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Learning To Stand (On Our Own Two Feet)

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Click. Step, step. Click. Step, step. Kazuhira Miller walks down the metal paths of Outer Heaven. He doesn’t see the familiar orange color of the Command Platform, the Diamond Dog flags waving in the wind nor does he hear the splashing of the ocean waves against the steadfast pillars. No – the maelstrom in his mind occupies all his senses, slowly but surely swallowing him whole in the undertow.

The words he exchanged with Ocelot still echo in his thoughts. “Big Boss is building a nation”, the Russian had said with a faraway look in his eyes and admiration in his voice. Not a shred of regret, not a single ounce of – what, humanity? Decency? Kaz scoffs. It was nauseating. Revolver “Shalashaska” Ocelot... You fooled him like you did everyone else – right, John?

Just like you fooled me.

Kaz shakes his head, trying to breathe through the choking grip of betrayal on his heart. He grinds to a halt at the outmost railing of the platform, his damaged eyes tracing the last rays of the sinking sun on the horizon, the sky tinted blood red. It’s a fitting color, casting everything in the shadows of his loss. You were all I had left and now you’ve taken that away, too–

“Kaz?” His voice interrupts his thoughts, sounding careful, soft, wrong. Kaz tenses up, back straight and an iron grip on his crutch, knuckles white from the pressure. Speaking of the devil... He braces himself, closes his eyes and breathes in deeply before he turns around–

It’s not enough.

Venom Snake stands before him, the dying sunlight illuminating his scarred face, a single eye trained on his X.O. with veiled concern. But Kaz can only see a sharp, clear blue eye in a face that screams confidence and superiority, a cocky smirk in place – and something in him snaps.

Pure fury swells in his chest, his heartbeat picking up like a war drum readying for battle. Kaz’s expression must be murderous behind the sun glasses because the Boss frowns, barely a twitch of his brow and a tensing of flat lips only perceptible for those who know him well. It’s a gesture so alike the real Big Boss that Kaz feels himself bristle at it, the pieces of his fractured pride aching at the sight of the one who reduced him to this: A tool too insignificant to share his great big plan with.

The forceful steps Kaz makes towards Snake echo from the bare walls of Mother Base. In his mind, he runs towards him on good, strong legs and wraps a complete set of fingers around his throat until the mighty Big Boss chokes wetly, windpipe crushing under the pressure, his arrogant face turning blue. His eye would bulge out of his skull if he pressed hard enough, slowly squeezing the life out of him; Kaz wants with all his being to see Snake’s knees buckle, to render him as desperate and helpless as he makes Kaz feel – through his actions, through his absence, through this replacement – to rid him of any importance, so that Kaz is freed from the burden that is his bond to Big Boss.

Was I not good enough? Did I not sacrifice everything for you, for our dream?

But Kaz can’t run, not anymore. He can’t even throw a punch without losing his balance, can’t fight like he did all his life – all because of the man standing in front of him. The Boss stands his ground silently, taking his wordless aggression with unblinking calm, his face an unmoving mask. This just infuriates Kaz more.

“Get out of my way, Snake.” He spits out the once treasured name like a curse, cold and sharp as ice. It tastes like ashes in his mouth.

As Kaz pushes his way past the soldier, his body hits an immovable wall of muscle and bone, then – he feels Snake relent against the pressure, stepping aside, submitting even if just in that gesture alone. Big Boss never submits, Kaz wants to scream in his fake face. How dare you wear his face, his name, his title?!

But he doesn’t. As he walks away from the one he followed blindly, the one he worked day and night for, gave his arm and leg for, he feels a chasm tear open between them, ripping apart everything they have built together until nothing remains.

*

“You have to put him in his place, Boss. Miller’s becoming a liability”, Ocelot says with unusual seriousness, his ever-present smirk dropping from his lips. He’s lazily spinning his revolver with his left hand, his posture casual but revealing an utterly calculated quality to the trained eye.

I know, says Big Boss’s presence in his head, almost dominant enough to make it out of his mouth. Venom Snake stands with his back to the Russian, considering his own reflection in the darkened window. If he looks closely enough, he can trace the differences – small deviations here and there, in the slant of his eye or the creases on his brow; they give him the strength to answer with the small, rebellious voice inside him that he has yet to discover fully: “He needs time. Leave him be.”

Even a man as composed as Ocelot can’t hide a genuine huff of frustration at that. “The question is if we can afford the time. The world won’t wait for any of us to get over ourselves, Boss, you know that.” He puts away the gun after a daring finishing move, shifting his weight with a click of his spurs. Venom can see the gears in his mind turning to place his next words right. “I know you don’t want to... upset him further, but we have to think of the bigger picture here. The men and women of Diamond Dogs are neither blind nor stupid. They can sense something is up.”

It’s been weeks since Big Boss’s plan had been revealed to all three of them, causing the tense silence between Venom and his second-in-command. It’s not that they don’t speak at all – it’s the way they communicate that has irreversibly shifted, on radio and in person. Although Ocelot’s mediation has prevented the worst repercussions, the tangible dissonance in the commanding ranks is taking a toll on Diamond Dog’s overall performance – a fact that is making the spy gradually more impatient, only his respect for the Boss keeping him on the sidelines. The question is which Big Boss this respect applies to, Venom thinks idly, turning away from his reflection.

Despite his passivity in the matter, Venom Snake is very well aware of their predicament. It doesn’t change the fact that he can’t get Kaz’s betrayed expression out of his head, hatred burning in those white eyes. Even though he knows he himself did nothing to cause it, he can’t help but think that Kaz has a point; Big Boss had not only given his name, his identity, his power to the phantom he created, but also his sins, the blood on his hands now staining Venom’s as well.

He closes the distance to his commander, laying a calming hand on Ocelot’s lean shoulder. “I got it under control.” He suppresses a sigh, even if the other picks up on his weariness with a flick of cold blue eyes anyways. You can’t hide weakness from a fellow predator, after all.

Closing the issue for now, Venom says with authority in his borrowed voice: “Let’s focus on the next operation.”

*

It’s deep into the night when he finally heads out, DD trailing behind him in full battle gear. Venom is fixing a strap on his stealth suit when a presence blocks his way, stopping him in his tracks abruptly. He tenses automatically, hand on his knife before he recognizes the person in front of him.

Kaz stands like a man bracing himself for a storm, hand clenched on his crutch, eyes hidden by his aviators. He doesn’t say anything, at first – the hostility he carries like armor around him more pronounced than ever. Venom knows, whatever he has to say, it’s going to be with the intention to hurt, to destroy. Kaz has come for a fight, and he won’t leave without it. He wonders what it says about himself when he prompts Kaz to speak anyways.

"Commander Miller?” Polite, detached – it’s the way he has gotten used to addressing the one he would’ve called his closest friend before. Snake is acutely aware of the soldier walking past them on her night watch, saluting her commanders dutifully while trying to hide a curious glance at the distance between them. Forcing a neutral expression, he addresses the new recruit with a tight nod before he signals her to resume her duty.

Kaz’s face is twisted into an ugly sneer at the display. “Still carrying out his orders, I see.” Both of them know exactly who he is – there’s only one man Big Boss can’t defy and that is himself.

Venom hums a non-committal noise, his eye drifting to the landing site where the chopper is maneuvering into a waiting position. He catches Pequod’s eyes, silently conveying he is to remain in position. The pilot nods hesitantly before he sets the metal bird down, the rotors slowing down and stopping eventually.

“You can’t even look me in the eye anymore. Pathetic.” The hissed words draw Venom’s attention back to the problem at hand: His X.O. who seems hell-bent on acting out of rank in front of the soldiers, using their attention as leverage to coax out the reaction he wants. He clenches his jaw to keep a thoughtless retort to himself.

Venom considers his choices, shifting his weight impatiently. Kaz needs time, he tries to remind himself, despite the whisper in his ear: Nobody gave you the time you needed. Why him? In the end, Venom motions for Kaz to follow, not giving him much of a choice but to obey when he just turns on the heels of his combat boots, moving in confident strides; with a clipped gesture, he sends DD to join Pequod, thus removing the last distraction.

The area for the inevitable conflict is chosen carefully – a side of the Command Platform still under construction, excluded from guard duty due to its remote location and insignificant security risk. There, Venom stands tall, broad shouldered with his arms crossed, waiting for his second-in-command to catch up. He lifts his gaze to catch Kaz’s milky eyes behind the sun glasses when he finally does.

“What do you want, Kaz?” Big Boss’s voice sounds defeated to his own ears, worn down by days of tension and restlessness and mission after mission; it contrasts his strong stance in a way not entirely to his advantage. He feels him seethe at his weakness, tearing at the splintering control of Venom’s self. A headache builds up slowly, pounding behind his temples.

What do I– You used to know me, Snake. Or did he fail to imprint that into you, as well? Was it a detail not deemed important enough?” Was I not important enough? is what Kaz is actually asking, a thought that has been driving him insane but stays inexpressible for the proud man. Venom can’t help but scoff, the harsh sound carrying in the quiet night. He can read his commander like an open book, alright. The problem is that Kaz doesn’t know himself anymore; he's so thoroughly lost by Big Boss’s betrayal that Venom isn’t sure he can find his way back home again.

“Kaz, I know you.” The statement is said with more force than he intends, Snake's patience wearing impossibly thin. He clenches his fists at his sides, loath to project his emotions so freely but hating the violent alternative Big Boss is whispering in his mind. In a softer tone, he says: “I asked you what you want. Why do you keep doing this to yourself? To me?”

Kaz’s eyes widen a fraction at the anger barely restrained behind those words. Finally getting the reaction he came for, his lips pull into a confident smirk, speaking at a normal volume. “Do you? Well, well, I didn’t know you could actually stand up for yourself.” He steps closer, his strong gait fueled by his own fury turned cold by now. He spits his next words right into Venom’s face, almost shouting now. “What I want, Snake, is to know: Can you be more than John’s weapon? More than his shadow, his phantom–“

It’s the rhetorical nature of Kaz’s questions – his belief that Venom is little more than a blunt object for Big Boss to use as he pleases – and the blatant hypocrisy of the statement that breaks his self-imposed passivity. With a snarl, he shoves the other against the nearest object, Big Boss rejoicing inside him when the man collides against Mother Base’s unyielding walls with a solid thump. Kaz’s throat is brutally restricted by the bionic arm smashing against it, cutting off his air supply efficiently. Venom barely hears the crutch and sun glasses clatter to the ground or Kaz’s loud gasp, unfeeling to the fingers uselessly scratching for release at his artificial limb. His single eye catches Kaz’s damaged ones with the intensity of a beast trapping its prey, rendering it utterly helpless to its ferocity.

I am not him”, Venom hisses, his face only inches away from Kaz’s own. “I am not the one who did this to you. You’re nothing but a dog groveling his lost master, unable to move on because ‘John’ is out of your reach.” With a step back, Venom frees him from his grasp as suddenly as he had pinned him, letting Kaz fall to his knees in front of him. Heavy coughs shake the downed man’s frame.

Kaz rights himself slowly, gingerly massaging his neck with a wince as he is rendered speechless by the damage done. For a moment only his shallow pants can be heard. Snake looks down at him, feels numbness spreading inside of him – Big Boss is silent in his mind, abandoning him to deal with the muted guilt he helped create.

In the end, you always win. Don’t you, John?

Regardless Venom carries on, deadly calm again: “If you pulled your head out of your ass for once, you would realize this yourself.” Go for the kill. Again, he obeys Big Boss. “He is not coming back for you, Kaz. And I refuse to pay for it at your hand any longer.”

The tight control on his psyche lessens; a pleasant tingle in the back of Venom’s head indicates Big Boss's satisfaction. It’s in that rare instant of autonomy that Venom breaks free of his chains, his next words rushed but sincere: “If you think you can’t stand seeing his face anymore, imagine it staring back at you in the mirror every morning. Big Boss has wronged me more than he has you.”

It’s the first thing Venom Snake has done that is inherently his and not based on John’s indoctrination. But at what price? Exhilaration mixes with dread in his gut. He turns his back on the man kneeling below him, trying to ignore the mounting pressure on his brain, struggling to simply breathe Silence stretches between them, louder than any weapon.

Venom waits no longer for Kaz to break it. He walks away from him instead; he barely notices the saluting soldiers he passes, shouldering his way past one or two unlucky fellows who don’t jump out of the way fast enough. His mind is empty, mental strength all but drained.

Once he steps into the chopper, he waves away Pequod’s concern – “Everything alright, Boss?” – telling him to proceed with the mission in an blank voice. DD looks at him with confusion in his eye and whines in response to the turmoil he feels in his owner but keeps his distance.

Then, they set off. Venom’s gaze follows Kaz, who stays where he dropped him - a pale speck alone in a sea of darkness. Only when he loses him out of his sight does he allow Big Boss’s punishment for his rebellion to wash over his mind, preferring the pain over the hollow feeling in his chest.