Disclaimer: I continue to own nothing.
Notes: This falls in the same continuity as Grave Reflections, and follows Useful directly. The science has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, but what fandom are we in again?
Solid Snake sat in his briefs on the end of the sagging motel bed, its faded coverings wrapped tightly around his bare shoulders, and watched himself on the television screen. Dave was aware that many people wanted to be on television, evidenced by the crowds which quickly gathered around anyone on the street with a news camera, although he himself had no particular urge to be on the screen. Further, it was one of Solid Snake's most important prerogatives to avoid being on camera at all times. And as it was Solid Snake who was currently plastered all over urgent news bulletins on almost every channel the cheap motel offered, this was a disaster.
To his left on the single bed's partner his own partner, Otacon, sat cross-legged and was also wrapped in bed-clothes, a thick black laptop perched precariously on his lap. He was typing furiously, pausing only to occasionally push his damp hair away from his face.
Two hours and fifteen minutes ago, Solid Snake had been on board a US Marines ship disguised as an oil tanker when Revolver Ocelot stole the Marines' new Metal Gear and scuttled the ship. Two hours ago, Otacon and a previous associate, Mei Ling, had commandeered a small boat and ventured out into the stormy New York Harbour to fish Snake out of the rapidly sinking wreckage. Mei Ling, a civilian with no suspicious ties, had been dropped off at an Emergency Room to be checked out for hypothermia brought on by the frigid harbour water and the storm. Snake and Otacon, potentially recognisable men who at that moment did not want to be known to be in New York, had taken themselves off to recover in one of the several motel rooms they had rented. And turned on the television to find that secrecy was no longer an issue: they had made news on all channels at four a.m.
"Details are sketchy at this moment, but digital images of renowned U.S. military-trained renegade soldier Solid Snake aboard the sunken tanker have been circulated to the media and are being examined by professionals at this time..." Snake switched channels, "the USS Discovery was reported as sinking by an anonymous caller at-" "-Solid Snake is suspected of criminal involvement in this disaster which is already being called the worst environmental crisis of the new century-" Snake pressed the mute button and watched the footage of rescue vessels sweeping the harbour. One corner of the screen was reserved for an unchanging photo, the cypher's picture of him on the tanker's deck next to the unconscious Russian soldier Olga, stolen USP in hand. How the hell had the media gotten hold of those pictures, and so quickly? He turned to Otacon, who was working to answer those questions.
"Well?" he asked gruffly,
"I haven't found anything yet. I'm not even sure which media stations were originally given the pictures, and which just snagged them second hand. Compared to hacking into the military this is like.." He passed a weary hand over his face, rubbed his eyes. "Imagine working with finely trained troops all your life, and then suddenly being put in charge of fifty five year-olds. It's a complete mess. Total disorganization. I can't believe they can keep themselves straight at all."
"Will you be able to find out?"
"Maybe, eventually. Not any time soon. Does it matter? They're already calling you a renegade soldier. By tonight, maybe even this afternoon, you'll be branded a terrorist – and me too, I suppose – and it's not like you'll be able to come out and point the finger at someone else then."
"You mean at Ocelot."
Chances were it was Ocelot who was responsible for the pictures and their circulation, just as he had been responsible for the sinking of the tanker. Snake firmly believed so.
"I guess. Well, you're right, it makes sense. No one wants to piss off the American public, the military – especially not the Marines – and the environmental activists. He's no idiot, he would have arranged for a fall guy." Otacon continued typing, although his pace slowed somewhat. In the dark room his laptop's bright screen reflected off his glasses, masking his eyes.
Snake smiled, grimly. "I think you can probably leave out the greens. I'm not too worried about tire-slashing. But you raised a point. You can still get out of this. Set yourself up an alibi. No one's tied us together yet, but they will if you leave it much longer."
"You mean get out while the going's good?" Otacon glanced up from the screen, light flashing over his glasses and then revealing his clear eyes underneath. "I'll stay, thanks."
"Hal, if you go now... no one's linked us to our other operations, either. You're just a survivor of Shadow Moses, you have a good reputation. If you stay, that'll be gone, for good. Even if we're cleared of this, people will know what we do. It'll stick to you, no matter what. I've lived with that all my life, as a soldier. You haven't..."
Otacon broke in before he could finish, voice as clear as his eyes, a clarity they had developed over the past two years. "I think I'm already down for enough stigma as it is, as the only man still alive who had a hand in designing and creating the Metal Gear whose specs spawned dozens of new ones. I'm not going to live that down." A pause. Otacon glanced up, face serious, voice firm. "Or are you saying you don't think I should fight for what I believe in?" The engineer, who two years ago had been afraid of his own shadow, met Snake's stern gaze head on. After a minute, Snake nodded sharply. He rose, shedding sheets, to walk over to the other bed where he held out his right hand. Otacon considered it for a minute, then put out his own. They shook firmly, eyes locked with perfect understanding. There would be no more question of leaving; they were partners. Snake, despite himself, was glad. Initially, Otacon had been nothing more than a tool, a commodity, necessary and valuable for his skills, but not for himself. Now, he was a friend, and the rarity of that gave him a higher value than his skills.
"Right. So what do we do now?" Otacon withdrew his hand to shut down his work, and turned on the bed to face his partner.
"I think," said Snake, "that there might be a way out of this after all. But it's not going to be easy." He paused, and sat down on his own bed opposite the engineer. Always, always have an out. Getting boxed in was the equivalent to a death sentence. Snake was very good at staying alive. "When you found Grey Fox's records, did you see anything about Liquid?"
A year and a half ago, when they were still setting up Philanthropy, Hal had hacked by accident into records of the bodies recovered after Shadow Moses, and turned up Grey Fox's information. He had managed to have Fox's body released and had arranged for its burial.
Otacon frowned slightly, thinking, then drew his computer round into his lap again, began typing absently. It was almost as though the machine were an extension of himself; he typed on it in the same way some people pulled at their chins or picked their nails. "I don't think so," he said at last. "I think I would have investigated that. No, wait." He began typing faster, agitated, although he was still staring off into the distance, directly through Snake's left collar-bone. "They did, I remember now. They were still running tests, and I thought about having them discontinue, but then I figured that might raise red flags and besides, you hated him and he was a bastard and..." Otacon smiled guiltily continued in a quieter voice, "I didn't like him much either." His smile took on a grim line. "So I let them continue." A pause, in which he continued typing.
Snake, in silence, wondered abjectly how long it would be before Otacon stopped caring about their enemies, before he ran out of the emotional strength that had allowed him to forgive his supposed love's murderer without a second thought, to regret not burying the body of a man he hated, who had been responsible for the deaths of his colleagues, and who could easily have made his life hell.
Otacon's voice broke into Snake's thoughts, businesslike once again. "I'm opening their records now; we'll see what's going on there." He shifted his eyes to the computer, where his typing apparently had served a purpose. "Yeah, here we go. Looks like they finished running tests two months after I broke Grey Fox out. He's listed as being in cold storage now, in case of need."
"Can you find out where that is?"
"Sure," said Otacon uncertainly, typing once more. "Why the sudden interest? I remember he called you brother, but..." Otacon trailed off, and actually stopped typing. He knew, although Snake had never told him directly and he had never asked, that Snake had been created through cloning. By the end of the whole Shadow Moses fiasco Snake would have been surprised if there had been anyone in Alaska who hadn't known, the way Liquid had been shouting it about. "Normally, a brother's DNA would be close but unless they were identical twins it wouldn't be, well, identical, but..."
"Liquid was a clone of the same man I was. Our DNA should be identical." Snake snapped it out like the fact it was.
"Right..." Otacon resumed typing slowly at first, but picking up speed in time with his thoughts. "We can pass his body off as yours."
"Exactly." Snake turned back to watch the muted television silently. His origins were not a topic which he liked to think about, much less discuss. They didn't have to be any more than simple fact, and that was all he would allow. Otacon understood that, and had never pressed the issue, for which Snake was grateful, and he had returned the favour. It seemed they both had things in their pasts they would rather forget. Just as Snake's had thrown up spectres to haunt him in the forms of Liquid and Ocelot, it seemed that Otacon's was beginning to as well, with his previously unmentioned and apparently now once again ignored sister. That could – and would – be dealt with later.
"Here we go," said Otacon, interrupting Snake's thoughts. "It's pretty nearby, in upstate New York near the Canadian border. Close to Saranac Lake."
"Can you get diagrams for the place?"
"I'll be able to get aerial photographs, easily. Interior on such short notice? Doubt it. They won't be on the 'net anywhere, and the compound might not have any computers connected and even if they are..." Seeing Snake's blank look, he stopped himself. "I'll do my best." He began typing again.
"Good." Snake could fight on days of little sleep and exhausting exercise, if he had to, and rarely thought to take a break when time was a factor. But they were both still cold and damp from the harbour, both exhausted, and there was no way even if they went and got Liquid's body right now that they would be able to slip it into the harbour in daylight; the media would be swarming the place. "No, wait. Get some rest for now. We'll leave around one this afternoon; that'll get us there around six. I'll drive, you can work in the back." Sunset was around six, and in this weather it would be dark by six thirty. They would arrive under cover of darkness, complete their operation, and be back to Manhattan in plenty of time to dump the body in the water before the first light of dawn.
Otacon opened his mouth to argue, but apparently thought the better of it and nodded, stifling a yawn. He shut his computer down and placed it on the small ratty table beside his bed. His glasses followed it, and he quickly began to pull the blankets up to cover nearly the entirety of the bed as he lay down, only his dark hair sticking out in a tuft near the headboard.
Snake fumbled about for the remote, found it, and shut the television off, leaving the room in darkness. There would be no need to worry about a maid, the motel was too cheap, would clean up only when customers checked out. He organized his own coverings with a quick violent shake and pulled himself back up the bed so that his head rested squarely on the pillow when he lay down. Eyes closed, he reached out with his right arm and found the cold steel of his gun easily on the bedside table. Feeling secure enough in his position to go to sleep, he did just that.
Snake had set no alarm before he went to sleep, and didn't need one. He woke up once an hour, checking his watch blearily, and then allowing himself to return to sleep. It wasn't until he woke up and found his watch reading 12:23 that he pulled himself immediately out of sleep and into complete wakefulness, a trick mastered after years in the field. The room was brighter now than it had been in the middle of the night with only the television and laptop screens to light it. Daylight filtered in through the motel's dingy threadbare curtains, dim beneath the cloudy skies. It had been raining non-stop since they arrived, Snake unconsciously registering the dull patter of the rain against the windows every time he woke. It continued even now, as strong as it had been when the two Philanthropists had stumbled through the door at four in the morning.
Snake pulled himself clear of his warm bed sheets and out into the cold air; the room's heating was unsurprisingly broken. He slipped into the small adjoining bathroom, where his sneaking suit was hanging alongside Otacon's shirt and pants on the shower curtain's peeling rail, his shoes and accessories strewn about in the stained tub. They had long since ceased dripping, but were still cold and damp. He considered pulling the suit on- that alone would be a trial, the tight fabric stuck abominably when wet- and then taking a shower in it so that he would at least be warm. But the warmth from the water would only last him a few minutes, and then he would be wetter than he had been to begin with. A moment's consideration lightened his mood considerably; there was a spare suit in the van. He slipped out of the bathroom again and over to the bed where Otacon still slept, on his side now facing the window.
"Otacon." He reached out and shook his partner's shoulder. The engineer mumbled something and shrugged away. "Hal," Snake called, more insistently, and shook harder. Otacon turned over to peer up at him.
"Time to get up. You need to go to the van and get my spare suit."
"What?" Otacon sat up, shivering immediately as the cold air hit his bare skin and pulled the blankets up around him as he grasped for his glasses. "Why?" Even with his glasses on, he continued to peer slightly. Snake was used to his slow starts in the morning, which the engineer claimed were due to low blood sugar, which sounded like a damn sissy excuse to him.
"I only have my suit here, you know what it's like trying to get into that thing when it's wet."
"So put on my clothes." Otacon pulled the blankets more closely around him, slumping slightly as wakefulness began to drift away.
"To do that I'd have to shrink a couple of inches and loose a good fifty pounds." Snake reached out and shook him again.
Otacon glared, but got out of bed with a stumble and staggered over to the bathroom where Snake could hear him muttering as he pulled on his own cold damp clothes. He emerged a minute later looking miserable, swiped the van's keys off the bedside table where he had left them and exited the room without a word. Snake hoped he would remember where he had parked the night before, although the motel's parking lot wasn't big enough to cause much confusion.
While Otacon was gone he moved his gear out of the tub and took a quick shower, really only a shake under the wonderful jet of hot water. Aware that time was a commodity, he stepped out only a minute later, drying off with last night's used towels. He was in the middle of trying to soak the damp out of his hair when someone knocked on the door. Twice, once, then twice. Otacon. He wrapped the towel around his trim waist and padded to the door, checking quickly in the peep hole. It was indeed the engineer, clothes piled in his arms, looking even more miserable than he had when he left. Snake let him in with a grin. Otacon tossed his suit at his head.
They were underway fifteen minutes later, Snake kitted out in his secondary sneaking suit, which was older and stretching at the joints, Otacon in a set of spare clothes painstakingly collected from the cabinets in the back of the van, consisting of a strange union of his own and Snake's things. He was, he told Snake pathetically, wearing one of his own socks and one of Snake's, recognized by the fact that it had stretched to fit the larger man's feet and so gathered at the toe and heel. Snake practiced his usual strategy in this sort of situation, and ignored him.
Snake pulled himself into the driver's seat, Otacon settling into place in the back. They had outfitted the back of their van, a General Motors model from the mid-90s, to act as a small mobile office with a desk, computers, weaponry and spare parts and clothes. There was also a small chair, which Otacon had no doubt wedged under the desk to stop himself being thrown around with the van's movements. It wasn't a safe arrangement for use while driving, and they rarely had someone in the back while in motion, but in this case there wasn't much choice. Conscious of this fact, Snake paid more attention than usual to making smooth stops and starts and keeping a firm eye on Manhattan's many dangerous drivers. They drove in silence until they got off the island and a little ways upstate.
"I've got the relevant satellite photography of the area, in both day and night. I've also got a program running looking for active internet connections in the area, but I haven't found any yet."
"What's it look like?" Snake glanced into the mirror. Otacon was bent over the desk, lanky hair falling in his face as always.
"It's a large compound, square, sides two hundred yards long each, all blocked off by chain-link fence and barbed wire, the standard type. There's one access road, paved, blocked by the same fence. Viewed north to south, the road runs up from the south and comes in on the south-east corner. It opens into a wide cement lot, about twenty yards wide, forty long. At the north-east end of the lot is an out-building, probably a garage. To its left, in the north-west side of the lot is another out-building. To that building's south is the main building, twice as big. All the buildings are a good ten metres from the outside fence." He spoke slowly and clearly, careful with his facts.
"They park in the lot against the main building. In various shots there are anywhere between two and ten."
"Access?" Snake glanced at the map open on the passenger seat, switched lanes abruptly. Otacon swerved with the motion.
"I've run through the satellite images, and with people entering and leaving I've pinned down three in the main building: two on the east side on either end of that wall, and one on the west side in the middle. I think, from angling the photo, that there's also an entrance to the north leading towards the north-west building, but I'm not sure."
"What kind of surroundings are we talking about?"
"Open grass. The compound's about two miles off the main road, and surrounded by open field. In a backdated image there's a tractor in there cutting the grass; farmland. The grass continues inside the fence to the buildings on all sides but the east side where there's concrete."
"Then west sounds best for approach?" From the facts presented to him this was clear, but Snake made it into a question in case there were any facts Otacon had forgotten to add.
"Yeah, looks that way."
"But you don't know which building is which. Either could be storage."
"Right. When in doubt, the main building seems like the best guess. They probably have cold storage in there for ..." Otacon paused, searched for a euphemism, "projects they're working on. But they might have one in the out building too, for ones they've finished with. It's your call; you have all the facts I do."
"We'll go with the main building, then. What about cameras?"
"I haven't found any yet, but I'm looking. It will take a while."
"We have time." There were still more than two hours ahead of them on the road.
"I'll let you know."
They decided in the end to drive up the access road until they sighted the compound, then veer off into the field and come around in a circle. Now in late October, the field's hay had been harvested long ago, and the grass growing there was long enough to hide holes to turn an ankle in but nowhere near tall enough to do anything to hide their truck. But, as Snake had predicted, darkness was already falling when they turned off the main road for the smaller access route. By this time Otacon had long since abandoned his dark and cramped seat in the back for the passenger seat. He had tucked Snake's long-sleeved shirt into his dark jeans in a sad attempt at streamlining. His jacket, a dark knee-length raincoat which when buttoned and tied could fit him tightly enough to not be a liability, was still damp on the outside but dry enough on the inside, he said, and he had it ready to hand. There had been a fight about his coming, which Snake for all his foresight had not predicted the necessity of.
"I've got the stealth camo working again, but it's not up to much jarring," was how Otacon had begun the conversation.
"So, are you going to wear it, or do you want me to?"
Snake's thoughts had stalled, and he almost ran a red light. He stopped just in time, and turned to stare at the engineer over his shoulder. "You're not coming," he said, retreating into rough gruffness, which was simple and plain and didn't require any thought.
"You're going to get in there with no lock key- the locks will be electronic- and carry Liquid's body out all on your own?"
"You can give me a card." He did not deign to answer Otacon's implication that he could not carry one man.
"I don't know what kind of lock they're using. Without that, I can't make you a card. I'll have to come to get the doors open."
"So give me a range of cards."
"It doesn't work like that. There are dozens, hundreds of manufacturers of electronic locks. Each of them makes several different ones a year. Each of these locks responds to different signals. There's no way I could make you a master-card – even if I knew the make I would still need to know the type. Asking me to give you one is like telling me to give you ammo without telling me what kind of gun you have."
"I get the picture," snapped Snake, irritated enough with the situation to be set off by Otacon's practice of using metaphors to explain things, as though he couldn't understand without them.
"It'll be okay, Dave. I survived Shadow Moses, and there were armed guards running around ready to kill me there." Otacon's tone was light, although Snake suspected the lightness was forced. "And besides, you've been drilling me since then."
"You had to be there, there was no way out. I didn't bring you in. And being able to shoot a gun or take a punch does not make you competent in infiltration. You trip over your feet all the time. You tripped over the kitchen table a couple of days ago, dammit." They had laughed about it then. Now Snake looked back on it and imagined his partner tripping right into an armed sentry.
"I'm clumsy, I know, but if I'm careful I can manage. I didn't get shot at Shadow Moses; even you didn't notice I was around until I said something sometimes. Besides, it's not like there's going to be troops in there. This is a civilian research centre, Dave!"
"Doing top-secret research for the military. If you think there won't be guards-"
"We can avoid them," countered Otacon. "This conversation is pointless, anyway. If I don't go, you can't get in."
Which was, of course, the crux. They could argue about it as much as they wanted, but Snake knew his partner was correct. There were only two available choices. Either they did the mission, together, or they didn't do it at all. On the one hand, Otacon was right. There would probably not be much danger involved. But Snake had seen men killed on missions with less potential danger than this one, men prepared and trained for the battlefield. Otacon was neither. On the other hand, this mission wasn't essential. Having the world think him dead would be a huge benefit, but it wasn't necessary. They could continue to work without that protection, although it would be difficult now with most of America roused against them.
Snake sighed. This conversation wasn't so different from the ones he had had with Meryl, ages ago in the cold corridors of Shadow Moses. And look what had come of that.
"You know," said Otacon, breaking in on his thoughts, "it never occurred to me you might have a problem with this."
"That's really flattering, Otacon." The engineer flushed at his tone. "Look, I don't have much of a conscience left, but even I baulk at throwing kids in the shark tank."
"You're not throwing me; I'm jumping."
Snake made no reply, caught up in his own thoughts. There was a moment of silence, except for a light pattering of rain on the truck's roof. Then,
"I've never been much good at looking after people," said Snake slowly, looking at his calloused hands resting on the steering wheel. Otacon stilled, and he continued gruffy, "Not even the ones I had an interest in looking after."
Another, shorter, silence. "I know," said Otacon, in a low tone. The engineer was a bad liar, but as if to compensate, he told the truth better than anyone Snake knew. With the kind of sincerity that burned.
Snake nodded. "All right then. You'll wear the camo. And remember to watch yourself."
It was dark when Snake killed the engine in the middle of the field, and, as the headlights died away, they were left in darkness. No light shone through the thick clouds, still spilling down riverfuls of rain. The compound itself had no outside lights, and the buildings no windows.
Snake had foreseen this problem, and had stopped the van further down the road while both members of Philanthropy scrambled into the back to find the equipment they needed. For himself, Snake had taken a silenced SOCOM and an M9 adapted for tranquilizers with the knowledge that the likelihood of him finding any firearms at all in the buildings was almost non-existent. To Otacon he gave an unaltered M9, knowing the other man wouldn't use it unless absolutely necessary, and not trusting him to be a good enough shot to take out an enemy with a tranq fast enough to save himself. He also loaded up on the usual mission-equipment: knives, bandages, rations, rope, a couple of chaff grenades and flash bangs.
Lastly, while Snake was busy assembling equipment for Otacon to carry, Otacon prepared the nanomachines, filling two syringes with the liquid carrying their specific frequencies of the microscopic machines and setting them down on the counter next to his laptop. He took the spare holster Snake gave him and buckled it on awkwardly over his jacket, making sure it was properly fitted to his slighter frame before carefully sliding the knife and extra clips he was given into the appropriate bindings with some competence, the product of long training. He tucked some bandages, a ration and a digital camera away into the larger pouch over his right hip. His tools he tucked into the pouch on his left. He then began rolling up his sleeve.
Snake's suit didn't allow such an option, but was made with the idea that the wearer might very well require medical assistance. Consequently there was a small square which clipped down on his upper arm, and could be raised to give quick access to the skin below. He pulled the smooth fabric up and turned to Otacon, who slipped the needle in under his skin with practiced expertise, injecting the nanomachines slowly. As soon as he was done, Otacon handed Snake his own syringe, Snake returning the favour matter-of-factly. Easy part done, they both sat down to wait for the machines to finish taking effect.
Snake, used to discomfort, found the sharp head and earaches and near-blackout caused by the machine's injection annoying but not overly debilitating. The effects only lasted a couple of minutes and even at their height he knew he would be capable of movement and reasonably clear action if needed. Otacon, on the other hand, seemed either to experience more pain or, more likely, had a lower threshold for it. He generally sat with his legs pulled up and his forehead resting on them, arms clasped around his knees so tightly that his hands turned white. Once or twice he had actually blacked out, and although Snake had left him unconscious for the two minutes the machines took to set themselves up he had been easy enough to wake up afterwards.
Snake sat still in the back of the van until the last echoes of pain faded from his temples and eardrums, then stood and finished checking his equipment. When he had finished that, Otacon finally began to relax, standing up slowly and adjusting his glasses. Snake gave him another few seconds, then dialled into his frequency.
"Here. Reception's fine. You?"
"Fine. Try dialling in." Snake cut the link. A second later the codec began ringing in his ears and he opened the connection.
"Working okay?" It was always odd, watching Otacon watch him with the expectant look of one who had asked a question, when his mouth hadn't moved.
"Yeah, seems fine." He cut the connection again, and continued out loud. "Ready to go?"
As prepared as they were likely to get, Snake had run back around to the front and driven the car the final couple of miles directly into the field.
The first thing he noticed upon stepping out of the van was that the rain had let up. It was still drizzling, but the previous night's constant downpour had dried up. The grass, coming up to the middle of his shins, was a damp mass which threatened quick and accurate movement.
He felt his way along to the back of the van, where Otacon had already opened the door and jumped out, and was now trying to close it quietly. He finally managed by throwing his weight against it gently, and turned slowly to face the driver's side of the van. "Snake?"
"I can't see a thing."
"I have a flashlight, but that's damn conspicuous. We're better off trying to make it to the fence without it. You saw the photos. There's no ditch or anything between here and there, is there?" He hadn't seen anything like it in the truck's headlights as they drove in.
"There shouldn't be..." Otacon trailed off uncertainly. "Can you see anything?"
"Hardly." He thought he might be able to see the dark outlines of buildings ahead, but it might be his imagination corrupting what he knew to be there. "Just head towards the complex," he began in a hissed whisper. "Stop when you hit the fence. And move slowly; this grass is tricky."
Snake made his way around the van, careful not to run into his partner. The ground was indeed treacherous. When he didn't get a foot stuck in the thick, damp grass he slipped on it instead, even with the substantial grip his boots offered him.
The ground underneath the grass was just as treacherous and uneven as he had expected. Twice he almost caught his foot on an unexpected lump, and once fell into a dip almost a foot deep. Otacon, he could tell, wasn't faring much better. The engineer stumbled continuously, and actually fell twice, scrambling back to his feet quickly both times.
Despite the far from optimal conditions, Snake reached the chain-link fence in well under five minutes. He paused there and turned partially around to wait for his partner, keeping one eye on the complex.
The field behind him was completely unlit, making it impossible for him to make out the engineer's form even with his excellent night-vision, but he could hear him easily enough. Otacon was shuffling through the grass, footsteps an uneven mix of walking and running, and Snake could imagine him weaving along in an awkward scarecrow dance. He reached the fence a minute after Snake, looking for his partner's outline against the dim light filtering through over the building. Snake took pity on him and sidled over, dropping a heavy hand on his shoulder. Otacon fell backwards, arms pinwheeling, and Snake heard him gasp in an attempt not to scream. Sighing, he dialled into the codec.
It's just me, he said blandly.
God, Snake! Don't do that. Otacon sounded shaken, but was already working towards reproving. He was fine.
Wait here- I'll have to cut the wire. Although he could barely see the top of the fence, Otacon had reported it to be topped with barbed wire. He pulled himself up the fence with ease, taking large steps and reaches to make it to the top with the least amount of movement and noise. As expected, there were the standard three lines of wire. He pulled out a small pair of wire clippers, settled himself in, and began twisting.
Soldiering was 5% action and 95% monotony, and Snake had spent his entire life as a soldier. The monotony of the sawing didn't affect him; it was at least more interesting than sitting in a locker for hours, and with the added benefit of being something of a workout. Each wire, being thicker than his small clippers could easily handle, took several minutes of twisting. Even switching arms, his hand was aching slightly by the time the third one split with a twang. He pushed them gently away to form an entrance hole big enough for himself.
On the ground, he thought he could make out Otacon's form, squatting or sitting in the grass. He swung himself up over the top of the fence and down onto the other side almost silently, feet immediately reporting that the ground on this side was exactly the same as on the other.
I'm done, he said without preamble, and heard clothing shift as the engineer stood and brushed himself off. A few seconds later the fence clinked as he pulled his weight up onto it, scrambling awkwardly up to the top and searching for the space Snake had provided. Snake slipped forwards, keeping tabs on his partner with his ears, to inspect the side of the building in front of him more closely. He had just spotted the door Otacon had mentioned, a double metal one with a tiny green light glinting on a box next to it, when he heard Otacon trip over the top of the fence and down the other side, grabbing futilely at the fence as he fell. He landed with a quiet, damp thud.
You okay? Snake asked, turning to look for his form on the dark ground. A shadow rose slowly, hunched awkwardly.
Yes, fine. Just a few bruises.
Yeah, mostly to your pride, retorted Snake in a dry tone, just a hint of humour soaking through.
Ha ha, said Otacon, and cut the connection. Snake led the way up to the door but paused several metres out, and caught Otacon by the wrist when he tried to continue past, pulling him back. His keen eyes scanned the recess of the door, the walls and roof above. There was no way there wasn't a camera out here, somewhere, even if Otacon hadn't spotted any on the satellite images.
About to give up, he finally caught the telltale shimmer of light on a lens inside the door frame's corner on the side next to the card reader. A stupid place to put the camera, as it didn't cover the reader itself, which made Snake suspicious enough to take a couple of steps forward, leading Otacon like a child, to take a closer look. He couldn't see any further cameras, though, and so finally with a tug at the engineer's wrist led him forwards to the door, indicating the camera silently, hand less than a foot away from Otacon's face to ensure he saw it, and even then waited for the man to nod before letting him close to the reader.
Otacon was already pulling his pack open, deft fingers sorting through the equipment inside as he peered at the lock, and nodded. Snake watched him for a minute, watched the stumbling nerd become a competent technician as soon as the right materials were in his hands. He was used to this in their apartments, watching Otacon's fingers flying over keys almost faster than Snake's eyes could follow, had seen him take apart a dysfunctional toaster, ravage it for parts, and with those and a few other components make an entirely new creation capable of both making toast and telling the time, in less than half an hour. He expected it of the engineer in enclosed, controlled environments. The fact that he was able to continue to do his job out in the middle of nowhere with few tools and in possible danger raised Snake's estimation of his use, and of his character.
Snake watched, in between keeping an eye out for other forms of surveillance or suspicious activity, as the engineer calibrated some kind of thin box with a tiny screwdriver, twitching wires here and there and nudging at tiny pieces, lips moving silently in intense concentration. Twice he shut one end, flipped a switch, and watched various lights light up on the other side before turning it off again and digging further into its innards. The third time obviously revealed whatever it was Otacon was watching for, because he nodded and tucked his screwdriver away.
This should work, he said, opening a channel.
Right. Turn on the camo. Follow me into the building, and keep to the right wall. You keep the key; if anything happens, get the hell out.
Right, said Otacon in a toneless voice which made Snake slightly doubtful of his intention to follow those orders.
There was a quiet click, and the engineer vanished. A moment later the red light on the key reader flashed green, and another more audible click sounded as the door unlocked automatically. Snake slipped forward against the wall, grabbed the door and pulled it fully open with a quick yank. He slipped inside, holding it open with a heel for a moment until he heard Otacon pad in behind him, and then moved forward.
They had entered a wide shallow hallway which connected to another hallways at right angles only a few metres in. Halogen lights were shining far down to the right of this second hall, reaching their small foyer only dimly. The left end disappeared into darkness, and Snake could only guess at its length.
The building was silent, without even the hum of fluorescent lights or internal heating, a depth of silence beyond the shallow quiet which had replaced true silence in the busy technological age. The silence of a stone tomb, long hallways acting as amplifiers to the slightest sound. Even standing perfectly still with Otacon unmoving behind him, he could hear the light sound of the engineer breathing as he held his own breath, each tiny sigh like the wind whispering through long grass.
Which way? He turned behind him to where Otacon was most likely standing, his movement, careful as it was, cutting through the silence like a scythe.
Your guess is as good as mine. I say left; he's in storage, so they're not working late on him.
The lights could indicate greater security. Snake glanced around the corner again, and caught sight of a security camera perched at the end of the hallway where it would be able to make use of the light.
Something shuffled, most likely the engineer shrugging. Do you think a completed project would be assigned high security?
Depends. Let's avoid it for now. No point in chasing unnecessary risk. Snake slipped forward, boots moving with the gentle patter of rain on stone over the dark tiled floor.
There was, as Otacon had suspected, a door at the north end of the hallway, the steel gleam of its knob the only light in the deep shadows there. On either side of the hallway loomed little pockets of darkness like tide pools in stone, doorways. He counted four, two on each side, and refrained from sighing. They were on a time line.
Will that thing open these doors? He paused near the first one, careful to stand between Otacon and the camera at the far end to hide any lights from its sight.
I can't actually see the lock, replied the engineer, in a voice which just barely hinted at chiding. There was a quiet tapping as he knocked against the key pad, and finally pulled something away from it to reveal a single red light on the wall, shining demonically in the shadows. Something pinged quietly, and the light flicked from red to green with a cheerful click. The door handle turned and opened. Well, that answers that question. The engineer sounded self-satisfied.
Wait- follow me. He reached out and actually caught the back of the engineer's coat, hand appearing to grasp empty air, and pulled him back. Stay behind me, he repeated sharply. He stepped in, Otacon following and pulling the door shut behind them. He pulled a flashlight from a pouch at his side, and twisted it on.
It only took a glance to see that the room was no storage space. It was a dissecting room. The walls were white tile, and glowed a buttery yellow in the beam of his light. The floor was speckled linoleum. A large white closet in the corner most likely held the necessary tools, locked and hidden away from sight. And, sitting in the middle of the room under an elaborate lighting array, the dissection table itself. Steel gleamed coldly under the flashlight whose beam revealed the removable shower head for easy cleaning; the built-in trays for saws and knives, forceps and needles; the shunts set in the table to siphon away spilt bodily fluids. And, over it all, the slight scent of bleach which hinted insidiously at the odours it had been spread to cover up. It didn't take much imagination, hell, it didn't take any, to imagine Fox on the table, cut to pieces. Behind him Otacon made a gagging noise and knocked against the door. He turned the flashlight off, and the room fell immediately into concealing darkness. Otacon hissed between his teeth.
Open the door, said Snake coldly. There was a fumbling bump, but then the door was pushed open. He gave the engineer a second to clear it before following him out.
God, Snake, began Otacon.
Later, Otacon, he replied, cutting the man off.
Later, he snapped back, and pulled the engineer over to the opposite door. Open this. Otacon did as he was told with a fumbling clatter, and without reply.
The next two rooms were copies of the first. The third was a temporary morgue, with capacity for three corpses. Here the scent of bleach wasn't strong enough to cover the stench of open flesh and bodily voidings. Otacon stood in a corner and made choked retching noises while Snake checked the corpses under the sheets. None of them familiar, none of them Liquid. None of them in a even partially normal state. He grabbed the engineer by an arm and dragged him out, Otacon stumbling against him as his legs knocked against each other. He didn't release him in the hall, pinned him against the wall instead while the man gasped through his mouth in a failed attempt at silence.
Now is not a good time to retch, he said, digging his fingers lightly into the man's shoulders for emphasis.
God, Snake, how can you just-
This is a mission. We don't have time for sensibilities, he snarled, interrupting Otacon.
How can you say that? They're cutting up rotting corpses and doing God knows what-
First – get a hold of yourself. They weren't rotting. Haven't you gotten used to death yet? The DARPA chief, that was rotting. He paused, grimacing, as the engineer squirmed in his grip. Second, you damn well knew what they were doing in here when you decided to come.
I wasn't expecting-
You weren't expecting run-of-the-mill autopsies and dissections? You know what they did to Liquid, to Gray Fox … he paused.
Yes, I do, shot back Otacon. And I know you're angry about it, but you don't need to bite my head off. I'm sorry I'm no soldier; I'm not used to steel tables and dead bodies and the smell. But I'm doing the best I can, so stop taking it out on me. Please, he added after a moment of consideration.
Snake sighed and let him go, the engineer hunching back against the wall, breathing calming. We'll try the other building, the soldier said eventually, brushing past Otacon to grab the door knob. The engineer followed quietly.
The northernmost building was dedicated to offices, they soon found. Snake considered torching it, but decided against drawing unnecessary attention. Depending on the nature of the storage, Liquid's abduction might not be noticed for some months, and the success of their mission depended – as always – on secrecy.
They slipped past the north-west building's entrance camera with no more trouble than the others. The inside was dark, but Snake's flashlight revealed a foyer running the width of the building, with two doors across from the entrance at equal distance to each other and the walls. The foyer was just big enough, Snake estimated grimly, to manoeuvre a gurney in. Like the other two buildings, the silence was thick and put him on edge.
Snake didn't bother trying to guess which door might be the right one; he headed immediately for the right. Time was wearing down. The door, not surprisingly, was locked. Otacon flipped the cover off the lock and clicked his little box next to it. Nothing happened. Another click. The red light continued to shine mockingly.
It's a different lock, I'll have to recalibrate the signal. It'll take a minute. Another quiet click, and he reappeared beside the soldier all at once, Snake only just managing not to startle.
What the hell're you doing?
The electric field generated by the stealth camo will interfere with the initial readings, answered the engineer without looking up. He was already pulling out his little pack of tools, and began immediately to poke at the insides of his creation. Snake stood still, fading into the background darkness, and watched the engineer's steady hands. He had recovered quickly after the mild horrors of the main building, voice already steady as they checked through the offices. Snake didn't want to be impressed by someone who flinched and gagged at empty rooms, but Otacon's work as mission advisor and analyst had always been good and, for a first mission, he wasn't doing badly. Snake could count associates who had stood up to him on missions on one hand, and as such it was hard not to be impressed by that.
There was a metallic click, and Otacon's device lit up. He pressed a button and the light on the lock changed from red to green with a light ping. He turned to Snake and smiled, tucking the tools away. Before the soldier could admonish him, he had flicked the camo back on, disappearing into thin air. Snake reached out and opened the door.
The room beyond was cold and dry, with the almost dusty smell of refrigeration. The flashlight showed it to be a narrow room with tall metal cabinets on both sides. There were long doors set into each cabinet, two rows, four columns high on each side. Unlike the typical mortuary, whose inhabitants were stored with their feet at the door and their heads against the internal wall, these stored the corpses sideways in shallower drawers, presumably to use the space more efficiently. Each door was labelled with a laminated paper slipped into a metal holder. Glancing at the first on his left, Snake read:
There was a warmth at his shoulder, which suggested Otacon was standing next to him.
God, there could be 64 bodies in this room alone! hissed Otacon, doing the math quickly. 64 bodies, with the possibility of at least 64 more in the other, and none of them recorded by name. They would have to check all of them individually. Snake groaned, and dug out a second flashlight, holding it out.
Here. Start over there, he gestured to the right, and then paused. Can you do this?
I only saw him a couple of times, but it's just you with a blond mullet, right?
That's not what I meant-
I'll manage, replied the engineer flatly, and cut the channel. Snake turned to the drawer before him.
He found quickly that not all the drawers were occupied. Thankfully, both top ones were completely empty, and several had only one corpse in the wide double berth. Even allowing for the sometimes extreme changes which death brought, and almost any amount of post-mortem operations, none of the corpses bore much resemblance to Liquid and most were easily eliminated. He had begun his examinations hoping that the corpses had died of some extreme trauma, but it became clear as he went on that the incisions, amputations and augmentations were common to all the bodies and as such a result of whatever desecration was being performed here. He set his teeth and finished his row with a stony heart.
Otacon, on the other side, was proceeding slower than him, although after the first several drawers the deep choking gasps had stopped. Snake finished while he still had two left to go, pausing to wait for him before continuing to the next room. He stopped, however, at the second to last drawer. Snake, I think… I think this might be him. But, he didn't lose an arm, did he?
Snake stepped over sharply and glanced into the drawer, its top at knee height. There were two corpses lying stretched out on the metallic bunk. The one on the inside was a large black man covered with wide shoe-lace stitches and tattoos. The one on the outside was a well-built Caucasian with strong facial features even under the stitches and a right arm ending in a stump at the elbow. Even with the burns and wounds, it wasn't hard for Snake to identify the man; his face was the same as the one Snake saw each day in the mirror. Liquid.
It's him, he answered, gruffly. Liquid had faired no better than any of the other poor bastards in the place, although with only long incisions hastily stitched up covering a fair amount of skin and a shunt sewed in above his spleen, he hadn't faired worse, either. The arm had been explained last night, when it had seemed too ridiculous to be true. They stood for a minute staring down at his corpse, Snake's thoughts wandering between hate for the bastard and a kind of surprised melancholy at seeing himself dead, Liquid being the world's best momentum mori. Otacon stood still while breathing heavily through his nose.
Well, began the engineer eventually, what now?
Now we get out of this hell hole, answered the soldier, rousing himself. You go ahead of me and open the doors. Stay on the concrete all the way to the entrance point and then turn into the grass, no point in stumbling through it for longer than necessary.
You'll never get by the door's camera carrying a body, pointed out Otacon. You take the stealth camo, if you keep enough of him against you it'll cover him as well.
Snake paused, concern warring against logic. But this was the middle of a mission, and as he had said earlier, there wasn't time for sensibilities. Fine. Give it to me.
Otacon switched off the camo immediately, unhooking it and handing it to the soldier, who clipped it on his belt. He flicked it on, skin tingling as though covered in static as the field spread across it. Otacon moved to give him space, inching back towards the door. Snake knelt down and grabbed Liquid's good arm, hauling his corpse up off the metal pallet and onto his shoulders with a quiet grunt, and then kicking the door shut with his foot. He glanced to the side, where Liquid's legs ought to have been hanging, and saw nothing. Nodding to himself, he headed to the door where Otacon was already waiting. They crossed the foyer in silence, pausing only to turn off the flashlight, and then slipped out into the comparatively warmer night.
He could only make out the engineer's vague outline in the dark, enough to see that he was moving steadily without having to watch his doubtless awkward movements. His rubber-soled shoes padded quietly over the concrete which ran between the buildings, scuffling now and then when he glanced back over his shoulder, presumably to make sure there wasn't a corpse floating through mid-air.
They had drawn up almost even with the door of the main building, the marker for the hole in the barbed wire, when the catastrophe Snake had been subconsciously expecting all night finally broke. A guard, until now not encountered or even suggested, rounded the southern corner of the main building, shining his bright light on the pavement before him. Otacon froze, deer-like, while the invisible Snake darted instinctively out of the beam's path and into the grass.
Otacon, move! Get out of his way!
Otacon startled at the codec, stumbling to the side and into the grass. He disappeared abruptly with a quiet thud almost lost in the windy night, just as the guard swung the flashlight around to illuminate the entire path of sidewalk. Snake freed his M9 from its holster, holding it awkwardly around Liquid's cold arm, heart hammering in his chest. The guard, however, walked past the engineer without taking any notice, pausing only to check that the building doors were secure before continuing on his route like clockwork and vanishing around the corner.
Snake didn't bother to tempt fate any further and stepped forward immediately, shrugging Liquid higher onto his back. There was no sign of Otacon, presumably still lying in the long grass. Otacon, let's get the hell out of here. A shuffle of movement, but no figure appeared against the slightly lighter sky. Otacon – are you okay?
Yeah, I'm fine. Contrite and ashamed.
Good. Let's go.
Getting over the fence again was awkward, and in the end he had to drop Liquid over the top and pick him up again on the ground, ignoring Otacon's horrified squawk as the naked body appeared in mid air and dropped heavily to the muddy ground. The passage back to the truck was no easier than it had been the first time, but with their goal accomplished it seemed to pass faster and soon they were safe in the relative warmth of the back. Snake deposited his load on the floor and pulled down one of the dirty blankets from the previous night to hide it from Otacon's wide eyes.
"You're going to have to drive," was the first thing he said with his own voice again, tone gruff.
"What? Why? I mean, I don't mind, but-"
"He doesn't exactly look like he was just running around on a tanker," pointed out Snake, nodding to the blanketed heap.
"Can you fix that?"
"You don't really want to know."
Otacon looked up at the soldier's harsh tone, wincing slightly. "You're right. I guess I don't. I'm sorry I'm not more help." He looked away uncomfortably, only half-sincere.
"Don't be. The world sure as hell doesn't need more bastards like me."
"The dirty work shouldn't always fall to you."
"Maybe not, but it's too late now. You get into your rut, and there's no getting out again. Once a soldier always a soldier." He was tired, and the night had already been long, and there was still so much ahead of them.
"You're wrong. Philanthropy was about new beginnings, getting away from our old selves and finding new ones. You don't have to be Snake, and I don't have to be Hal Emmerich. We can live new lives." Otacon spoke with the same intensity he had two years ago, promising to stay behind and see to Shadow Moses' destruction. His words carried the same sense of potential, of newness Snake had seen from a snow mobile on that bright Alaskan dawn. And here he was now, squatting in a filthy truck with the corpse of a man he had hated and feared practically in his lap.
"And this is what you'd rather be? This is better?"
"I'm not a party to murder anymore. And neither are you. What we're doing is important. Even if no one else realises it. If that means doing this, and being Otacon, it's a pretty small price to pay, considering what I've caused." He canted his head slightly to the side, lips twisted into a pained smile. Snake couldn't argue with the guilt, but he didn't have to let the man wallow in it either.
"So you have to be Otacon, while I get to be Dave? You go down in the world while I go up?" Snake raised an eyebrow.
"Well, you don't really have anywhere to go but up," pointed out Otacon in a marginally lighter voice, before turning more serious eyes to Snake. "I know I'm not much good in the field. I completely froze when I saw that guard, thinking that I might have to shoot him, or that he might shoot me – I just couldn't move. But I'm committed to this, and if that means having to be in the field sometimes, I'll have to learn how to do it. Especially if it makes things easier for you."
"I don't need to be babied, Otacon," snapped Snake, unpleasantly reminded of the man's encounter with the guard, of the dangers and threats associated with taking him on missions.
"And you don't need to be spending your life destroying Metal Gears, but you chose to anyway. I think it's the least I can do," he said mildly.
"Stop trying to make me into a hero. I'm not one."
"I know that. It doesn't mean you're a villain either. Just because I like anime doesn't mean I have no grasp of reality, Snake. Life's not so black and white. Whatever you may have been in the past, you're a good man now. That's all I need to know."
"You can't absolve me."
"And you can't me," shot back Otacon in the same cold tone, before continuing more calmly. "We've both done … what we've done." If he looked more uncomfortable than usual, Snake chalked it up to post-mission adrenaline.
"And now we have to make up for it? You can't erase old deeds and write up new ones. Life's no blackboard."
"Then why are you here, Snake? Why did you join Philanthropy?" There was no malice in his voice, and that seemed strange to Snake, who was a veteran of plenty of personal conflicts but unused to ultimatums made without anger.
It didn't take any thought. Fox's words had imprinted themselves on his heart; he would remember them if he lived to be a hundred and forgot his own name. "I decided to fight for what I believe in."
"It was a good legacy," said Otacon quietly, leaving Snake to wonder again how much of the fight between himself and Rex the engineer had heard. His eyes were sincere, and held a human warmth he hadn't seen since Meryl and rarely even before. As unlikely as it seemed, the two of them had had their lots thrown in together, and even if he was crap at field work, Snake wasn't sure when he had last met a better man.
"Yes, it was," he said softly, and with that acknowledgement the tension between them drained quietly away. It had been a mess, but it hadn't been a complete snafu, and Snake had seen enough of those to know the difference. The tanker wouldn't be the end of Philanthropy. And, although it was a cause for concern, it might be a new beginning. Snake grinned, just a twitch of his lips.
"And you? Have you found what you're fighting for? I don't remember you ever telling me."
Otacon blinked self-consciously, and then smiled. "What do you think," he said, "of, 'for great justice'?"
Solid Snake's body was fished out of the Lower New York Harbour three days after the sinking of the tanker Discovery. Owing to the extreme nature of the damage inflicted by the scuttled tanker and the Harbour's stormy waters, the corpse was identified by DNA testing, which confirmed it as that of the Legendary Soldier. The funeral was closed-casket. Owing to the circumstances, it was also a cheap state-sponsored affair. The intense media interest, however, turned it into one of the most-attended events of the year.
"I always kind of hoped to be buried on a sunny day," said the man in the badly cut suit. His bright straw-blond hair had been plastered down by the rain, now running in small droplets over his glasses which were darkly tinted despite the grey sky.
"I'm glad you thought about it," answered the man standing next to him, dressed in what – judging from the legs – was probably a more acceptable suit, wrapped over with a long rain coat. The rain ran through his unruly mouse-brown hair and over his brows, dripping into bright blue eyes which were half-shut against it.
"Actually, I always figured there wouldn't be a body. But if there had been, I would have gone for a sunny day."
"Because it's less melancholy?"
"Because I hate the damn rain."
The cemetery was mostly flat, but a few gentle slopes had been left bare of graves. A significant number of watchers had gathered on these hills to watch the coffin be lowered into the muddy grave, the occasion presided over by a pastor paid for by the media in order to wring out a juicier story. The two men were standing at the crown of one of these hills, hands in pockets, ignored by the rest of the spectators.
"Hey," said the man in the unfortunate suit, while the pastor was in the middle of his recitation, nodding his head to his left. "Isn't that…?"
The second man glanced in that direction. Amid a bunch of what appeared to be college graduates, dressed in a collection of raincoats and loose sweaters, a slight Asian woman stood apart in a stylish business suit under a trim black umbrella.
"Looks like it. You didn't invite her?"
The first man snorted. "Who's being melancholy now?"
The woman, rather than watching the scene at the bottom of the hill, was looking sharply around. The man in the bad suit drew away slightly, but the other didn't move, watching her out of the corner of his eye. Her gaze drew around to them and passed them by once. As it swept back it paused, and then fixed itself on them. Her eyebrows furrowed, and then cleared, and she gave a little tilt of her head. The man in the raincoat returned it, and elbowed the other until he reluctantly followed suit. She smiled and turned to watch the coffin being lowered slowly into its final resting place. The crowd murmured among itself, the sound like the ocean in a shell.
"Well, that's about – oh, hell." The blond had turned to go and paused, half facing away from the grave. The other turned to look in that direction.
The crowd had not yet begun to break up, presumably eager to milk the event dry, or waiting for some of the excitement which had marked the deceased's life to liven his departure from it.
The first man stood stock still, staring without moving, without breathing.
"I don't see – holy – is that-" the second turned to his companion.
"It's them alright."
Standing a ways off in the crowd, almost out of sight of the coffin itself, was a pair alone in a group of well-dressed veterans. An old man, wizened with age, dressed none the less in a colonel's dress uniform complete with decorations. And beside him, acting partially as his support, a young woman also in uniform, her red hair sticking out to the sides despite the downpour.
"You didn't tell them…?"
"Would you have?"
"Yes!" The second man answered as if it were the blatantly obvious answer. "He was your friend, and she was-"
"Yeah, was.He was my friend, and she was my lover."
"And just because it was the past, you don't think they'd care you were dead?"
"I've burnt a lot of bridges."
"This is the 21st century. We have other means of transportation. Not to mention lumber. If they're here, they must care."
The first man said nothing.
"You could go over and say something. You could even not say something, just stand there."
"Yeah, and have Roy pass out and Meryl scream blue murder."
"Somehow, I don't really think she's the screaming type."
The first man gave him a knowing look, which the second pretended not to see.
"Are you sure-"
"Just drop it."
A silence, filled with the sound of rain and the whispers of the crowd.
"I guess," said the first man out of nowhere, "that this takes care of your obligation."
"I seem to recall you promising to bury me, once. Well, here we are."
"I think I could do a better job. And possibly recruit mourners who were actually, you know, mourning."
"Yeah. Could you?"
"There's nothing I can't do. It's in my job description."
"Good to know. Here's a chance for you to prove it: go talk to them."
The second man turned, eyes sharp, no longer joking. "Really. You should go."
"There's no need-"
"You can count the number of people who care about you on one hand right now!"
"If I go over there, I'll still only be able to count the number of people who care about me on one hand."
The second man let out an irate sigh. "Fine, just do what you want. I'm going back to the motel. Have a nice funeral." He turned and elbowed his way through the throng. Snake watched him go, until the engineer disappeared behind a group of college football players all half a head taller than him. Turned back in time to see the pastor edging away from the green carpet surrounding the grave. He was an old man, balding, with wire-rimmed glasses and a kindly face. The stereotypical pastor, probably chosen for that reason. Snake crossed his arms, and turned to watch the military group. To wait for them to leave.
The crowd dispersed slowly, bits and pieces streaming through like a river breaking a dam down one trickle at a time. Snake knew eventually the crowd would hit a critical mass, and the flood would carry away almost everyone. He waited for it, watching with a calculating eye, feeling it beginning to wash over him as people slowly accepted nothing was going to happen. And then, all at once, it struck and the flood began. People began hurrying away, no one wanting to be stuck in the traffic jam, to have to fight their way out of the parking lot, to be caught in the stampede. Snake stood like a stone in the flow of the river, buffeted but not moved, and watched as the crowd washed through the military group and pulled it away.
Pulled away all but two, who stayed stubbornly until the last stragglers had hurried away, standing side by side on a shallow slope a stone's throw from the grave. Stayed, and watched in silence.
Snake, eyes dark, let out his breath in a not-quite-sigh, and moved.
Meryl turned first, senses probably heightened by anger. He saw it flashing in her eyes as she met his, and then saw the shock drown it as she took a step backwards.
"Liquid," she hissed, and reached for his gun.
"No," said Snake quietly, and nodded to the grave. "He's down there."
Only then did Roy turn, slow and stiff as an old man, leaning heavily on his cane.
"You – you used him to fake the id? But, the tanker, you…" Meryl quashed her shock quickly, stunned expression quickly darkening. "I should have known."
"Sorry," said Snake, intending to finish with to disappoint, and not quite managing it despite her glare. Beside her, Roy's hands were shaking on the head of his cane.
"It didn't occur to you to maybe drop us a line? Send an email? Hell, if you were that opposed you could just get Otacon to do it for you. 'I'm not dead' – Only three words! 'Still alive' – Only two! Do you know –" she paused, voice coming near to cracking, and then harnessed her anger, "how long it took us to get out here? How damn long it's going to take us to get back?"
"Meryl," said Roy, quietly.
"Well, do you?" she snarled.
"Yes," he said quietly, answering the unspoken question.
Her white fist struck out quick as an adder, connected hard with his cheek. "Christ, I don't know why I bothered to come," she added, turning away as she shook her hand.
"Don't be, I know how much of an effort it is for you." She didn't turn back, but he could hear the slight hint of tears in her voice.
"Meryl. I am."
She didn't say anything, just waved her red knuckles at him and strode off, other arm wrapped tight around her stomach.
"I guess the two of you haven't changed," said Roy, watching her go.
"Guess not," said Snake, stiffly.
"And, I guess you're not the only one who has apologizing to do."
Snake said nothing, his own eyes turning back to his grave – Liquid's grave. "You already did," he said, after a minute. And then, "I've never been much better at listening to apologies than I am at giving them," he admitted. "It's something to work on."
He felt Roy's gaze turn to him, the old man watching him with sharp eyes. "I'm happy for you, Snake," said the colonel. Nonplussed, Snake turned to him. "This life, Philanthropy, whatever it is you're doing with yourself, it's good for you. Better than FoxHound was."
"You get that from the way I spat with Meryl?"
"FoxHound's Snake would never have come here at all, never mind apologized to her. Or me. You've changed, and I'm glad for you. You deserve it." Roy reached out to rest a hand on Snake's arm. "Take care of yourself." He gave a sharp nod, which Snake returned.
"You too. And keep an eye on that tomboy of yours."
Roy's smile was tinged with bitterness. "I'll try."
Otacon, despite his earlier statement, was leaning against the van's passenger side when Snake got back. The engineer shrugged. "All the cabs were taken. Finished?"
"Yeah." He dug in his pocket, pulled out the keys and tossed them to the engineer, who caught them in a surprised near-fumble.