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Distant like a Star, Burning like the Sun

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When Eddie dreamed, it was dark. He had no eyes, but he could see, everything around him picked out in a range of colors he'd never experienced while awake with his actual, human eyes. Overhead, the sky was only ever lit by stars. It was lonely; it was beautiful. There was another with him, in him.

There was a thought like a voice: "Not lonely when you are here."

The Other, that other mind inhabiting a body nothing like a human's on a planet nothing like Earth, clung close, thoughts sticky and sweet. It didn't want to let him go.

"Are you real?" Eddie would ask sometimes.

"We are," the voice would reassure him in turn, though it also seemed to be reassuring itself. "We are."

"Don't leave," the voice pleaded with him sometimes, but Eddie made no promises. A body needed sleep, but it also needed to wake.

"Come back to me," the voice demanded other times, and that was easier.

"Always."

When he woke, sometimes his face was wet with the agony of another. Sometimes the sorrow was his own. The separation was killing him, one dream at a time.

"It's not real," Eddie had to remind himself every time.

The doctors had told him, clear and firm: they weren't soul dreams. In a world of soulmates, Eddie drew the short straw. Whether it was a birth defect or bad luck during childhood development, Eddie's brain could submit information, but it couldn't receive. Even if he were transmitting, psychic barriers down in his sleep, there was no one listening. Like the loneliest whale in the world, Eddie could only put out a signal on the wrong frequency.

There was no human alive who could hear him.

Eddie wasn't the only one. One in eight people couldn't broadcast and couldn't receive. Including those, a full quarter of the population had some issue with one or the other. Of the three-quarters left, maybe a third actually found their match. Soul dreams only went so far, and there were so many ways things could go wrong. You lived in the wrong place, you were born at the wrong time. You didn't actually like each other or you wanted something else more. Maybe you met or passed each other on the street and didn't even recognize each other.

Eddie might be alone in his head, but he was not the only one.

"Yeah, I was tested when I was a kid," Anne told him when they met, young enough to still be optimistic, old enough to accept how fate had played out for them. She smiled, wry, but not rueful. "I've never known anything else, but I think I prefer it this way. It makes things easier. I get to choose. What about you?"

"It makes things easier, huh?" Eddie didn't quite agree, wasn't sure he preferred it this way. But for the rest of it, for the tests and the hopes dashed and the determination to build new dreams: "Yeah, me, too."

"Besides," and Anne's smile was flirtatious this time, "you don't need to be psychic to know what I'm thinking right now."

Eddie leaned in a little closer. "Couldn't hurt to spell it out for me."

Anne did. Eddie didn't know about easier, but there was something simple, something pure in this, two lonely people finding one another and being a little less alone together.

("There's nothing easy about this," the Other told him in his dreams, curling its consciousness close.

"Nothing at all," Eddie agreed, clutching back with thoughts, because they had no hands.)

"You are less sad," the Other said.

"I met someone. We're not—it's not like this," because Eddie and Anne were separate, could never know what it was to be two and one at the same time, to be distinct, but also whole, "but it's still good. It—I think it could be great."

The Other's thoughts shifted, thoughtful, considering. "We—I—we want you to be happy, Eddie."

"I could be." Cloaked in the presence of his Other, Eddie said, "I think I am."

Soft, subdued, "Good. That is good."

Curled together, they sat and watched the stars.

During the day, Eddie built a relationship and built his brand, restless and letting it drive him. Sometimes he moved a little too fast, pushed a little too much, feeling always, always like there was something missing and if he just went a little harder, he might be able to bridge that gap and fill the void. With Anne, it wasn't a problem, her willingness to roll with Eddie's bullshit at least a third—maybe as much as half—of why Eddie thought they could really make it work. With work, well—there were other networks, other cities, and Anne had already decided she was going to take the promotion and transfer to San Francisco.

At night, asleep and yet feeling decidedly awake, Eddie felt like he could slow down a little.

"They look different," Eddie said, alien constellations having changed their shapes in the last few months.

When he was younger, he'd tried to memorize them, to map them out and find out if they had their place in the waking world. He'd had hope then, the nagging thought that this was a place, that if he just could find the right star chart, it would lead him to where he belonged. He'd never found anywhere, any angle from Earth, that the stars looked the same. Now, they'd changed again.

"They are," his Other agreed. It sounded tired, worn.

"Mmm." With a feeling like a smile, like warmth, Eddie said, "Still beautiful, though."

"Are," the Other repeated, reflecting that feeling back.

Life continued on.

His new network indulged him, didn't pitch a fit the first time Eddie investigated dead bodies found in the dump and said on-air the city didn't care. It wasn't perfect—Jack pushed back, provided that reality check when Eddie needed it—but it was good. Anne said yes when Eddie popped the question, put the ring on her own finger and pressed kiss after kiss to Eddie's open, smiling mouth. They got a cat, and it hated Eddie, but sometimes it deigned to sit in his lap and let him scratch gently under its chin.

His dreams had changed, the stars wrong, the Other's thoughts having grown sluggish and strange, but—

They were just dreams. They didn't mean anything, were just his brain's weird, fucked up way of sorting through the information of each day. That they'd grown quieter, colder, was probably because he didn't need them so much anymore. Life provided him with plenty of warmth.

("I'm coming," the Other told him when it bothered to stir itself, was able to perk itself up from its position half-frozen against a wedge of rock. "I'm almost there.")

Life continued on, and Eddie once more set his on fire.

He lost his job, lost his fiancee, and lost the place they'd shared together. He moved into a hole in the wall with thin walls and awful neighbors in a bad neighborhood. At night, he could hear snippets of their lives, the loud music, the arguments, the marathon sex sessions and bass practice. During the day, he chased down job after potential job like a series of leads that utterly failed to pan out. The closest he came to human connection was with the owner of his local convenience store and a few homeless people who lived on his new neighborhood's streets.

And when he slept, well— at first, all Eddie wanted to do was sleep in hopes he could slip back into those dreams of adolescence and the majority of his adult life. He couldn't see the stars in San Francisco, the lights of the city blocking most of them out, but in his dreams, they were gone now, too. It was probably an omen, certainly hadn't helped him keep it together when the stars had been traded for glass and steel, for blank white walls and a feeling of being trapped-trapped-trapped.

(The night before his last real interview, before he woke up and found that information on Anne's computer about Carlton Drake and the Life Foundation, he dreamed of his Other, close and clear.

"Help me," it said as it slid soft slips of itself against the glass like dozens of tiny hands. "Help. I'm here. Please, help me."

Eddie hadn't gone back to sleep before burning his life down.)

Eddie wasn't sleeping so much anymore.

"I can see the circles under your eyes growing. You need more sleep," Mrs. Chen told him as he piled acetaminophen and assorted groceries on the counter.

He pulled out a few crumpled bills. "There's gotta be a better option."

Mrs. Chen gave him a sympathetic look. Maybe she thought he was one of those unlucky few who was a mismatch or had just plain been rejected, because this time she said, "Have you considered meditation?"

Eddie certainly was now. He bought a CD from her cousin. It didn't help.

In his dreams, Eddie was a puddle of goo in a too small container of glass and steel. Eddie was a mouse, and it was wrong and still too small. He was a rabbit, dying from the inside as he dug in his teeth, and it was all too small, too small.

Then he was a person, a human, and it was—

It was better. It was worse. The taste of their thoughts was poison, pain and panic and anger. Their mind was a cage, and he couldn't get out, because outside this thin skin and this false home was an atmosphere designed to kill. There was no food but what was in there with him, and he didn't want to—didn't know what would happen if he ate this part, if he should leave that organ alone—but he was hungry, so hungry, and they were already dying. They were already dying, and his teeth were sinking in.

Eddie really missed the stars.

When Dr. Skirth contacted him, he wanted nothing to do with her, nothing to do with Carlton Drake, nothing to do with the Life Foundation and what felt like revisiting the point in his life it all went wrong. Carlton Drake had ruined Eddie's life. He had nothing left, couldn't find comfort even in his dreams.

But his feet found their way on automatic to his old place for an awkward conversation with his ex and her new boyfriend, then carried him on to stand on a bridge and stare at the place where it felt like everything had begun, where it had ended. The gleam of glass and concrete and steel glared back at him, illuminated in the night. The diamond of Anne's ring glittered in the streetlights when he pulled it out of his pocket. (He couldn't see the stars.) He'd already lost it all.

What did he have left?

Putting the ring away, Eddie pulled out a business card and his phone. "Talk to me."

Every awful thought, every terrible suspicion Eddie had about Drake turned out to be true. The labs were dark, but light enough to see the bodies, the people locked away, the woman clutching at her head curled in the corner. There were vitals monitors showing frankly alarming numbers. There was a pile of goo in one cell that was a bright yellow that was like nothing Eddie had ever seen. (At least, nothing while he was awake, nothing that could be real.) The worst of it, though—

The worst of it was that it was all familiar, deja vu pressing heavy on Eddie from his first quiet step inside. Eddie knew these blank white walls, these long sheets of observation glass, the stainless steel of the lab tables. (Eddie knew that yellow pile of goo, the shape of its thoughts once shared in the only way they could communicate in space.) Eddie knew the face pressed into the glass of the door staring back at him.

"Eddie, it's me, Maria," Maria shouted, pounding on the pane of glass separating them. "Let me out!"

Eddie knew Maria, but he felt like she wasn't alone, that there was something (someone) in there staring back at him. Something familiar. Something beloved. Eddie didn't pause for reflection, to figure it out, just picked up a fire extinguisher and opened up the glass. Maria—driven by desperation, by some sort of terrible energy—launched herself forward and went for his throat.

The night didn't improve from there.

Eddie's thoughts were confused.

(They weren't right, none of them had been right, and while this was better, after so long, so many wrong fits, it couldn't be—it couldn't be—no one came, he never came, and what were the odds—it was an illusion, a delusion, the thought this could be anything more—)

He couldn't really say how he got out of the labs. He vaguely remembered kicking a door off its hinges and kicking off a wall to collide with a guard. He somehow got himself up a very, very tall tree really, really fast. He found his way through the woods, dodging security, and found a road. He couldn't say if he hitched a ride or walked himself home. He was hot. He was cold. He was starving and he felt like he was going to throw up.

He left a message for Skirth, not really focused on what he was saying. His mouth was dry. A sip of beer tasted awful—poison, he thought, fierce and oddly certain—and he found himself gulping mouthfuls of water between words. There was something wrong with him. He was so damn hungry. His stomach was a gnawing hole, intent on devouring itself.

He ate everything in his freezer. He ate the contents of his trash can. This went as well as could be expected, and when he was done being sick, he stared into the mirror, feeling confused and strange.

He asked his reflection, "What is wrong with me?"

It answered him.

Eddie did something like sleep and he dreamed of wearing himself, draped in the makeshift bedding of his shower curtain, curled up in his tub like the world's worst bed. His skull was cracked and undergoing slow, careful repair. He was hungry. His left kidney was looking pretty tempting. There were two of them. Surely he wouldn't miss one—?

"'He' really would." He was unconscious and dreaming, but he was talking out loud, puppeting himself with an uncomfortable feeling like doubled vision. He was having something like an out of body experience, some sort of in body experience. He felt like he was peeking out from behind his own eyes, pushing aside his skin like a thin curtain. Something shining and black pushed out from his arms, and that something was him, them, two and one at once.

"Need to focus," his Other chastised him, slipping back, safe inside. "Fix it before he wakes." The Other made a disgusted sound. "Look at what you've done. He's waking up—"

Eddie came to in his bathroom, regretting all his life choices.

He didn't know what to do. He needed help.

Anne was smart and was capable of thinking clearly. Even if she hated him, Anne would know what to do. Eddie clung to that thought, that desperate hope, and it saw him through several phone conversations, a trip to a fancy restaurant, and finding himself torn between trying to eat everything in sight and climbing in the lobster tank. Anne—beautiful, smart Anne—and Dan—kind, sweet Dan—were coherent, cogent, on point. They knew there was something wrong and they tried to talk him out of it.

Eddie climbed into the lobster tank.

The less said about the MRI, the better.

Eddie was sure of it, even without results, even without a voice in his head talking to him, ominous and familiar and beloved. Yeah, maybe he had a parasite, but that didn't explain everything else, the voice, the feeling like he was wearing himself like a tailored suit, the two decades of dreams long before he'd ever heard of Carlton Drake. Eddie had a brain tumor.

"Don't answer that," the auditory hallucination said, and maybe he should have listened, because the men who came in had guns and did not look happy to see him. What followed—especially in the alley, pinned to the side of the building by what his senses claimed was himself—did not do a lot to help his state of mind.

But at the end of it, sitting on a buoy and staring at an alien's face sticking out of himself, Eddie had to entertain the thought that no, actually, there was no tumor, that this had been real all along.

"I am Venom, and you are mine." It resonated. It felt right. It felt familiar.

Venom poured out some bullshit about aliens finding them (Eddie couldn't help but think, I found you first, private and unsure, but growing more certain all the time), about Eddie being his ride (Eddie couldn't stop the little burst of hysterical laughter), about needing to do something, find someone, but that if it didn't pan out, they'd go steal Drake's rocket and hook back up with the rest of his kind.

Maybe in another world, Eddie would want to know if they were going to keep eating people, but he was pretty sure he already knew the answer and he had a more pressing concern. "Sure, that sounds great," Eddie said, not even really sure what he was agreeing to anymore, "but can we do something for me first?"

"I am not unreasonable."

"Excellent." Eddie stripped his hoodie and balled it up as a very damp pillow beneath his head. The night was cold, but he didn't think he and Venom were at the point just yet where he could ask Venom to play blanket. "I'm going to take a quick nap."

"Venom," and Eddie wanted to savor the name, to let it linger on his tongue, but, "what the fuck did you do to my organs?"

What came back was a complicated mix of defiance and shame, of shock and adoration. (If Eddie had been oblivious to what was going on, at least Venom had been, too.) "They were delicious." Eddie was pretty sure Venom hadn't meant to say that, but neither was there an apology. The second attempt wasn't much better: "I was hungry."

"You just ate some guy's head!" This was really not the conversation Eddie had ever imagined having on finally finding his soulmate, but then, he'd never have dreamed that he'd catch them in the middle of digesting his spleen.

"That was after." Hesitant, more conciliatory, "I can fix it."

"Do that." Eddie's voice was dry, but his heart felt full. It probably wasn't a side effect of the damage Venom had done.

"I will. I am." Venom wrapped their arms around themselves, cuddled up together in mind and body as Venom got to work. There were the repeating thoughts of mine, mine, mine and not alone. "We are."

"Good." Eddie looked up at the sky. Out here in the middle of the bay, they could see a few more stars than in the city proper. It was nothing like space, like the surface of Venom's world, but it was still beautiful. Eddie closed his eyes. Not sure how much sense it made, but feeling it down to his bones, Eddie admitted, "I missed you so much."

"Never again," his Other promised. "We're here now." Softer, fiercer, "Never be apart."

"I'm holding you to that."

(A simple declaration. A little more difficult to uphold.)

Eddie woke up warm, draped in Venom's comforting weight.

"Eddie," Venom said, sliding back inside, "we have something to tell you."

"I know about my organs." Eddie shrugged back on his hoodie, grimacing at the wet and cold of it, but he wasn't about to leave it behind. "I don't actually forget anything from the dreams, I just—didn't know they were real."

"Told you," Venom sounded a little sulky that Eddie hadn't believed reassurances from someone he'd thought—was afraid and had convinced himself—was just a dream, "but not that. There is something else. You weren't paying attention."

Eddie tilted his head. "So tell me."

"We found you, Eddie," and Eddie didn't get the chance to dispute that, though he was certain now that he found Venom first, because Venom said, "because we were hungry."

Eddie found himself recalling a conversation—monologue, really—given less than an hour ago that seemed unimportant at the time in the face of having somehow, against all odds and expectations, found his alien soulmate. "Wait. You said millions."

"Yes, Eddie."

"That's—really not good."

"That's what I am telling you."

"I don't suppose it's as simple as not stealing the rocket?" Eddie knew before asking, but made the attempt. He just was finding himself unable to muster up the necessary optimism to believe it.

"There are others, here on Earth." Venom slid tendrils woven together like a scarf around Eddie's neck, slid more of himself between Eddie and his wet clothes, clinging soft and close like thermal underwear. That was—certainly one way to stay dry. Eddie shivered. "Not at the Life Foundation. Riot. When the ship that brought us here crashed, he broke free."

"That the right sequence of events?" Eddie asked, feeling something under the words, bitter and jealous and angry.

Venom admitted, "Riot crashed the ship."

"While you were still locked up?"

"Yes!" Venom shook their head. "But that is beside the point. Riot is here, in the city. I can sense him. He is coming. He will find the rocket, and whether we are there or not, he will take it to collect the others."

"So we need to stop him."

"Yes," Venom agreed. "We do."

(Another simple declaration. A lot more difficult to uphold.)

They didn't go for Riot straight away. It was important to have contingency plans, and Eddie's was to leave a note and a phone on his old boss's desk. In the time it took them to do that and take the elevator back down, the police and then Eddie's ex caught up.

"We do not eat policemen," Eddie explained, trying to cultivate patience, because he just knew this was a conversation they'd be revisiting.

"But they attacked us." Beneath that, Eddie felt something else, could hear the thought, "But they look delicious."

"No. Not acceptable."

It was this disagreement, standing over the officer's slumped body and seemingly arguing with himself, that Anne stumbled upon.

"This, uh, this isn't what it looks like?" Eddie tried.

Anne spun around and started power-walking away at a speed just below a full-out run.

"Annie, wait!" One contingency plan wasn't enough, and if it all fell through, Anne deserved to be warned about an impending invasion, deserved to know what she—what everyone—was in for.

Anne did not want to hear about an alien invasion, not that Eddie got so far as telling her about it. Anne wanted them to go to the hospital. Anne thought they were dying.

"I know. Venom ate my left kidney and was snacking on my liver. And—I couldn't even tell you what was going on with my heart."

Anne's eyebrows raised her eyebrows. "And you're okay with this?"

Sounding as sheepish as he felt, Eddie said, "Venom's fixing it."

Anne kept several steps back. She looked like she was prepared to run. "You trust that thing?"

"That's very hurtful," Venom said.

Instead of answering her directly, Eddie said, "Do you remember my dreams?"

He'd told her about them one night early on into their relationship and only occasionally spending the night, when she'd woken up and he'd been crying. Told her how he'd had them for years, how they'd started at puberty like everyone else, but the doctors had said they weren't real, that Eddie's brain didn't work that way. But they felt real. The Other felt real.

Anne nodded slowly, looking thoughtful.

Patting his own chest and getting a face pushing up in turn, Eddie said, "Meet my soulmate."

Anne looked from Venom's toothy smile to Eddie's lopsided one. She said, "Okay. I'm listening."

After getting information on what was going on, the numbers of symbiotes that would descend on their planet, on all the weaknesses Venom could think of and felt like divulging—("She does not need to know of our weakness for cuddles," Venom said, and Eddie agreed; that seemed more like a Venom weakness, anyway)—Anne wanted to know their actual plan, because they wouldn't need a back-up plan if the first one succeeded.

Venom answered, "We fight Riot. We beat Riot. We eat Riot."

Anne's expression was unimpressed. "That is a terrible plan."

"And you have a better one?"

"Yeah, I do. You guys are susceptible to fire, right? Do you have any idea how much trouble humanity has with getting rockets not to blow up?"

"So we sabotage the rocket," Eddie said.

"But then Riot will still be down here, with us." Venom didn't so much sound nervous about this as confused why they wouldn't attack him to start with if they were going to end up fighting anyway.

"So we set it to blow later or wait until after he's on board."

It was as good a plan as any. Better, even, than what Eddie would've come up with on his own.

(Too bad it didn't work out that way.)

Before they left, Venom encouraged Eddie to make amends, to give the apology he'd been carrying unspoken for the last six months. After that, Venom leaned close to Anne. "I also have something to say." Anne leaned back a bit, looking uncertain, like she wasn't sure she wanted to know. Venom continued, "Once, you made Eddie happy when I could not. You kept him from being alone. Thank you."

"You, um, you're welcome?" Anne's look of confusion only increased when Venom reached out and patted her head.

"Right," Eddie said. "Time to go."

Anne wanted to come with them. Eddie honestly thought they could use the help. Venom took control of their body and ran away.

They were lurking near the launchpad, trying to figure out what they could do that wouldn't see them immediately caught, when the alarms blared warning for preparation to launch.

"I think they know we're here."

"Yes." Venom shifted their head to face the building. "Riot does."

A paler, uglier version of Venom's humanoid form bounded down the walkway. There was little point in trying to hide. It was headed right for them. Riot came to a sudden halt a few feet from them, said, "Good. You finally showed. It's time to go."

It wasn't their best plan, was a return to when they didn't really have a plan at all, but it was all they had: Venom said, "No."

(Maybe Venom could have tried to bluff, could have claimed they'd stay to pave the way, but lying to each other was something novel for a species that was used to communicating thought to thought—to a host, sure, but another symbiote could taste the deceit. The natural instinct was towards brutal honesty.)

Riot gave an impression like rolling his eyes without moving his face. He examined Eddie and Venom's shared body. "This is the one, isn't it? Your Other?"

Venom held a hand to the side, grew claws. "He is."

Riot shook his head. "Then keep it." Venom faltered. "Stay with your human. We don't need you. We all knew why you wanted to come."

Venom's fist clenched, but Eddie told him, safe in their own thoughts, "No, wait. Go with it. We just need him to get on the ship."

"You're weak," Riot said as he strolled past them, "but we knew that when we let you come. Enjoy your time together. It will end soon enough."

"Just let him go," Eddie counseled, and Venom was going to—but then Riot said, "And when I return, I will enjoy rending it limb from limb and sharing out its parts among those strong enough to deserve it."

Venom took this about as well as could be expected; he let out a feral roar and threw himself at Riot's back.

The fight that followed was confusing, embarrassing, and ended badly. First, they were beaten up and swallowed by Riot. Then, they were rescued by someone changing the frequency on the launchpad speakers, which pulled all four of them apart. Finally, Eddie engaged in a brief slap fight with Drake that ended with trying to kick him off the platform, only to push him right into Riot's liquid form. Riot smoothly transitioned back into his ugly fighting form. His hand shot out, pulling up Venom.

"You disappoint me." Riot scythed a hand through Eddie's neck. With his other hand, he held Venom, squirming and failing to gain any ground. Eddie's body fell to the floor. His head bounced off the platform and into the sea. Riot kicked his body in to follow it. "Last chance. Are you going to get in the rocket, or am I going to have to make you?"

Venom gave a scream like a shriek and lunged at his face.

Riot rolled his shoulders like a shrug. "Have it your way."

It was instant, the shock of it driving him under. Eddie was unconscious. He slid into what he'd always considered dreaming, but the dead couldn't dream. He was dying and he didn't have much time, but there was a connection, fading out with him. Eddie followed it, fled down it as it collapsed behind him.

It shouldn't have worked. If Eddie's Other were human, it couldn't have, the human brain unable to run two conscious minds simultaneously on the same hardware. He'd have been able to send one last signal, maybe say goodbye, maybe just gibberish the psychic equivalent of a dying gasp.

But Venom wasn't human, and there was room enough for them both. Eddie might be dead, but he wasn't gone.

Too bad Venom was too busy screaming and Eddie was too busy trying to hold himself together for Eddie to adequately communicate, "I'm still here."

The second fight that followed was very, very one-sided and over as quickly as it began. Riot opened his maw and swallowed them whole. The spikes Venom formed of them did little from the inside. Eddie imagined Riot wasn't even suffering indigestion. Riot strode two steps forward, stopped, and gagged. He spit Venom back up. This was due less to any effort on their part and more to the sound having returned, having redoubled.

Venom's body dribbled through the cracks of the walkway to fall toward the ocean. Above them, shaking and shuddering, they could see Riot try and fail to escape the noise while clinging to Drake's body. Then they were in the dark of the water and they couldn't see at all.

Venom drifted down into the dark, thoughts a roiling mass of pain. Bits of them were bleeding away into the water.

"We, uh, we should probably do something about that," Eddie managed in between maintaining the part of Venom that held his consciousness. It kept trying to reform into gooey potential, wasn't meant to be used this way. "Can we—possess a fish or something?"

Venom's thoughts were suddenly sharp, focused, joyful. Wondering and awed, almost afraid to believe: "You're alive."

"That's—up for debate." Maybe they could find his body. Eddie hoped they found his body. He really didn't want his head washing up on a beach somewhere for crabs to eat or kids to stumble upon like a waterlogged volleyball. "Depends on whether you can fix the damage. But first, we have to not die ourselves."

Don't die was an even simpler plan than their previous ones.

Good thing it worked out this time.

They were a fish. They swam along until they found his head:

Venom speared a tendril through the fish that were starting to nibble at Eddie's face.

"No one is allowed to eat that face but me," wasn't actually said, but the feeling came across pretty strong.

Eddie tried to push back the certainty that they were not eating his face.

"Not if we can fix it," Venom soothed him. Underneath that, though, remained the thought, "But if we can't—"

"No."

They were a disembodied head, maneuvering with tendrils like fins extending out:

Venom hated it. "This is dead, Eddie. Very, very dead."

Eddie wasn't too happy, either. The lack of oxygen had done a lot of damage.

"If we can change that, don't let me wake up until the brain damage is gone."

They were a pile of goo shared out between two parts of a corpse:

"Should have let me eat that policeman. It would be easier to know how this is meant to connect."

"No, it wouldn't."

"No, it wouldn't," Venom sadly agreed.

They were a pile of goo occupying something that was beginning to lose its corpse-like qualities:

"Will this make me a zombie?" Eddie wondered.

Venom ignored him in favor of swallowing more sealife to give them fresh materials to work with.

They were an unconscious body at the bottom of the bay, not drowning only because Venom was filtering oxygen out of the water and into Eddie's bloodstream:

"I need to go back." Eddie had felt the connection reopen a while ago. He'd ignored the pull before because there'd been more work in need of doing, more damage to be undone—but now they'd done everything they could. There was no way to know if it would work, no roadmap here. They were in uncharted territory. But they wouldn't know until he tried.

"Don't." Venom's thoughts clung close, the idea, the hope, that they could stay down here, under the water, and never be separated again.

"We don't know what happened with Riot, with Drake." Eddie pressed a feeling of affection like a soothing hand against the shape of Venom's concern. "I need to wake up."

What he got back was a mix of desperation edging toward despair, the refrain of, "Leaving, always leaving."

"Yeah," Eddie said, sliding a bit of himself down that connection with a feeling like going home, like leaving it behind, "but I always come back."

Eddie woke with what felt like water in his lungs, thrashing and panicked. It took a moment for it to sink in that it was Venom keeping his lungs clear, keeping his body provided with the oxygen it needed. He couldn't see except for what he perceived through Venom. He was cradled deep in Venom's protective form.

There was a thought like a worried nudge, like a practiced, endless ping. "Eddie. Eddie. Come back, Eddie. Come back to me."

Eddie opened his eyes on darkness. "Hey, Venom?" And there, that was the feeling from adolescence, from the majority of his adulthood, the sensation of dreaming like being welcomed home. "Let's go back to the surface. I really want to see the stars."

It turned out they'd been down there for a while. Between that and the security feed showing Eddie's decapitated head arcing off into the ocean, he'd been kind of—declared dead. Good thing he knew a good lawyer.

"Eddie?!" Anne's shock was so great that she sat down right there in the doorway. "You—there was—you were dead!"

"Yeah," Eddie agreed. "I got better."

Anne stared up at him, white-faced.

Eddie tried, "I told you Venom could fix it?"

"Dead!" Anne repeated.

Anne invited them in. In the time it took them to catch up—for Eddie to explain where he'd been the last few weeks and why they'd never found a body and for Anne to explain that she'd taken her car to the Life Foundation, turned up the sound, and then rounded up what remained of the staff to confront what remained of Riot—Dan came home.

"Oh," Dan said, interrupting Anne's retelling of how they'd jury-rigged a flamethrower and roasted the twitching puddle that was left of Riot's corpse, because Venom wanted to hear it again. "I thought for sure you were dead."

"Turns out Venom could fix decapitation," Anne said.

"No, no," Dan said. "I meant the lab results—though that, too."

He insisted Eddie submit to an impromptu check-up, which Eddie took him up on and Venom took offense to. At the end of it, Dan smiled and said, "You'll live."

(They did. They lived happily ever after.)

For their six-month anniversary, counting from the day they met in person, Eddie took Venom out of the city.

They went up into the mountains, where the lights were few and far between and the night sky took up their whole vision. They lay on the ground, wrapped up in one another, Venom's silky, slinky form tucked around Eddie, cushioning his body and warding off the cold. A vista of stars stretched out vast and beautiful before them.

It was dark. This high up, it was freezing, nipping like sharp teeth at Eddie's exposed face, but Eddie was warm and happy. They both were.

"Venom," Eddie said the name like something to be savored, to be cherished. He closed his eyes and let himself slip into something like dreams. Wearing himself like a well-worn and beloved sweater, Eddie felt just as disbelieving, as overwhelmingly lucky, as he had on the buoy six months before. He smiled. "This is real."

Slipping one hand into the other, Eddie and his Other looked up and watched the stars.