Otacon remembered how three years ago, about the time all this had started, one of them had suggested he learned to fight a little. It didn't seem like either of them had suggested it, and it felt more like the idea had somehow sprung up between them and they'd acted on it. Otacon had wanted to, in any case, because it felt like the sort of thing he ought to try to learn when he was working with someone like that. He knew that he'd never get to use it, never become proficient enough for that to be an option, and that even an expert looked like a liability against the dark shape of Snake's shoulders, waist, hips, lurking just that crucial inch beyond easy vision. But he felt he should learn.

At the very least it had been more fun than he'd really wanted to admit. He was predictably bad, and flailed around uselessly attempting to copy what Snake was showing him. Once or twice Snake had lost patience and broken from gentle encouragement into flat-out sarcasm, but all that had done was make him laugh and redouble his concentration.

For some reason the part he'd liked the most was how the morning after his first lesson he woke up and could feel all his muscles hurting each time he moved, hot and strained from his shoulders down to his navel and burning at the backs of his calves. It reminded him of the ache across the muscles below your stomach after coming, or laughing too hard, and didn't disappear as fast as either. He'd told Snake something about it, and he'd smiled approvingly at him as if he'd just noticed something completely new which he liked.

"It always hurts the next morning," he'd said. "Sure you can keep up?"

Otacon had arranged his legs into the way he was meant to arrange them, thinking of how Snake had grabbed and lifted his thighs and ankles into that pose when he failed to pull it off exactly, so he could learn how it felt when you got it right. He'd raised his fists and looked over the top of the knuckles, failing to read Snake's expression.

"Of course not," he said. "Show me that thing I couldn't do yesterday again."

He still remembered the way Snake's mouth had twitched as he'd fallen in beside him, showing the position for him to copy. Otacon had done, some joint in his arm making a cracking sound which he heard in his teeth, and it took that sound for him to realise he was standing the way he should to snap a man's neck and that brought the awkwardness flooding back.

He'd got the hang of it in the end. Snake was a good teacher. He'd hardly used anything except the strength the regular exercise had given him, but his body had felt different, as if he fit it better, and some of his smaller clothes were too tight around his shoulders to wear any more.

--

He did what he could. He waited. He watched the last four episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion again while taking notes in the vague hope it would make some more sense that way, but it didn't. He was faintly aware it was the otaku equivalent of chain-smoking impatiently while waiting for something to happen – procrastinatory, soothing and bad for you – but found he didn't really care a lot.

He examined his paper when he was done and found it had three lines of text on it. They were 'Shinji is crazy', 'everyone is crazy' and 'poss. all clever visual/post-modernist metaphor??maybe for religion or poss. being crazy.' He thought about it for a while before discarding it in a fit of disgust at his own lack of inspiration.

Then he went off to sit by the computer again and watched Snake's heart-rate monitor scribe its way across the screen.

He realised a few minutes later he was tapping his finger and thumb against the mouse to time with the peaks on the readout – ba-dip ba-dip ba-dip...

"Snake," he called, over the Codec, because he was lonely. There was a faint hiss of some kind of static, and then Snake's voice came and Otacon broke into an embarrassingly large grin. He was glad Snake wouldn't be able to see it.

"What is it? Anything important?"

"Not really," Otacon admitted. "I just wanted to know what the situation is. I haven't heard from you for too long."

He flicked his mouse up and down some of the more unusual readouts. What kind of military technician would need to monitor the level of gas exchange efficiency in a soldier's lungs in real-time? Snake was slightly under par for that. Cigarettes, probably.

"It's been uneventful," Snake responded. He sounded a little bored, but he was definitely smiling, he could hear it. "It's going to be a long night. I've decided to go to sleep for a while."

"You're safe, right?"

"I'm in a locker."

Otacon found himself pulling up the radar reading and, naturally, he wasn't getting one. Strong harmonic resonance indeed.

"If you're sure," he relented. "What time should I wake you?"

"Four, five hours?"

"Okay," Otacon agreed, cringing inside. He wasn't sure he'd be able to cope with four or five hours staring at the monitor. "I'll...I'll set up this little clock thing I made when I was bored." The thought of that cheered him up for some reason. "I was screwing around with the little pixel-things I made for the image telegraph system you used back on the Tanker and at the time I was trying to microwave something, so I started thinking about timers and thought 'why don't I make a clock?' So I ended up programming this little clock app and I can hook up the alarm system to your Codec so it'll make a noise and wake you up in four and a half hours."

There was a short pause.

"So," Snake said, "you've made a program that looks like you, follows me around like you, and nags me like you."

"Yes," Otacon said, not sure if Snake was being sarcastic, insulting or perfectly genuine.

"You must have a lot more free time."

"Stop it, Snake," Otacon sighed. "You don't want me peering over your biological data all the time like some kind of weird scientific voyeur."

Snake sounded surprised. "You're doing that?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"I don't mind so much," Snake decided. "If it's you. It's the idea of government brass spying on me to work out how best to kill me that bothers me."

"Trust me," Otacon said, "that's not about to happen."

He wondered if he had set it up correctly. If he'd set it all up right not even the best government hacker would be able to detect the transmissions, let alone hack into them. But he'd been in such a rush. Maybe he'd done it wrong.

"You say that," Snake said, and his voice was rough with tiredness. "It doesn't make me feel any more likely to get any sleep."

"What's keeping you from just carrying on through the night?"

Snake paused for a while. "I...just can't do that any more."

Otacon pressed his glasses up his nose as far as they would go and held his finger there. They were both getting older and he wasn't stupid enough to think otherwise, but Snake was burning through the years like a time-lapse sequence. Snake had been born before Louise Brown's parents had even considered having her, and even Dolly, with technology that was twenty years younger, died young.

When he took his hand away there was a little ridge on the tip of his middle finger from the nosepiece of the glasses.

"Well, I'll see what I can do," Otacon said instead, and pulled up a lot of nanomachine tables. "I can make you relaxed. Hold on."

"From there?"

"From here," he said, and dragged a slider to the left of the screen. "How's that? Feel any different?"

Otacon watched as the heart-rate readout slowed. He felt his own heart increase in response.

"...What was that?" Snake said, impressed.

"I set the nanomachines to start attaching to the adrenaline in your bloodstream," he explained. "You should be starting to relax. Hang on, I'll try something else."

He clicked. The readout slowed further.

"That one felt good," Snake said, huskily, about half a minute later.

"I just released a lot of dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin into your system. You should be feeling pretty relaxed."

"Yeah," Snake said. "It's like a really good afterglow."

"Er," Otacon responded, pressing his head into his hands, feeling the heat of the blush in his fingertips. "There's not really a lot I can say to that."

"Then don't," came the reply. "I shouldn't have too much trouble with sleep now, at least."

"If you're sure," Otacon said, not wanting to end the conversation. "Don't hesitate to call if anything happens."

The Codec clicked off. Snake hadn't even said goodbye. For some reason that bothered him.

He watched the heartrate monitor neurotically until it slowed yet again, and the little yellow marker saying AWAKE – NORMAL changed to a little pink marker saying SLEEP – NORMAL and he went off to try and get some sleep of his own. He wished he could manipulate his own hormones like that.

He pulled himself into bed and ordered himself to relax, but he could feel the nerves pressing against his chest just underneath his sternum and he had to remember to swallow, and every time he tried to close his eyes they sprung open again nearly automatically. He ended up lying on top of the bed with his legs apart and his arms about twenty degrees from his body in the low self-esteem version of the starfish, staring up at the poster on his ceiling through blurry eyes. He wondered why he'd decided to put Misato Katsuragi up there – she might have been his favourite character in the series, but the idea of her watching him while he slept was a bit disturbing. He made a mental note to take it down later.

Eventually he rolled onto his side and found himself staring uncomfortably at Jonathan Ingram, who stared uncomfortably back. It was no good. He got up and put his glasses back on and perched himself on the edge of the bed with his arms folded high over his shoulders, thinking.

It wasn't normally like this. It wasn't normally this bad! Usually they'd be in contact, all the time. Sometimes he'd be down there with Snake, especially on missions more about spying than brute force. He'd even done the odd sneaking mission along with Snake, keeping hidden, keeping tense, keeping by his side – and that was what made it all doable. Sometimes the missions were even fun – long useless conversations and no real problems – and sometimes they were exciting and he'd learned to thrive on the adrenaline in times like that. Four years ago, he would have flaked under the pressure, and now he'd become aware he loved the feeling of that horrible, terrible risk. After they'd completed a mission he always felt great for days, and then melted into agitated restlessness and boredom afterwards. Snake was rubbing off on him – had to be.

The result was that there was absolutely no way that, if something went wrong, he would be able to do anything. He wished he'd never asked to stay. He wondered why he had. He wondered why it bothered him at all – if Snake hadn't felt entirely able to do everything alone, he wouldn't have let him stay here.

He pulled himself up and went off to take something for his headache, which he swallowed down with a fresh batch of coffee, wincing at the way the pills dissolved a little too fast in the boiling heat and filled his mouth with a bitter, chemical taste which took the rest of the mug to be done away with.

He put the empty mug on top of the computer tower, stared at the little marker reading SLEEP – NORMAL, and thought now what? It wasn't like drowning in stress, but like drowning in grey. It was hammering the F5 key, or rolling over and over in bed until your sheets got all hot with sweat, listening to your clock tick at the back of your eardrums. It was watching your television for hours even though it was displaying a message saying the broadcast was having difficulties. It was elevator muzak.

He rested his head against the monitor so that the tips of his glasses were just touching the screen, and watched the monitor trace just out of focus. It was his heart, Snake's heart, really beating, really alive and really wonderful, and he wasn't sure why he thought it was wonderful only that it was the word that popped into his head. For some reason he started thinking about a buoy on a fixed point along the wave of the readout and it bobbing up and down on the peaks and troughs, and that led to a boat, and that led to the Tanker. How frightened he'd been, how sick he'd felt, being thrown around on an ocean as rough as an EKG trace. How he'd dropped off Olga at the hospital, while guiltily ignoring the fact that Snake was in the back of the car he'd rented, unconscious in the back seat and hooked up to an oxygen mask. How he'd tapped his fingers nervously on the desk as they'd agreed to accept her, consciously knowing Snake would be alright but feeling that he needed to be there to watch him or he'd slip away, that if he was no longer observing he'd be both alive and dead like a cat in a box –

Schrödinger. He'd always hated that analogy. Someone who could be even hypothetically that cruel to cats didn't deserve to lauded as coming up with a revolutionary thought experiment. Even if the cat was lucky and survived, there'd still be trauma, horror, scratching – and if the box was flawless, how would you get the cat out before it suffocated? Even the frog in the well had it better than that. At least the frog could jump. Poor little cat. Of course, there was a 'cat state' in quantum computing named after the cat, but that was different, because it wasn't actually about gassing cats, that was about being on or off and the cat thing was just a nickname – and then you could argue that the cat thing was just Schrödinger's extended nickname for quantum mechanics, he realised, but that still meant some sick person, most likely Schrödinger, had to sit down and decide the best way to get his idea across was to talk about performing amoral scientific experiments on cats in boxes. Yeah, he decided, Schrödinger was the bad guy here.

Finally his meta-thoughts caught up with his thoughts and he quietly processed how far he'd manage to deviate from what he'd been thinking about originally, and laughed softly. He wondered if Snake ever had that problem, and that led his thoughts back to Snake, and that annoyed him somewhat because thinking about something else eased the spindly nerves in his stomach.

He began to picture Snake, sleeping in the locker. He imagined the tight fit, the way he'd pulled his arm back to lie against the door. Boxed in, vulnerable and yet not – he would wake up if anyone so much as looked at the locker too hard. He knew how hard Snake's senses had been trained, how easy they could sense triggers other people wouldn't have. It was a weird thought.

He wondered how it would feel to be like that himself.

---

Snake returned, eventually.

It was at about the time the lack of sleep was really working away at Otacon's bones, to the point where the constant supply of coffee couldn't distract from how damn tired he was and how much his body hurt, that he came back. It had been quite frantic, with Otacon tapping against the yellow dot representing Snake's position with his forefinger, excited and relieved and constantly calling him for his progress over the Codec, and then Snake arrived, round the fire escape at the back; the Sneaking Suit might have been ideal for moving silently or being on a mission but in the street he'd be instantly identified as a terrorist or possibly some kind of fetishist if he didn't keep out of the way.

He leapt through the back window, hands firm and tight against the window frame, body effortlessly sleek, still too alive from the adrenaline and the performance drugs to play at being normal, and there was too much force of habit running through his mind for his boots to make even the faintest sound as they landed on the carpet.

Otacon didn't particularly want to welcome him with a big beaming smile like a Fifties housewife because that would be pathetic, but that was what he did.

"Snake," he greeted, because it would feel wrong to call him Dave at this point.

Snake smiled back – a sharp, taut knife-edge – and moved towards the centre of the room a little as if he'd never been there before. As he moved closer, Otacon could pick up that he was still panting slightly, and there was a tension to the way he was standing as if he'd been wired through with electricity.

"Otacon," he said, the last syllable strained with exhaustion. The nanoes were dilating his pupils beyond what would be appropriate for the light level, improving his vision in the knowledge the nanomachine barrier clinging across his retinas would prevent any damage from the extra light – his eyes seemed incredibly dark, and very cruel, and stark against his fair skin and the fair roots of his hair. A genius soldier was also a genius psychologist, Otacon remembered, able to know how to appear as frightening as possible without even thinking about it.

He grinned broadly, because he wasn't fooled even for a second by the act.

"You look absolutely terrible, considering the mission was a perfect success."

"You look absolutely terrible, considering you weren't out there," Snake shot back, giving a genuine smile. The way his eyes narrowed slightly exaggerated the deeply scored lines around them.

Otacon pushed his glasses up his nose.

"I should really switch off the nanoes," he told himself. Snake nodded.

"Yeah. I need a break. Right now I can see," he paused, "a row of little dots for all the people in the apartments above and below us, and all the cars going past. Also a dog running around in circles outside. Also the batteries are low so it keeps strobing. Makes me feel seasick."

Otacon's stomach lurched in memory of the times he'd used the Radar. One time he'd been so horribly distracted by the dots wheeling above him he hadn't been able to move properly, too dizzy with the feeling of controlling himself from far, far above, like a character in a video game.

"Alright, then," he said, pushing the door open. "I'll take care of it. You just relax for a while, or something."

He noticed as he walked down the hall that although it was silent, except for the distant whirring of the computer fan, the silence felt different – close and intimate and peaceful, not lonely. It didn't sound different. It was just a placebo silence – if you believe it's different, it is – but that didn't mean it didn't stop him feeling so ill. He was glad he was so naïve.

He sat by the monitor and clicked and tapped and swore. He tapped in the fifth of the passwords he'd memorised – a long secure mix of letters and numbers; hopefully a hacker wouldn't work out it was just nigecha dame da written in a pretty simple letter-number substitution cipher. Finally he deactivated the nanomachines one by one, watching the readings blip out as the nanoes stopped reporting, leaving only the Codec functional.

Getting up, he wandered into the living room. Snake was sat on the sofa, looking out of place in full battle dress amongst the cheap furniture – it reminded Otacon of those Making Of documentaries for movies where they go into the Green Room and see the orcs drinking coffee.

"Hal," Snake greeted, the word curling out in a plume of smoke.

Otacon frowned, unsure why, and went to sit beside him.

"Could I…have one of those?" he asked. He'd never smoked before, but his fingers ached for the want of holding something long and warm, and he hoped the cigarette would serve as a good distraction; a temporary satisfaction.

"Hypocrisy?" Snake asked, producing the pack. Otacon took it, and pulled one out with some difficulty.

"Peer pressure, mostly," he said, in his most acidic tone. Snake breathed out another lungful of smoke in what looked like an attempt not to laugh. He paused, and leant in very close – Otacon took slightly too long to work out he wanted him to chain his own cigarette off his, still in the side of his mouth. He did so. He thought of the bit that went like that in Black Lagoon. He shut his eyes and pulled on the cigarette before he could regret it.

"Well," he started, uncomfortably, "this isn't so – "

He broke off into coughing.

"This your first?" Snake asked, holding onto his upper arm as he hacked away. He should have seen this coming.

"Yuh...yes," he said, when he'd managed to get his breath back. "Thanks to you and your terrible influence."

He turned the cigarette over and over in his fingers like a revolver in slow motion.

"Try and relax more," Snake advised. "Don't try and pull the smoke straight down. Let it rest in your mouth for a while before you inhale it fully. If you do it right you won't cough at all."

He tried again. His throat burned. He was able to resist the urge to cough this time.

"Snake," he said, quietly. "How did the mission go?"

"I already told you," Snake responded, more amused than annoyed. He leant back slightly and the belts and straps on his outfit creaked a little. They didn't do that during missions, did they? That would be a liability. If they did, he thought, he'd have to fix that later. "It was pretty standard. Blew up the Metal Gear, blew up the computers, made off with the documents. Shot a couple of people to prevent it happening again. No hitches, no conspiracies, no teams of superpowered madmen." Fox only, Final Destination, Otacon's mind whispered for him automatically – he ignored it. "That was all."

"It went fine, even without me?"

"You were with me," Snake said, and Otacon found himself gnawing on the end of the cigarette a little. "You've been like this ever since the whole ordeal on that Tanker."

"I can't help it," Otacon responded, breathing out smoke with a slight, dry cough. "You weren't talking to me a lot, and I bore easily. That's all."

Snake smiled at him, in a sort of melancholy, heavy eye-lidded way that made Otacon pull in another mouthful of smoke in the hope that he'd think the reddening was because of that.

"You should have had something else on hand to fill up your time with."

"And when I get bored," Otacon continued, waving the cigarette around like a self-righteous laser pointer, "I get nervous. And when I get nervous I can't distract myself. And then I get more bored. And then I get more nervous. It's all a vicious circle."

"What did you do in the end?"

"Oh," Otacon said. "I ended up reading a really bad Neon Genesis Evangelion fanfic."

"Why didn't you read a good one?"

"Because that might have distracted me when you needed me most."

"I see," said Snake, and he ran his forefinger idly down one of the straps over his shoulder and Otacon felt the motion hook his gaze and pin it down as he let his hand relax against his lap. "How bad?"

"Shinji was pregnant," Otacon said.

"Oh."

"Kaworu's. Only he was married to Asuka. Who was cutting herself to deal with her anorexia. And Misato had been forced to take up a second career as a pole dancer to support her unborn child."

"Who came up with that?"

Otacon shrugged. "Don't know. It's the internet, after all. It was one of those really long epic-length fanfics, the kind that was popular in the mid-to-late Nineties. Ever since 2000 or so, they've been slowly dying out. The fashion seems to be that fics are getting shorter and shorter. First one-shots, then drabbles, then one-sentences, and there was a big thing about six-word fics for some reason a year or so back. Fashion bounces, though. I suppose it's going to end up heading in the other direction and we'll all be reading ninety-chapter sagas again by about twenty-ten."

"Is that a good thing?"

"It might be," Otacon said. "I mean, there are some authors who write nothing but one-shots and claim to have problems with finishing stuff. I've always thought they were just lazy, really. Or just willing to go off and chase a new idea and give up on the old one far too quickly. I suppose it's a good way of broadening your horizons, but if you're just writing hundreds of one-shots of the same pairing, with the same plot, and with the same feel, you should really just shut up and write something long and get it over with, don't you think? Ultimately, though, if you start out with an idea that sucks, your fanfic is going to suck, which was probably why the fic I was reading sucked so badly."

"I've got no idea," Snake said. "You're the one who knows."

"Yeah," Otacon said, pathetically. "I suppose so."

They sat in not-quite silence for a while. Otacon concentrated on the end of the cigarette – the urge to cough insanely had mostly gone, but it wasn't stopping the smoke getting in his eyes. He noticed the way Snake was breathing the smoke out – calm and confident, like in old movies where they'd show a close-up of the person exhaling and slow down the footage so it looked like they were breathing out water. He thought of Snake breathing out water. He thought of the cold seeping into his bones, the rain, the punishing, freezing river, and Snake's body spiralling down amongst the bubbles. He thought of the way his coat had billowed out around him as he'd dived down and the way he'd wished he'd left it on the boat and how his mind had screamed about seeing another member of his family lost to the water and how he could not would not will not let that happen – how he'd pulled him onto the boat and pulled a muscle and hadn't even noticed the pain until a day later. He remembered the first time their lips had met. He'd felt from all the doujin it would be embarrassingly like a kiss and leave him blushing, but each lungful of air he pushed into Snake just made him dizzier and dizzier with fear and his conscious knowledge was proven right when it felt absolutely nothing like a kiss at all. He'd tasted of salt and smoke. He had felt cold and waxy and rough against his mouth and utterly yielding and empty. Like a corpse.

"How're you getting on with that?" Snake asked, and Otacon started around for a moment before he realised Snake was talking about the cigarette.

"It's..." he started, "sort of...nice, now I've got the hang of it. Don't think it's going to become a habit, though."

"I was kind of hoping," Snake started, leaning back a little, "I could buy you a bunch of different brands and we could try them all out and you could decide on your favourite."

Otacon smirked. "I'd probably like that. If not for the whole lung-cancer-antisocial-bad-for-you-horrible-ways-of-dying-thing."

Snake let out a snort of laughter, and his impossibly cruel eyes crinkled and softened around the corners. "Yeah. Better you don't start."

"I don't know. Maybe I'll keep a packet by the computer while I'm dredging up information. Just in case."

"Of what?"

"Don't know," he said, weakly. "Hidden laser traps."

Snake smiled at him through the slight haze of nicotine in Otacon's head, and he felt something tighten behind his collarbone.

"I should get out of this Sneaking Suit," he suggested, standing up, stretching, stubbing out the cigarette in the ashtray on the table. Otacon nodded slightly. All he could really think about was that he'd finally get some real actual sleep.

--

The Sneaking Suit felt impossibly smooth under the palms of his hands.

Otacon found his hands running down Snake's spine, over the criss-cross of laces over the small of his back, and breathed out very slowly. His lungs still felt sore and hot from the cigarette; his voice still sounded hoarse. Never again, he told himself. Except maybe under extremely specific circumstances.

"How do I…" he asked, uselessly, not waiting for an answer before he tugged at the knot securing the laces, and started to unwind them from the eyes they were threaded into.

Snake sighed. "You're not supposed to undo that part."

"What?" Otacon groaned, trying to rethread it. "But I thought if I undid that part – "

" – No, you undo it at the front," Snake said, grabbing Otacon's hands and bringing them around to the strap over his chest, "and then you take off the harness, like a backpack."

Otacon said, "You do?"

Snake sighed and fidgeted and started to mess about with the clasps on his legs. Otacon was fine with that. He wasn't sure he could trust himself taking those off. He'd have to hook his finger under the strap and run it round underneath, the bones in his fingers running along the line between his legs and his – yeah, he thought, better not think too hard about that.

"Why," Snake asked, slyly, "are you trying to help me out anyway?"

Otacon gnawed on a small bump on the inside of his mouth with his canines.

"Guilt, mainly," he said, "because I feel I haven't done enough, and – and I wasn't able to anyway." He stopped. "You know, when I started talking, I was hoping I'd come out with some convincing excuse which was less pathetic than the truth. Somehow. Magically. Somewhere in between my brain and mouth."

Snake sighed and did his best to step out of the harness around his legs.

"Hal," he said, simply. Otacon realised he should be listening, but he was finding Snake's spine rather distracting – a deep, supple line under the tight fabric. He shoved his thumb into his glasses as hard as he could, wondering if it was some kind of subconscious reaction to prevent an anime nosebleed which he knew couldn't happen in the real world but had seen more than enough times. "I'm not going to try to talk you out of something you know you're feeling irrationally. I can't. No-one can. But it doesn't change the fact that you're not thinking right. Ever since the Tanker..."

Otacon stepped towards him and pushed the shoulder straps over, taking it off frontward.

"It's not just the Tanker," Otacon admitted, and instantly regretted it. He bit his tongue, waiting for Snake to ask more, but he didn't – he just reached backwards over his shoulder and touched Otacon on his.

"I knew that much," Snake explained. "The Tanker wasn't the first time you'd saved my life and I don't think it'll be the last, either. It wasn't the first time we failed a mission and it sure as hell wasn't the first time we've done something immoral. So why?"

Otacon fell silent.

"Can you tell me?"

"I…" Otacon started, feeling like his body was a hollow vessel and was being filled inch by inch by ice-cold water. He fell silent again. The muscles in his throat weren't moving when he told them to.

"You're not going to say anything, are you?" Snake said, and sighed, turning towards Otacon. "I don't mind. I've got my own idea, anyway."

"Your own idea?"

"You're supposed to be helping me, right?" Snake said. "Help me get this thing off." He tugged at the undershirt.

"Nice subject change," Otacon observed. "Not very surreptitious, though. Work on it. Besides, why do you need me to help you take off a skintight shirt and a pair of pants, however hi-tech?" He folded his arms. "Actually, why do you need me to help you take your gear off at all? You normally handle it fine by yourself."

Snake looked at him, his expression impenetrable. Otacon noticed the noise of the computer fan whirring in the background again. Why was it so loud? Probably because it was the size of a dinner plate and there was actually three of them. He needed to set up a better heat sink. He'd made one out of refrigerator parts once, as a kid. It had worked surprisingly well.

"Maybe not ideas so much as…hopes," Snake finally said, even more cryptically. Otacon groaned.

"I think, basically, the thing is that neither of us really want to talk about…whatever this thing is," he pointed out. "And it might not even be the same thing. I – I mean, it'll have to be a pretty huge issue since neither of us want to say anything. And how long have we known each other now? Think of all the things we've gone through together."

"Yeah," said Snake, "it'd have to be."

"Something big and dangerous."

"Probably concerning the two of us."

"In such a way that it might damage us irreparably," Otacon lamented. "Something we'd have to bottle down to prevent anything coming between us, or ruining Philanthropy."

"Yeah," Snake agreed. "I'd say it could be one of two things."

"Two things?"

"Either that we each hate the other," Snake started, "or that we don't."

Otacon nodded. "We've got a job to do. We can't think about any of that." He smiled, weakly. "But I sure as hell don't hate you. So it can't be that."

Snake's brow softened for a second, and Otacon saw his eyes flash with some kind of emotion – longing, or sorrow, he couldn't tell. Had he always been this bad at interpreting people or was Snake just that opaque?

"I'm always here to protect you," Otacon said, instead. "I have to be. That's why the mission bothered me. It felt like I wasn't there."

Snake swallowed, and then wrenched the undershirt off over his head as if he was trying to stop himself from saying something.

"Never thought I'd feel you were the one who needed to be protected," Otacon continued, affectionately. The nosepiece of his glasses felt warmer than usual when he finally took his middle finger away. "Those years ago, I'd convinced myself I was helpless. Now I know I'm really..." he felt himself losing his thread, "really...kind of...not."

"You don't need me to tell you I'll protect you in return," Snake said, rather softly, bending down to unclasp the boots, unconsciously showing Otacon a nasty bruise on his right shoulder. "I will. I always will." His fingers hooked under the lacing; he pulled it away, like an action movie hero ripping out the wires in an elaborate bomb. "These days I want to protect you more than ever. Differently. And I know I could, if things weren't like this."

"You know you could?"

Snake looked him straight in the eyes, a wicked smile burning at the corners of his mouth. "Come on. I've seen the pile of CloudxZack doujinishi next to all that CloudxTifa stuff."

"At least I wasn't taking photographs of – of posters on a mission," Otacon fired back, trying not to laugh. "I mean, all those cute little Japanese girls were one thing, but 'EyeWire'? I've no idea what an EyeWire even is! Sounds...painful, if you ask me. Like some sort of cyborg thing." He blinked. "How the hell do you know what a doujinishi is, anyway? No, forget that – why the hell were you looking?!"

Snake shrugged. "I looked it up. And I was curious."

"Curious?"

"The Vaseline smears on the covers made me think they were probably interesting."

"Snake!"

"Well, you asked."

"That's..." Otacon protested, flushing violently, "...you can't – I – I like the stories."

"It's not really my business what you like," Snake reminded him, and Otacon felt something cold and weighty in his abdomen. "It can't be. We've got other things to pay attention to."

"Yeah," Otacon said, and breathed out heavily. "It's just tempting fate. There's so many ways..."

"...Like this, there's less to go wrong."

"Less distractions."

"More professionalism."

"Yeah," Otacon said, faintly, strangely aware of the position of every single one of his loosely-held fingers. "This is how things should really be."

Snake's gaze darted up Otacon's body, and he saw the weight of the age in his eyes, like gravity. He swallowed.

"I should be getting to bed, now," Otacon excused himself, starting to leave.

"Goodnight," Snake's voice came. "Oh, and if you can't find that one with Gillian Seed, that's because I'm borrowing it."

"Snake, just..." Otacon sighed, too tired to argue, "just give it back when you can, alright?" He remembered something. "Anyway, how did you get that bruise on your shoulder?"

Snake glanced down for a second. "I banged it on the locker door when I was waking up."

Otacon gave a brief snort of laughter, and headed to bed.