HEART RATE AND CORTISOL NO LONGER SPIKE NEAR AN EDGE, Venom observed.
“Great.” It was progress, it really was, but Eddie wasn’t up for celebrating.
TIME FOR THE NEXT STEP.
His hands strangled the balcony railing. “No way am I jumping,” he said flatly.
I FIGURED. WE ARE GOING TO SIT ON TOP OF THE RAILING.
Eddie narrowed their eyes accusingly. “You’re gonna push me off.”
IF I PLANNED TO FORCE YOU INTO THIS, I WOULD CLIMB ONTO THE RAILING MYSELF. They both knew that would defeat the point of the exercise. That didn’t necessarily mean Venom wasn’t considering it.
“This shit isn’t made for people to sit on it. What if it breaks?”
THEN I WILL CATCH US. YOU ARE MAKING EXCUSES.
Eddie didn’t move.
DO YOU WANT TO DO THIS OR NOT?
“No! Obviously, no!”
FINE. GO BACK INSIDE. TURN ON THE TV.
Eddie sighed. “No.”
THEN GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER, it rebuked.
“Dick,” Eddie muttered, but he put one leg over the railing. Venom wrapped a few tendrils around the metal, stabilizing them. Eddie trusted Venom. He did, he did, he did. He couldn’t bring himself to put the other leg over.
ARE YOU GOING TO BE A GODDAMN ADULT AND SIT YOUR ASS ON THAT RAILING OR ARE YOU GOING TO JUST STAND THERE LIKE A MUTANT FLAMINGO?
Eddie pulled the other leg up and sat on the railing.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Apart from the susurrus of a far off highway and the mosquito hum of the streetlights, the night was still. Most of their neighbors were asleep. Eddie kept their eyes on the distant river of headlights, trying to breathe slowly. They started to shiver.
“We should go get a jacket.”
YOU ARE LOOKING FOR AN EXCUSE TO GO BACK INSIDE, Venom accused.
“No I am not. Hey, remember that first day, how we were super warm all the time? Why can’t we do that again?”
YOU WERE DOING THAT. YOU HAD A FEVER.
“I thought we didn’t get those.”
WE DID BACK THEN, it answered shortly. It felt Eddie bridle at its tone and relented. THE SYMBIOSIS WAS INCOMPLETE, Venom explained tiredly. OUR BODY—YOUR BODY—WAS TRYING TO KILL ME.
“Oh. Never mind then.”
They lapsed back into silence. Boredom and hunger rolled off Venom in waves. It wanted to hunt, but they were out of leads. It was considering roaming the city, hoping they happened across a crime, but that was a long shot. Even if they found one, Eddie wouldn’t let them eat any small-time mugger or drug dealer. There’d been lectures about poverty and circumstances and second chances ad nauseam. After more than a week without a human meal, Venom didn’t much care. Tater tots and pig livers dulled the hunger, but couldn’t dent it. It needed neurotransmitters, and it could only take so much from Eddie without disrupting his neurological function. To make matters worse, Eddie's neurochemical activity had been off recently. Dampened. Serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and phenylethylamine were down to a trickle, with no apparent cause.
Eddie snorted. No wonder he’d felt like shit this past week.
Venom sent an inquiry, which Eddie ignored. He was not in the mood for that conversation. Venom let it drop. It wasn’t really in the mood for that conversation either.
It was still bored.
IF WE ARE GOING TO SIT HERE, YOU MIGHT AS WELL PRACTICE, it said at last, winding a tendril through the door into their apartment. It pressed a stress ball into their palm.
Eddie sighed. He suspected Venom got a kick out of watching him flail around like an electrocuted squid, but it would do Eddie good to take his mind of the four stories of open air beneath them.
He closed their eyes and focused on the viscous black liquid inside. It slid between muscle and bone, wrapped around nerves, eddied under their skin. Slowly, he coaxed it out, drawing it into a narrow black tendril.
He tried to guide the tendril toward the ball that Venom was holding. It missed and stuck in their chest, sinking through layers of skin, muscle, and fat to embed itself in their left lung. God that felt weird. He sensed Venom’s amusement.
“Don’t give me that shit,” Eddie snapped. “Last time you tried running it was like getting yanked around by a drunk marionettist.”
AT LEAST WE GOT WHERE WE NEEDED TO GO. WITHOUT PUNCHING OURSELVES.
“This alien shit,” Eddie complained. “I don't even know what I'm doin' wrong."
I WILL DO IT, Venom said. WATCH CAREFULLY.
Eddie drew back, giving Venom room to take over.
It easily curled the tendril around the ball and lifted it out of their hand. SEE?
Eddie frowned. Not really. He offered Venom the memory from his perspective: he felt what Venom was doing, but not how.
It considered this. WE NEED TO TAKE A DIFFERENT APPROACH. IF WE DO IT TOGETHER, YOU WILL GET A MORE COMPLETE PICTURE.
It took Eddie a second to work out what Venom was suggesting. "You mean sharing minds." They had only managed it a few times. It required complete honesty and perfect alignment, which right now…
You know what, maybe that was exactly what they needed right now. He was sick of bickering.
Without speaking, he dismantled his mental barriers and let his unguarded consciousness bleed into their bond. Their thoughts met and fused.
As always, the thoughts and emotions most in sync came into acute focus: They were frustrated, and tired, and hungry, and maybe they had taken it out on each other a little. They shared a moment of chagrin, but didn’t apologize. That would take someone to apologize to, and self and other were hard to wrap their mind around right now.
Funny, they thought their irritation pulled them apart. In this state, it was common ground.
Conflicting emotions took longer to fall into place. Their fear and boredom repelled each other like oil and water, threatening to force them apart, but they managed to push those feelings aside. To their surprise, the link stabilized.
They extended a tendril and deftly tossed the ball up in the air.
They didn’t catch it.
It was still in the air when they went flying over the side of the balcony. They caught the railing with a tendril and hung there a second, processing what just happened. Their left arm was a mess of crushed bone and shredded muscle. Dammit.
They lowered themselves to the ground and ducked behind a car to repair it. Something like a missile had hit them from the side. How? Why? Who? They leaned out to see.
A woman was standing in the middle of the parking lot, holding a strange, twisted metallic thing. The part of them that was a reporter pegged it as black-market chitauri tech. Its end was glowing faintly. They ducked back behind the vehicle.
“Come out and face me, you overgrown piranha!”
“WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?”
“My name’s Maya Vasper.” She stalked towards the sound of their voice. She was small, but her steps were heavy. “You ate my boyfriend.”
They thought back. “YOUR BOYFRIEND WAS SELLING CHILDREN.”
A tendril slithered along the asphalt, black against black, invisible in the darkness.
“My boyfriend was a successful entrepreneur,” she corrected sardonically. She paused to check behind a jeep. The tendril coiled around her ankles and jerked. They heard a crack as her head hit the pavement.
They stepped out from cover to stand over her. “YOUR BOYFRIEND WAS A PIECE OF SHIT,” they said unsympathetically. “YOU CAN DO BETTER.”
“Oh, I will,” she answered. Before they could pin it, she had the weapon up and pointed at their chest. A white-hot bolt of energy sent them skidding halfway across the lot, asphalt shredding their skin like sandpaper. They slammed hard into a brick wall and felt their spine snap. Their chest was a smoking crater of splintered ribs and charred organs.
Whatever. They’d had worse.
“First off, I’m gonna kill you,” the woman said, getting painfully to her feet. Her weapon was dark. “I’m gonna bring your weird, slimy corpse to the others.” She leveled the weapon at them again. Its glow was slowly building. “And I’m gonna take over the business.” They tried to roll away, but with their spine in two pieces, they only managed to wrench their torso disconcertingly. The blast caught their leg and it bent at an ugly angle. Several ugly angles. “So I came to thank you. Y’know, for eating my dickwad of a boyfriend. You really did me a favor.”
She stood still, waiting for weapon to recharge. They smirked. Nice of her to make the same mistake twice. This time, they were smart enough to go for her arms.
The tendrils latched onto her wrists, prying her hands apart. She tried to fire, but too late. The bolt shattered a tail light a few feet away from them.
“SO,” they began. The mangled leg snapped back into place. Vertebrae realigned. “YOU’RE TAKING OVER THE BUSINESS.” They stood, chest wound sealing itself.
Vasper writhed against the tendrils binding her hands. No dice. She was strong, but they were stronger.
Black slime seeped out of their pores, coating their body as they approached. “THEN WE WILL HAVE NO QUALMS ABOUT EATING YOU, TOO.” They flashed an angler fish grin.
When they were finished, the reporter part of them thought of the weapon. Probably dangerous; possibly a lead. It had skidded under a pickup. They extended a tendril to retrieve it before climbing back up to the balcony.
As the slime vanished back into their skin, they sank to the floor of their living room and withdrew into their own minds.
Eddie retched, but managed not to vomit. God, he hated when that happened.
HMM. WE FELL AFTER ALL.
“Yeah, it sucked.”
WE WERE PERFECTLY SAFE.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
IT WORKED OUT FINE, Venom revised.
Eddie laughed. “Fair enough.”
He lay down on their back and stared at the ceiling. God, he was exhausted, and Venom’s satisfaction was so soporific. He wanted to curl up right there on the carpet and go to sleep.
Venom liked that plan. Except for one thing.
WE ARE STILL COLD, it observed. It would be a while before the ancient radiator to kicked in. I HAVE AN IDEA. Eddie felt it ooze over their chest, back, and arms, coating their shirt. The slime shifted from glistening liquid to a soft, matte black. He brushed their fingers across the surface and felt fabric.
“What is this?”
STILL US. JUST A DIFFERENT SHAPE.
Eddie curled up on the carpet and pulled it snug around them. “Is this a hoodie? I didn’t know you could do that.”
SO COULD YOU, Venom pointed out. SOMEDAY. SPEAKING OF WHICH.
“We were a little distracted,” Eddie mumbled, but he extended a tendril. It swayed and dipped erratically. Venom lifted their hand to it, as if to stabilize it, and Eddie twined the tendril through its fingers. Progress.