boss.” He looks like he pities you. “I won’t tell anyone about this.”

He’s taking advantage of you -

- to get what he wants from you.

You swallow down a knot of bile and fear. You’re sweating so hard that Kaz’s glove is slick with it when he pulls away from your face. Kaz wouldn’t lie to you. You assure yourself of that. He has your best interests at heart, he would never lie to you, he would never -

*

“Oh the battlefield you can know who someone really is the first time you look at them.”

“The first time Kaz and I’s eyes met, we were both holding a grenade.”

“- 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.”

“Do you remember? We were between camps. September, ‘73, -- you and I were huddled out in an abandoned barn that smelt like shit, trying to get the radio to tune in and --”

“-- that day the damn cat got behind the wall panels and --”

“- s-sorry, I am so terribly embarrassed… I fed a fish to Nuke as I was on my way over but did not realize that he had -”

“Hey, c’mon Paz,” Commander Miller chimes in cheerfully. “Everyone makes mistakes!” He begins pulling open the medicine cupboards with far more energy and enthusiasm than someone who’s been awake since the crack of dawn should ever have. The Commander brings the scent of coffee and cheap cologne with him wherever he goes. When the Boss is around, he also reeks of cigar smoke. That scent is so strong on him this morning that Paz actually coughs when he brushes past her. Now that you think about it, his uniform is a little rumpled, looks slept in.

“It was just so foolish of me. I did not mean to take my eye off him.”

“I don’t mind Nuke,” you assure Paz as you dip down to check beneath the gurneys. “I wouldn’t mind him being in here except that sometimes he chews the wires. A frayed wired in Sick Bay could mean the difference between life and death.”

“Ah… yes,” Paz nods, huffs a bit. She spins on her heel - skirt whirling around her knees in the shape of an umbrella - and begins patting down the shelves, clicking her tongue and calling the cat’s name.

“I thought I heard something -” Miller says suddenly, slamming the cupboard shut. He shimmies up to the wall and sets his ear against it.

“Commander?”

“I think the damn cat got into the walls.” Miller smacks a palm against the wall and, sure enough, there’s a skittering sound behind the steel.

“How in the world did he…” your eyes flicker towards the ceiling, where the panels are made of detachable segments. Sure enough one of the panels is slightly ajar.

Miller laughs: “looks like Nuke wants to apply to the stealth unit.”

“He must have been taking lessons from Snake,” Paz agrees, giggling as well. Her mood has finally lightened, but yours has plummeted right into your feet. How the hell are you going to get the cat out of the walls if it went in through the ceiling? Maybe you can call in the Boss and have him go in after -

- you can… call in the… Boss… but -

- in the memory, you lift your hands so that you can look at them. These are your hands, before you lost one to the helicopter crash. They’re both flesh, calloused, a scar runs down the center of the left palm from when your father accidentally slipped with the blade while you were building a barn togeth -

No, no, that’s not right.

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

“Hey, --------!” Commander Miller snaps you out of your reverie by calling your name. He makes the motion of pulling a headset over his ears. “Call Moth and tell him that we’re sending someone down to the Mess Hall for some fresh fish, huh?”

You nod numbly, but your hands are too heavy to move. When you look at them again, they’re covered in blood up to the elbows.

“I’ll go,” Paz volunteers. You look at her, you see her stumbling towards the open hatch of the Sick Bay and her sutures are leaking through her school uniform. The whole jacket is stained with blood the same colour as what’s on your hands. You reach out towards her, try to move your mouth but nothing comes out.

It’s okay, Paz, it’s okay, we got it out, you don’t have to -

- you wake up with a start on a balcony overlooking the Medical Platform, static loud in your ears. You blink back to consciousness gradually, taking in the dark, starless sky. Your iDroid is playing a blank tape. You listen until the end, until it clicks over and begins rewinding. When you take it out of cassette deck, the only thing written on it - written in your own, neat handwriting - is the name ‘Paz’.

You crack the tape in half and throw it into the ocean.

*

Later you’re in the helicopter with Pequod staring at the photographs on the wall as the sound of the chopper blades sluice your thoughts in half.

All you need to do is ask Pequod...

Your fingers brush over the wrinkled edges of a photo - the one of you, Kaz and Morpho from ‘75. Your eyes crawl up the wall the examine the bottom of your Walker Gear’s design specs. There’s an empty space beneath it. If you look closely, there’s a faded patch at the bottom corner of the document, like tape had been pulled off it recently.

You can’t ask Ocelot, not after the slip up with Paz. But you could ask Pequod. She spent hours in here with him. All you need to do is ask Pequod about Quiet. You just need to say her name.

“Miller is using you -”

“Kaz would do that. Kaz -”

WOULDN’T LIE TO ME.

You bite your tongue and turn your eyes toward the window, toward the endless haze of clouds splitting around the chopper’s sleek body. You’re not ready to find out either way: if Kaz is lying, if he’s telling the truth… both possibilities are equally abominable. And if you found out, you’d have to -

What would you have to do?

*

All you need to do is -

(The Afghan air is so dry and sand-drenched that it whips into you like a physical thing, snaps your head around like a backhand…. hunkered down in your temporary shelter, you adjust your scope and peer out into the distance... all you can see are vague shadows, blinkered lights; the sand whisks over the desert beneath you… and you’re alone with the wind and the rocks -)

- you tear your room apart searching for your cassettes. They’re in a bin behind your prosthetic maintenance kit. You dump them on the floor and paw through them desperately. Hours of mission briefings, all your favourite songs, the private conversations you and Kaz had when he was cooped up in the Med Bay… you find four more with Paz’s name on them and you destroy every single one, tearing the tape out with your bare fingers, ripping them apart like you’re eviscerating an animal.

(- a flash of light -- behind you, you brace your palm against the rock and whirl around in time to -- nail a soldier right between the eyes with your silenced pistol. He hits the ground and goes rolling down the side of the cliff, his limp body smashing against each outcropping until he disappears beneath the storm line.)

You can hear her humming at the back of your mind. You know the tune by heart. You didn’t invent that song, she gave it to you. The memory of it always steadies your hands when you hold a rifle. You hum it to yourself every-time you aim the sight between a man’s eyes.

(You’re standing in the center of three soldiers laid flat: two unconscious, the third with his own knife jammed into his eye. Kaz’s voice is in your ear, asking you what happened. You turn to smile at Quiet, to give her a thumbs up, but she’s disappeared into the storm like a ghost.)

- your hand falls on the cassette you were looking for. It’s short, unmarked. Sun-damaged and slightly warped by heat at the corner. You shed your glove and clutch it tightly in your flesh fingers, feel the mottled plastic dig into the calloused skin of your fingers. You make sure that it’s real.

But if it’s real… if you find out Kaz lied to you… you’ll have to…

What will you have to do?

You need to know for certain.

*

Kaz doesn’t answer when you knock.

But he has to eventually. You’re more patient that he is. Your patience for him is infinite.

You wait him out for nearly half an hour, knocking at intervals regular enough to be obnoxious, intervals that you learned in the interrogation room. When the door finally slams open, Kaz is visibly angry. He’s in only slacks and his dress-shirt, half untucked. His hair is askew on one side, flat on the other and his aviators have obviously been hastily applied. He’d been trying to sleep.

When he sees you, he tries to temper his expression into something less hostile. Still, his voice is chilly. “Boss. What do you want?”

You push him inside, then push past him. You stride into the center of his room and hold up the tape with Quiet’s confession on it.

“Come inside and close the door, Kaz,” you say.

He looks irritated, but he listens to you. What other choice does he have? Now that you’re already in here it’s not like he can force you to leave. He collapses bonelessly on the edge of the bed and tilts his head up. “Didn’t I tell you to rest for a week?”

“Do you recognize this tape?”

He gives you a withering look. “Am I supposed to?”

“When Quiet left -”

- and Kaz groans. “Not this again.”

Listen to me.” The fury in your voice shuts him up. “She left this tape behind when she disappeared. It’s a confession. Her voice is on this tape.”

Kaz squares his jaw and stares at you, mouth twitching with swallowed criticism. You pop his cassette player open and slam the tape inside. “We’re going to listen to it together.”

“Boss,” he sighs.

You hit the rewind button. The squeaking sound of the tape slithering against itself fills the room. Kaz’s harsh expression has melted into something softer, almost sympathetic.

“Boss... are you sure that’s a good idea?”

The cassette stops. The clacking sound reverberates through the plastic spine of the tape-deck. You set your finger over the big, red button beneath the loading gears.

“If you do this,” Kaz warns, “you can’t take it back. And you might not like what you find out.”

You ignore him and press ‘play’. The cassette crackles to life. It was recorded outdoors, you remember this - that beneath her voice was the steady wash of noise made by a sandstorm. You hear that in the static. First comes a faint click. Footsteps. Your ears perk up when you hear them. They don’t sound organic. What you were expecting was the noise boot-leather makes when dampened in soft dirt. You hear ten footsteps cross a linoleum floor. You hear heavy breathing. Your own? There’s a radio playing in the distance, but not loud enough for you to hear what it says.

Panic begins to rise in your lungs. No, no - it’s not possible. You know this is the right cassette. It was the only one without a label. The only one that looked like it had spent time out in the desert, exposed to the blistering sun. You sorted every other tape you owned methodically just to make certain that this was the right one.

You’re hyperventilating before the tape ends. When you were a child, you had asthma briefly. You father made you run laps on Sundays until you knew how to steady your breathing, swallow down your pain, pretend that nothing was wrong -

“Boss -” Kaz is on his feet, leaning on his crutch for support as he comes to you. He touches your forearm and you snatch it away like his hand is scalding hot.

“You… Kaz… you -”

Your lungs feel like they’re going to burst. He’s using you. He lied to you. It’s… it’s not possible that he lied to you, he -

“Kaz,” you gasp, grabbing him, squeezing his arm so hard it elicits a pained hiss. “What did you do?”

Behind your eyes you see: Quiet, surrounded by a pile of broken bodies. You press your eyes shut and enter the memory. This time it’s you holding a bloody knife, holding it up so that the blood drips onto your face. Your horn is so elongated that you can see the sharp end of it from the upper periphery of your vision. You felt satisfied that they were dead. Ten lives… they can’t hurt anyone else. You are the man who takes both eyes. You see yourself standing over the Russian who tortured Kaz, gripping the revolver so tight that your arm shakes. His brains are spilt on the steel around his head like a halo, like Paz’s golden hair when she laid back in her sickbed -

“I didn’t do anything!” Kaz spits. You hold him tighter. “You’re losing it, Boss. I told you to take a fucking break. You need to -” your prosthetic hand climbs his shoulder. The thumb slides around his neck. You aren’t even thinking, you’re doing it automatically. “-- listen to me! You need to -” You thumb presses down on his jugular and he croaks. You press down until he stops talking.

He raises his crutch and takes a swing at you. You catch it with you bionic hand, twist it out of his grasp so hard his arm twists with it, draws a grunt of pain out of him. Something bright flashes behind your eyes and the next thing you know, you’ve got Kaz pinned against the wall with his own cane pressing down on his sternum. His breathing is ragged, gets shallow as you slowly roll the shaft of the cane higher.

“If that’s true,” he gasps. “Then use me,”

“What?”

“You said it. ‘You’re a tool Kaz,” his jaw lifts as the cane settles in the dip of his suprasternal notch. “If that’s… how you feel… then… do it. Use me.”

“I didn’t,” - you didn’t say anything, did you? “That’s not what I -” Those are Ocelot’s words, not yours.

Why don’t you just -

- a spike of pain blacks out out your vision, shakes down your arms, forces your to push harder on the cane. You hear Kaz gag and when your vision clears he’s fumbling for his pistol, fingers groping at the leather straps that cross over the holster. He gets it before you can grab his wrist, gets the safety off and everything. You turn his arm and the gun goes off as he drops it, filling the room with a thunderous explosion. You go deaf and -

- you’re hit with a wave of heat and debris. A thousand shards of metal and bone cut through your skin - so many points of sensation that you don’t actually feel anything at all. The last thing you see before it goes black is Commander Miller reaching for his arm-

- your fingers are in Kaz’s mouth, prying it open, forcing him to suck. You’re both on the floor: him pinned between your thighs and you with a hand around his neck. He bites down, hard enough to draw blood and you - on instinct, it’s instinct not desire, not lust, not malice, not anything - draw back your metal fingers and press down on the side of his neck so that the stun on your arm activates. He gags, gargles, his whole body convulses and arches into yours, the electric shock pulsing through him in waves. He goes flat again with a thump, his chin wet with your blood and his saliva. His breathing is erratic, pupils dilated and twitching, sclera bloodshot. He raises his arm and - weakly, defiantly - scratches at your eye. Can’t quite reach the good one and tears off your eyepatch instead. He’s still fighting you, so you shock him again. Not long enough to knock him out, but long enough that his limbs have begun to shudder and his pants are filling with warm liquid. You slide your flesh hand under his knee and pry his legs apart.

“Don’t…. You… fu… fucking…. dare -” Kaz rasps.

You -

- stand up and -

- step out of your body…

And you watch what happens with an odd, quivering sort of detachment.

The man looming over Kaz isn’t you, not quite. The wedge of metal in your head has never been so large, you’ve never been so covered in blood, you would never handle Kaz so roughly. The man who isn’t you whips Kaz’s belt off in a single motion, tears at his pants, leaves bloody marks along the outside of his thighs and deep, plum-coloured bruises on this inside. You watch Kaz struggle, watch him get his cheek slammed against the steel floor.

This is the man who can give Kaz what he wants. Who can -

- then use me!

The man who isn’t you drags his thumb over the dark circles beneath Kaz’s eyes, hums in pleasure at the sight of them. All this sleeplessness and pain and sorrow, it makes Kaz beautiful. A broken vase glued back together wrong, his cracked edges cut your hands every-time you try to touch him. The man who isn’t you can hold him in both palms without drawing blood. The blood on his hands isn’t yours: it belongs to every man and woman you’ve ever killed, that you’ve ever allowed to die. This blood is the price paid to mete out a warlord’s justice in a world where there is no truth. His hands leave bloody prints all over Kaz’s body: along his ribcage, at the base of his spine, around the circumference of his neck. Kaz’s throat is too damaged to make noise. He shoves his own hand in his mouth and bites down until he breaks the skin. You can’t watch, you can’t watch this. You shut your eyes and -

(“Oh the battlefield you can know who someone really is the first time you look at them.”

Big Boss’ voice is warm for once. Even when he explains how Kaz lied to him, how he tried to kill him, he sounds painfully fond.

“The first time Kaz and I’s eyes met, we were both holding a grenade.”

He laughs to himself, some inside joke you’ll never truly understand.

“You know what it feels like to hold a grenade, all that potential taut beneath the shell, ready to blow. A flick of your thumb is the only difference between an inert grenade, and an explosive force that can kill a man.”

You can hear him take a drag off his cigar. Can hear the sound his lips make when he puckers them open and lets the smoke go.

“That’s who Kaz is. You have to hold the pin in, or he’ll destroy himself. And he’ll try to take you with him.”)

- when you open them, one of your hands is flat on the floor beside Kaz’s head, the other is gripping his thigh. You drop his leg, slide out of him, cock still hard and throbbing. Kaz’s hand flops onto the floor, beside yours. He stares at the ceiling blankly as you try to… as you try to - dark burns branching through his capillary veins, the whole side of his face bruised, his neck black with wounds. What did you do?

All you can say is: “… were you going to shoot me?”

A sound bubbles up from his burnt throat. Laughter? His hand remains limp, but his fingers twitch almost imperceptibly, as if trying to form a fist. “No,” he whispers. “I just... wanted to see… what you… would do…”

You have to keep the pin in… or he’ll try to take you with him…

“Kaz…”

“Get the fuck off of me.”

*

You take the week off, like Kaz suggested.

When you meet with Ocelot after your medical assessment, he asks: “Speak with Miller recently?”

You don’t answer him. Can’t answer him. You avoid Kaz for another week after that. You go out on a recon mission on the other side of the Zaire border, one that has you dodging military columns and tracking missing rebel leaders through the dense jungle. It’s work so tiring and dangerous that it keeps you distracted. You spend five days straight thinking about nothing at all except for how to keep you and your dog alive in the deep, dark heart of a blood-soaked warzone. You feel at home. The first thing you're presented with when you get back to Mother Base is a summons from ‘Commander Miller’.

When you step into his office, Kaz greets you with a weary but sincere smile. It stops you in your tracks, makes your heart worm its way into your throat and stay there. Your eyes immediately scan him for evidence of the wounds you inflicted, but the only thing you can see is his face. No bruises, his lip is healed. He looks fine, like nothing happened at all.

“Good work in Zaire,” he says, sliding a document over the desk as an invitation for you to sit. “We got paid double because you managed to keep out from under the eyes of Mobutu’s government.”

“Mmm.” You try to read the paper, but your eyes blur. The words run together.

“Might not be wise to take another job that side of the border, though,” Kaz muses. “The politics are too complicated. Don’t wanna step on any toes, or make it look like we’re taking sides.”

He’s looking at you over the rims of his aviators, searching for your opinion. All you can think about is when you grabbed his face and smashed it into the floor so hard it split open the skin above his eye. You take too long to answer and he frowns at you, worried.

“Boss? What’s wrong?”

“Kaz… about what happened. I -” your tongue rolls around the ‘o’ in sorry, but it sits heavy in the back of your throat because the look he’s giving you isn’t what you expected. His eyes flicker for a moment, but he catches himself. He stares at you steadily: calm, fond, a very small smile relaxing the lines of his face.

“It’s fine, Boss,” he says. “You’re right, I acted rashly with those two Russian prisoners, so I let the commander go. It’s just like what happened with the Quarantine. I’ll be more careful in the future. Thank you for being patient with me.”

“Kaz. That’s not what I’m talking about.”

He glances at you, eyebrows arched.

“Our fight, Kaz.”

“What fight?” Kaz wonders. “We haven’t fought in months, Boss. Not since Quiet left, at least.”

At the sound of her name, down you go. Down into a deep, dark hole, and suddenly all you can hear are the tinny echoes of your own thoughts.

“Wh-what -?”

“The last fight we had was about Quiet, don’t you remember? Two days after we exiled Huey. But I was wrong about her as well. I don’t know why you’re apologizing for it.”

“No, Kaz. We -”

“Boss, are you okay?”

That’s who Kaz is --- you know what it feels like to hold a grenade -

“I’m -” you lick your lips. They’re chapped ragged. “I’m fine.”

He looks unconvinced. “Y’know, Boss,” he chides, “you’re a terrible fucking liar.”

And you remember -

( - watching from a distance… it’s nine AM in the Sick Bay and the sun is streaming in through the port-hole window. You’re watching Kaz: slung casually over a rolling stool, drumming his fingers impatiently on the gurney’s metal support bars as he waits for you to leave.

No, you’re in this memory: you’re all patched up from a gunfight you should have been too smart to get into in the first place. You don’t like wasting resources, so you waved off the medic when he tried to give you morphine. Kaz waves the medic away too, asks him to go fetch something from the requisition officer. With that out of the way, he leans over you and leers, master plan revealed.

“Well,” he says, chuckling, “now that we’re alone -” and his hands slide up the Boss’ your thighs, your stomach, settle on your chest. He grins, tipping his head forward so that he can stare at you over the rims of his aviators. “If you’re so intent on refusing traditional medical care, I know a natural method of releasing endorphins.” He begins to crawl his fingers down, tugs your the Boss’ undershirt free from the waistband. When his thumb circles the belt button, the Boss you grab his wrist and twist.

“Kaz…”

Kaz grits through it, keeps smiling. “Hey - don’t make up your mind so quickly. This one’s a freebie.”

“How is it that you’re so cautious on paper, but like this you can never control yourself?”

“What? Oh, you mean… heh, don’t worry about that - I sent him on an errand that’ll take ‘im alllllllll the way to the other side of the base.”

“... you planned this?”

“C’mon, Boss, like you said: I’m cautious. And I can’t control mysel - augh!”

Kaz Miller gets his arm folded back for that. “Uh huh. I’ve actually been remarkably impressed with your self control recently. What do you want?”

The Commander’s bold smile gets a little frantic. “Boss,” he whispers. “You’ve been working yourself half to death since November and we both know why.”

“You’re… worried?” and you he says it like he can't conceive of it, like he doesn't believe...

“Yeah. Of course I am. The MSF is at a fragile stage of growth and you’re the keystone keeping the whole thing from crumbling down. If you break, the whole thing breaks.”

The Boss eases up his grip on Miller’s arm. “Hmph, always so business minded…”

“Snake, it’s not just that.”

The Boss looks away from him, towards the IC unit. You press against the wall, you’re terrified of his penetrating gaze falling over you. You can’t explain this away. You heard everything.

“Look,” Miller sighs. “You don’t want to talk about it, I get that but… let me do this for you. Let me take care of you.”

Big Boss snorts. “... hn. If you won’t be dissuaded, use your mouth. At least that way you won’t leave a mess.”

Miller, he -

- yanks his arm away with a haughty snort. “Shit, Snake, sometimes I just don’t believe you. Do you always have to act like this!?”

“Like what?”

“Like… this whole thing is just for my benefit?”

They stare at each other for a long moment and you remember feeling -

- heart pounding, sweat pooling in the palms of your hand. You can just walk away, you should just walk away, should have walked away the moment you saw the Commander dip forward in his seat, the moment you heard the way he lowered his voice. If you leave now they’ll hear because it’s so quiet between them, pin drop silent between them, the sun streaming in through the port-hole, both of them bathed in glittering-dust as The Boss slowly reaches out to pinch the bridge of the Commander’s sunglasses between thumb and forefinger, reaches out to pluck them right off Miller’s face.

If you’d just left you wouldn’t have had to see the look in Miller’s eyes, the way they light up when the Boss glides a finger over his lips. It’s not lust, that would be simple. And if it was just the Boss that’d be simple. Big Boss is inscrutable, but he’s… deep, like a black hole - full of infinite possibilities, infinite potential. From him, this kind of thing isn’t unexpected. It’s Commander Miller that you can’t stop looking at; seeing him so undone, unraveled, his trademark cool cracked down the center by aching adoration… it… it colours every interaction you have with him, until the very end, like you saw right to the center of all his falsities, past every mask he constructs. The Boss is still like a God to you, but Commander Miller? He’s just the same, fragile, destructible human mess the rest of you are. And he -

- closes his eyes and presses a kiss to the center of Big Boss’ palm before letting it go.

“I’m fine, Kaz,” you take a step back the Boss says.

Kaz laughs, quietly, you turn on your heel, inch through the door and replies: “you’re a terrible fucking liar.”

And you - scramble to retrace your steps silently, pose yourself in the hall so that you meet Commander Miller as he’s coming out the door. He grins at you and jerks a thumb back towards the sick bay, warns you that the Boss is being a “big baby” in there. You smile and nod. You say nothing. You pretend that you didn’t see a thing.)

“Kaz... I’m more worried about you.” You stand up and round the desk. Kaz spins his chair around to greet you, to keep an eye on you. You track the lines of his body as you go, observe how his breathing stutters for an unguarded half-second when he realizes you’re coming in close. He regains composure quickly, inclining his seat back with practiced nonchalance.

“Me?”

“Being out there on the battlefield? Getting shot at, sleeping in the mud… that’s the kind of thing I’m made for. But I can see how dark your eyes are even beneath your sunglasses. You’re still skipping sleep, skipping meals.” You kneel in front of him and take his hand in yours. He flinches at your touch. “Let me take care of you,” you murmur as you press a gentle, dry-mouthed kiss to the center of his palm.

He draws in a sharp breath, trembles, waits it out. You look up at him and he lets the breath go so that he can force a smile. He tugs his hand away and sets it on the crown of your head, hesitates just for a moment before stroking his fingers through your hair.

“I’m fine, Boss,” he says.

You lean your forehead against his knee, and reply: “I believe you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And if I can survive
I can keep you alive
I’m not above going through it again
I’m not above being cool for a while
If you’re cruel to me,
I understand

[OBTAINED TAPE - AN INNOCENT MAN]

[OBTAINED TAPE - GLORIA]
[OBTAINED TAPE - AFRICA]
[OBTAINED TAPE - CRUEL SUMMER]