Eddie started awake, his hands already patting down his body to find his t-shirt, his pants, his body the usual shape under it.
Nightmare. It was a nightmare. Not real. Obviously it wasn't real. He was not only not in a glass cage, naked, being stared at by faceless white-coated strangers, he wasn't female. The body he dreamed himself in had had long hair trailing over his shoulders and down his back, breasts that sagged in an oddly deflated way that meant they'd be bigger if he weren't starving.
He'd been thin all over, hipbones and knees too prominent, thin arms showing all their scars and fresh red scratches. There had been a thatch of black pubic hair at his crotch, and he was stuck on that visual for some reason. It didn't look anything like his pubes, quite aside from the absence of his dick; it didn't even look like Anne's--dark blond and neatly trimmed--but the visual was so fucking clear and precise.
He tried to push away the image and raised his hand to his throat, taking a careful breath just to feel it move in and out before he made a sound. That had been the crux of the nightmare--he'd been trying to--to--not speak, because he knew those faceless things on the other side of the glass wouldn't hear him. He'd been trying to fill the silence, to block the ugly voices he could hear that came from them, from everywhere.
He'd been trying to sing, and nothing came out but panting breaths and the occasional hoarse squeak or groan. It had gone on and on and on and he couldn't sing and the other voices just kept getting louder, and soon he wouldn't be able to remember the song anymore--
He jerked again, and immediately rolled onto his side, curling up and grabbing at his own arms and shoulders. Venom understood and flowed out of him, wrapping smoothly around his upper body, his face floating sideways off the edge of the bed to look Eddie in the eyes.
What was that? You were sleeping normally and then you were full of fear-signals.
"It's a--a nightmare. Brain shuffling stuff, wild signals," Eddie was already speaking before he thought to be scared he couldn't. He focused instead on trying to remember everything he'd read about how dreams worked. "Consciousness tries to assemble all of this brain-noise into a narrative, and you get all this weird shit. Dreams. Bad dreams, scary ones, those are nightmares."
Let me see?
Venom had been back for a few days now, and they were settling in together. Eddie hadn't had to lay down a lot of ground rules beyond, You can't eat good people, only bad people, but it seemed that Venom also remembered that one time Eddie had said a weary, Get out of my head, man. He seemed to be trying not to look at Eddie's actual thoughts or memories without permission, or at least he didn't let on if he was.
"Yeah," Eddie muttered. "Uh, it was..." Eddie closed his eyes and focused on the images he remembered, letting the feeling of the dream flow back in on him: looking down at his naked body that wasn't his body at all, cold and scared and trying so hard to sing.
Venom tightened around him. "Sorry, Eddie. That was my fault."
Eddie opened his eyes, frowning at Venom, mouth open to reassure him that humans had nightmares all the time and Eddie had earned himself a few, and then it finally clicked. "That was you. Or. Your host--oh, fucking Jesus, that was Maria."
Eddie sat bolt upright, scrubbing at his eyes with his hands. "Fuck, that was--I saw her naked, fuck, fuck--"
You did not. She saw herself naked, and you saw her memory.
Eddie deflated, letting his shoulders slump and keeping his hands pressed to his eyes. They were watering already, tears leaking into his palms.
He'd hardly thought about her. Hers was one of the pictures he'd given Jack, and he'd put her name into the notes he'd flagged for Jack on his phone. He'd been studiously avoiding the news, but Jack had assured him that the Life Foundation had kept meticulous records on their "volunteers," so the missing and dead had been identified. Relatives were being notified and charges were being pressed accordingly.
Eddie had told himself that was all he could do for any of them, just making sure that the world knew their names, that their loved ones knew what happened to them. A whole parade of people from the Life Foundation were going to jail for the murders of the people who had died in those experiments, but--
Eddie tried to stop the thought before it formed, but it had too much weight for him to hold it back.
But I'm in bed with the one person who actually killed her.
Eddie curled down smaller. Venom wrapped around him. I could not sustain her. But she kept me alive until I could reach you. And for a moment, when she saw you, she felt something that made us strong.
Eddie let out a rusty laugh. "It's called adrenaline, buddy, it lets you do all kinds of shit when you really have to. You've got to have felt it from me."
No, Venom said. I know adrenaline. Hers was nearly exhausted. It did not touch us anymore, and it wasn't what we needed. She felt... almost the way you feel, when you see Anne. Or Dan.
Eddie squirmed a little, his thoughts going unwillingly to Maria's naked body again. He'd thought she liked him well enough, but not...
Not the sexual part, Venom said, which made Eddie choke on his breath. The gladness. The feeling that this person can and will help.
Eddie deflated again, falling back on the bed. "I didn't, though."
You did. You ended her suffering. I was trying to keep her alive, but I wasn't strong enough to repair her, and we were both starving. Even if they had fed us properly, I didn't know what to repair. I thought human organs just went like that, until I experienced Anne's. Then I knew how to fix yours.
"Human..." Eddie sat up, then got out of bed altogether. He needed to pace. Venom stayed wrapped around his upper body, so Eddie was a little bit straitjacketed with his arms curled under and through Venom's substance, but it was comfy enough and he could get free anytime. Unlike Maria. Unlike all the others.
"She was homeless," Eddie said, and sensed Venom's confusion at that concept. "Uh, she had really no resources. No money, no reliable access to food, shelter, medical care. No MRIs for her. No lobster, no chocolate. Nowhere warm to sleep. She was already probably weak, maybe sick. Definitely malnourished. She was desperate. That's why she went there, she didn't have other options. None of those people did."
So Drake gave us hosts who were already damaged, and didn't feed us what we needed to repair them, and then they died. Were we to blame for that?
"I mean," Eddie said, stopping to stare out the window. Shit, he needed to water the plant. "Technically, with the whole global genocide plan..."
Well. Fair. But we wouldn't have chosen those hosts if we had not been forced to, and the hosts we chose for ourselves would have lasted longer. Even Agony and Scream would not have--
"Agony and Scream?" Eddie interrupted, then shook his head. "Why am I asking. This is just how your names are. Venom, Riot, Agony, Scream. Right. So you--you wouldn't choose a weak host, somebody who wouldn't survive, if you didn't have to?"
Of course not. What would be the sense in that?
Eddie nodded. "But like--eventually--"
Eventually. Yes. But not the way it went with these hosts. Some... some were not suitable at all and yet we had no choice. None of us had even begun to adapt to an oxygen atmosphere yet. We had to have hosts when they took us out of the protected chambers or we would die within minutes. Agony and Scream did die.
Eddie winced. Who wouldn't kill people if it was the only way to survive when you had minutes to live? And still most of them had died.
He'd seen one of them, what had looked like a pile of slime just left in that cell, exposed to the air half out of its dead host. The other... he'd taken a picture of the man in the cell beside Maria's. He must have died too. The man, and the symbiote.
Dr. Skirth had said they are dying, they are all dying, when she found him.
"V, how many... do you know? How many died before Maria?"
Eddie got flashes, brief impressions--bitter and sour tastes, flashes of color--that must represent Venom's perceptions of those first hosts.
Eighteen, Venom said, and Eddie was aware of pain shooting through his legs before he realized he'd fallen to his knees. He breathed in and out through his nose, struggling not to be sick, not only at the number but at the matter of fact way Venom said it.
"What..." Eddie said, when he was pretty sure he wouldn't vomit and became aware of the wary silence of Venom--still wrapped around him, but carefully still. "Do you... do you know their names?"
Most of them didn't have names, Venom said. The small ones only had numbers.
"Small," Eddie said, thinking with horror of children, babies, what the fuck.
Smaller than that. With more hair on the outside. All over. Venom finally summoned up an image--slightly distorted and strangely colored, but--
"That's--" Eddie folded further, resting his face against the floor. "Jesus Christ, V, that's a rat."
You asked how many of my hosts died before Maria, Venom pointed out. Eighteen. Most were like that. Rats. Rabbits.
Eddie breathed for a minute. "How many humans before Maria? How many died?"
Three, Venom said, barely pausing for thought this time. Two very quickly. They were weak already, hurting. Their brains were like eggs without salt and one was--not compatible at all.
"Eggs without salt?"
Your brain was a bit like that too, but not so bad, Venom said thoughtfully. Better now. The stuff that makes chocolate tastes good, it's the same that makes brains taste good. The stuff Maria had when she saw you.
"Wh--" Eddie felt like he had some kind of mental whiplash. He hadn't been ready for this, it wasn't like an interview. Jesus. He had to catch up. "Okay, there's--there's something in brains that tastes good. And it's in chocolate. And if there's not enough of it--you can't survive? You can't live in a host who doesn't have it? And it's something to do with feeling... happy, with people who make you happy?"
That sounds accurate. A bit vague.
"I'm not a fucking biochemist, V," Eddie muttered, still pressed to the floor, still thinking, Four, four people died to keep him alive until we met.
Why do you care?
"If there's something you need to eat, to keep from eating me--"
Why do you care how many humans died? Why do you only care about the humans and not the rats and rabbits?
Eddie's mouth opened and no sounds came out, and no words came to his mind. How could he even start to explain that, if Venom didn't understand?
Did you care for them? Were they your friends? Your team? Maria was important to you, not as much as Anne. Maybe as much as Dan. The others, did you know them too?
"They were people, V."
It was Venom's turn to go silent in bafflement. Eddie could feel it, and it felt a lot like his own helpless blankness. It wasn't comforting to know that they were equally at a loss with each other.
Eddie's mind raced through pop sci articles and the few anthropology classes he'd taken back in college, searching for a way to explain the basics of being human to--well, to an alien who had fewer shared points of reference than Eddie would have expected when they were sharing a brain.
"Okay," Eddie said after a minute. "Uh, so... humans, we're the dominant species on this planet, right?"
Eddie nodded. "Okay, but, guess what, if you have a human alone, naked, and you drop 'em in the wilderness, they're gonna die. There are all kinds of predators that can kill us, the weather can kill us, wildfires, drowning, falling, and most of us don't know how to find or kill food."
Venom tightened his grip around Eddie, wrapping over his knees and the top of his head as well.
"But the thing is," Eddie went on, "if we hear that somebody's missing--especially a kid, but honestly anybody--people will go look for them. People who don't know that person, people who aren't from the same town. People who don't get paid to do that as their job. They'll show up and look for that person until they find them, dead or alive. Even if they're dead, they'll bring back the body, just so that person doesn't stay lost."
Venom did not feel any more enlightened.
"That's how we're the dominant species, V. It's not because we're strong, it's because we have these brains. Not just that we're smart, it's--we communicate. We bond with each other, we cooperate, we form groups. Family, tribe, community. Cities, countries. Drake, he had a whole corporation to help him send up that rocket--thousands of people worked on that thing to make it work, to get it to that comet, to make all the stuff the astronauts needed to survive, the software to control it--somebody had to sweep the floors in that lab, you know? So many people. And most of them, they didn't really benefit directly. They didn't get to go to space. They didn't think they were ever going to get to go. But they worked together."
Drake made them. Drake was the leader. They obeyed.
"I mean, maybe he's a bad example, but I'm telling you this is what humans do, V. We didn't evolve crazy strength or healing abilities or huge claws and teeth. We evolved empathy, which means when I see a human hurting, it hurts me too. When I see a human happy, I feel happy too. And that's how we learn to cooperate, because we feel that connection with each other. So we help each other. We protect each other."
With all other humans? There are millions of you.
"Billions, on the planet," Eddie corrected. "And, I mean--this is the thing, right, people draw lines. Some only feel it for people who look like them, for people who live in their country, or practice their religion. And some people do bad shit and then we agree that it's okay to hurt them, kill them even, to make them stop. But more and more of us, we feel it for all humans. A lot of places, no matter what crime you're convicted of, they don't kill you for it. Lots of people feel it even for animals--cats and dogs, the animals that live with us, we feel like they're people too."
That is why you won't let me eat dogs.
Eddie closed his eyes. "Yeah."
I ate people. You didn't like it.
"Yeah," Eddie sighed. "I didn't. I know you had to, but--"
You felt as if I had bitten your head off?
"I mean..." Eddie struggled with how to phrase it, and the sensation came back to him again, the splintering and the squish and the gush.
You felt as if you had bitten your head off.
Eddie closed his eyes. "Kind of. Yeah. Like I did something... very, very wrong. Because to make a person into food, that's the furthest thing from helping them or protecting them. That's saying they're not even the kind of thing we protect. And if you can take away one person's person-ness, then..."
Eddie swallowed, feeling sick and guilty--more for how he was about to hurt Venom than for what they'd done that night. "Then you could take away anyone's. Then you don't have the empathy, the thing that makes you connect and belong. Then you're not a person. You're a monster."
Are we a monster?
Eddie said nothing. There was nothing to say.
He stood up after a while, but it wasn't him deciding to stand up: it was Venom standing him up, from the inside. Venom was retracted entirely inside him now. Eddie let Venom walk him--them--to the bathroom, wash their hands and face and brush their teeth thoroughly, which did, actually, take away the remembered taste of blood and bone and brain.
Venom took them to bed, tucked them in and curled them on their side. Venom pulled a pillow over their head, so they were safe in the close, quiet dark, as much as they could be with Venom on the inside and Eddie on the outside.
Eddie squeezed his eyes shut tighter. "Sorry, Venom. This is my fault."
How? You never ate anyone before I joined with you. If you sent me away--
"If I sent you away because you're a monster then you'd have no choice but to join with somebody who didn't care," Eddie said. "And you're not a monster, V. We're not. Or at least--not yet."
A little of Venom slithered out over and between Eddie's fingers: a hand joining his, clutching the pillow with him. Yet?
"We could be," Eddie said, feeling his way again, trying to find the way back from that awful place his struggle to explain had landed him--landed them. "I--I'm not the best human to teach you not to be one, honestly. I mean, the lucky thing here is probably that I'm not very fucking good at the ways I go around hurting people."
Eddie laughed, hidden under the pillow. "Yeah. He was a competent psycho, he and Riot would've killed everybody. Lucky us, we're losers, we even fuck up being monsters."
Venom squeezed Eddie's hand with the hand he'd made, and was otherwise quiet, waiting for Eddie to say more. Eddie pulled the pillow off his head and took a deep breath of cool air.
"You know why Anne dumped me? You know why we're not gonna get her back?"
We will get her back.
Eddie shook his head and called up the memory. You used me, Eddie. and You did this. Not Carlton Drake, not the network, you.
"See, I--my job was to tell stories. And I thought I was a good guy, everybody thought I was a good guy, because what I did was I found out what bad guys were doing, and I told everybody, and I fucked up the bad guys' lives. I did as much damage as I could to bad people, but I--I wasn't always careful, because it felt so fucking good to take down a bad guy. It's a rush, you know? It's addictive, it--"
Venom remembered for him: the thrill of biting into a living body and tearing it apart.
"Yeah," Eddie said, shuddering a little. "Yeah. Just like that. But I wasn't careful like I should've been. I had this teacher in high school, she used to say, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. She was teaching us about government, about why our government works the way it does, so that the people get a say--"
He could feel Venom's stirring curiosity about that whole concept, but he was not going to let himself be derailed into explaining representative democracy when he was supposed to be explaining we gotta stop being fucking monsters.
"The point is, I had power, as Eddie Brock. And that power went to my head, and it made me fucking dangerous. I hurt people who didn't deserve to be hurt. Back in New York, I--I made accusations that turned out to be totally wrong, and I fucked up people's lives, and then I told myself it was an honest mistake and it wasn't my fault because other people lied to me--when I should've made fucking sure before I pulled the trigger, that was my job--and then I came to San Francisco and started over."
You said there are good people and bad people. You said it's simple to tell the difference.
"Yeah, well, I'm not that good a person, V. I fucking lied to you, I told you what I wished was true. It's not simple to tell. It's not even as simple as good and bad. You and me--we've done some pretty fucked up stuff. I took a potshot at Carlton Drake and lost Annie her whole career, because I stole stuff from her that she was responsible for keeping secret. I did that to her, even though I loved her, even though it wasn't going to accomplish anything, because I was pissed about having to kiss up to a bad guy. But that makes me a pretty fucking bad guy too."
And I eat people.
"Well, you didn't know how much that upsets us humans," Eddie said, squeezing the hand Venom had given him to hold. "I was the one who knew. I should have told you that it wasn't just me being a pussy, it's a fundamental tenet of our humanity."
Venom thought about that for a moment, and Eddie winced a second before Venom spoke, because he felt what was coming next. The man who threatened Mrs. Chen. The bad guy.
"Yeah," Eddie sighed.
You only meant to scare him. Threaten him. But then I wanted--
"And I didn't tell you no that time," Eddie said. It hadn't been like stopping Venom from eating Richard, or a SWAT cop. The guy had been a scumbag. "Because we were getting a bad guy. I was excited too. I got carried away right along with you. I completely fucked up being the human and telling you not to do things that aren't okay with humans."
Venom thought about that in silence for a few seconds. Mrs. Chen didn't mind.
Eddie laughed a little. "Well, sometimes it's nice to have a monster on your side. But we could've helped Mrs. Chen just as much, or better, without eating that guy. I think that's--that's the thing we gotta focus on, okay, if we're not gonna be monsters. Not just getting the bad guys, but protecting people, helping people. If that means we go after bad guys, then we do that, but--we gotta be helping people, we gotta focus on the helping, okay?"
We must have empathy. Empathy makes humans human.
"Right," Eddie agreed. "Empathy for good people and empathy for bad people, too. Because that guy--maybe if we just scared him, maybe he would have gone home and talked to somebody and said, oh shit, what am I doing with my life? and maybe he would have decided to be better. And we took that chance away from him. And we took him away from the people who cared about him. If somebody had killed us because we were doing bad shit, we could never have figured this stuff out, right? And Anne and Dan would be hurt, and maybe other people."
We can be better. Together. We can remind each other.
"Yeah," Eddie said. "Yeah, we can work on it. We can be... not monsters."
Eddie wrinkled his nose. "No, not exactly. I mean, humans--it's kind of a state of mind, but it's a species, too, and... I mean, humans fuck up all kinds of stuff. Just being human isn't really the opposite of being a monster."
We should not just try not to be monsters. We should try to be something good. Is there a word for the something good?
"Uh..." Eddie actually had to think about it, and that was maybe a sign of how fucked his whole outlook was. He was a writer. The word should have been on the tip of his tongue, but he actually had to puzzle out the whole concept.
"Heroes," he said, on a sigh. "People who--who have empathy even for people they don't know, who do hard or dangerous things to help people just because they're on the spot, because they can help--those are heroes. That's... that would be the good thing to be." He tried to sound confident, but his dubiousness leaked through his thoughts as well as his words.
We can do whatever we want, but you don't think we can do this.
"I mean, we can do the stuff, no question," Eddie said. "I mean. Probably. I don't know, V, I've been a fuckup for a really long time, and... heroes are good inside, too, they do shit for the right reasons, and--"
If the point is to help people, does it matter what is inside us when we help? To them?
Eddie blew out a breath. "No. Probably not. Just, like, cosmically and, uh, Catholic-guilt-wise, I guess."
Oh, God. Literally. "No, nope, Jesus--uh, fuck--no, I am not getting that shit all over you. It's--a set of beliefs I was raised with. Makes people feel like they're doing bad things all the time even when they're not. We're not. I don't sign on for that shit anymore, but it's in there anyway. Maybe makes it kind of hard sometimes to know when I'm actually supposed to feel bad about something and when I'm supposed to say fuck you, I do what I want."
Venom turned that over for a minute; Eddie could almost feel wheels turning. Eating people--
"Oh, Catholics are all over that one actually," Eddie said, and then started laughing a little wildly at his own awful joke, or the awful joke that he now was. Whichever.
Venom squeezed him, encircling his ribs, and then reached into his chest to force his breathing to settle when Eddie just kept howling with laughter despite his grip. Eddie closed his eyes and let himself be stilled.
"Sorry," he said. "It's a ritual thing. Symbolic. Catholics kinda, sorta--not literally except they sort of pretend it is literally?--uh, they eat the body of their god, who was human? It's a whole thing. It's not some kind of excuse for me not knowing it's fucking wrong to actually go around literally eating actual living people, it's just... Fucking ironic or something."
Venom poked around Eddie's brain for a minute, trying to pin down the concept of irony and why it had made Eddie lose his shit like that, and then tangibly gave up on that whole topic.
If being human is this complicated, I don't think we should be called monsters for getting it wrong at first.
Eddie laughed, low and bleakly this time, shaking his head. "I, uh, I don't know if we can exactly write that off as the margin of error."
Catholic, Venom diagnosed promptly, and Eddie suspected that that might be about to replace "pussy" as Venom's favorite criticism of him. We cannot change the mistakes we made. It accomplishes nothing to dwell on them. We did not feel guilty about them until we resolved to do better, so feeling guilty now is useless.
And, well... Venom had a point there. Sort of. Probably. Ugh, Eddie was probably going to have to do some kind of research on how you went about having a morality without a catechism, if only so he could argue with Venom coherently.
"No, uh, I mean, guilt is... guilt motivates you to make things right, as well as to remember not to do that again. So it's important in that way."
There was a pause while Venom considered that, and Eddie considered it too. He didn't honestly know that they could make anything right regarding the guy at Mrs. Chen's, or their mostly-in-self-defense rampage during the whole Life Foundation crisis. But there was still...
What can we make right for Maria?
Eddie closed his eyes, thinking again of that nightmare. That memory of hers, that was available somewhere in Venom's mind to leak over into Eddie's. He thought of that desperation he had felt in the dream.
He remembered her singing, out on the street. A few times he actually had given her a few dollars for a song, before he concluded that the exercise was just about equally painful for both of them--he could see her getting frustrated, embarrassed, sometimes, because he wasn't good at hiding his reactions, pretending to enjoy things he didn't, and he had not enjoyed her singing. He wasn't sure anyone with working ears could.
But that was the outside. That was her failing body. From the inside, where the songs had been what she needed, the one thing that could protect her...
"Do you remember what her songs sounded like on the inside? In her head? How they were supposed to sound?"
Eddie heard Venom thinking this time, snatches of music popping up like radio stations he was scanning past.
Yes. Several. I don't know if I have all of them, or... They would change sometimes. She was always thinking of new songs, new... arrangements? For old songs.
"We'll worry about cataloguing later," Eddie assured him, already thinking about whether they could find a way to record the songs, get them out on YouTube or something, find her family and give them whatever they could and see if they were okay with going more public than that.
For now, though, it was just him and Venom and making things right enough to let them sleep for the rest of the night. This was about making things right between themselves, on the inside.
"Just... maybe, remember one for me? So I can hear?"
Venom's grip on him tightened, and his ears, or at least his auditory nerve pathways, were filled with an eerily beautiful song, unsettling and only dimly familiar as something he'd heard Maria sing to him on the street. He didn't know if any human voice could do it justice, but he was going to find a way.
This was what Maria had left behind, for him and Venom to remember; this was the part of Maria they could still save and help and protect. This was the part of her they, and only they, could bring home, so she wouldn't be lost forever.
They listened with everything they had.