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the roots that sleep beneath my feet

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The bar is a dark, seedy little place crouched near the mouth of an unused pier. Loud music and the sour smell of alcohol and sweat greet Eddie right at the door. He grabs a stool at the end of the bar and takes a quick look around. The crowd is thin for a Friday night. It's made up of the waterfront's usual suspects — dock workers, tugboat operators, guys fresh off the cargo ships.

Eddie's whiskey comes in a glass with thumbprints smudged around the rim. Not much can make him sick these days, but he still frowns at it for a few seconds before bringing it to his mouth.

You're uneasy.

Shrugging, Eddie takes another sip. Danger doesn't mean much with Venom around, but the kind of reporting he does has never been safe, and old habits die hard. He's taken too many fists to the gut, been on the business end of too many knives. That, and the symbiote on his shoulder makes him more aware of shit than he used to be. He can feel a fight brewing between the dudes playing pool at the dusty table near the back door. He can sense a guy watching him from three stools away, scoping out his wallet, his watch, the brand new phone sitting beside his drink.

Don't be. I'll protect you.

"Yeah, I know."

The bar-top is an uneven hunk of driftwood dotted with condensation rings; Eddie leans his elbows on it and takes another look around. He's a few minutes early, and he'd bet on his contact being late — they usually are. He picks at chip in the varnish with his fingernail and waits.

And waits.

And waits.

Hungry.

"Not tonight."

Disappointment ripples at the back of Eddie's neck, but he shrugs again and gestures for another drink. Chomping heads keys him up too much, leaves him strung-out and jittery, pacing his apartment for hours with his heart pounding and the taste of blood on his tongue and teeth. That's not the best mindset for writing, and he needs to finish the article he's working on in time to pay next month's rent.

Eddie —

"We got tater tots at home."

Another curl of disappointment — stronger this time, something that slithers up into Eddie's hairline and makes him shiver. He rolls his shoulders a couple of times, then starts picking at the varnish again. He sucks an ice cube into his mouth and crunches it between his teeth.

He waits. The door opens, letting in three guys in greasy coveralls and a sharp burst of cold, salt air. After a quick glance, Eddie turns back to his drink. He drums his fingers on the bar-top. He traces his thumb over a pair of cigarette burns — old scars, earned before San Francisco banned smoking indoors.

Bored.

Eddie knows; he can feel it in the restless rustle at the top of his spine, in the weight that spreads across his shoulders, wraps around his neck like a scarf. Tension pools in the dip of his throat, and he shifts on his stool. A moment later, he catches himself openly eyeballing the guy who was sizing up his wallet and phone.

"Stop that."

What? He looks tasty.

"I already told you, not tonight."

You said that last night. And the night before that. And —

"I'm working," Eddie hisses, just loud enough that the bartender cuts him a look. He offers her half a smile before hiding his mouth behind his glass. "I can't just —"

The door opens again, and — yeah. This dude looks like someone with information on a state senator taking bribes. Even dressed down, he sticks out like a sore thumb. His jeans and flannel are too clean, his five o'clock shadow too neat. The baseball cap angled over his eyes is so new it probably still has a tag on it.

He sidles up to Eddie with his chin tucked to his chest. "Brock?"

"Stuart? I'm —"

The guy shakes his head. "Not here. I can't be seen." He slips Eddie a motel key-card with a gesture that's laughably obvious. "I'm at the Seaside. Room 109."

"Hey, I'm —"

One of the pool sharks starts shouting. Everyone looks over — Eddie included — and Stuart uses the distraction to slink out the bar's back door. Venom slides into his favorite spot, at the back of Eddie's neck, just above his collar. Eddie gives his skin a minute to settle. Then he drains his glass, drops some cash on the bar, and ducks outside.

Don't like this.

Eddie doesn't like it either. But he's been working this bribery angle for weeks, and so far, this Stuart asshole is the only insider willing to talk. Freelancing is too unpredictable; he can't afford to let a promising story get away.

"I'll be alright."

It's a cold night, wet from a slow drizzle that's been falling on and off since mid-afternoon. Eddie pulls his hood up and heads a block south, breathing in damp asphalt and hunching his shoulders against the wind. He passes a dingy noodle shop, a neon-lit tattoo parlor, and a guy handing out leaflets for the youth ministry on Sixth Street. A foghorn blares out on the bay. At the corner, Eddie jaywalks over to the Seaside's sun-bleached, mission-style façade.

A homeless chick is camped out beside the front door; she looks enough like Maria that Eddie digs a twenty out of his wallet before going inside. The lobby feels like a cave. The check-in clerk is brown-bagging it at the desk, washed in the yellowish light of a half-dead chandelier. Eddie skirts past him, toward a narrow hallway with decades of cigarette smoke clinging to its walls. He finds 109 near the end, across from the ice machine. It wheezes softly as Eddie fits the key-card into the slot.

Venom bristles under his skin, ready to spill over his shoulders and back — ready for a fight. The lock clicks, and Eddie turns the handle. A thin, black tendril curls around his wrist.

Eddie mumbles, "Relax, will you?" and tucks his hand into his sleeve.

The room is blue and green and poorly lit. Stuart is sitting on the foot of the bed, checking his watch. A stack of papers is waiting beside his hip. Without the baseball cap, he — he looks like an unexpected blast from the past.

"You — Josh?" Eddie asks uncertainly. Fifteen years has changed him — darkened his hair, widened his jaw. "Josh Stuart?"

"Hi, Eddie," Josh says, standing. He's taller than Eddie remembers. He's also tight-lipped, white around the mouth. "Long time, huh?"

Venom hums with curiosity. They nudge up into Eddie's brain and start poking through his memories — Eddie's junior year at college, the handful of times he and Josh fucked in Josh's miserable, off-campus apartment. It wasn't anything serious; Josh was doing a summer abroad in Brazil at the end of the semester, and Eddie was also dating the hot chick in his Editorial Design class. Josh was a Poli Sci major, only landed in Photography I to mop up a missing art credit. Eddie —

Knock it off, Eddie thinks loudly. Venom rooting around like that feels like an egg cracking inside his skull. Besides, it's fucking rude. We've talked about this.

Venom retreats, but they seem agitated, pulsing and churning behind Eddie's sternum. Eddie shakes himself a little and tries to focus. Senators. Bribery. Josh. "Yeah, long time. I didn't know you worked for Mark Winthrop."

"I don't," Josh says, shaking his head. "I work for the Coastal Commission. A few of us have been watching Winthrop since he backed a bill to lift the restrictions on offshore drilling."

Winthrop was strong on the environment through two terms, but he abruptly changed his tune after winning a third. But if it wasn't for flip-flopping, politicians wouldn't get any exercise at all. "Any proof he got paid?"

Josh says, "Circumstantial," and grabs the papers off the bed. Their fingers brush as he passes them over, and Venom thuds in Eddie's chest like a second heartbeat. "I have friends in Sacramento, and they did some digging."

It's the usual stuff — emails, internal memos, meeting agendas, "working lunch" receipts. A few calendar pages, and the guest-list for a closed-door, black-tie fundraiser. Some correspondence on Conoco-Phillips letterhead. At the bottom of the stack, Eddie finds three grainy cell phone photos of Winthrop and a known Exxon Mobil lobbyist dining at Saison.

"Eating isn't illegal."

"No, it isn't. But —" Josh reaches for the papers and tugs one free. His fingers bump Eddie's hand, grazing his first two knuckles. Venom rubs the spot with a slow, thin tendril.

He keeps touching you.

Yeah? And?

If he does it again, I'll eat him.

What —? No. You —

"Eddie?"

Eddie snaps out of it with grunt. Josh is looking at him expectantly, like he asked a question and didn't get an answer. Sheepishly, Eddie says, "Sorry, I — I didn't hear you," and waves at his ear. "Tinnitus."

A door slams down the hall. Josh points to the paper now on top of the stack — a blurry scan of a pink slip. "A week after those photos were taken, Winthrop bought a new car."

"Okay." Money's what lured Eddie down this rabbit-hole in the first place; rumor has it that Winthrop spends a lot for a guy who was a community college professor before going into politics. "Anything else?"

"About a month after that, he bought a car for his son, and he sent his wife and mother-in-law on a Caribbean cruise. Now, his house in Mill Valley is undergoing extensive renovations."

"Any of that on paper?"

"I'm still working on the second title. And the building permits; they're public record, but the assessor's office in Marin County is stonewalling me. As for the cruise —" Josh pulls his phone out and starts swiping through it. "A friend texted me this while I was driving over here."

He holds the phone out so Eddie can see it, but the screen just catches the glare from the naked light-bulb humming over their heads. Without thinking, Eddie grabs his wrist to adjust the angle. A furious, sullen tension throbs at the top of his spine. He gets a brief glimpse of two women standing on a state-room balcony before Venom rumbles out a noise he can feel behind his teeth.

I will eat him slowly.

Stop it.

I will start with his feet. Then his shins. Then his kneecaps.

Come on. You don't even like kneecaps.

Heads are better. And livers. Maybe I will start with his liver.

Venom —

Stomach. Pancreas. Lungs. Spleen. Then —

"Will you —" shut up, Eddie thinks. He covers the slip with a fake cough that turns real when Venom seethes into his throat.

"Are you alright?"

"Yeah," Eddie croaks. "I — it's dusty in here." Venom is fishing through his memories again, watching as he and Josh kiss against the back wall of a club, as Josh blows him on a lumpy, thrift-store couch. He needs to get out of here. Get Josh out of here. Something. Anything. He grabs the pen and notepad off the nightstand and writes down his address. "If anything else comes up, send it here."

Josh chews his lip for a second, a habit Eddie remembers from college. He says, "Listen, Eddie," in a quiet voice and glances around like he's waiting for a spy to pop out from underneath the bed. "I'm not worried about myself. But my friends — some of them broke confidences to get this information. One works at the capitol. If anything's traced back to me, they could —"

"Yeah, I get it. I'll keep you out of it."

"Thanks," Josh says. The lines around his mouth ease slightly. After a pause, he asks, "Do you think you can take Winthrop down? Like you did with the Life Foundation?"

Eddie grits his teeth. He doesn't want to think about that — about Drake. Anne. About the pain that tore through his body as Riot ripped Venom away from him. How cold and empty he felt as he bled out on that launchpad alone.

"I — maybe. Depends on what else I dig up. But this —" Eddie waves the papers "— this is a pretty good start."

At the door, Josh pauses again. Smiling, he says, "It was nice seeing you again. I — we should catch up sometime."

Eddie jolts as Venom jumps from shotgun to the driver's seat. They straighten Eddie's shoulders and fold his arms across his chest. With Eddie's voice, they say, "I am with someone. Permanently."

Whatever Eddie's face is doing must be pretty bad, because Josh goes narrow-eyed and pale. He turns on his heel and walks out without another word. As soon as the door closes, Venom whirls Eddie around and shoves him back against it. The walls rattle. The door-handle bites into Eddie's hip.

You are mine, Eddie.

"Hey —"

Mine.

Venom says that kind of shit all the time — when Eddie's in danger, when he's ignoring them for his latest article, when he's sad or irritable or lonely. When he gripes about how much money he spends on food now, about never having any privacy. But this is different, possessive, edged with a dark heat that thrums under Eddie's skin. He feels light-headed, breathless. His blood pounds in his ears.

"Yeah, okay. Yours."

Somehow, Venom tightens their grip. A tentacle curls out of Eddie's shoulder and loops around his neck. Two more snake down his arm, restless as they twist around his wrists.

Mean it.

"I do."

Another tentacle uncoils from Eddie's side and pushes between his back and the door. It feels like an arm wrapped around his waist, the end fanned out like a hand holding his hip. The one circling his neck unwinds a little, then slides up to touch his forehead, his temple, his cheek. It traces the line of his jaw and trails over his lips. He opens up for it on reflex, just enough that it brushes past the tip of his tongue. Venom makes a rough, pleased sound. Something throbs in Eddie's gut — something like hunger, like Venom licking their teeth before chowing down on a mugger. But it's dirtier, darkly sweet. It's —

"Oh, fuck."

Eddie.

Another tentacle, this one lifting from Eddie's thigh. It hooks in the waistband of his jeans and tugs slightly. Waits. A noise catches in Eddie's throat; he can't make his mouth work, can't get any words out. The tentacle tugs his jeans again, popping the button free. The wrist-thick length of it nudges his dick and he hisses. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. His head knocks against the door so hard the security chain rattles beside his ear.

Eddie?

The heat in Eddie's gut dims, turning prickly and sour. Venom is sad, or frustrated, or maybe hurt — Eddie still can't read them as easily as they read him. But whatever's happening, it's not what Eddie wants. He wants — he wants —

"Yeah. Come on."

The tentacle unzips Eddie's jeans and pushes them down past his hips. Then it rears up, shapes into one of Venom's huge hands, and scores his t-shirt down the center with the tip of one claw. As the halves yawn open, the hand settles at the center of Eddie's chest. It feels warm there, solid. The thumb gently teases Eddie's nipple.

Mine.

"Yes," Eddie says, because he is. Because he wants this — has wanted it for weeks, months. Since he gave up on Anne for good; since Venom began entwining themself into every other part of his life. Since he started waking up with Venom wrapped around him each morning — sometimes a weight against his back, sometimes a puddle of ink on his chest, sometimes a tentacle slung across his hip, curved over his shoulder, curled around his thigh.

But Venom — Venom isn't, they can't — shouldn't —

Of course I want it. I want you to have everything. Want to give you everything.

Venom seethes down Eddie's right side from neck to hip, covering his shoulder and arm. They shove their hand into Eddie's boxer-briefs and fist it around Eddie's dick. Eddie can't help the noise he makes, how it whines out of his throat. His hips twitch as he tries to push against it, fuck up into it, but he can't move. Venom strokes him — once, twice, three times. Then they just toy with him, running two fingers up the shaft, rubbing their thumb over the head, ghosting their claws along the base, just above his balls.

"Oh, fuck. Fuck."

Another stroke, and another. Then: You like that. It isn't a question.

Eddie loves it; he wants more of it. He squirms toward it as much as he can, his head bumping the door again, his feet shuffling on the grimy carpet. Slowly, a thick tentacle coils out of his shoulder and forms into Venom's head. They watch Eddie for a moment, humming with what feels like a mix of pleasure and pride. Then they press their mouth to the side of Eddie's neck, a liquid slide of alien skin and a cold-wet pinprick of razor-sharp teeth. Eddie should be terrified — he knows what those teeth can do, has felt them snap necks, tear skin, crush bone — but arousal courses through him like a shock of lightning. He squirms again and grits out a thin, desperate noise.

Venom kisses him, except it isn't really that — it's Venom's tongue sliding into his mouth and steadily pushing in, in, back, down. It's saliva slicking his jaw and chin. It's been a long time since Eddie sucked a dick, longer since he tried to swallow one, but Venom is patient. Coaxing. Relentless. They fill Eddie's mouth and crowd into his throat, edging in until it's too much, too much. As they nudge deeper, they rumble good, good, Eddie, good. They wind another tentacle around his waist and touch his hair and face with soft, finger-thin tendrils.

Eddie takes it and takes it, shuddering, barely able to breathe. It shouldn't fit — can't fit — but he wants it, and it's Venom's. We. Ours. Us. Venom weaves themself around Eddie's left arm and uses that hand to cradle his jaw. They rub their thumb at the corner of his mouth and across the wet stretch of his lips. They drag the hand down to Eddie's throat, holding it there like they want to feel him flexing and pulling, swallowing around them. It's ours, Eddie. Have it. All of it. Once they're satisfied — once their teeth are too close to Eddie's lips — they start jacking him again, faster than they're fucking their tongue into his mouth. The heat in his gut builds, flaring as it echoes off Venom's constant buzz of need and Eddie and want. It doesn't take much. Eddie comes hard, his throat full and his whole body trembling, still struggling to breathe.

A beat passes, then another. A telephone rings upstairs; the motel's plumbing rattles behind the walls. Silently, Venom melts back into Eddie's body, rippling with something that seems content, almost smug, as they swirl underneath his ribs. Eddie hunches over, his throat sore and his eyes stinging, his shaky hands gripping his knees as he sucks air into his aching lungs. He feels good. Better than he has in a long time. Another beat, and another. He reaches for Venom with his mind, and a wave of affection crashes over him, deep and fierce and totally inhuman. Like everything else about Venom, it's dark and dangerous, sharper than a knife — a desire to own Eddie completely, to hold him so close that their claws prick skin, to snap their teeth at anyone who might touch him or hurt him, take him away. It's beyond possessive, and Eddie knows that should scare him. And it does, a little, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

Eddie reaches for his jeans. Before he can hitch them up over his ass, Venom grabs the wheel again. Josh's papers crinkle under his feet as they pilot him over to the bed.

"What —?"

Lie down.

Eddie snorts out a laugh; there's no telling where that bed has been. Besides, it's getting late, and he has an article to write. "Come on. We —"

Eddie. Slowly, a tentacle explores Eddie's flushed, swollen mouth. Want to touch you.

"You just did."

A tentacle uncoils from Eddie's hip and strokes up the center of his back. More. Another tentacle — this one slithering out from behind his knee to curl down his shin. I want to touch you everywhere. Have all of you.

Eddie isn't nineteen anymore; double-headers aren't guaranteed. But Venom keeps touching him, teasing tentacles over his nipples, trailing them across his ass and hips, slipping them into the creases of his thighs. Their head materializes again, and they drag their huge tongue up the line of Eddie's jaw. Eddie shivers. His dick twitches, aching as it tries to fill again too soon.

Let me, Eddie. Let me.

"Okay, yeah. Yeah."

The bed is wobbly and old; it creaks and groans as Venom lays Eddie out and strips off the rest of his clothes. Tentacles smooth over Eddie's chest and shoulders before sliding down to wrap tightly around his wrists. Once he's pinned, Venom nudges back into his head. Eddie squeezes his eyes shut, suddenly embarrassed, but Venom won't let him hide it, any of it. They take their time looking at all the filthy thoughts and dreams Eddie has been trying to ignore — Venom's tongue on his skin; Venom's slick-black tentacles in him and around him; Venom spreading him out, working him open, filling him up.

The scrutiny is too much, like something crawling around inside his skull. He says, "Hey," and jerks against the tentacles holding his wrists. "Thought you said you wanted to touch me."

Venom makes a low, pleased sound that Eddie feels before he hears. Things that aren't quite hands cup his knees and slide up his thighs. A thin tendril swirls around his dick, base to tip, and he gasps, arching off the bed. Tentacles whip out from his ankles and wind up to his calves, twisting and tugging until his legs fall open. Something ghosts over his hole — once, twice. His hips jerk, and he scrabbles at the bedspread. The headboard thuds against the wall.

Venom gives Eddie a few long licks, just the flat of his tongue, rough and wet. Then they pull back to use the tip, flicking it around Eddie's hole, teasing it over the rim. Heat coils in Eddie's gut, amplified by whatever Venom's feeling — a dark sweep of pleasure and lust, the joy of watching Eddie sweat and writhe. It echoes between them until Eddie is drowning it in, unable to separate Venom from himself. When Venom finally starts working their tongue inside him, he shudders all over. He jerks his wrists again and heaves out a moan.

Another tendril circles his dick, and Venom fucks their tongue in and in and in. It feels too big, like it's going to split Eddie in half, but he wants it. It's yours, Eddie. All of it. All for you. Venom is inexorable — stretching Eddie, filling him. They wrap more tentacles around his thighs and use them to yank him closer to their mouth. In and in and in, and a slick-wet slide that teases Eddie's prostate. Eddie arches, his blood pounding and his thighs shaking, halfway to coming just again from this.

Yes. I want to feel it. Want to feel you.

Venom shoves their tongue in again, then slips it out all at once, leaving Eddie aching and empty. Squirming, he hisses, "Fucker," and turns his cheek against the pillow. Venom shifts under his skin, rippling and buzzing with something that feels like laughter. They stroke Eddie's hair and face and curl more tendrils around his dick. A tentacle laps over Eddie's hole, rough and quick. It slithers inside easily, small after Venom's tongue, barely as thick as a finger. But then another joins it, and another, and Eddie chokes out a noise, his heart thudding in his chest.

The tentacles fuck him with no rhythm, everything pulsing and twisting and writhing, warm and wet and slick. Eddie's legs feel like water, but he rocks his hips as much as he can, straining against Venom's hold on his thighs. The bed creaks. Eddie rocks his hips again, and the tentacles thrust harder, slide deeper. Fuck fuck fuck. He can't get any words out, so he thinks about touching Venom, touching himself. A pleased feeling rumbles through him, and Venom releases one of his arms. He reaches for his dick — for the tendrils swirling and coiling around it. One slips between his fingers, curling up his hand until it's wrapped around his wrist.

Mine.

"Yeah, yours."

Mean it.

"I do," Eddie gasps. He's shaking all over — so close, so close. "Yours."

No one else can have you. Just me. Only me.

A dark, possessive feeling hums under Eddie's skin. Venom's nightmare teeth pinprick his throat — not biting, just there — and Eddie comes, panting, clawing at the bedspread.

He lies there for a long time afterward, unable to move. A car alarm blares out on the street; he blinks up at the water-stained ceiling as he waits for his ears to stop ringing and his pulse to slow. Venom puddles on his chest, heavy and warm, and he brushes a hand over them, catching them on his fingers as they ripple and swirl.

Rest, Eddie.

"No way," Eddie says, sitting up a little. If it wasn't for Venom, he'd probably have bedbugs already. "We're not sleeping here."

We.

It isn't a question, but Eddie answers it anyway. "Yeah, we." Nerves prickle the back of his neck — Venom is an alien that lives inside him, and the wreckage of his relationship with Anne still has sharp edges — but there's no going back now. He doesn't think he'd want to. "Us."

His legs still feel like water, so Venom gets him up and sitting at the edge of the bed. When he doesn't move, thin tentacles spool out of his shins and gather the papers scattered around the room. Another grabs his boxer-briefs and flops them into his lap.

Get dressed, Eddie. I'll take us home.