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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.

Chapter Text

The bulb starts flickering around midnight and burns out completely two hours later. In the dim moonlight filtering through his window, Kaz collects the files he had been working on with an annoyed sigh and sorts them on the pile of documents that still need his supervision.

He rubs at bared eyes, his customary sun glasses put aside. He is alone in his quarters; there's no need to keep up appearances, although pretense feels like second nature by now – pretending to listen to Ocelot’s debriefs, pretending to be whole... Pretending that he isn’t counting the days and hours since Big Boss left on a black op mission in the middle of the night, looking overworked and pale.

And whose fault is that? Kaz feels his palm sweat at the thought, anxiety rearing its ugly head. Fuck. He tries to distract himself, fiddling with the cassette player Venom got him for his birthday. He can remember the gentle expression on his scarred face when he gave it to him, clumsily wrapped. I put you some of my music on it, he had said in that soft voice of his. It helps, most nights... but now, Kaz doesn't want to think about him. He tosses it away with a shaking hand. It lands safely on his bed with a thud.

Unable to sit still for a moment longer, he heaves himself out of his desk chair with the help of his crutch, cursing under his breath. He’s tense, frustrated, exhausted – Kaz scoffs at himself. So pathetic.

Putting on his shoulder holster and his trench coat, he steps out into the night, unwilling to waste more precious time feeling sorry for himself. Enough is enough. Indeed, his last meeting – or clash? – with Snake had been a much-needed jolt out of the abyss of self-pity he had tumbled into after... well, after everything changed.

The instant he had hung suspended by the harsh force of Venom’s prosthesis against his neck – air rushing out of his constricted windpipe and his heart pumping violently in his chest, his mind hovering between consciousness and oblivion – everything had finally made sense again. The thought of Snake’s hostile glare is enough for his breath to catch, the urge to run his fingers over the yellowed bruises marring his skin one he doesn’t indulge. Not yet.

Standing on the first floor of the Command Platform, Kaz breathes in the salty ocean breeze, propping the crutch carefully against the railing to grip the metal bar in front of him for balance instead. For a few minutes he thinks of nothing substantial; his eyes follow the monotonous pattern of the soldiers on their night shift. It’s calming to him, his analytical look noting holes in the recruits’ guard he will correct them for in the morning. Kaz nods at one who happens to look up - there's a flicker of surprise on his features before he gives him a hasty salute. Only then does Kaz notice that he left his aviators in his quarters, feeling oddly naked but determining that it’s not worth it to go back for them.

He finds his gaze drawn to the landing platform eventually. It’s empty, of course, highlighted by the red security lights blinking every few seconds. Kaz tells himself he would know if Pequod were on his way to Mother Base – or at least, he likes to think he would.

Truth be told, the Boss left him completely out of the information loop for the mission – not surprising, really, given how they parted ways. His unease about the radio silence had been constantly on the back of his mind since then. Big Boss – phantom or not – always made sure to call in his status; in a business as dangerous as theirs, good intel and mission support is the key to success. If Ocelot is to be believed, Venom Snake requested neither during the whole mission so far, barely checking in with the Russian every few hours to let him know he is still alive before dropping off the radar again.

As if on cue, Kaz’s musings are interrupted by the distant rattling of a chopper flying by in a wide arc. He tenses, hand flying to the gun at his side before the Diamond Dogs logo shining in the intermittent lights on the machine’s flank confirms it to be Pequod. The helicopter adjusts its flight path, heading for the upper landing zone of Outer Heaven.

Worry gnaws at Kaz, his relief at Snake’s sudden return only a short-lived one: The Boss only uses that landing zone when he’s physically unable to walk the stairs himself. Pequod would have taken him directly to the med bay if he's seriously injured, Kaz reassures himself, commencing the taxing climb to the fourth floor–

–only to stand rooted in front of Snake’s private quarters. Before, he would have barged in without a care, knowing that he would just kick him out with a stern glare if he wasn’t in the mood. Now, their dynamic is all shot to hell – despite (over)thinking what he would say to him on their next encounter, Kaz finds himself lost, deeply unsure of his welcome. The worry nags on his mind relentlessly. Fuck it, he decides, knocking solidly on the door and waiting with his heart pounding in his ears.

Nothing.

Dread settles in Kaz’s gut. He almost turns around and leaves there and then, accepting the rejection he had baited for days ago, but the thought of another sleepless night in his empty room, caught between nightmares and the creeping darkness is unbearable.

Thus Kaz finds the strength to square his shoulders and straighten his back, determined to face Snake with as much pride as he can muster. Pressing down the handle of the door, he finds it unlocked; it swings open with a quiet creaking noise, the moonlight falling in to weakly illuminate parts of the room.

Prepared to defend himself on the spot, Kaz takes a deep breath – only to let the air rush out again in a steady stream, the sight before him rendering all imagined scenarios meaningless: Snake lies on his bed, body prone with blood and dirt caked on his clothes and face. Is he–

It takes Kaz frantic mind a second to register the steady movement of his chest, a muffled snore filling the otherwise undisturbed silence. The Boss is simply asleep, probably having fallen into slumber the moment he dropped on his bed, shower forgotten. Kaz would smile if he wasn’t so distracted by pure relief. Knees weak, he steps into the room, letting himself fall into Snake’s desk chair. His eyes stay fixed on the man who is out like a light, not even twitching during Kaz’s entrance into his comfort zone.

Seconds tick by unchecked. Kaz takes his time to comprehend Snake’s relaxed face and resting body, loose limbs sprawled across the covers in a way so unlike Big Boss – his Big Boss – that it’s jarring. In the few nights they had shared a bed, John had always slept silently, on his side to reduce the time it took to react if anything were to wake him up. Naked Snake had been an incredibly light sleeper, his eye snapping open at the slightest disturbance – all traits attributed to his experiences during Operation Snake Eater.

This Snake, in contrast, is currently completely dead to the world. His eye shifts under his closed lid, indicating vivid dreams that cause him to interrupt his soft snores with indistinct mumbling. With a furrowed brow, Kaz listens closely, surprised to hear fluent Spanish instead of English being uttered in Big Boss’s deep voice.

A sudden memory flashes in his mind’s eye:

The same unmistakable Uruguayan accent, smooth and baritone; blue caring eyes and a hesitant smile in a face blurred by the passage of time. Steady hands that soothe and heal where others have hurt and destroyed. A name on one of MSF’s oldest files: Vincente Ruiz, “V” for short, better known under his code name – “Medic”.

How could Kaz have forgotten? Ruiz had been one of their first recruits back in MSF’s early days, when the headquarters had been barely more than a house on a beach. He had told him once - late at night over a shared bottle of rum - that he had heard of their ambitious project through the grapevine, deeming it as good a cause as any and joining without further ado. It was Big Boss who trained him for deployment, insisting he had talent despite his dislike for violence. “I’m not here to cause death, but to prevent it”, Medic had stubbornly said, but complied eventually, loyal to the bone.

And what did John force him to do? Kaz tries to block out the death count of Venom Snake’s missions to the present day.

The sickening truth he has denied for so long finally hits home: Venom Snake is – and always has been, from the start – not merely a copy of Big Boss, but a person in his own right. The astonishing similarity was, true to his intended use, bordering on perfect; in no other way could his performance have convinced two of Naked Snake’s closest allies for so long, no matter the size of the blind spot or the efficiency of the applied self-hypnosis. Eventually, the brainwashing would fade but until then it would be too late: Outer Heaven would be up and running and Venom Snake would be irreversibly bound to the title of Big Boss, emotionally and physically.

Immeasurable shame bubbles up in Kaz, now that he understands the extent of his failure to Venom. Instead of helping his closest friend – and that’s what they had been, recent revelations be damned – through the massive identity crisis he must be suffering, Kaz had turned his back on him and even spited him at every possible turn. He had been so blinded by his broken pride and thirst for revenge that he had discarded Venom just as Big Boss had discarded him, like an object that outlived its use.

It’s an ugly truth to face. Suddenly, his presence near the unconscious man seems dangerous, poisonous. Kaz stands up in a rush, stumbling out of the room to escape the confined space–

Only barely does he avoid crashing into Ocelot, who looks utterly unsurprised to see him. How long has he been here?

“Finally figured it out, Miller?” Kaz rights himself stiffly, berating himself for letting his guard down. Ocelot is leaning against the railing, arms loosely crossed, eyes scanning the Boss over Kaz’s shoulder before they land on him. “What took you so long?” The spy cocks one blonde eyebrow in challenge, waiting for a reply.

That little piece of shit. Kaz narrows his eyes, considering the benefits of ignoring him - after all, Ocelot is the one at fault for the execution of this questionable plan of Big Boss’s. What right does he have to judge me for my mistakes? But hadn’t he gotten into this situation by pointing the finger at everyone else but himself in the first place? He settles for a curt nod and takes Ocelot’s provocation head-on as part of the punishment he deserves, refusing to drop his gaze like a guilty child.

The Russian smirks, acknowledging this. “Good. It’s safe to say everyone was getting tired of your brooding.” At Kaz’s glare he backs off with an exaggerated show of gloved hands; as per usual with Ocelot’s gestures, it's difficult to say if he's being serious or sarcastic.

Keeping their eyes locked, Kaz decides to ask the question that burns in the back of his mind ever since he stepped out of Snake's room, figuring Ocelot can read him perfectly in his vulnerable state anyways. “Is he still in there, somewhere?”

Something about the small hours of the night must make their relationship more sympathetic, maybe even honest because the expected jab doesn’t come. Ocelot is taking his time to respond, his gaze soft on the Boss’s – no, Venom Snake’s – sleeping face, his voice distant: “Yes... Deeply buried, but yes.” He shakes himself out of it, looking mildly taken aback before he carries on: “The Medic is stronger than John and I anticipated. It seems like his self is trying to reject the hypnotherapy.”

Ocelot’s expression turns grim, then, dissatisfaction bleeding through his words. “The mind is a delicate thing. Rewriting it takes time and an intimate knowledge of the person you want to erase, both factors I didn’t have. It was bound to happen, eventually.”

“You don’t care who he used to be.” It’s not a question and as such, there is no reply. Although he wishes he doesn’t, Kaz understands Ocelot’s perspective, his place in this operation: He’s a highly skilled man whose loyalty belongs to Big Boss and Big Boss only. Why should it make a difference, then, if he takes a stranger’s psyche and forms it like clay to suit John’s needs – a person who was ready to give his life to save Big Boss’s, no less? Would Ruiz have done it, Kaz wonders, if he had known that it would lead to his very existence being smothered out until only a burnt file in MSF’s sunken ruins could prove he had lived at all?

It’s a delicate line they are walking on now, their familiarity in this exact time and location bound to break once the sun rises and life goes on. Any information now is a valuable asset to be used against the other in the future. Still, Kaz asks–

“What will you do if he succeeds?”

–and again, Ocelot answers. “His own identity doesn’t change the objective of my mission. As long as he maintains his use for Big Boss, I will stay.” Then, his eyes pierce Kaz in sharpened focus. What about you? he says without words. Whose side are you on?

I don't know. True to his skill, the spy has found the core of Kaz’s inner conflict, the reason why he can’t move on: He’s caught between the merciless betrayal he suffered and the bond to John that remains despite it all. He had said he will send Big Boss to hell and he still means it, despite his fondest memories having been made through their partnership.

The existence of Venom Snake – an imperfect mesh of two desynchronized identities – is the epitome of his struggle, a constant reminder that Big Boss ultimately chose Revolver Ocelot over Kazuhira Miller. But he is also a testament of Naked Snake’s fault, who rewarded the protection of his life with the deconstruction and appropriation of the mind and body of his loyal friend for the sole reason of convenience.

Returning to the present, he notes that they have reverted back into their usual dynamic, the brief moment of understanding gone. Ocelot is visibly enjoying the torment he caused his rival, a mischievous smirk spreading on his face while Kaz suppresses the urge to strangle him for it. Too tired to deal with this version of him, Kaz grips his crutch tighter, throwing one last look at the unconscious form of Venom Snake – Medic? – before he makes his way back to his room.

*

Later when he sits down on his bed, he feels a hard object under him. Kaz furrows his brow, patting the covers until he finds the discarded cassette player. The worn cassette is labelled with scrawled letters:

Happy Birthday, Kaz

- V.

After considering it for a moment, he plugs in the earphones wrapped loosely around the device and opens it to turn the tape to its flip side. It's marked with a simple "B" in the top right corner, nothing else.

Pressing play, Kaz props up his pillow and leans against it, drooping eyes watching the sky lighten in different shades of blue through his window while the familiar music wraps itself around him like a blanket.

Kaz is fast asleep by the fourth song.

Chapter Text

“Isn’t smoking forbidden in this place? The NGO won’t be too thrilled about it...”

Venom Snake takes a deliberately slow drag of his electric cigar, breathing out the sweet-smelling smoke steadily before he answers. “Considering I make the rules here, I’d say the NGO can suck it.”

Kaz snorts, not commenting further on it. Venom considers him hovering at the entrance to the Herbivore Conservation Platform with a quick look over his shoulder before he pats the spot on the floor to his left, turning away to continue his silent observation of the animals he caught.

It takes a minute for Kaz to walk over and settle down on the offered seat, legs dangling over the edge of the platform. While Venom keeps smoking, lost in thought, the other fidgets – with his beret, his sunglasses, his tie. There’s pressure in the continued silence, their fight standing between them like a physical wall; it breaks the calming effect the constant rustling of animal life has on Venom.

“Boss, I–“ Kaz starts, but is interrupted by a soft “Don’t”. He can feel him tense beside him, sees Kaz's grim expression out of the corner of his eye.

Sighing, Venom sets the cigar aside and leans forward to rest his upper body on the metal railing, his eye on the sheep grazing in the enclosure below them. “It’s just you and me here, Kaz. No need to call me something we both know I’m not.”

The other hesitates for a moment before he nods, copying Snake’s posture. “Fair enough.” Kaz’s next words are hesitant, but earnest: “What do you prefer to be called? Venom Snake or ... Medic, maybe?”

Venom blinks, momentarily startled. It’s a question he didn’t expect – he had assumed Kaz would pounce on the weakness in his statement again, picking up where they left off before the mission. Snake turns his head to really take him in this time, scanning over Kaz’s level-headed expression and the body language that parallels his own – his X.O. is actively trying to make himself approachable. Huh.

It takes Kaz uncomfortably clearing his throat for Venom to notice that he hasn’t answered the question. Feeling strangely self-conscious, he breaks eye contact and scratches at his beard in thought, buying himself some time with a hum. Taking Kaz’s lead, he decides to be honest: “I, uh, haven’t thought about it. I suppose ‘Venom Snake’ isn't a real name, but–“ I can’t remember my own.

He swallows, the back of his mind tingling at the thought. Big Boss lurks in the depths of his thoughts without interfering, sated by the total control he had until the day before; still, Venom recognizes the warning for what it is.

“–I connect even less with ‘Medic’, so...” Objectively, he knows that code name. Speaking it sends a jolt to his brain, blurred memories flaring up before they are lost again, only faint impressions remaining. Venom is still trying to chase after them when Kaz shifts his weight with a rustle, reminding him of the present.

“You really remember nothing? Of– Costa Rica or MSF–“

Venom starts shaking his head before Kaz finishes the question. “Bits and pieces, nothing concrete. It’s gone before I can grasp it.” He chuckles – it’s a joyless sound, catching in his throat. “Kaz, I can’t even remember my name. I tried, but... there’s just nothing there.” He doesn’t explain that it’s painful to think about, that he fears Big Boss will tear his mind apart from the inside if he tries. Even now, he lays in wait for him to stumble, the beast-like warden of his thoughts alerted by the subject that is supposed to be avoided.

“Your name– it’s Vincente Ruiz.” It’s a rushed statement – Kaz uses the Latin-American pronunciation of the name with only the hint of an accent, all soft consonants and a rolled r. Venom’s head snaps up, almost giving himself whiplash with his need to look into Kaz’s eyes, to read the truth there.

Kaz is unfazed by the attention, carrying on with a melancholic smile. “Only that a bunch of Americans like us couldn’t say it right, so we settled for ‘V’ instead.” The nickname fits into a space left empty in Venom’s heart, hopeful relief pushing back the ache in his mind.

Without thinking, he moves into Kaz’s personal space, keeping him in place with a metal hand on his trench coat when the other flinches. “What else?” Venom asks him, breathless with exhilaration.

Kaz visibly relaxes out of his stupor, looking distant for a moment before he supplies with nostalgia in his voice: “You come from Uruguay – the accent was all over the place when you spoke Spanish; still is, in fact. You, uh, were a no-nonsense kinda guy with your patients... It didn’t matter how stubborn they were out in the field; with you, everybody was as mild as a dove, even–“ John. He falls silent with flattened lips.

“I can speak Spanish?” Venom repeats dumbly, latching onto the information as memories of faces and names flash in his thoughts, past scents, sounds and emotions pouring out of formerly dark corners of his mind in a steady stream too overwhelming to understand completely.

The skin around Kaz’s eyes crinkles when he smiles again, a little wider this time. “Yeah, fluently. You– you had a huge fondness for sweets you always tried to hide from the other recruits. There was no mistaking the hungry glint in your eyes every time someone brought that disgustingly sweet stuff home... What’s it called again–“

The taste of caramel and vanilla blooms on Venom’s tongue. “Dulce de leche?” he provides with a questioning tilt to the words that come effortlessly to him.

“Ah! Yes, that.” They are still only inches away from each other, so Venom can track the surprise in Kaz’s expression perfectly – first a widening of his eyes, then a dumbfounded blink, mouth parting but no sound arising. Snake is sure it’s reflected on his own face. “How?”

He shakes his head minutely in response. I don’t know. Dropping his gaze, Venom notices that his grasp on Kaz is too tight and loosens his fingers with a calming breath, sitting back on his thighs. He’s loath to return to their initial distance completely, hoping that Kaz won’t call him out on it.

He doesn’t.

Now that the first moment of shock is over, he can hear the muffled noises of the animals around them over the beating of his racing heart. Before he can marvel at the tranquility in his mind, it lurches in one painful squeeze; Big Boss’s presence returns with a vengeance, reaching for the regained recollections with sharp claws. It’s so fast that Venom can barely defend himself – No, no, no, they are mine! – as he feels the air rush out of his lungs, doubling over with a groan from the agony that blacks out his senses. He clings to the name, the identity Kaz returned to him that burns bright like a candle in the darkness, flickering, threatening to be blown out by the storm raging on in his head.

When he opens his eyes again – seconds or minutes later, Venom can’t tell – there’s the familiar scent of coffee and after-shave in his nose, a strong hand rubbing his back. Kaz’s warm body is a constant pressure at his side, anchoring him to consciousness despite the tremors running through his thoughts.

“That’s it, V. Breathe.” He sounds like he’s been saying that a few times now, voice a calm baritone. “Come back to me, c’mon.”

With his flesh hand, Venom reaches for Kaz’s shoulder to let him know he’s there, even if he can’t find his voice just yet. The responding sigh is relieved, the other kneading Venom’s shoulders to soothe the tension there. “Welcome back. Can you straighten your back? Just nodding or shaking your head is fine.”

Venom complies with a small nod, his locked up muscles slow to respond but obeying eventually. Kaz helps him prop himself against the railing, making a move to retreat, to remove himself from him– Blind panic bubbles up inside him, his hand clenching around Kaz’s arm without a conscious thought. “Stay... please–“ Venom doesn’t recognize his own voice, the words gasped out in tangible desperation. He feels sweat dripping down his neck, the skin around the shrapnel in his head clammy and inflamed.

“Hey. I’m not going anywhere, okay, V? Remember – breathe.” Kaz’s face looks pale, now that Venom can see him through the haze in his mind. It’s the same expression he wears when Snake returns from a mission dripping with blood, even when he reassures him that most of it isn’t his.

They lapse into silence for a while. Venom closes his eye in exhaustion, waiting for his rapid breathing and frantic heartbeat to calm down. Kaz makes sure to stay in bodily contact with him, rubbing the feeling back into numbed limbs and brushing his sweat dampened hair out of his face with a steady hand.

Venom is drifting off to sleep when Kaz finally speaks, trying to keep the shock from his voice: “Shit, V... Is this what happens? When you push against it?” He rests his palm against Snake's pulse point, his thumb moving against dark stubble in soothing arcs.

Leaning into the touch, Snake nods and swallows thickly, throat raw. “Yeah– If I think too much about it, he lashes out.” He touches his temple, indicating the place where the ache is still pounding on. He sounds rough as gravel. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it, Kaz, I tried– He’s just too strong.“

“He? Who is– Fuck”, Kaz curses, white eyes wide. “It’s John, isn’t it? The one who does this to you?”

“A version of him, yes. I don’t know if he’s – it’s – real. It’s triggered by– deviating from Big Boss, questioning memories.” Venom closes his eye and concentrates on the warm palm against his face that helps tune out the struggle inside of him. “He’s in control, Kaz, most of all in the field. There, I’m only a passenger, seeing my body move, my voice speak–“ He pauses, breathing through the anxiety that claws at his throat.

Needing to explain, to make him understand, Venom pushes on: “Before the mission, he was there, too. When you pushed, he did too – and I...” He reaches for Kaz’s neck, pushing aside the collar of his shirt to reveal the bruises still there, yellow-green blotches on pale skin - visual proof of his loss of control. “I never wanted to hurt you, Kaz. It’s not who I want to be.”

He feels the other swallow against his fingers. Tearing his eye away from the sight, he’s met with Kaz’s face only inches away from his own. They’ve gravitated towards each other, breathing the same air. It’s intimate in a way their interaction has never been before, all secrets out in the open; Venom’s gaze drifts to Kaz’s lips without conscious thought.

It’s a split-second decision: Venom’s fingers on the man’s neck wrap around it, gently pulling him closer before he places his lips on Kaz’s. The kiss is tentative, the other responding after a moment, melting into it. Venom feels his heartbeat pick up against his palm, hears the soft moan Kaz makes when he opens his mouth, deepening the kiss–

Suddenly, he senses pressure against his shoulder, a soft murmur against his lips: “V, stop...”

It’s like a slap to the face. Venom snatches his hand away, breaking their connection with a sharp inhale–

“No, no, wait–“ he hears Kaz say. He tilts Venom’s head up with his hand, forcing him to look him in the eyes. He reads compassion there, uncertainty, want – but also fierce determination. Kaz is panting softly, pink lips parted. “Don’t get me wrong, I... have wanted that for a very long time. But I want it with you, I know that now. Not– not with whatever fiction they forced on you.” He caresses Venom’s cheek with his thumb over his scars, as if he wants to smooth them out, to undo the damage inflicted to him.

Knowing Kaz is not finished yet, Venom waits, although it’s hard to keep the eye contact when he feels so stretched thin, so utterly vulnerable. He waits – and hopes.

Kaz sighs quietly. “But I’m not quite there yet, and so are you. V, I want to help you regain what you lost – your memory, your autonomy, yourself. After everything you did for me, everything we went through... It’s what we need to focus on right now. This...” Kaz touches Venom’s lips, still tingling from their kiss. “We have time for that – later. If you still want it.”

Slowly, Venom nods. He knows deep in his heart that the sting of rejection he feels is only temporary; that Kaz speaks the truth, his approach being the only way they could have this, and be good for each other – instead of being trapped in a maze of hurt and betrayal that threatens to tear apart the bond they both want and need.

Kaz takes a deep breath, trying to smile through the conflicting emotions that are reflected on his face. He clears his throat, placing his hand on Venom’s shoulder with a reassuring grip. “I still owe you an apology – for the way I treated you before. It’s was neither my place nor my right to let out my frustration on you.” Considering the few times Snake remembers his second-in-command apologizing outright – either in his or Big Boss’s memories – he knows he must have thought long and hard on this.

“I can understand why you did it”, he says softly. If Kaz’s actions hadn’t been founded on a core of reason, he wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Senseless aggression doesn’t suit him, despite the man being rash, passionate and, sometimes, too proud for his own good. Venom feels himself let go of the tension he has harbored since their fight. “I’m sorry, too.”

They fall silent, unsure of how to proceed. Venom thinks of the things he’s supposed to be doing – checking up on the soldiers, going through the intel on the next mission, being Big Boss once again – and decides that, for once, the world’s problems can wait. He nudges Kaz’s thigh with his foot, making the other snap out of his thoughts.

In a soft whisper that still seems too loud for the confessions spoken just moments before, Venom asks: “Wanna visit the bear I caught the other day? He should be awake by now.” He knows that Kaz is probably not interested in the zoo or the animals in it; but that’s not the important part. He just wants to spend time with him, to soak in the closeness that blocks out Big Boss’s toxic influence on his mind and get to know Kaz again now that their dynamic has shifted – not as... lovers or even colleagues, but companions on a journey on their own terms.

The warmth in Kaz’s eyes tells him he knows that as well. His voice is fond when he answers: “You and your animals. Alright, let’s go look at the bear.”

With a huff, Venom stands up, shaking his tensed muscles from perching on the floor for so long. He helps Kaz up with a sure grip on his arm, giving him his crutch and his beret with a small smile. His world settles into a new coordinate system of possibilities that needs to be explored in its own time. As they walk, Venom feels the last of Big Boss’s presence disappear from his mind. The temporary peace is in no way a full recovery, not by a long shot; but it’s a start, a step in the right direction.

Now, he will have to learn to stand on his own two feet – with Kaz by his side to catch him when he falls.