“Well, Agent Rumlow, I suppose that you know the price for failure.” Rumlow’s jaw clinched. Pierce had just demoted him from Commander. Eight years of blood soaked devotion to the cause gone in a moment. It would have been kinder to shoot Rumlow and Pierce knew it.
The mission had been a clusterfuck from the moment they’d touched down in the frozen wasteland. They’d been charged with sabotaging the retrieval of the Valkyrie and the corpse of the star-spangled legend that died within it.
“Yes, sir!” Rumlow stood at rigid attention, the vein on the his temple throbbing in rage as he ground his teeth.
“Report to HR for your status change. You are dismissed, Agents.” Rumlow turned on his heel and stalked out of Pierce’s Triskelion office. Not for the first time Rollins pondered why a man with so many secrets to hide would have an office made of transparent glass walls.
“It could have been worse.” Rollins offered lamely in the elevator and Rumlow clicked his tongue in annoyance. He wasn’t in the mood for comfort. “We’re still breathing.”
The elevator stopped with a sudden lurch and a hissing filled the chamber that made them gag, cough and drop to the floor in a pile of loose limbs and kevlar.
Rollins blinked away the remains of the sedative gas that had taken down them down. A hospital gown covered his scarred body and Rollins grimaced. Why bother with the sham of modesty? It wasn’t like he’d was going to survive whatever the techs had planned. He’d been to enough of these disciplinary sessions to be sure of that. He looked up into the lenses of multiple security cameras. Ah. They had an audience.
It was probably Pierce. The old bastard liked to watch. Never got his hands dirty. That’s why he had STRIKE. Rollins scanned the laboratory, looking for exits out of habit and not any particular hope.
More glass walls. More fucking glass walls. Rumlow was in the cell next to his, pacing back and forth. Rollins knocked on the plexiglass wall and waved at him. Rumlow acknowledged him with a nod and resumed glaring at the technicians in the center of the detention area.
They’d never been to this facility, at least Rollins hadn’t. That wasn’t a surprise. SHIELD had black sites scattered all over the globe, operations in countries that weren’t as concerned with human rights as SHIELD loudly proclaimed to be. His muscles strained against the armholes of his hospital gown as he worked feeling back into his hands.
There were other prisoners in the cells across from them. Scraggly, pathetic creatures that looked like they’d been starving or strung out before being confined. The detritus of society. Disposable people. Rollins swallowed back his rising bile of anxiety. Lab rats.
Rumlow stopped pacing when the doors to the lab opened and Carlton fucking Drake strode into the room. Rollins didn’t bother to stand up. The pompous little prick oozed oily confidence and that meant there was going to be a speech. There was always a speech.
Speakers cracked in their cells as Drake orated. “Thank you to our anonymous benefactor for these fine volunteers for our cause. You are about to be a part of the next evolution of humanity. Truly you will help change the entire world for the better.”
“Yeah we didn’t volunteer, diet Tony Stark.” Rumlow spat, his arms crossed. Rollins snorted out a laugh. Good one. “How about you let us out of this place? We all go back to our lives and nobody dies.”
Drake nodded and pointed his finger at Rumlow. “You’re a funny guy. Very funny. Diet Tony Stark. Very funny.” Drake narrowed his eyes. “Stark wishes that he had my capabilities. Did Stark send out an exploratory space exhibition? Did he?” Drake’s voice pitched higher in his furor. “No! No, he did not. All Stark does is buzz around playing hero in a tin can suit while I am working towards the betterment of humanity. We need strong hosts. People in the prime of their lives, peak physical condition!” He looked Rumlow up and down, appraising him like livestock. Rollins’ fists clenched possessively.
“Oh I bet you do.” Rumlow purred as he returned the gaze, “Pretty little thing like you probably craves the attention. Let Daddy tell you that you’re his good boy. Just let me out of here and I’ll show you exactly what peak physical condition feels like against your skin.” Rumlow sucked on his teeth and Rollins fought back a smile. Brock was never Daddy in their sporadic drunken fumblings.
Drake rolled his eyes at the offer, “Tempting, but we must sacrifice for science.”
Rumlow’s breath fogged the plexiglass as he stepped close to Drake and slammed his palms against the barrier. “Let us go. Last warning.” Rollins knew that tone of voice and it made him smile even in their dire circumstances. Someone was going to die. Messily and painfully. He hoped it wouldn’t be them.
“Such a funny guy.” Drake tapped the plexiglass. “All muscles and no brains. No wonder he sold you to me. You weren’t that expensive by the way. Pocket change.” Fucking Pierce.
“What happened to volunteers?” Rollins grated out, his voice harsh from disuse. “Giving that bullshit up already? What are you going to do to us?”
Drake stepped over to Rollins’ cell and smiled, oily with ambition and designer suits. “I prefer to demonstrate.” He snapped his fingers.“Introduce the symbiotes.”
Small doors slid open at the base of all the cells and metal containment boxes slid in. Rollins pressed himself as far away as he could, Rumlow echoed his position on the other side of the wall. Nothing good was going to come out of those boxes. Drake sighed with satisfaction and snapped his fingers. “Cell number one please.”
A containment unit opened in the cell across from them, a scrawny woman with tangled hair screamed as something black and viscous oozed from the unit and then launched itself at her. Black webs entangled and ensnarled her body as she screamed in terror and agony. The screams stopped. She fell to the padded floor with a thud, the black goo absorbed into her body. Her hand twitched, spasmed.
“What the fuck?” Rumlow breathed, his eyes wide with fear. “What was that—?”
“That was the future.” Drake answered, “Get ready to be a part of it. Whether you like it or not. Cell number two please.”
The containment unit cracked opened with a hydraulic hiss and Rollins lunged at it, trying to flip the unit and pin the doors closed. A thin tentacle, yellow and shiny, whipped around his wrist. Rollins clawed at his skin, raw animal instinct screaming at him, other, other, wrong, OTHER. The ooze was strong as wire, flexible and mobile as it skittered over his skin. Rollins looked up and saw Rumlow staring at him in horror, tears coursing down his face pounding on the plexiglass with bloody fists.
I never told you—, was his last conscious thought as Rollins fell over upon the cold cell floor into darkness.
WANT. Animalistic need rumbled through him. WANT. It echoed against the walls of his skull, curled around his guts and his groin.
Rollins rubbed at his temple and groaned. That wasn’t his thought, was it? He must have gotten a concussion when he fell— he clawed at the hospital gown, pulling away the cloth to expose his chest. There was nothing there. Nothing wound about his wrist. Nothing seeping into his skin. Rollins gasped with relief and struggled to choke back the urge to vomit.
Rumlow was laying face first on the padded floor of his cell. Rollins reached out his hand to his commander and heard, WANT! It was loud enough to rattle the walls of the cell, but no one else seemed to hear it. WANT!
“What do you want?” Rollins whispered. He didn’t want the techs to overhear him talking like a crazy person. He couldn’t show any weakness that might lead to them discarding him as a faulty specimen. There were stains on the floor that bleach and pressure washing hadn’t quite gotten rid of.
EVERYTHING. It was a succinct and sincere reply.
Rollins blinked. “That’s a lot.”
“We’ll have to start small. How about a name?” Rollins pulled his knees to his chest to conceal his lips.
“If I remember my basic Latin, that’s to eat?”
CONSUME. ENGULF. DEVOUR.
“I’m Jack Rollins. I guess you’re the goo in the box, then?” Rollins watched the techs bustle about, Drake was nowhere to be seen. “Scared the hell out of me.”
A small hum of contemplation that rattled his eardrums. YOU ARE QUITE CALM FOR A NEW HOST.
“I’ve seen a lot, a talking parasite doesn’t even touch Asgardian gods with thunder hammers. Broke two of my ribs trying to take that blonde bastard down.” Rollins closed his eyes as he felt a gentle rumble of discontent from within his body.
A TALKING LIVING WEAPON FROM OUTER SPACE. IS THAT MORE IMPRESSIVE?
It seemed to hunger for praise, just like someone he knew. Rollins glanced over at Rumlow. “It’s very impressive. I want things too, you know. Can you feel what I want?”
YESSSS. A sibilant hiss over his neurons. FREEDOM. POWER. AND HIM. YOU WANT HIM. I WANT THEM TOO.
“You want Rumlow?” Rollins was confused. “I mean he’s a total pain in the ass and he snores—“
YOUR RUMLOW IS HOST TO MY TOXIC. ANOTHER SYMBIOTE. Phage seemed exasperated at his confusion. UNDERSTAND?
“Barely.” Rollins looked at Rumlow, puddle of saliva spread on the padded floor underneath his lips. “You know you don’t have to shout, I can hear you just fine.”
THIS IS NOT SHOUTING. Rollins sighed, it was shouting. WE ARE HUNGRY.
“Excuse me?” Rollins called out to one of the technicians who startled in surprise. “Can I get some chow? And I have to piss.”
The weasel-faced technician gasped, “Oh my god. He’s conscious and coherent! Get Mr. Drake!”
“I don’t want Drake, I want a sandwich and a bucket.” Rollins said, but no one was listening at that point. They scurried around pressing buttons and writing down notes while staring at him.
Phage was squirming around underneath his skin in distress, ripples underneath his skin. “What’s wrong?” Rollins asked under his breath.
TOXIC! The yellow symbiote curled out of Rollin’s wrist skin towards Rumlow, like unfolding fern fronds. MUST TOUCH. WE ARE BONDED. IT HURTS, JACK. And it did hurt. Jack’s bones ached, a gnawing hunger deep in the pit of his gut.
Drake arrived, slightly out of breath as if he’d ran the entire way to the laboratory. “Well, well. Look at you,” he preened. “Look at you.” Drake licked his lips.
Jack swallowed back his urge to rip out Drake’s eyes. “Mr. Drake, I would like to make a request.”
“Yes, yes. I heard. We’ll bring up some food and a bucket—“
Jack shook his head. “No. He’s dying.” Jack indicated Rumlow. “I— I would like to say goodbye, I would like to touch him one last time.” Jack knelt on the floor and bowed his head before Drake in subjugation. Nothing made small men feel powerful like a big man on his knees. Jack knew how to assume the position, when he had to. “Please. I’ll tell you anything you want. Just let me say goodbye.”
Drake raised an eyebrow. “Tell me, Jack Rollins, what does it feel like to have a symbiote inside you?”
Jack stared at the padded floor. “It’s— crowded, Mr. Drake. And confusing.” Tell the man what he wants to know, we never said it had to be the truth.
Drake smirked and leaned close to the plexiglass. “Have the symbiote ask me. Make it beg.” Drake looked an awful lot like Pierce at that moment and Jack clenched his jaw.
DO NOT LIKE. Phage smoldered with echoed anger. KEEPS US FROM OURS!
“Ask Mr. Drake nicely, Phage. For your host.” I am going to make this man suffer in ways he’s never comprehended. I’ll take everything he cares about and reduce it to rubble and ash. Then it’s Pierce’s turn. Make the whole world burn. “Please.”
Jack’s thoughts seemed to bleed over into Phage’s consciousness and it snarled, YESSSSS. A balloon like glob of yellow goo emerged from the skin at the junction of Jack’s neck. White smears indicated eyes and a slit of a mouth opened to display too many dagger-sharp teeth. “PLEASE.”
A single word was enough to make Drake’s eyes light up like a kid on Christmas morning. “First communication! Astounding.” He gestured at the heavily armed guards and both cell doors opened.
Rollins rushed into Rumlow’s cell, ignoring everyone staring at them, especially Drake.
“Commander?” Rollins gathered Rumlow up into his arms, his lips were blue-tinged and his cold limbs limp. “Come on now, don’t leave me here with all these pricks.” He pressed his hand over Rumlow’s heart, felt Phage extend through his palm into Rumlow. Sudden warmth bloomed, blossomed into searing heat as the symbiote took over his body. Rollins was in the back seat of his own body, while Phage took the wheel.
YOU WANT THIS HOST. YOU WANT TO PENETRATE HIM. CONSUME HIM. HE IS TASTY.
You’re not going to hurt him. I WON’T LET YOU. Jack fought for control of his body and Phage hissed in annoyance.
TOO SLOW. Phage fastened their mouth upon Rumlow’s in a parody of a kiss. Rollins gagged as a his tongue swelled up and dislocated his jaw, plunging down Rumlow’s throat. BETTER. The thought strummed through Rollins’ body with satisfaction. Rumlow’s body shook and quivered in his arms, thrashing with convulsions. Rollins held him tight while Phage finished his bizarre alien french kiss.
As the tongue tentacle retracted back into his mouth, it remolded his face and reshaped his jaw. It felt like spiders crawling beneath his skin. Rumlow’s eyes opened, a thin ring of glowing blue surrounding the irises, and then they opened wider in surprise. He pushed Rollins off of him and wiped his drool covered mouth with the back of his hand. “Jesus Jack. You know we don’t kiss. And could you use a little less tongue next time— Why are you looking at me like that?“ Rollins beamed at his prickly commander. “When you smile, I get nervous.”
“Looks like you’re back from the dead.” Drake tapped on the cell control panel buttons. “How touching, now back to your cell—“
“NO!” Rollins and Phage snarled simultaneously with a snap of their jaws. “WE STAY.”
“Jack? What the fuck is happening?” Rumlow pointed at Phage bobbing from Rollins’ neck, “You’ve got a talking tumor.”
“WE ARE NOT A CANCER.” Phage sniffed indignantly. The creature was taking on more and more human traits the longer it was inside of Rollins. Extremely adaptable. Improvisational. Impressive. The symbiote’s maw cracked into a toothy parody of a human grin. “WE ARE PHAGE.”