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EDDIE! WAKE UP!

It’s like coffee’s trickling right into his bloodstream. Eddie twitches awake, eyes blinking wide in the dark. It’s night time. He’s outside, clearly, but he doesn’t know where he is. He doesn’t remember where he was before.

He does know he’s about to vibrate out of his fucking skin. Venom must be the one who opened the adrenaline floodgates to bring him around. Considering how much it hates to interfere with Eddie’s brain, this isn’t a good sign at all.

Eddie turns his head and squints at a silver smudge for a long minute before he realizes it’s streetlight reflecting on garbage juice. Because he’s lying on his back behind a dumpster, half-crumpled against it so that he’s getting a painful crick in his neck. Obviously he just dropped where Venom’s let go of him.

DO NOT MOVE.

“Why’m I in the garbage,” he mumbles, trying to straighten up.

Venom paralyzes him. DON’T! WE ARE NOT DONE HEALING.

It’s at this point that Eddie realizes he’s sitting not just in garbage juice, but also in a pool of his own blood.

He screws his eyes shut and bangs the back of his head against the dumpster, because for crying out loud. Then he takes a deep breath and a second look. Despite everything, he’s still pretty much a normal dude—he’s dizzy just assessing the damage, and when he realizes he got shot, his hands start shaking.

“Thought we were immune to bullets,” he rasps.

WE WERE NOT READY. A thousand tiny tendrils are knitting back Eddie’s flesh. IT CAME FROM NOWHERE. There’s a hard point of pain on his left side, under his plexus. He can feel the wound when he breathes, though it’s not immediately painful since he’s so juiced up on adrenaline. He’s no expert, but he can tell right away the bullet’s still in. Two, maybe three broken ribs.

A bullet, center mass. It’s a miracle he’s not dead. In hindsight, maybe he was and Venom jumpstarted his body back to life, like it did once before. Eddie shudders.

Venom radiates guilt, boiling all over Eddie’s body. DID NOT SENSE ANYTHING—

“Hey, love. It’s okay.” Eddie winds a few tendrils around his shaky hand and presses a kiss to them. “We’re alive. We outran them. You did great.”

He breathes in and out, laboriously, and manages to scoot just a few inches up against the dumpster so his neck doesn’t hurt as much. Like this, he can see there’s another dark shape further into the alley, where the shadows fold onto each other.

Eddie squints, then thumps the back of his head on the dumpster again. Because it’s a foot.

A human foot, still in its expensive tennis shoe.

He swallows experimentally and feels lumps of flesh move further down his throat, sliding all the way down to his stomach. Moving his tongue inside his mouth, he dislodges bits from between his teeth. Venom ate someone, and ate them in a hurry.

“Fuel in the tank?” he guesses weakly.

WE HAD LOST TOO MUCH BLOOD.

“V, tell me it wasn’t some poor guy waiting for the bus—”

Venom manifests a swastika in Eddie’s memories. HAD THIS TATTOOED ON HIS SHOULDER. STOP WHINING.

Eddie closes his eyes for a moment, then tries again to straighten up, and manages a lot better.

WAIT! Venom’s still terrified. NOT DONE, EDDIE!

“M’not bleeding anymore, V, what more do you want.” Eddie moans, grabbing the edge of the dumpster and pulling himself to his feet. The pain’s like an iron lung now, and he’s shaking more than ever. “Don’t do the adrenaline thing again or my heart will give out.”

HAD TO WAKE YOU UP, Venom says miserably.

“I know, love, I know. I’m not mad. You did everything right.” He’s gripping the plastic lid white-knuckled. His thoughts are slowly coagulating into shape. “But now we’ve got to keep moving. We got shot by a sniper.”

WHAT?

“We didn’t see them, or smell them or—sense them, even though the bullet came from the front. Means they shot us from very far away.” Eddie hisses with pain as he leans against the dumpster. “Means they came specifically for us and they’re probably still looking.”

A flash of light grabs his attention. Venom’s taken his phone out of his pocket, using a bit of lint to type something into the group chat. Eddie’s vision is too blurry for him to read it; he blinks a few times and manages to decipher WE GOT SHOT just before the text whooshes away.

“Jesus, V. Type another one, tell them it’s a joke. They’re going to think we’re dying.”

WE ARE DYING! Venom’s always been prone to drama. THE BULLET IS STILL INSIDE!

“So take it out!”

I CAN’T! Venom’s rage does nothing to hide its real desperation. IT WILL INJURE YOU MORE!

Eddie’s just so used to Venom seamlessly circulating in and out of his body that for a moment, he can’t quite figure out what the problem is. Then he realizes that his flesh is not porous to bullets, meaning Venom would need to basically dig a tunnel through his chest to extract it and yeah, no, he can see why it doesn’t want to try that.

“Okay,” he mumbles, gently prying the phone from Venom’s tendrils. “Okay, fine, we’re asking for help.”

His trembling fingers are stained with dried blood, to the point that he can’t actually type; he has to rub them clean on his shirt, but before he’s done, his phone starts buzzing. It’s Anne.

“Hey,” he croaks, taking the call. “Hey. Sorry. I’m good, I’m standing.”

“Jesus Christ, Eddie.” It’s a breath of relief, followed immediately by her business voice. “Tell me where you are. I’m coming to get you.”

“No way.” He starts limping away from the dumpster. His ribs hurt. “You’re not coming anywhere close to my crime scenes.”

It’s the first time he acknowledged plainly what he’s been doing in a conversation with her. He knows Anne would rather not hear it—she’s made it clear—but today’s a day for breaking rules.

“Eddie,” she repeats like a warning. “Tell me where you are.”

“No, seriously, listen to me. I can walk. Venom’s healing me.” He swallows. “We are gonna need help. The bullet’s still in.”

“Now’s not the time to play tough,” Anne snaps.

“I swear, I swear it’s not what I’m doing. C’mon, be a lawyer about this, Annie, you can’t rush here, get tangled up in this. I can get to you, no problem.” He swallows a thick mix of saliva, blood and someone else’s blood. “I promise.”

Anne exhales in a short burst, then pauses, like she needs to master her voice. “Fine. Just—come home.”

He wells up at that. Near death experiences make him so emotional.

“But I want you to text me every five minutes until you get here.”

“Copy that.” He sniffs, quickly, tries to get a hold of himself. Now’s not the time to fall apart. He’s not limping as much anymore, and the pain’s going. Venom can’t pull out the bullet, but it can fix his body around it. “I’ll be there in twenty. Thirty, tops.”

“You’re not taking the bike, are you?”

“No, no—cable car.”

“Don’t bleed everywhere,” she says, and hangs up.

Which is when something nearly decapitates him.

Eddie ducks—or rather Venom ducks for them both—what is that thing, is it an axe? He doesn’t have time to see, the thing ricocheting off the wall, he just catches sight of a glinting blade, of—Venom shrieks with pain as the weapon whizzes close again with a strange metallic noise. It’s not even loud but it’s smack bang the frequency that hurts them, and they’re powerless to duck a second time. The edge slams right into the front of Eddie’s skull.

Everything goes red and black. For a second, he’s persuaded his head’s been cut in half. There’s an iron bar of pain across his forehead, a sheet of blood flowing from it. EDDIE! Venom says in terror, its love flooding Eddie’s whole body, EDDIE, EDDIE…

The weapon’s stopped; the noise is gone. Eddie struggles to his feet, blinks blood out of his eyes and says, “C’mon, love, c’mon, you and me both—” and Venom surges around him, envelops him whole and explodes in tendrils at the attacker.

There’s a surprised yelp and a heavy thud as a body hits the ground. Venom pounces on him, tongue already out, teeth at the ready, but takes a blow so strong it nearly fractures Eddie’s neck. The man—it’s a man, not that Eddie can see fuck all through Venom’s eyes, the colors all wrong and the heat vision distorting everything—the man is so fucking strong, stronger even than Venom—is that possible?—pulling at them, trying to rip Venom away from Eddie, and they’re screaming in pain again, the both of them in unison. Another blow—this time with that weird bladed weapon—and that awful sound rings through the air again, waves of noise disintegrating Venom’s very essence as they ripple through them. Venom snarls, ineffectually swipes back with claws and teeth, desperate now to protect Eddie, to slaughter the enemy so they’ll survive. “EAT YOU,” it says, spitting its own biomass in black flecks, “EAT YOUR BRAIN—AND YOUR LIVER AND BONES—” and while Eddie shares the sentiment, he’s not too sure they can do it.

Part of him is actually thinking that this is it, this guy’s gonna get them.

His thought goes through Venom’s mind. “NEVER,” it snarls, even as the blows come, again and again, like being run over by a truck one, two, three times—“NEVER, NEVER!”

All at once Eddie feels like someone’s hooked his intestines through his stomach and is pulling them out of him.

He lets out an awful noise—disarticulated, falling to his knees—his own knees; Venom’s not there. “V,” he calls in a sob. “Venom, what—what are you doing—don’t leave me!”

NEVER, says the familiar growl one last time, this time from the inside; Venom did leave a few tendrils inside him, but most of it is stuffing itself—oh, fuck—inside the attacker, through his nose and mouth and eyes. The man stumbles back, falls to his knees. Eddie’s completely vulnerable, he could be beheaded in one stroke, but it’s not happening, because his assailant’s kinda busy reenacting Alien. He’s still kneeling up, somehow, bracing on his weird weapon, trying to tear Venom from his face—and nearly succeeding, what kind of fucking freak is he, but Venom’s inside him now, probably eating all it can. It pushes almost wholly in, vanishing up his nostrils.

Which allows Eddie to recognize him.

“Oh fuck,” he gasps, then louder, “fuck—Venom, stop! Stop!”

He scrambles forward and physically pulls Venom out, quite literally reeling it back inside himself while it wriggles in protest. It melts into Eddie’s chest, and Eddie sobs—it’s warm, it’s life given back to him. He can’t remember how he ever lived without his other half.

EDDIE, WHY? Venom is more upset than ever before.

The man’s lying on the ground now, blood streaming from his nose. Fuck, fuck, Eddie’s seen this fucking face in every single phys ed class he ever attended. He’s seen it in VA centers and military recruitment posters. He’s seen it all over the news every day for six solid months, a few years ago when the news came out. Captain America found alive.

And soon the fucking news will say Captain America found dead.

 

*

 

They flee the scene. Eddie gets out his phone. He was supposed to text Anne every five minutes to let her know he was safe, and actually, he’s not even late. This whole thing happened under three minutes. He wobbles as he walks. Venom makes him walk. The cable car’s coming up the street. They just have to get in.

“Is he dead?” Eddie babbles, making people turn as he walks. “Is he—did we—is he dead?”

DON’T KNOW. I DON’T KNOW.

The cable car stops. They get in.

 

*

 

Eddie’s never been so happy to sit down on a grubby public transportation seat and let himself get grubbily, publicly transported. All he can do right now is sit still and shake.

Venom’s out underneath his clothes, clinging to him like some demented octopus-koala crossbreed. It’s probable it won’t ever let go. Eddie hurts when he breathes; it’s the bullet, still in there. The big cut across his forehead has already healed, from the other weapon—oh, fuck him. Fuck, it was the shield.

You should never meet your heroes, Eddie thinks hysterically, because you might eat them.

He sends a dutiful check-in text to Anne, then shakes some more. They get out at the next stop. Eddie’s technically fine now, his body fully closed and healed. He still feels like he might fly apart at any second. Shaky, unbalanced. And it hurts. Everything hurts. He’s still terrified, and Venom still hasn’t understood why Eddie made it stop, and its confusion is swirling inside them. Eddie can’t explain, mostly because Venom wouldn’t want to hear it, not really. Right now all it cares about is to get them somewhere safe. Anne is safest, in its mind. Anne can beat anything they can't beat.

Climbing the stairs hasn’t been so difficult in a while. Eddie entertains the thought of catching his breath in front of Anne’s door, but it opens before he’s even fully made it onto the landing.

“See, I’m here,” he exhales, dark spots dancing before his eyes.

Anne pulls him inside into a crushing hug and he sags against her. She can probably feel him shake. Venom’s shaking too.

“Let me see you,” she murmurs after a while, pushing his jacket off his shoulders.

He slowly, stiffly opens his arms to let her. Underneath, his shirt is black-brown with crusting blood.

“Jesus, Eddie.” Anne’s face does that thing when it’s trying to express an emotion and she won’t let it. “What did you get into this time?”

“Can we talk about it later,” he says pitifully.

She shakes her head, then pulls him in again, hugging tight, and he hugs back with unspeakable relief. She smells so good.

“You’re all right,” she murmurs, rubbing his back. “You made it. You’re okay.”

They stay like this for so long that the door eventually clicks open behind them, making Eddie jump.

“Got here as fast as I could,” Dan says. “Everyone all right?”

Anne’s already let go of Eddie; meeting Dan half-way across, she kisses him hard, like she’s releasing some of her tension by doing so.

“Hey—hey, Dan,” Eddie says, shaky. "Hey."

“All right.” This is Dr. Lewis talking; steadfast, reassuring, even as he shrugs off his coat. “Give me a rundown.”

“THE BULLET IS STILL INSIDE,” Venom bellows before Anne or Eddie can say anything—it boils out of him, making itself so big it’s obscuring the ceiling lights, tendrils lacing all around Eddie’s body like crazed vines crawling up his limbs. Its teeth could give the T-Rex a run for its money. “DO SOMETHING!”

“Inside where?” Dan asks. He’s unfazed as always, even though Anne herself's taken a step back. “Sometimes it’s best to leave it.”

Venom squeezes Eddie so hard he almost cries out. “LEAVE IT?” it roars.

“Yes, especially if you’ve healed him around it. The biggest risk with bullets is infection, and we know you’ll prevent that.”

Venom snarls, winding more tightly around Eddie. “Uh,” Eddie says faintly, dark spots dancing before his eyes, “I think you guys are gonna have to agree to disagree—”

“Look at it this way,” Dan goes on steadily. “You didn’t pull it out yourself because you were afraid of hurting Eddie. Well, the same’s true for me, too.”

Another growl, more considering. Venom’s hold loosens by a fraction.

“Where is the entry wound?” Dan asks.

“Uh, here,” Eddie says, hiking up his blood-encrusted shirt, laying three fingers under his heart. “Well, it was here. Now—it’s gone.”

“THIRD INTERCOSTAL,” Venom puts in. “PAST THE MUSCLE LAYER.”

“Damn,” Anne says faintly. “You really brushed up on your anatomy.”

“IT MOVES WHEN WE BREATHE. IT IS CLOSE TO THE HEART AND LUNGS.”

“That’s not ideal,” Dan admits. He ponders for a few more seconds, then starts undoing his cuff links. “Well, nothing to it.”

Venom flows back inside Eddie’s body, though a few tendrils stay out to ripple all over him, endlessly checking him for more wounds. Anne’s already moving, putting the dining chairs away for some reason.

“Are… are we going to the hospital?” Eddie ventures, unsure what’s happening.

“No, there’s no point.” Now Dan’s tightly rolling up his shirt sleeves, up to the elbow. “I can’t commandeer an operation room without people asking me why.”

“And whoever shot you will likely be checking emergency rooms, Eddie,” Anne says, now stacking chairs two by two. “So we don’t want to register you as a standard patient anyway.”

“Besides, we’d be hard-pressed to do it, since there’s no wound anymore,” Dan concludes, smiling at Anne like they’re a debating team.

Eddie’s still lost. “So…”

“So we’ll do it at home,” Dan says. “I’m going to wash my hands.”

He walks behind the kitchen counter, opens the water. Eddie’s more dumbfounded than ever. “Wait, wait—here? Like—what, on the couch?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Anne says, taking away the great white vase she uses as a centerpiece, “we’ll use the dining table.”

“Do we have something like a plastic tarp?” Dan asks from behind the counter. “Blood stains on wood are a nightmare.”

“Yes, I used to do pottery—there's one in the back of the bedroom closet.” She puts the last of the dining table decorations away. “Do you need anything else while I’m at it?”

“Pottery? You’ll have to tell me about that sometimes,” Dan says. “Disinfectant can’t hurt. I’ll have to borrow your boning and paring knives, too,” he adds, looking at the knife rack next to him. “I can’t think of what I might use as pliers, though…”

“How about my eyelash curler? It's metal, we can boil it.”

“Oh, yes—good thinking, hon.”

Eddie feels like he should say something. But for the life of him, he can’t figure out what. Anne’s already left to the bathroom to fetch the aforementioned supplies. Dan’s still washing his hands. Venom is still feeling all over Eddie’s body as if to determine he isn’t falling apart. Eddie obviously doesn’t have any say in all of this.

Is now a good time to tell them he may have killed Captain America?

The thought burns him, so he turns his back to it. One thing at a time. Right? The bullet has to come out. If they don’t manage that, the rest of his problems will take care of themselves. Eddie takes an experimental breath, as deep as he can make it. He can feel the bullet moving, though he’s been trying to ignore it.

He watches Dan’s practiced movements, washing his hands, interlocking fingers, cleaning under his nails.

“We’re… Dan, we can’t actually do this.” He sounds too high-pitched and creaky to his own ears. “You’ve gotta realize that, right? I mean—this place isn’t sterile.”

“Not by any means,” Dan agrees. “This," he adds, nodding at his hands, "is just to get rid of what I may have brought from the outside. As for what's around here, well, of course we'll disinfect because it's the done thing—but like I said, with Venom standing guard, I’m not too worried about infection.”

“What about anesthetic? Shouldn’t we get anesthetic?”

At that, Dan looks up and smiles. “Why, Eddie, I thought you’d want to feel it.”

Eddie’s throat goes very dry all at once.

Dan’s going to cut him open. The thought suddenly takes all the place in his mind.

“But I do take your point,” Dan goes on, now wiping his hands on a clean rag. “Roll up your sleeve, please, we’re going to try something.”

He takes a paring knife from the rack.

Eddie doesn’t move for a second. Then, as if under hypnosis, he pushes up his sleeve, sets his elbow on the counter and lays down his arm, palm up. He startles when Venom starts to breathe for him; he’d stopped and didn’t even notice.

RELAX, EDDIE.

Dan’s done cleaning the paring knife; he grabs Eddie’s wrist to hold it into place over the counter. His fingers are very warm.

“What,” Eddie asks, but he has to swallow before he can says more, “What are you gonna do to me?”

“Oh, Venom and I have chatted about this a few times,” Dan says, which isn’t an answer at all.

With that, he puts the knife to Eddie’s skin and slices his forearm open.

Eddie grabs onto the counter with his free hand. He made a noise—some sort of high-pitched, shocked gasp. The cut doesn’t bleed. It hurts, but only like he just cut himself on glass. Prickling, burning, holding his attention. Panic and confusion and painful arousal are swarming inside him like a hornets nest, filling his brain with a great buzzing noise.

“G-God,” he exhales, clutching at the edge of the counter. He can’t look away from his arm, eyes wide. “Jesus God.”

“You’re all right. Make a fist, please,” Dan says, and twists the blade sideways in the wound to open it wider. “See—the one moving prominently here, that’s carpi ulnaris.

“YES.” Eddie hadn’t even realized Venom was out again, hovering over his shoulder. “IS THAT ONE CARPI RADIALIS?”

“No—palmaris longus. You got them in the wrong order.” He smiles. “Move your hand again, Eddie.”

Eddie obeys like he doesn’t have a choice. He can see the muscles move inside his own arm. Dan can, too; he points at one.

“See? Here. Palmaris longus.”

“RIGHT.”

“So, Eddie,” Dan comments, looking back up at him. “I take it the pain’s manageable?”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” is all Eddie can say, again.

“BLOCKING THE BLOOD,” Venom explains. “BLOCKING THE NERVES.”

“As I understand, it’s difficult to accomplish on the go,” Dan adds.

“I TRIED!” Venom’s agitated again, flashes of the fight going through their brain. “DID NOT WORK. EVERYTHING WAS GOING TOO FAST!”

“But surgery lends itself to that kind of delicate work. We can take our time, do things properly.” Dan digs the point of the knife further in. “Tell me what you’re feeling, Eddie. Is it completely numb?”

“N-no,” Eddie manages. “It… I can feel…”

“Still hurts a bit, huh?” Dan beams at him. “You know, I find I’m all right with that.”

Just like that, he takes the knife out and Venom seamlessly closes the wound. Within seconds, there’s not even a scratch left.

Eddie slumps completely against the counter and breathes deeply, deeply, like he’s just run a marathon. He feels Venom all over him, shapeless tendrils caressing his entire body.

GOOD, EDDIE. THIS IS GOING TO BE SO GOOD.

He’s going to fucking die.

“Okay then—that experiment’s a success,” Dan goes on just as Anne comes back from the bathroom. “Are we ready for the main event?”

 

*

 

When he’s told, Eddie climbs onto the dining table and lies on his back. The plastic tarp crinkles under his body. Dan gets strong kitchen scissors and, without further ado, starts cutting Eddie’s clothes open.

Eddie's willing. And he’s awake. They’re going to do this to him while he’s awake. He doesn’t make a sound when Dan finishes ripping his blood-crusted shirt open, sliding it away from under him. He almost protests when Dan slips off his jeans, too, almost squeals when he feels the cold scissor blades slide close to his cock when Dan cuts off his underwear. He doesn’t know why he needs to be completely naked for this, but he doesn’t quite say anything. He can't.

“Are you all right staying, honey?” Dan asks Anne, now putting on gloves. “You don’t have to be here. Venom can assist me just fine.”

“Well, it’s not like I’m going to go watch TV in the other room,” Anne answers. She moves to stand behind Eddie, by his head. He can hear her voice falling from above, but all he can see now is the ceiling. “It’s okay, I can handle a bit of blood.” Her hands come down to cradle Eddie’s head. “I’ll be moral support.”

Eddie has to stay still while Dan inspects his body, only to declare out loud—surgeon’s habit—that Venom’s done a very good job and Eddie doesn’t have any visible wounds.

“Are you all right, Eddie?” Anne asks, quietly.

“Yeah.” It’s so shaky she probably doesn’t believe him. “Uh, th-thanks. For staying.” It suddenly takes a broader meaning, and he repeats, “Thanks for staying.”

She leans down, coming into his field of vision, smiling. “You’re a hard man to leave.”

Her hands are on his shoulders like they’re pinning him down.

“You could leave me,” he says, faintly. “You could leave me. Again. If you wanted to.”

“I know,” she says, quietly.

Dan’s hand comes to rest in the middle of Eddie’s chest, bringing him abruptly back in the moment. The contact of the latex gloves on his bare skin makes his breathing hitch.

“One day, you’ll have to tell me about your tattoos, Eddie,” Dan says, thumb rubbing across Eddie’s ribs.

“S-ure,” Eddie rasps.

It’s happening. It’s about to happen. He knows he’s hard, unavoidably, disastrously hard, cock weighing heavy against his thigh, but neither Anne nor Dan have mentioned it, and their pointed silence on that topic is only making him harder.

Dan leans in, just a bit. “I’ve always wanted to vivisect someone.”

His hand leaves Eddie’s chest.

“Couldn’t find a way around the Hippocratic oath, though.” He comes back with a knife, the blade glinting under the ceiling lights. “So thanks for that, Eddie.”

The first cut burns.

Eddie’s chest clenches on a sob; he looks away, presses his face into his own shoulder as much as he can. Venom’s doing a good job numbing the sensation, but it probably can’t block all the nerve endings—or maybe it’s choosing to let Eddie experience some of the pain, and that idea—his head swims—he screws his eyes shut again, breathing hard. God, he wishes they’d tied him down for this, which is a fucked-up thing to wish for, but God, having to lie there, to lie still while Dan digs into him…

“Everything okay?” Anne asks gently, from above. Her hands are cradling his face again.

“I’m f-fine.” Eddie can’t recognize his own voice. “I’m—I’m fine.”

YES, YOU ARE. Venom’s all but whispering. LET GO, EDDIE. IT WILL FEEL SO GOOD.

Anne dabs sweat from his temples. She can see he’s hard, right? There’s no way she wouldn’t have noticed—

The blade pushes further and Eddie hisses, limbs jerking on the table before he manages to still himself again. He’s breathing too hard. It’s Dan’s hand he feels now, coming onto his torso again, applying pressure as if to keep him into place.

“It’s all right. Keep breathing.”

“We could use anesthetic,” Anne says.

“No, I…” Eddie’s teeth are chattering. He can’t say that he desperately, catastrophically enjoys this, even though it’s just as catastrophically obvious. “No—no…” For the love of fuck, he can feel himself leaking pre-come against his own thigh, why aren’t they saying anything?

Dan keeps going; the pain feels like it’s happening in Eddie’s whole body now, radiating from the point of contact. He’s drowning in it, everything misfiring in his brain. There’s the scent of blood in the air, a metallic tang on his tongue. Venom is pinching most of his vessels shut, but just like with the nerves, it can’t plug up everything; Eddie feels something warm well up and trickle down his flank. Tendrils follow suit, absorb it.

He can’t look—he can’t watch himself, but he’s incapable of closing his eyes, so he just helplessly looks up, at Anne when she leans in, at Dan otherwise, Dan who’s cutting him open with focused, professional ease.

“Almost there,” he says, then hums. “Well, that is close to the lung.”

Eddie’s eyes flick down on instinct—then he twitches again on the plastic tarp, quickly turns his head away. He can’t watch, he can’t. He’s trembling so much. Venom’s got him, Anne too, both of them touching him soothingly, reassuringly, while Dan carves him up ever further.

“All right, Eddie,” Dan says eventually, picking up the curler. “This might hurt a bit.”

Cutting him open was one thing—this buzzing, burning pain, almost electric—but now Dan takes his makeshift pliers—the curler is long, thin, the metal end round and narrow—and pushes into Eddie, forces the thing inside his body—Eddie jerks so violently Venom comes to hold him down, finally, securing him all at once—his ankles and thighs, his wrists and biceps, and his neck, too—strangling him, squeezing so tight his vision flickers in black.

LET HIM DO HIS JOB, EDDIE.

“Hold him still—almost there,” Dan repeats.

Eddie’s fighting for breath: he grits his teeth and feels burning tears roll down his face when Dan starts pushing inside him again.  He feels something—his flesh, his living tissue—resist, then suddenly give way against Dan’s tool.

As if in answer, his cock stretches and strains to full mast. He almost sobs.

“Anne,” he calls, despairingly. “Annie…”

“I’m here, Eddie.” She runs her fingers through his hair; he’s shocked to realize how much he’s sweating, shaking. “You’re okay. He’s not even going that deep. I bet it feels worse than it actually is.”

It feels so crushingly good. The worst—the best—part is that she’s watching. Just standing there at his head, calm and gentle like nothing really bad’s happening to him. Eddie could pass out. Pain is saturating his body, completely indistinguishable from pleasure now. Anne’s hands around his face are delicate and yet feel like a vice. He can’t move. He got onto the table willingly. Now he’s got to stay here until it’s done.

BRACE YOURSELF, Venom growls, and the pliers pinch something inside of him and rip it out. He jerks again, nearly screams—but there’s slick back slime stuffing his mouth, muffling him; he’s panting instead through his nose, sobbing, Anne’s hands caressing his face, again and again.

“All right.” Eddie hears a clink of metal falling into a pot. “Venom, you can close him up.”

“NO,” Venom says.

The tendrils come back, lift Eddie’s cock, making him whine in shaky panic through his gag. He knows what happens now. He can’t believe it’s going to happen in front of Anne and Dan. He doesn’t see how he could stop it.

“THIS FIRST. WHILE HE IS OPEN.”

Eddie shakes his head, more tears rolling down—and then Dan’s there, he’s joined Anne by Eddie’s upper body. With them there, he manages to take a breath, to realize that Venom isn’t restraining him anymore, focusing downwards—its biomass flows out of Eddie’s mouth, too, leaving him gasping. His orgasm is already coiling in the pit of his stomach, frantic; he reaches up, finds Dan, finds Anne, clings desperately to them both. They lean close to him, lets him clutch at them and hide his face against them; his pleasure is irrepressibly swelling, it’s all he can think about now, how ashamed he should feel and how good—how fucking good—

Eddie clings, clings, clings—he’s probably hurting them with how hard he’s holding onto them, but they just let him, holding almost as tight in return. He screws his eyes shut, feels the wet, open pain under his heart—the cut that nearly goes to his lung—and on a slick stroke from Venom, he finally whites out, losing himself completely.

 

*

 

He comes back to himself, unaware he’d even passed out. He’s still naked on the dining table, but the cut's closed and someone’s thrown a thick blanket over him. Underneath, Venom’s halfway out, meandering over his body with the aimless focus of a deep-sea creature. Eddie’s orgasms always leave it like that, shapeless and dazed.

At first, Eddie can’t tell why he’s awake. And then he hears them, from across the shadowed apartment.

They’re not far, probably just in the bedroom, with the door open. They’re not being particularly loud, but he can hear the urgency of their bodies moving together, Anne’s panting moans, and Dan’s too, every once in a while. Eddie pictures him deep into her, pictures her nails leaving red trails across his back.

He just lies there, lets the noises lull him back under. It feels good, listening to them. Comforting. He’s not sure why.

 

*

 

Daylight wakes him up gradually.

He’s in Anne’s king size bed, with no memory of how he’s gotten there. Next to him, Dan’s deeply asleep, lying on his side, facing him. Sun’s licking across his shoulders. He does have light scratch marks peeking out of his short sleeves—he only ever wear t-shirts in bed.

Eddie watches him for a while, then turns his head. Anne’s curled up on the other side of him, facing him too. Without make-up, her face is true and soft.

MORNING, EDDIE.

He turns back to himself, though there’s nothing to see. “Morning, love. You okay?”

WE ARE OKAY NOW.

The burning point of pain in Eddie’s chest is gone like it was never there. He can take as deep a breath as he wants, and feel nothing. Venom’s clearly healed Dan’s intervention flawlessly.

So Eddie does take a breath, for what feels like the first time in almost twenty-four hours, and tries to understand what the fuck happened the day before. Between the accidental murder of Captain fucking America and the whole surgery plus sex thing, there’s a lot to unpack. In fact, there’s so much to unpack he doesn’t know how to start, and just lies there in a belated state of shock until he feels Anne shift next to him.

When he glances at her, her eyes are half-open. She’s watching him amidst the comforter and pillows, in an ocean of white. Her bare arms make him oddly emotional.

He nearly tells her then—Anne, I did something—we did something awful—but he can’t. He just can’t.

“Morning,” he whispers instead.

“How’re you feeling?” she whispers back.

He takes a deep breath. The knot of pain really is gone. “Good. It’s out. We’re good.”

A silence stretches as the events of the night before unroll between them. This was the last bit of secret Eddie had—just how violent his sexual life has really become, just how much he’ll allow to be done to him. And Anne’s absorbed it like she’s absorbed all the rest. Cradled his face during. Watched him.

He’s not surprised. She could handle hosting Venom, she even enjoyed it. The power, when it’s inside you. She’s the other side to Eddie’s coin; she likes to take, while he likes to be taken. Venom’s presence just turned it up to eleven.

Also Dan’s.

More memories from last night are bubbling up to the surface of his mind, soft-edged recollections of moans in the dark. His brow crumples. “Did you guys have sex right after the surgery?”

“You and Venom had sex during.”

She’s got a point. Eddie turns to his side to look at her more directly. “But… so… it turned you on? What Dan was doing to me?”

“It was more of a domino effect.” She’s smiling. “You know I’ve always liked to watch you come.”

The memories keep coming, disjointed and still veiled by that feverish haze. Eddie can hardly sort them out; he was so lost to pleasure and pain—and panic, lots of panic. One of them stands out very clearly, though. “That thing Dan said...”

“About always wanting to vivisect someone?” Yeah, Anne noticed, too.

On his side of the bed, Dan’s still sleeping. Last night obviously took its toll on him.

“I don’t think it was a joke,” Eddie ventures.

“No,” Anne agrees.

Eddie’s not sure what it means about Dan. He’s not sure what it says about himself, either, because it doesn’t really bother him. Just enough to mention it now.

“I don’t think he was joking about the Hippocratic oath, either,” Anne goes on, slowly. “I think… he’s got his own moral system, and he’s made it so it’d click with what’s acceptable.” Her mouth twists. “Isn’t that what we all do, really?”

When she puts it like that, Eddie really can’t judge. He’s got a rather personal moral system, too, and his own doesn't really click so good with what’s acceptable. He thinks again about what they did yesterday, and his chest clenches with another kind of panic, one that can’t ever be turned into pleasure, and he’s having a harder time keeping it at bay.

TELL HER, Venom suggests.

It usually gives Eddie good advice, and Eddie was sincerely hoping he’d never have to hide anything from Anne again—aside from what she specifically asked him to hide from her, that is. And this, this qualifies. It’s not even about the fact that he may have killed Captain America—well, no, it is a lot about that, but—it’s mainly about the fact that Captain America came after them in the first place. Sure, Eddie’s bonded with an alien symbiote, and sure, they’re eating people, but not, like, a lot of people. Or, okay, maybe it's starting to add up to a lot, but they never attacked anybody who wasn't immediately threatening them. Or—threatening other people. And sometimes not immediately threatening, more like a big picture kinda thing—but still. He vaguely expected the police to get involved at some point, maybe. But not this.

Everything about this is scaring him too much to think about.

His phone suddenly starts buzzing—it’s on a chair, nestled atop his carefully folded leather jacket. He can’t climb over Dan to reach it, so he clambers out the foot of the bed, only noticing now that he’s still naked. As he picks it up, it occurs to him that he could’ve simply asked Venom to get it for him. Coffee would be nice, maybe.

But coffee’s gonna have to wait, because the screen says Dave.

Eddie picks up. “Ziggy?”

“Hey, man.” He sounds shaky. “I don’t know where you are, but maybe don’t come home right now.”

UH OH, Venom mumbles.

Rubbing a head over his face, Eddie starts wishing he was still asleep. “How bad?”

“I don’t know who they were, man. Black-ops or some shit. They completely wrecked your apartment. Asked me if I knew where you were. But I didn’t know.”

“So what did you say?”

“I said I didn’t know.” Ziggy hesitates. “You in trouble?”

“Hey, thanks—thanks for calling, man,” Eddie says, because he can’t really answer that question. “I’m gonna lay low for a little while. You stay away from those guys, okay?”

“Yeah, sure thing.”

Eddie hangs up and wonders if he could convince the government Captain America actually died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Dan doesn’t speak much at breakfast, busying himself with making food, because Anne and Eddie are fighting. It started after they’d both had coffee; she wants him to reveal who might be after him, and he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. It feels wiser, Dan thinks, not to get between them for now. He’s been wanting to try mini-omelets for a while, anyway.

“I’m not asking for the moon, Eddie!” Anne snaps.

“You said I shouldn’t tell you guys anything,” Eddie says, mulish, “so I’m not telling.”

“Oh—for the love of God. Did I hurt your feelings, back when I asked you to keep us out of it? Is that what’s going on here?”

“No, it’s not—”

“I’m sorry, all right? I was trying to protect us from a legal standpoint, I thought you’d understand—”

They fight like an old married couple. Or like exes, Dan supposes. He whisks more eggs, adds in a dollop of sour cream then sprinkles in fried onions, bacon bits and freshly chopped coriander. The butter’s almost done melting in the pan.

“It’s not about hurt feelings, Jesus,” Eddie says. “It’s about you and Dan keeping plausible deniability—”

“We’re involved, now, Eddie, all four of us, there’s no plausible deniability to be had anymore. This is just you trying to be some kind of loner cowboy hero again—”

“It’s not!” Eddie says, furious now. “Why do you always have to assume mmph—”

Venom’s wrapped tendrils over his mouth, growing and twisting out of him.

“ANNE.” It’s hard to tell whether he’s grinning, or if that’s just the natural shape of his mouth. “THOSE THINGS ARE BETWEEN EDDIE AND ME.”

Eddie splutters free. “Can’t I even have an argument in peace—”

Anne shakes her head. “I just…” She makes a noise that’s too frustrated to be called a sigh. “Can you at least tell me how many people you...”

Dan quietly brings his plate of mini-omelets to the table and pulls up his chair. Venom’s tendrils start investigating the food at once. It’s nice to be appreciated.

“I…” Eddie looks embarrassed, then very obviously tries to hide it by seeming resolute. “I—no, really, I don’t think I should disclose—any information, at all—”

“Oh, God,” Anne says faintly. “You lost count, didn’t you?”

Dan pours himself some coffee.

 

*

 

Anne has a high-stakes job—even more so now that it’s mostly pro-bono work, most of her clients innocent people who will be ruined or jailed if she doesn’t go to them. So, despite how much she’d obviously love to call in sick and shake Eddie until he talks, she springs out of her chair when she realizes she’s going to be late. She keeps squabbling with Eddie even as she dresses and puts on makeup; finally, all ready to go in heels and a suit, she throws a last incandescent look at him and walks out the door.

“Dan,” she calls from the hallway, “can I talk to you?”

He follows her out and closes the door behind him.

“He’s going to get himself killed,” she mumbles, shoving her phone and keys in her bag. “He nearly did last time.”

“Venom was working against him,” Dan points out. “They’re handling themselves much better, now. Look at how the AIM investigation went.”

“AIM was like the Life Foundation—a pharmaceutical company employing shady security services. This, now, this feels different. He’s been shot by a sniper, Dan.”

“We’ll get him to share what he knows eventually. He just doesn’t want to put us in danger.” Dan takes her hands. “We’re all worried about each other here, honey.”

“I know! God. I know...” She exhales, then her shoulders sag. “Oh, hon, I’m so sorry, you’ve made us breakfast and I didn’t even say thank you and now I’m just leaving you with the dishes and I feel like I’m taking this all out on you—”

“Oh—no, hey,” he smiles. “It’s my morning off. I don’t mind.”

She sighs, then leans their foreheads together. “I love you.”

Even after last night? Dan wants to ask. But he doesn’t. Anne would obviously rather solve the Current Eddie Situation before addressing other matters, which suits him fine.

The problem is that Dan is objectively not a normal person, and as he relaxes into their relationship, he’s getting careless, showing more and more of his hand. He never had something like this before; he didn’t realize how unguarded it would make him. He could slap himself over his little vivisection speech. At the time it made sense, sounded fun and even charming to his own ears. Now that they’ve all sobered up a bit, he cringes at the memory.

Even now, even after everything he and Anne have been through together, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of a break-up. He’s handled those pretty well in the past, bounced back within days, immediately got back on the proverbial horse; but this time would be different. He’s afraid of what a frank approach might provoke.

For now, he says the one truth he can share. “I love you too.”

She closes the gap between them for a kiss. Dan closes his eyes, draws his hands up her back. Even like this, angry and distressed and in a hurry, Anne takes the time to kiss him properly. If he ruined this, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do.

She steps back, smiles, grabs her bag. “We should go on a holiday, when we get two consecutive minutes to ourselves. Not far. Maybe just a weekend on the beach.”

“I’d love that,” Dan says with too much sincerity. “Have a nice day at work, honey.”

She throws him a last smile, and then she’s gone.

Dan goes back inside. Eddie’s still sitting at the breakfast table, looking unhappy in his Hard Rock Café t-shirt—he’s got a lot of his clothes lying around Anne’s these days, even though they all have an unspoken agreement that he won’t move in again. He’s picking a mini-omelet apart, frowning. Dan looks at his cowlicked hair, his bracelets, his tattoos, and gets struck by another absurd pang of fondness. Venom’s nearly invisible, only a few tendrils poking out of Eddie’s body to feel around the table; rays of sun flood in through the window, bounce off porcelain tiles and copper pans. All these colors.

Dan steps closer and starts clearing the table. “So what’s the plan?”

Eddie looks relieved that Dan isn’t picking up Anne’s interrogation. “I… I don’t really know,” he confesses. “I mean, I am an investigative reporter, I’m sure I’ll come up with… something…” When Dan takes away the remnants of his omelet, he starts picking at his bracelets instead. “Aren’t you getting to work as well? Don’t be late on my account.”

“It’s appointments week,” Dan explains. “I’m in surgery this afternoon, but I have the morning free.”

His schedule goes like this—one week on call, one week on night shift, one week on appointments, and one week on teaching and administration. It’s one of the perks of being the head surgeon, getting to decide how to organize his own time. God knows he’s labored through his share of 80-hour weeks in his early years.

He didn’t mind, of course. He’s always liked work. But it’s still nice to have a bit more time to himself, especially now that his private life has gotten so much richer.

Eddie, lost in his own helpless thoughts, seems to suddenly realize Dan’s cleaning the kitchen and gets up to help. He picks up the dishes and loads them in the dishwasher while Venom’s biomass hoovers over the table, absorbing all the crumbs and stains.

“I probably shouldn’t stick around,” he mutters, putting the last of the plates away. “I used to live here, for God’s sake. Don’t want anybody to track me down to this place, put you guys in danger.”

Dan privately thinks they can’t be in much danger; if whoever’s out to kill Eddie hires long-range snipers, they are obviously intent on avoiding collateral damage. But he elects not to say those things out loud. “You could take my condo for a few days,” he offers instead.

Eddie blinks. “Your condo?”

“I only ever sleep there when I’m on night shifts anymore. You’d do me a favor, airing out the place.”

Eddie scrunches up his nose. “I always forget you’re rich on top of everything else.” But his expression turns into a small crooked smile. “Thanks, Dan. I… Thanks.”

 

*

 

It’s still a bit chilly, but the winter’s drawing away fast. The day’s pleasant, really, and Dan’s condo isn’t that far, so they decide to get there on foot, cutting through Lafayette Park. There are birds singing in the trees. Venom wants to eat them. Or so Dan gathers by Eddie’s constant muttering as they walk.

“How’s the bullet wound?” he asks, hoping to distract them both.

“Oh—all good now.” Eddie’s shoulders hunch a bit under his leather jacket.

Now last night is on both their minds. Dan gets a brief, vivid flash of how he felt cutting into Eddie—part of him was absorbed by the very real work there was to be done; but he also experienced again this odd, addictive intensity, bringing everything he was doing into brilliant focus. His enjoyment was so fierce, so deep; watching Eddie fall apart at the end felt satisfying on a gut level. Still, Dan didn’t fully realize just how worked up he was until Anne pulled him into the bedroom and he was overcome with mindless, painful arousal.

He’d never quite slept with anyone that way before, both of them scrambling with urgency, cursing at clothes and condoms in the dark, moaning in actual relief when they could finally start moving together. It’s not often that Dan’s instinct overrides all higher functions in his brain.

He shakes away that memory to focus on the present again. There are limits to the cowardice he will allow from himself; even though he avoided the topic with Anne, he can’t really do the same with Eddie, who’s directly concerned by the issue. So he asks:

“Was it too much?”

Eddie throws him a little worried glance. “Too much?”

“What we did yesterday. I know I’m a bit strange, Eddie,” Dan says frankly. “It’s never truly been a problem before, but now—”

Before he can go on, Eddie scoffs a laugh. “You’re strange? Dan, I’ve got an alien parasite,” he stops and groans—“yeah, yeah, symbiote, sorry—but V, can’t you see now’s not the time—”

“I’d never harm a patient,” Dan forges on. It’s very important to him, to establish that. His work ethic is no joke. “I’ve always been very aware of those boundaries. But you’re a special case in a lot of ways.” He hesitates. “It’s been going to my head a few times. Eddie, if I got carried away last night—”

“Okay, hold on—Dan, I see what you’re getting at, I really do, but look—” Eddie opens his hands. “I like a ton of fucked-up stuff. I mean, seriously, you don’t even know half of it, and, uh, I don’t really want to tell you. But if you think you’re getting carried away, you should see what I let Venom do to me.” He makes a face, presumably at Venom’s reaction, then goes on, “I’m the last person who’d think you’re going overboard.”

“I heard you and Anne talking about it this morning,” Dan finally confesses.

Eddie blinks. “You… you weren’t asleep? Wow. You’re pretty good at… faking.”

“Well, yes.”

Eddie looks at him for another moment, then glances away, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sure, me and Anne, maybe we were a bit—surprised. I think we both assumed you were the normal one, y’know?”

“I’m definitely not the normal one,” Dan assures him.

“But that’s good! I think—I really think that’s good. Otherwise you’d already be running away, and—we don’t want that.” He clears his throat. “I’ll tell you something, I’d worry more about Anne hurting someone before I ever thought to worry about you.”

“That’s… really sweet, Eddie.” Dan smiles. “Thank you.”

Eddie keeps walking in silence for a while, with that little frown that says he’s arranging and rearranging words in his head. Then he says, “Look, I used to date Annie. I can tell she loves you. A lot. And I lo—” He stutters, looking at the ground. “I—love you too. I mean, I’ve already said, once,” he adds, like he’s reminding himself of it. “So. Yeah. I’m saying it again.”

Dan thinks about kissing Eddie. How he wants to do it right now; he can’t think of a better outlet for what he’s feeling. But it feels like it would be more momentous, more transgressive than vivisecting him. They’re still struggling with a couple of implications here.

He puts a hand on Eddie’s shoulder, nearly to the back of his neck, like he often does. “I love you.”

Eddie squirms, with an almost panicked look in his eyes. “It’s—you don’t have to...”

“I do.” Dan squeezes, then lets go. “Please be careful, Eddie. I’d hate it if something happened to you.”

“No, I know, I’m—I’m going to solve this,” Eddie says. For the first time since they entered the park, he really meets Dan’s eyes. “We’re going to solve this.”

 

*

 

He’s in my condo, Dan texts Anne as he crosses the parking lot to the hospital.

Great idea, she answers almost at once. Dan agrees. That way, he knows exactly where Eddie is; he knows he’s in a good place. Control, care. It’s what they do.

I’ve been a bit of a coward this morning, he says next—because, really, he’s never been very good at stalling and procrastinating.

How so?

He hesitates, then simply answers, By not talking about last night.

Well, it’s not like we were letting you put in a word edgewise, Anne answers. And what about last night, anyway? You’ve been perfect as always.

Admitting to a fondness for vivisection, Dan texts, is that being perfect?

There. He looks at the three dots blinking in anticipation of the answer. It feels like it takes years to come. Dan expects Anne to say about anything except for what actually appears on his screen.

Of course.

Dan blinks. All he can text back is a single interrogation point. He can see her in his mind’s eye, calm and certain, with her shining blond hair. He wonders if he’ll ever get enough of that color. All he wants to buy these days are yellow shirts.

Anne’s answer comes through: Perfect for us, honey.

He actually stops walking just to stare at his phone. Another text pops up before he can even think of typing something in answer. Did you see Eddie’s face when you cut into him? He looked like he was having a religious experience.

Of course, Dan thinks, dazed. Of course this is what Anne’s got to say about last night. Of course this is the conversation they’re having about it, talking about how fun it was. Of course.

You’re wonderful, he texts, fingers shaking just a little.

She sends back a heart. Then: Also, remember I’m the one who dragged us into the bedroom afterwards.

She does have a point. Dan sends a heart in answer, feeling a bit overwhelmed. He considers himself a fairly fortunate man in general—life’s undeniably been kind to him—but for the first time, he really understands what it means to be so lucky you can’t quite believe it.

 

*

 

“There you are,” Charlene tells him when he finally walks into the hospital—and, well, that’s blunt even for her, but right now nothing could put a dent in Dan’s mood.

“Something wrong, Char?” he says brightly.

“SHIELD is here.”

Dan stops.

He knows of SHIELD, like he knows of the CIA or of the FBI, but he doesn’t actually know much about them. Their name started being thrown around more often a few years back, when Captain America was revealed to be still alive. And again two years ago, with everything that happened in DC—Dan dimly remembers they were exposed as corrupt, or something along those lines. He never paid much attention to it. He never expected it to have an impact on his life.

“They’re driving everyone crazy,” Charlene goes on, livid. “Delaying the nurses to ask them questions, bothering the patients! They’ve almost kept Dr. Hill from getting into surgery on time.”

He smiles. “Well, didn’t you put the fear of God in them?”

Charlene looks fed up with him, which is pretty much her default expression as far as he’s concerned, no matter how well she thinks she’s hiding it. “They’re SHIELD, Dr. Lewis.”

“I didn’t think that would impress you,” Dan says placidly. “I didn’t think anyone could impress you. That’s why we hired you for the front desk, after all.”

Now Charlene is looking astonished, and that’s a new look on her.

Dan just stares at her for a moment, then smiles again. “If you need it, you all have my permission to be as uncooperative as possible with them. Be professional, of course. Just tell these gentlemen they should talk to me, and only me.”

“And—” Charlene still looks like he’s grown a new head. “And where will you be?”

“Me? Oh,” Dan says, checking his phone, “I think I have surgery right about… now. They’re welcome to come watch me if they want.”

As he walks away, he can feel Charlene’s dumbfounded stare in his back. Though he wasn’t really trying, he’s pretty sure he just did impress her. It’s a nice little feeling.

He’s always been able to rely on his logical mind during stressful situations—well, his job is a long uninterrupted line of stressful situations—and it doesn’t fail him now, either. SHIELD coming to his hospital, so soon after Eddie getting shot, can’t be a coincidence. And Dan can’t text Eddie or Anne to warn them. First of all, he does have surgery, which means he won’t be able to answer their questions. And second of all, he has to consider the possibility his phone may be tapped.

He’s not certain whether he’s being ridiculous. He’s never been involved in something on this scale before; his life has definitely taken a Hollywoodian turn ever since he met Anne. First Alien, now Mission Impossible. Add the two and you get Men In Black, perhaps. Better paranoid than sorry, he supposes. His best option right now is to slow SHIELD down as much as he can; whatever they’re after, it can’t be good for Eddie.

With that in mind, he walks into a room to greet his patient of the day and becomes Dr. Lewis for a while.

 

*

 

In the second hour of surgery, Dan looks up to see a pair of black-suited men on the other side of the glass, glaring impatiently at him. They’d obviously love nothing more than to barge in there and shove their badge in his face, but being in the middle of brain surgery is an excellent excuse to avoid talking to government officials.

They look so fed up Dan can only imagine Charlene’s done an effective and enthusiastic job of wasting their time. He never doubted he could count on her for that. He’s glad they’re here; their glaring doesn’t faze him at all, and that way he knows they aren’t disrupting anything else in his hospital.

He finishes up, taking his sweet time, going as far as to do the closing up, which he usually leaves to his supporting staff. His assistant—Marvin, today—throws him a questioning look but says nothing. A quick glance at the clock on the wall confirms it must be dark outside. Whatever happens next, Dan will be able to tell Anne about it directly afterwards, assuming she’s not held up at work.

When he gets out of the surgery room, the two men are immediately on him. “Dr. Lewis? SHIELD. We’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Dan says, snapping off his bloodied gloves and then holding out his hand. The first guy looks a tad freaked out; the second one manages to straight-face shaking Dan’s hand. “How can I help?”

“A few weeks ago you requisitioned an MRI room for a man named Eddie Brock,” says the first agent.

“After a scene in a restaurant where you claimed that man was your patient, when we know for a fact he wasn’t.”

Dan nods, keeping his expression open. “Yes, that’s exactly right.”

This seems to throw them. The first agent opens his mouth, says, “And,” looks at his partner, then back at Dan. “And—why did you do that?”

“Oh, well, Eddie used to date my girlfriend,” Dan readily explains. “He was clearly unwell, and the restaurant staff wanted to arrest him—I couldn’t just stand by and watch, now, could I? We brought him here directly; his symptoms matched those of a virulent brain tumor, hence the MRI.”

The SHIELD agents apparently didn’t expect him to volunteer the entire story, and still look at a loss. His whole life, Dan’s transparence has been seen as resistance; it’s very easy to weaponize now, especially after his staff led those men to expect evasion tactics or plain rebuttals. It’s the conversational equivalent of suddenly opening a door to let a battering ram through.

“Did he seem threatening to you? Violent?” asks the first agent.

“Any odd incidents to report?” asks the second one.

Now this is almost funny. Do they actually expect him to say oh, yes, he had an alien inside him? Either Dan doesn’t know about that, or he does and didn’t tell anyone; either way, why on earth would he admit it to them now?

“He was erratic, but interestingly not violent.” True; Venom’s the one who eventually got brutal. “He kept apologizing for his own actions. I don’t think he ever meant to harm anyone.” Also true; Eddie probably never meant to start eating people. He’s had to accommodate an alien living inside his body, you can’t blame him for a few adjustments to his principles.

“But what did the MRI reveal?” the agent presses. “Can we see those results?”

“Oh, I’m afraid I’ve deleted them,” Dan says. This is, amazingly, still true. “As you pointed out yourself, my use of the MRI machine wasn’t exactly by the book; I didn’t want to get in trouble with the hospital board.” He hesitates, perhaps a bit dramatically. “It wasn’t a tumor, I can tell you that.”

“What was it?” asks the agent at once.

“I don’t exactly know,” Dan says. “He had a claustrophobia attack and I had to pull him out before the scan could be completed. But the symptoms completely disappeared by the time he came in for a second MRI later that week. They haven’t resurfaced since.” He frowns, because now is the moment where he frowns. “Or maybe they have? Is that why you’re here?”

“Not exactly,” says the first agent.

Dan really can’t understand why he’d be so cryptic. What is that supposed to achieve? Might as well declare I have something to hide. “Well, what do you mean?” he presses, appearing worried, as anyone would when faced with such a stupid answer. “What happened? Where is he now?”

“We don’t know,” says the second agent, retreating now that Dan’s started asking questions. “We’ll get back to you.” He tries looking threatening. “And you might want to tell your staff to be more accommodating next time around, Dr. Lewis.”

Dan smiles. “Well, this is a hospital, gentlemen. I’m sure they’ve been as accommodating as they could afford to be without people dying.”

The first agent coughs awkwardly. “Yes. Well. Thank you for your cooperation. Do stay in touch.” He gives Dan his card and scuttles away.

“A pleasure,” Dan calls after them.

He retrieves his phone from the sterile tray, half-intent on texting Anne after all. The odds that his phone is under surveilance feel low, and he could probably find some sort of coded way to tell her about what just happened.

But then he sees she's already tried to call him.

Seventeen times.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Venom extends all of its senses as soon as they step into Dan’s condo. It is unsurprisingly very neat and tidy, with great windows that let in lots of light and mild colors that go quite tastefully together. There’s a small round table with four chairs, a comfortable-looking couch, a flat-screen TV. It looks straight out of the pages of a furniture catalogue.

Eddie catches that last thought and snorts. “Got an opinion on pastels, do you?”

MAYBE SO. Dan didn’t have time to come up with them, meaning he also couldn’t give them the tour. LET’S SEE THE REST.

“Knock yourself out.” Eddie’s barely looked at the place; he takes off his jacket and goes to sit on the couch in front of the flat-screen TV. “I’ll be right here.”

Venom’s a tad surprised—but thinking on it, there are a lot of potential reasons for Eddie not to be interested in the full tour of Dan’s condo. Most likely, it would make him feel like he’s intruding on Dan’s privacy—something that still makes him uncomfortable and nervous in a way that inevitably turns him on. Like he’s overstepping, like he’s forgetting his place, daring to believe himself Dan’s equal. Venom’s noticed Eddie enjoys feeling inferior to Dan; here, for instance, he very obviously, very uncomfortably enjoyed the thought of Dan simply storing him away in his unused condo, in a display of both casual control and material superiority. Visiting the apartment would only heighten these feelings, and Eddie has a tendency for denial.

But it’s also possible that Eddie simply doesn’t think there’s much to see in Dan’s apartment. He generally tends to poke fun at Venom’s fascination with things, because he mostly doesn’t get how new the very concept of a thing is to Venom. Klyntar do not own or make anything. Klyntar feed and spawn and that is all. Eddie knows this—because Venom told him—but it hasn’t really sunk in. He has never taken the time to visualize exactly what it would imply regarding one’s day-to-day existence. He doesn’t realize that the only reason Venom is able to use articulated language and feel love and watch TV is because it is molding itself after Eddie. He doesn’t understand that klyntar are matter and that their hosts are shape.

And Venom would rather he didn’t, thank you very much. It felt so uncomfortable discussing its past with Eddie, that one time on the beach. Venom couldn’t lie, not after Eddie asked so directly; but it was terrifying to think Eddie might start seeing his symbiote as the barely sentient entity it was indeed, before arriving on Earth. It was awful to imagine him using the word parasite with full meaning again.

So whenever Eddie laughs at Venom for being engrossed in an IKEA catalogue, Venom feels solidifying relief. Because it confirms that while Eddie sees Venom as a literal alien—that is to say, a being from another planet with odd inhuman quirks—he does not see Venom as a metaphorical alien—that is to say something which, by definition, can only ever remain unsettling and impossible to understand, best held at arm’s length.

Bottom line, Venom likes things, because liking things makes it feel closer to Eddie. And it likes apartments best, because as it found out during its cleaning spree, they are extensions of people’s minds and bodies. So Venom stretches away from Eddie, who’s flipping through various news channels, and ventures into the kitchen.

It is big, relative to the apartment’s size. Dan does like to cook. It feels strangely lonely to imagine him preparing meals for himself late at night, without anyone to share them. Here also, everything is tidy and clean. Venom slithers in and out of the drawers, dragging its biomass over the utensils, tasting micromemories of meals past. When it is done, it moves into the bathroom, which is right next door, much smaller and just as utilitarian. Venom rifles through Dan’s cabinet, slithers into the shower stall, peeks down the drain, goes back out. All is left after that is the bedroom.

Venom is reluctant to go, because it will take him a bit far from Eddie for its taste; after last night, it wants to stay entwined with him forever. But Eddie is stuck on the couch watching the news, and it’s only a matter of moving one room away. Venom goes.

Dan’s bedroom is of course neat and color-coordinated, with a big fluffy bed and a small closet containing a lot of button-down shirts, most of them checkered. But this time, a few personal items stand out: medical books on a shelf—which Venom wonders if it could borrow—and, even more interestingly, two framed pictures on the nightstand.

Venom pores over them curiously. One is Dan amidst a big group of people, wearing his white coat. The other is Dan sans coat, with two women and a man. Frustrated that they don’t yield more information, Venom absorbs the little frames inside its biomass and brings them to Eddie.

“LOOK.”

“Not now, I—” Eddie frowns at the pictures dropped in his lap. “Venom, where did you get those?”

“DAN’S ROOM.”

“Put them back. We’re guests here, we can’t touch his stuff.”

“BUT WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?”

Eddie hesitates, looks back at the TV, then picks up the first picture. “That one’s him with his surgical staff. See, there’s Stacy.”

“OH. RIGHT.” Venom hadn’t recognized her; flat visuals without sound or smells or taste make it hard to identify a near-stranger. “AND THAT ONE?”

“I—I don’t know, love. It looks like a family picture. Those are definitely Dan’s parents, and I guess he’s got a sister.” He gives the photos to Venom again. “Now go put them back.”

Family isn’t a very clear concept to Venom. TV makes it sound like a very important thing, mostly based on who spawned whom, but Anne only ever talks about her mother in irritated tones, and Eddie—

“DO YOU HAVE A SISTER?”

Eddie’s eyes are back on the screen. “No.”

“WHAT ABOUT PARENTS?”

“Yeah, I—yeah, of course I’ve got parents.” He switches to another channel.

Parents are not necessarily a given, but Venom feels now isn’t the time to argue the point. “YOU HAVE NEVER MENTIONED THEM.”

“Could you—can we talk about this later?” Eddie sounds agitated; Venom suddenly realizes he’s trying not to snap. “I’m not really in the mood for Three Questions right now—”

Eddie’s brain is flashing though a lot of memories, some from the day before and some much older, all of it too quickly for Venom to translate it into images—one thing does stand out: they all make him feel miserable and restless. He has been restless, for a while now. He keeps checking his phone as well as the TV, flipping to another channel every few seconds.

Venom spits out the frames on the coffee table and slurps back inside Eddie. WHAT’S WRONG? With no answer forthcoming, it tries another approach. WHY ARE YOU CHECKING THE NEWS SO MUCH?

Eddie’s agitation mounts even more until he finally lets out, “They’re not saying anything about Captain America.”

WHY WOULD THEY?

“He’s important. He’s famous.”

LIKE YOU?

Eddie laughs, though his heart isn’t in it. “A bit more than me, love.”

WELL, HE ATTACKED US. And they never discussed fame as a qualifier for not eating people.

“It was his job. It’s his job to take down people like us.” He swallows. “People who—who hurt other people.”

IT IS OUR JOB TO NOT LET OURSELVES GET HURT. Venom prods at Eddie’s brain to rekindle memories of power, of joy, of being the scariest thing in a fight. WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT. HAD WE NOT AGREED?

“I know—I know,” Eddie says, then runs both hands through his hair. “I just wish…”

Venom doesn’t know what to do. Try as it might, it cannot understand why attacking Captain America was so wrong—and more importantly, why it seems to have retroactively made all of their fights wrong. This feels like a fundamental difference of opinion, like going back to their first days together, when they understood so little of each other Venom wasn’t even sure how to be inside Eddie without harming him. Going back to that feeling isn’t pleasant one bit.

HE WAS GOING TO KILL YOU, it tries. Tentatively, it sprouts a few tendrils and wraps them around Eddie’s middle. LOVE YOU, EDDIE. It can’t say much else to explain what it did. What else is there?

Eddie rubs his thumb over Venom through his shirt. “I don’t blame you, V, I promise. I just…”

Why was that fight different? This isn’t like the guard at the TV network; Eddie didn’t know this Captain America man personally. The closest analogy Venom can make is Eddie’s insistence that they cannot eat cops, because—as Anne took the time to explain once—cops are figureheads of the Authority, so to challenge one cop is to challenge the entire Authority, and that would be too much even for them. Venom doesn’t tend to agree, but it can feel how scared Eddie is whenever he thinks about that—a fear twining with thoughts of Anne and Dan, of making trouble for them.

The aftermath of the fight with Captain America did make Eddie scared like that, too. But mostly it made him sad in a painful, twisting, alive way. It’s regret. The fight’s made him regret everything.

Including, maybe, Venom.

Venom doesn’t know what to do.

“Did you kill him?” Eddie asks, again. “Do you know for a fact you killed him?”

I DON’T KNOW, Venom answers again, fretting.

“How can you not know?”

It feels like they are on the verge of a fight, but it also feels like they are both more distressed than angry. Venom clings to that tenuous reassurance and muddles through the only explanations it can give. HIS BODY WAS VERY HARD TO KILL. I HAD TO DO A LOT OF DAMAGE BEFORE IT STOPPED HEALING SO FAST. HIS CELLS—

Eddie’s clearly feeling worse and worse the more Venom explains. Venom is starting to feel truly agitated, too; it changes course. THERE WAS NO TIME TO PLAN ANYTHING, it tries. AND IT NEARLY KILLED ME BEFORE I COULD KILL IT.

He, Venom. He’s a he.”

NOT HIM. I MEAN HIS BODY.

Eddie’s pulled out of his spiraling thoughts. “What? What do you mean?”

I MEAN HIS CELLS TRIED TO ABSORB ME. HUMAN CELLS ALWAYS DO. BUT THOSE NEARLY MANAGED. THEY WERE A THOUSAND TIMES FASTER THAN USUAL.

Venom can feel Eddie’s astonishment. There are a lot of things he doesn’t understand about Venom, and Venom was so busy keeping it that way that some actually important bits of information didn’t come through.

“But—” Eddie says. “What, like antibodies? You never said it was that bad—”

I SAID IT HURT.

“But when you went into Dan… and—and Anne—”

IT HURT TOO.

“And me?” Eddie asks anxiously. “Do I hurt you? V?”

Venom has already said once what it is about to say now: only it said it on their very first day together, when Eddie couldn’t possibly get it what it truly meant. YOU ARE A PERFECT MATCH, EDDIE.

Eddie opens his arms; Venom knows what he wants and bubbles out of him, enough to form a big shapeless mass attached to his chest that he can hug. They squeeze each other and Venom nearly melts with relief.

Resting his chin on top of Venom’s blob, Eddie exhales shakily. “We really did come close, huh?”

I AM SORRY I HURT HIM. Though Venom would do it again, of course. I AM SORRY I UPSET YOU.

“No, you know what—I’m sorry, love. I mean, what else were you gonna do?” Eddie squeezes tighter. His upset is ebbing, replaced with determination. “You saved me. You saved yourself. You did good.” And this time he means it.

Venom dares to ask, WHY DID IT UPSET YOU?

Eddie releases his hold. “Captain America—Steve Rogers—he’s… well, he’s a hero. When I was a kid, he’s what I wanted to… And when he came back a coupla years ago, I felt like—” He sighs. “You know, I guess it doesn’t matter now. It’s done.”

ARE WE COOL? Venom asks.

Eddie lets out a surprised laugh. “Yeah, love.” His regret is still there but it doesn’t feel directed at Venom anymore. “We always were. It wasn’t your fault.”

They hug a little more. When he lets go, Venom manifests its eyes, opening through its black surface. WHAT DO WE DO NOW?

“I don’t know,” Eddie sighs. “I’ve been thinking about it all morning and I just don’t know. Short of going back out there and setting ourselves as bait.”

Venom considers. They might get to eat more people, which is always nice. But after the shock they got the day before, putting Eddie in danger again doesn’t sound like a good idea. MAYBE WAIT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS.

“Or that,” Eddie says with what sounds like relief.

Waiting it is. Venom’s mouth slices through its biomass for a big grin. “MAYBE TRY OUT DAN’S MATTRESS.”

Eddie makes a face. “Aw, V, c’mon—”

“OH, YOU DON’T WANT THAT?” Venom pushes farther out of him, elevates above him, blocking the light from the window, still grinning wide. “YOU DON’T WANT ME TO FUCK YOU IN DAN’S BED NEAR HIS FAMILY PICTURES?”

“Maybe I don’t,” Eddie tries to say, but his body is reacting, and he’s clearly aware he can’t hide it. “It’s really not a classy thing to do—”

Venom probably shouldn’t do this so soon after they’ve nearly fought, when they’re both still shaky from it, but that’s precisely why it’s pressing the matter. It is still afraid. It wants to make sure they are okay. If Eddie lets Venom do this, then it means they are okay.

“WE WILL BE SURE TO LET HIM KNOW,” it says. “SINCE NOW WE TELL EACH OTHER WHEN WE USE YOU.”

“That’s not what we—you’re being a bit reductive—”

“ANNE AND DAN DON’T TELL US WHEN THEY SLEEP WITH EACH OTHER. IT’S JUST YOU, EDDIE.” Venom slops all over him, getting into his mouth, his nose. “YOU ARE THE ONE WE ALL SHARE.”

Eddie can’t speak anymore, but Venom can clearly tell his brain has melted into a helpless puddle of yes, with the usual aftertaste of oh god, why yes? which just makes it more fun. When Venom wraps its whole mass around him and starts dragging him towards Dan’s bedroom, Eddie fights; Venom was right earlier—he panics at the thought of intruding on Dan’s space, his neat apartment, his well-made bed, all of it a testimony to how put-together Dan is. On such a commendable background, Eddie is in a constant state of low-key humiliation, standing out like the wreck he is; which will only gets worse when Venom wrecks him more. 

Venom transports him into Dan’s room, latching on the walls and ceiling to drag itself forward. It drops Eddie on the bed and keeps him pinned down and gagged, letting its head reform and hover over him again.

“HOPE YOU LIKE THE CEILING,” it comments, grinning at Eddie’s indignant eyes over his gagged mouth. “YOU WILL BE SEEING A LOT OF IT DURING THE NEXT FEW HOURS.”

Eddie twists and struggles at the mention of hours. Venom just bears down heavier on him, lets its tongue out to lick his face, slowly. His biomass is slipping into Eddie’s jeans already. Eddie screws his eyes shut when it inexorably forces its way up his ass; tears bead at the corner of his eyes.

“HURTS, EDDIE?” Venom uncovers his mouth—only to stuff its tongue into it. Eddie gags, swallows, gags again; Venom is moving rhythmically up his ass, making itself thicker and thinner in ripples. Eddie’s fighting against Venom’s hold, ineffectually as always. Thick drool is coming out of his mouth, most of it from Venom’s tongue, trickling down his chin and throat.

It’s always so good. They’re not even half-way to orgasm and Venom already feels like melting into a puddle to enjoy it. Eddie’s pushing his hips up, now; he exhales sharply through his nose when Venom pours over his cock and starts stroking.

“I WONDER HOW DAN WILL FEEL THE NEXT TIME HE SLEEPS IN THIS BED,” Venom says. “KNOWING WHAT I DID TO YOU HERE—”

Eddie arches, chokes, and goes over the edge; Venom milks it out of him, pleasure, pleasure, while he moans raggedly, his body sending white-hot bursts through them both—and Venom loses its substance as it goes, faltering more and more until it suddenly can’t keep itself together anymore and falls apart all over Eddie, sticking to the walls and even some of the ceiling.

There is a woozy pleasant moment afterwards like always. Eddie’s just breathing slowly, dazed, while his heart rate returns to normal. In this black spiderweb-like form, Venom vibrates at the nearest provocation, and so it breathes along.

Eddie’s the first one to recover, pushing his head up to look at the mess Venom made. “Hey, what happened to hours?”

SHUT UP, Venom slurs.

Eddie lets his head fall back on the pillow, smiling broadly. “We’ll do hours some other time. Got good at that on my own. You can just lie back and enjoy the show, for once.” He snorts. “Assuming you don’t snap and finish me off after thirty seconds.”

I CAN BE PATIENT.

“Sure you can.” Eddie exhales, deeply. “Thanks, love. I needed that.”

Venom was actually the one who needed that, for once. It’s nice of Eddie to pretend otherwise. YOU ARE WELCOME.

“Don’t actually tell Dan, though. I meant it when I said it’s not classy.”

Venom stirs, gathering some of itself. DO YOU REALLY THINK HE WOULD MIND?

“I,” Eddie says, pausing to yawn, “would not presume to know anything about what Dan would or would not mind.”

It takes a few seconds for Venom to make sense of that. Dan said of himself that he was strange; evidently, Eddie agrees, though his words are laced with fondness. Venom personally thinks Dan is the least complicated of the humans it’s met. Which, of course, might indeed make him strange by their standards.

Eddie seems like he might succumb to a nap, now that his tension’s been explosively released. But a few seconds later, his phone buzzes in his pocket. He’s too sluggish to move; Venom extracts it and reads the text.

“Whazzit say?” Eddie asks.

IT’S ANNE. SHE SAYS SHIELD IS AT HER WORKPLACE ASKING ABOUT YOU.

Eddie scrambles up to his elbows. “What?”

Venom grows a head to hover over him again. “WHAT IS SHIELD?”

Which is when a gunshot blasts through the wall.

It slams Venom’s head against the wallpaper, splattering it all over. Eddie cries out and jumps out of bed, only to duck in a panic when another shot blasts into Venom, tearing it further apart. Those are more than bullets, big fist-sized things that burst on impact. Venom isn’t exactly hurt, because blunt force cannot do anything to damage a klyntar; all it has to do is pull its biomass together again like putty—much simpler than all the delicate knitting involved with a human body. But it can’t—every time it tries to gather itself, a new bullet blasts through the wall to ruin its progress. There are already a dozen of huge holes letting in light. Venom tries and tries again, only to find itself blown to pieces every time. It’s difficult to think, to find a way to counterattack—

And then it all stops because Eddie’s standing between Venom and the wall, arms spread wide, chest heaving.

“EDDIE!” Panic snaps through Venom. It can barely muster a mouth to talk, but—“EDDIE, NO!”

It could heal Eddie fine that time Riot ran him through with one of its blades, because even though it looked impressive, it was just cleanly severed tissue Venom only had to connect again. But if Eddie takes one of these giant flesh-rending bullets—

“EDDIE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? EDDIE! GET DOWN! EDDIE!”

“Just get inside me,” Eddie yells, “inside me, now!”

Venom hastily obeys, scrambling itself together, pushing through Eddie’s clothes—they didn’t even undress for sex, Eddie’s body is still lit up and warm from it. They were relaxed and joking just a minute ago. Everything is happening too fast once again, and when things happen too fast Venom messes up, Venom attacks people Eddie cares about—

“Don’t!” Eddie physically pushes Venom back inside when it starts to grow over him. “Don’t,” he repeats, striding to the door with his hand still over his heart, as if to make sure Venom won’t try again. “Just—stay put. We’re getting out of here.”

He grabs his bag by the couch and gets out of Dan’s apartment—even takes a second to lock the door, though his hands are shaking, before he hurtles down the stairs.

“Just keep me strong—we’re going to run fast, okay? Don’t come out again, whatever happens.”

BUT—

“They’re after you,” Eddie pants. “They didn’t shoot while we were fucking, or while you were spread out all over me. It only started when you did the floating head thing. They don’t want to hurt me. Only you.” They’re on the ground floor already; he glances around as they get down into the lobby. “So this time it’s going to be me that does the protecting.”

Venom frets; what Eddie’s saying makes sense, but—

“It’ll be okay,” Eddie says, then steps out into the street and immediately gets tackled to the ground.

There’s a confused struggle; passersby yell in surprise and move away; Eddie lets himself get grabbed and turned on his stomach out of sheer shock, then his brain kicks back in and he throws the attacker off him. Venom can smell powder and fire—it’s the man who just shot them.

“Okay—running, we’re running,” Eddie gasps, already scrambling to get away.

Venom would usually rather fight, but if running can prevent upsetting Eddie so gravely again, it will run. It could make Eddie strong and fast minutes after they’d first bonded, as they escaped the Life Foundation labs. They have been together for almost a year now; they’re a force to reckon with.

Eddie picks up speed, leaps over a trash can, then quickly gets out of the sidewalk and onto the actual street, because together they’re running faster than a car. He whoops, then looks over his shoulder and nearly runs into a bus because the shooter is catching up to them.

Venom gets a good look: it’s a man dressed entirely in black, with his lower face hidden under a mask.

“What the fuck,” Eddie squeaks. Venom can catch some of his thoughts—he wanted to get to his bike, find his bike and leave town entirely—but they can’t now, because they can’t afford to stop. The man’s got long dark hair and cold angry eyes. He vaults over cars and zig-zags between bikes effortlessly, never looking away from them.

Venom was never quite afraid of anything since it bonded with Eddie, certainly not another human—not even the Captain one they killed the day before, because, well, they did beat him. But this one is setting off all sorts of alarms. For one thing, he’s chasing them; usually people tend to run away from Venom.

HE’S CATCHING UP! I AM COMING OUT—

Don’t,” Eddie gasps, “we’re in broad fucking daylight, do not—”

Their pursuer slings a huge gun-like thing from his back, then gets a knee down on the ground, skidding a few feet forward, and shoots them again.  

Eddie and Venom scream together; the force of the impact gets them airborne for a second. The fall is unforgiving—Eddie rolls on himself for a few dozen feet and slams to a brutal stop against a P.O box. The rough concrete’s scratched him deep across the face, and there’s a huge chunk of flesh and bone missing from his back.

Moaning, he’s already trying to get up, thinking Venom, Venom even as Venom thinks EDDIE, EDDIE. Already their pursuer is there, with a syringe in hand. Venom boils out in formless furious tendrils to lash at his left arm—wraps around it and squeezes to snap the bone, but finds it impossible to break; that gives the man the second he needs to step hard on Eddie’s neck and stab him with the needle.

“For Steve,” he says quietly.

When he depresses the plunger everything turns into fire.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Anne considers herself devoted to her job, even more so since she’s defected to the side of the angels after the whole Life Foundation debacle. It’s good telling herself she’s making the world better one case at a time, even though it constantly forces her to confront exactly how much evil she used to enable. Being human is not comfortable, which isn’t really news.

It’s funny to realize she’s gone the opposite way in her private life, bending her values around her happiness—in innocuous ways, such as allowing herself to be in two loving relationships at the same time; and in slightly less innocuous ways, such as watching Eddie sob and plead while Dan and Venom cheerfully desecrated him.

Anne enjoying Eddie’s discomfort isn’t new. They’ve always played these games, a tie around his neck, her hand gripping his hair. More recently, there was that incredible moment where she had a casual conversation with Dan over Eddie’s head, while she forced Eddie to keep eating her out. She’s masturbated to that one a lot—until eventually the fantasy lost its flavor and she began to imagine more extreme scenarios.

Last night certainly topped them all, though.

She doesn’t particularly like blood, or blades, not like Dan seems to enjoy them. What she loved was to see Eddie in such deep distress; she couldn’t look away from him, from the desperation twisting his face, trying to fight pain, then pleasure, until he surrendered to both. It was just like what they used to do together, only amped up to the fucking stratosphere. Working him over with Dan—with Venom—all of them coming together to break Eddie only added to the excitement. It’s always more fun to have partners in crime.

Eddie put on a good show. Anne was so turned on by the end she couldn’t fucking breathe. When she dragged Dan into the bedroom afterwards, she had a brief lucid moment where she wondered whether she was going too far. But then he kissed her like he’d never kissed her before—intense, sloppy, urgent—and she knew he was just as worked up as her, if not more. God, it couldn’t happen fast enough, and when Dan finally thrust into her she nearly cried thanks, digging her fingers across his back, urging him to move. It was dizzying to remember again and again why they were both so turned on—because they’d tortured Eddie together and enjoyed it too much. That was crossing a line, certainly. But they crossed it together.

Anne does wish they’d had a real talk about it in the morning, though. Usually, it would have been at the top of her list; she’s not one to shy from uncomfortable discussions. Hell, those are her job. But between Eddie’s stubbornness and her phone going crazy with work emails, she just didn’t have time. Poor Dan, bravely asking her through text whether he’d shocked her—she nearly teared up texting her answer.

She’s not a fool. She knows Dan’s not normal. But he’s also generous, and kind, and insanely reliable. She called him a miracle once, and she still means it.

It’s strange, staying awake at night pondering relationship nomenclature (Eddie can’t be ‘boyfriend’, that’s Dan, not ‘partner’ either, which feels above ‘boyfriend’, not that Eddie’s under Dan, but also he’s definitely not equal to Dan, because he used to be ‘boyfriend’ and now he’s not, and maybe ‘ex’ is actually still the thing that works best for Eddie, even though I’m kind of back with him, except not really because I’m really with Dan, and if Eddie’s with anyone it’s definitely with Venom—) but never losing sleep over her increasingly unsettling sex life. One thing is public, the other is not, and that’s the whole difference. That what’s always driven Anne, really, more than the dichotomy of good and evil: the dichotomy between what people know, and what they don’t. It’s how she’s been raised.

Which means when SHIELD barges into her workplace, her first reflex is to stonewall first and ask questions never.

“No, I don’t know what Eddie’s up to these days,” she says, gathering files and walking away, like she couldn’t care less about the agent trailing after her. “We broke up a while ago. I’m not sure why you’re coming to me now.”

“You are pretty much his only personal relation in San Francisco, ma’am,” the SHIELD agent says. “We’ve sent a few people over at the TV network, and they directed us to you.”

“If that’s truly the case, it qualifies at aiding and abetting harassment and I will sue them,” Anne states. It’s technically bullshit but they clearly don’t know enough about law to call her out on it. “Is that all?”

“Tell us about Eddie,” the man insists, still following her down the hallway. “Why did you break up with him? Was he ever violent?”

Anne turns round on him so suddenly he takes a step back. “I am sure you did not just ask me if I ever was the victim of domestic abuse in the middle of my workplace,” she snaps, “because it would be such a breach of privacy, not to mention a deeply crass and inelegant question, that I can’t imagine any true professional would even think of uttering it.”

“Ma’am—”

“Sir,” she shoots back. “I don’t care who you work for. You do not just waltz in demanding I give away an hour of my time. You go to the secretary at the front desk and you make an appointment.” She gets into her office and slams the door in his face.

Then she waits a few seconds to make sure he won’t follow her inside, her heart pounding against her ribs. Maybe she shouldn’t have done that. Maybe she should have been more cooperative, more transparent. But that’s not what her job’s trained her to do. The less you talk to people, the fewer your chances of slipping. And anyone would be entitled to acting like a bitch when questioned on their ex at work. It’s okay. She hasn’t fucked up too badly. It’s okay.

She goes to her desk and pages her assistant. “Paul, is he still there? Make sure he leaves. Please. Thank you.” Then she gets out her phone and texts Eddie with shaking fingers. SHIELD here asking questions about you.

After which she takes a deep breath and tries to think.

SHIELD being here basically means they’re the ones who shot Eddie, which doesn’t exactly look like they’re trying to take him alive. He needs to leave town now, or he’s finished. Anne can’t text him that, because what if they’re tapping her phone? The text she just sent him was neutral—not incriminating—but it was bad enough, and she can’t just trust it’ll be enough for him to understand he needs to leave San Francisco. She can’t go to Dan’s condo and pick up Eddie herself, either, because any idiot would realize that that SHIELD agent is going to follow her as soon as she leaves.

What she can do is go to Dan and tell him to pick up Eddie. Nobody will find it strange for Dan to go to his own place.

Anne calls Dan. Then calls him again and again and again—and swears through her teeth when she realizes he’s got to be in surgery. She gathers her coat and steps out of her office. “I’m taking my lunch break,” she tells her assistant even though it’s the middle of the afternoon, and she gets into the elevator.

When the doors open on the lobby, she can’t spot the SHIELD agent anywhere—which doesn’t mean he’s not around, but she reminds herself she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care. There is nothing strange about her going to see her boyfriend. For all anyone knows, they’d planned this.

Getting out of the building, she squints against the sun; the days are still cold but warming up fast. The traffic is miraculously fluid. She hails the first cab she sees. It drifts closer to the curb, then slowly keeps driving without noticing her.

Hey!” It’s already gone. “Fuck—” She gets out her phone to call an Uber, but just then another cab sidles up to her. Fucking small mercies.

She hops in, throwing her things on the back seat. “San Francisco hospital, please—”

It drives on, and she leans back against the seat, checking the side-view mirror on instinct. Red car behind them. Is that the SHIELD agent? How could she know for sure?

SHIELD, she thinks dizzily. Her heart is still pounding. This doesn’t happen to people. Somehow, it shocks her more than Venom crashing into their existences, because Venom was entirely outside of the pattern. Now, this—this is a pattern malfunction, and it’s freaking her out. Actual freaking SHIELD asking her questions like she’s in a bad spy flick.

Fucking fuck, why couldn’t Eddie just tell her what happened? His defense—that Anne herself told him not to tell—still makes her blood boil. He knows exactly why she told him that, and he knows exactly why she changed her mind, and yet he still wouldn’t budge. It’s that kind of tone-deaf act that makes her think she would have left Eddie eventually, even without the Life Foundation fiasco. The root of the problem is that Eddie’s got chivalrous ideals—and not in the boring, modern, hold-the-door-for-you way; no, he dreams of honor and sacrifice and all sorts of things that ultimately mean he’ll end up dead, gloriously or not. And ironically, those ideals are also what allows him to kill people.

Oh, Anne knew exactly what he’d been doing, and she’d taken care to cultivate her own denial. Now that the consequences have come knocking, now that it’s all out in the open, Anne is forced to face the fact that she doesn’t care. Or, well, she cares, but only in a theoretically moral way. She’s a lawyer, her morals have always been theoretical. What actually bothers her about Eddie’s actions are the way they impact her personally, threatening her relationship with the people she loves.

She wonders if being aware of her own selfishness makes it less selfish. She wouldn’t bet her new car on that. It seems she’s crossed some sort of event horizon at some point in her life, and never even knew it happened. Maybe it was when Venom used her body to behead a man and it didn’t keep her from sleeping at night. Maybe it was a decade ago when she began her career.

But now isn’t the time to muse over moral relativity. She’s on her way to the hospital to get Dan, but when she looks at the time, she realizes Dan might very well be on his way home, depending on how surgery went. Getting out her phone to call him once more, she swipes away the news alert cluttering up her screen one after the other—and freezes.

REPORTER EDDIE BROCK SHOT AND KILLED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT

A soundless minute goes by before she actually musters the strength to click the link.

The Youtube clip’s already pushing a hundred thousand views. The thumbnail is an imprecise mess, a human silhouette running, a black blur in the foreground.

She presses play with a trembling finger and flinches at the hideous impact of the bullet into Eddie’s body. And flinches again when he slams into the P.O. box. His attacker stalks towards him, and she could swear she sees Venom rising out of Eddie’s chest in answer, but that’s when the video stops—it’s only a minute long, a shaky shitty phone thing someone was lucky enough to record on the spot.

She starts breathing again. This is—this is good, in a way—well, not good, not at all good, but also not as bad as advertised, because Eddie’s not dead; whoever shot the video assumed he was, since nobody normal could survive that.

But that black-clad man—

She calls Dan, then calls him again and again when he doesn’t answer. Even as she does so, she realizes that if he does pick up, she can’t possibly tell him what happened while she’s within earshot of the cab driver.  

“Can you stop here, please—please, right here—”

The car stops. Anne gathers her bag and moves to the door, calling Dan once more as she goes; but when she tries to open it, she finds it locked. Right then the taxi starts again. It had only stopped because of a red light.

“Excuse me,” she calls. “I said I want to get out.”

“Yeah, I heard you.”

That’s when the situation truly catches up to her.

She slowly looks into the rearview mirror. The driver’s a woman with red hair pulled back in a ponytail. She’s chewing bubblegum, her expression carefully nonchalant, just like her driving. Her green eyes quickly flick to Anne’s, then go back to the road.

Anne takes a deep breath, still uselessly clutching the door handle. It won’t open. The taxi drives on. This isn’t just a random kidnapping. She remembers the way the first cab drove away, even though it was available and she’d clearly hailed it. As if ordered to disregard her.

“Are you SHIELD?” she asks.

“Ouch,” says the woman. “Don’t you recognize me?”

At first it sounds like an insane question, because Anne’s pretty fucking certain she’s never met that woman in her life. But then recognition creeps up on her—the distant kind, like coming across a celebrity without make-up on the street, squinting at them, trying to puzzle them out. Anne mentally undoes the woman’s ponytail, darkens the color of her hair, adds mascara and lipstick and a fierce expression.

“Are you—” She hesitates, “the DC whistleblower? Romanov?”

“Sure,” the woman says. She pops her gum. “Call me Natasha.”

Anne stares for a few seconds. Then she lets go of the car door, looks down at her phone and plays the video again.

She can’t see the attacker clearly; the camera only glances once or twice towards him, focusing mostly on Eddie. It’s hard to watch, and she swallows back tears, forces herself to get over it, plays it again, focuses on the man in black, the way he walks.

“And that’s the DC shooter,” she says. “In the video.”

Which doesn’t clear anything up. What in God’s name does Eddie have to do with what went down in DC two years ago? Venom wasn’t even around. Sure, Eddie’s proved himself fully able of pissing off people on his own, but not quite on that scale.

“Yep, it’s him,” says Romanov. “Funny story—me and my friends have been tracking him for the past two years. Ever since the whole Potomac incident, really. Hell of a way for him to reappear, don’t you think?”

“I don’t understand,” Anne says.

Romanov’s eyes meet hers in the rearview mirror. “Don’t mind me—I’m trying to figure out if you’re lying.”

“Lying about what?”

“Eddie Brock’s your ex, right?”

Anne’s getting really tired of people asking her that question. She thinks of calling Dan again, but then switches contacts and texts Stacy instead. She knows for a fact Stacy isn’t assisting Dan today, and if anyone can get him out of surgery, it’s her.

“Anne?” Romanov presses.

Anne stupidly hides her phone like a guilty high school student. “Yes, he’s my ex—so what?”

“Were you aware he was possessed by an alien?”

Seven years of law school kick in all at once to flatten Anne’s expression into an unimpressed mask. “Aliens? Is this a joke?”

Romanov smirks. It’s hard to say whether she’s buying Anne’s act. “You’d be surprised. As a matter of fact, we almost had an invasion in New York four years ago.”

“What?”

“Yeah, that bright blue beam which shot off Stark Tower. It was an alien portal trying to open.”

“An alien portal?”

“Ah, now you know too much,” Romanov deadpans with a painfully fake Russian accent. “Now I have to make sure you have little accident.”

Anne’s had enough. “What does any of this have to do with Eddie getting—” She can’t let her voice shake. “What have you done to him?”

Romanov sobers up. “The DC shooter has a bit of a grudge against him.” Her deadpan expression turns into something even flatter. “For that matter, so do I.”

“Why?”

Romanov takes a turn left. “Your ex put Captain Steve Rogers in a coma just yesterday. Mauled him to hell and back, left him for dead.”

Anne stares.

Romanov lifts an eyebrow. “Huh. So he really didn’t tell you.”

I’m going to kill him, Anne thinks. And then she thinks, Oh God, please don’t let him be already dead. “What have you done to him?” she repeats.

“Me? Nothing yet,” Romanov answers. “And lucky for him, the DC shooter’s got a soft spot for mind-controlled victims.”

They think Venom’s controlling Eddie. Of course they do—it was Anne’s first thought, too, back when she saw him emerge from the huge slick black mass, looking ill and scared. She takes a deep breath. “And why am I here?”

“Because he’s your ex,” Romanov says, which isn’t an answer—Eddie’s got other exes, goddammit—“and we need to ask you a few questions before we decide what to do with him.”

Anne hears herself say, “My fiancé’s waiting for me. He’ll wonder where I am.”

“Well, text him,” Romanov answers, chewing her gum. “Isn’t that what you’ve been doing? Tell him the truth, for all I care. We’re not planning on hurting you.”

Just then Anne’s phone buzzes. She looks down with a surge of hope, but it’s only Stacy texting her back, saying—

Anne’s jaw clenches. “Why did you say you weren’t SHIELD?”

Romanov looks at her with mild disbelief. “Because we’re not?”

“For the love of God, there were SHIELD agents in my office less than an hour ago—there are SHIELD agents at my fiancé’s hospital right now!” she goes on, brandishing her phone. “And by the way, Eddie did tell me something yesterday. He texted me to let me know he’d been shot.”

Romanov’s face has frozen back into a neutral expression. “Shot?”

“By a sniper,” Anne elaborates.

It’s faint, but she catches it: a flicker of confusion in Romanov’s eyes. Anne grabs the seat in front of her and leans forward. “You don’t know what’s going on either!”

“I don’t have all the pieces,” Romanov admits, getting out her own phone. “They were in your office? Asking you questions? And they went to see your fiancé, too?”

“Yes, I—”

“And you tried calling your fiancé right after?”

“A few times, but—”

“How many times?”

Anne says nothing. Romanov raises an eyebrow. “Right. I’m sending someone to get him.”

“What?” Fear’s making Anne cold. “They wouldn’t—”

“Sure they would. But don’t worry.” Romanov puts her phone to her ear and lets it ring. “I’ve got a friend in town.”

 

*

 

They drive out of the city and along the coast. Once they’re past the suburbs, it isn’t long before they’re pulling over by the ocean, along a deserted stretch of greyish dirty beach. The sun’s just gone down, but it’s still light out. There’s an ugly square building poking out of the sand cliff. Anne is worried sick about Dan, but she doesn’t even have the luxury to linger on it, because Eddie and Venom are somehow held there, gravely injured, perhaps dying.

She gets out of the car, wincing against the strong wind. “Is that a bunker?”

“The DC shooter’s got a WWII affinity,” Romanov says flatly. “Come on.”

Anne stumbles after her; she’s still in heels, damn it, while Romanov wears probably-ironic Converses. This would be a really bad time for Anne to sprain her ankle, and she would already have ditched her shoes if not for the broken glass sparkling in the sand.

She’s got her phone firmly in hand. She’s stopped calling Dan, but she still doesn’t call the cops. The cops are SHIELD-adjacent, and SHIELD’s not to be trusted—which is something Anne knows in an abstract way; she had taken a look at Romano’s data dump two years ago. But then it had slipped her mind; it seemed all institutions were corrupt these days, and as a detached civilian she simply assumed SHIELD had rooted out the bad seeds and then kept going, business as usual. It never occurred to her—even with that agent trying to corner her in the workplace—that SHIELD didn’t exist at all anymore. And that’s if Romanov is to be believed. Is she to be believed? Anne doesn’t have any way of knowing. Right now all she wants is to see Eddie.

There’s a man waiting for them by the entrance of the bunker.

He’s got long shaggy brown hair and striking grey eyes. That plus his black combat gear makes it painfully clear exactly who he is. He’s stripped the top off his odd leather get-up, leaving him in a black t-shirt and tac pants. His left arm is entirely metal, flashing in the sun.

As they get closer, Anne can see he looks ill. She flashes back to Eddie on the day Venom came into his life, the same bleariness to his gaze, the same exhaustion carved into his face.

Romanov’s demeanor changes as they get close to him; it gets less ostensibly casual, more calculated. Those are both dangerous people who could probably kill Anne in twelve different ways. She doesn’t care. She wants to see Eddie.

“Hey, Barnes,” Romanov says.

The DC shooter glances at Anne with his hollow, sunken eyes. “That her?”

“Yeah. We’re bringing in the surgeon, too.”

“Already have one,” he says, and vanishes into the bunker.

What does that mean, Anne wonders—but doesn’t have to wonder for long, because they follow him inside and he opens a door and Dr. Skirth is there.

“Dora?”

“Anne,” Skirth cries, going to her. “Oh, my God—”

Anne is already looking past her at the shape lying behind her. It’s not Eddie.

It’s Steve Rogers.

She’s never been one for clean-cut military types, but you can’t lay eyes on a living legend and not feel something. He looks unreal from up close, his hair glowing like spun gold, his skin smooth and scarless, his jaw just as square as it looked like on the propaganda posters. He’s lying on an old cot that’s too narrow for him, and his breathing is horribly ragged, each intake sounding like it’s shredding something inside his chest. There’s a single solitary IV line hooked into his arm; it doesn’t seem like it’s doing much for him.

Anne refocuses. “Dora, what are you doing here?”

Dora wrings her hands. “I’m the only one who knows—anything about the aliens, really—so I suppose it made sense—”

Anne turns round on Romanov and Barnes. “Did you kidnap her too? What is wrong with you? She’s unwell! You can’t just grab people like that!”

“In terms of being unwell, I think Steve has her beat,” Romanov says flatly.

Barnes doesn’t say anything. He’s looking at Rogers, his face drawn and tired.

Romanov goes on, “Our priority yesterday was to find someone who could keep Steve alive long enough for us to find answers. And one of the answers Dr. Skirth has given us was you.”

Dora looks even more distraught. “I didn’t mean to—I swear, Anne, all I did was mention your name, I—”

“It’s okay, Dora,” Anne says, still looking at Barnes. For all the shocking violence he demonstrated as he took down Eddie, he seems like he couldn’t muster the energy to even raise his voice right now. He’s still staring helplessly at Rogers’ broken form. Anne’s seen happier-looking people facing a life sentence.

Oh, Eddie, she thinks. What did you do.

Romanov snaps her fingers. “Can we focus? Your ex is possessed by an alien who’s killing people. We’re trying to figure out how to kill it without killing him. It seems to me we’re all on the same team here.”

Anne looks at Dora, who shakes her head, looking scared. Anne swallows, then says, “I want to see Eddie.”

 

*

 

They get downstairs, Barnes trailing after them like a ghost. They stop in front of a steel door; Romanov opens a small trap at the top that lets Anne see into the room through a thick pane of glass.

Her eyes go wide. Eddie’s there—barefoot, wearing only his jeans and his Hard Rock Café t-shirt; he’s curled up in a corner with his arms wrapped around himself, shaking like he’s in the throes of withdrawal.

“What’s wrong with him? What did you do?”

Barnes is the one to answer, startling her. “Botulinum.”

Skirth looks shocked.

“What?” says Anne. “Dora, what is it?”

“It’s the deadliest toxin there is,” Skirth answers in her frail voice.

Anne thinks about the despair Venom must be in—struggling to keep Eddie alive against the fastest-acting poison in the world—and about Eddie’s own suffering and terror, if he’s even conscious to feel it. Her hands clench into fists, but when she meets Barnes’ eyes, even her anger can’t burn as bright as she’d want. He doesn’t look particularly vindictive or hateful. He just looks exhausted.

“It’s a parasite,” Barnes explains quietly. “Can’t live outside of its host. Will drop everything to heal him if he’s hurt. I didn't set out to hurt Brock, but in the end I had to—so the alien would keep busy."

Romanov raises an eyebrow. Maybe she’s impressed; Anne certainly is—or would be, if she could get past her layers of horror and shock. In less than a day, Barnes managed to find a foolproof way to contain what an entire lab of scientists couldn’t keep caged to save their lives. Literally. Anne glances at Skirth, who says nothing.

“It’s too late for Steve,” Barnes says, and he sounds dead. “But maybe we can still save Brock.”

“Too late, why? He’s alive,” Anne protests.

Romanov shakes her head. “Usually he’d be healed by now.” Her lips are pressed tight. “He’s not waking up.”

“The same thing happened to Dora and she turned out fine!” Anne says, perhaps a bit insensitively.

“I—I didn’t, really, you know,” Skirth objects in her timid voice. “And—the alien mostly destroyed my kidneys and liver. Captain Rogers has been hit in the lungs for the most part. Those don't regrow and... and can't be grafted. I don't even really understand how he's still...”

She trails off. Barnes isn’t looking at any of them.

“Dr. Skirth tells us Brock will die if we pull the alien out,” Romanov interjects sharply. “To me, that means he’s dead either way, so my vote’s to kill him—that way his parasite can’t hurt anyone else. But Barnes figured we might as well get a second opinion. Which is why you’re here now.”

Anne’s mind is running overtime to find a way out of this horrible mess. She’s trying not to look at Eddie’s crumpled shape behind the glass, not to think about Rogers’ equally wrecked body upstairs. “I don’t know,” she whispers. “I don’t know…”

“You’re lying,” Romanov says. “You were good in the car, but come on. We’re past that now.”

Anne shakes her head, slowly first, then with more strength. Romanov is right. Lying’s no use. Except this makes no sense.

“No. No.” She steps back. “Something’s wrong. Something doesn’t work here. Eddie would have never attacked Rogers.”

“We know,” Romanov says. “The alien did.”

“No, they’re—” Anne hesitates, looks at Dora’s pale anxious face, then makes a decision. “It’s not possession. They’re—partners. The alien’s sentient. His name is Venom, he’s a friend.

Barnes’ pale eyes track her face. Romanov says nothing. Both of them look completely inscrutable now.

“And they wouldn’t hurt Rogers,” Anne repeats. “They have rules. If they attacked him—” Her mind suddenly connects the dots. “Then it was self-defense. He attacked them first.”

“Because he saw Venom!” Skirth says, eyes wide.

“Yes, he must have seen Venom lashing out,” Anne goes on, “—when someone else shot Eddie!”

“The sniper,” Romanov mumbles. "You've said." She looks at Barnes. “That wasn’t you, right?”

He shakes his head.

“But you were there!” Anne snaps. “Didn’t you see what happened at least?”

He glances at her, and she’s briefly reminded he took Venom down.

Then he looks away and says, “No.” He swallows. “I was following Steve, I lost him when he took off.”

“Right. And how long exactly had you been following us?” Romanov asks darkly.

“Doesn’t matter now,” Barnes says, his voice very quiet. He swallows again, shadowed throat moving up and down. “Took me a couple of minutes to find him. Couple of minutes too late. I saw the tail end of the fight, that’s all. I had to stay with him, keep him alive.”

“Which is when you contacted me.” Romanov sighs. “Then it was definitely a SHIELD sniper.”

Anne blinks. “Why would—”

“Officially, because your ex is an alien-powered serial killer. I mean, that’s reason enough.” Romanov glances at the cell door. “Unofficially, because SHIELD is Hydra, and Hydra likes to put things in labs. We knew they’d been gathering around San Fran. It’s the reason we came here in the first place. Now I guess we know why.” She rubs the bridge of her nose. “Leave it to Steve to run headfirst into that kind of fight without even trying to do a bit of decent recon first.”

“Why didn’t he have back-up,” Barnes says with the faintest hint of threat.

“We weren’t supposed to be on the job that night,” Romanov snaps back. “But he went off looking for a fight, like he always does, because he’s not doing well. He hasn’t been doing well since DC. And if you’ve been following us, you know that.”

If Barnes looked miserable before, it’s nothing compared to how he looks now. Anne is starting to wish she were somewhere else, Eddie notwithstanding.

Skirth opens her mouth, then stops. When Anne shoots her a questioning look, she says, in a shaky voice, “Anne, I—I don’t know if this is a good idea, but do you remember—what you offered me that day in the cafeteria? What you and Eddie both offered me? And I said no?”

Anne’s eyes go wide. “Yes.”

Barnes is looking between them both, hearing something in both their tones. “What are you talking about?”

She blinks at him. “Maybe,” she says, “maybe Rogers isn’t necessarily—”

Romanov’s phone rings. She puts it on speaker and a voice pipes up, saying, “Hey there, standing right outside your creepy bunker. I got a surgeon delivery for a Ms. Weying? FYI, he wasn’t aware he was her fiancé, but I guess that’s for her to sort out now.”

Everyone looks at Anne. She looks back at them, opens her mouth.

NOW, growls her mind.

“What?” she says, and looks down and adds, “oh, fuck—” and tries to free her foot from the puddle of black goo that poured out from under the door.

Hey!” Romanov says, pulling a gun out of nowhere.

The bubbling of Venom’s biomass had almost entirely died out—he had to crawl out across the whole cell without a host—but he whips up to life as soon as he comes into contact with Anne’s skin. She curses again, stumbles, falls to one knee, and feels an oily slick warmth envelop her body with astonishing speed. Skirth screams, because Romanov is shooting at Anne—flashes and sound ricocheting in the narrow hallway—but the bullets don’t hurt her. She is invulnerable, six feet tall, uncurling slowly till her head brushes the ceiling, a tower of glistening black muscle that turns on Barnes and snarls at him—her roar shaking the concrete walls, flecks of drool flying from her nightmarish twisting tongue.

“NOW YOU RUN,” her mouth says, sprouting fangs upon fangs, “AND I EAT YOU.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

At first glance, Dr. Daniel Lewis, MD, is just about what Sam expected. Regular clean-cut rich doctor type, checking his expensive phone as he comes out of the staff exit, frowning like he’s never encountered a worse problem than a low battery. But life is just full of surprises, because when two Hydra mooks try to jump him, he only looks mildly alarmed—and when Sam jumps them instead, he stands there watching them all fight instead of running away.

“Well,” he says when Sam’s done. “Thank you, I guess.”

The last mook drops to the ground. Sam, slightly breathless, squints at Lewis. “You okay there?”

“I’m fine,” Lewis says, and the weird thing is that he does sound fine. “But those men are going to need medical attention.”

“You’re a surgeon all right.” Sam grabs his arm. “Come with me and—what are you doing?”

“Paging my assistant so she’ll come get them,” Lewis says even as he follows Sam, thumbing a message. He pockets his pager with a small wince. “You know, stepping over unconscious people on my way out of work isn’t going to be great for my image.”

“Worry about your image some other time. And hey, let your assistant think you beat them up yourself. I won’t tell on you.”

“Nobody would ever believe that,” Lewis says in a reasonable sort of tone. “But thanks.”

“Are you okay?” Sam repeats, because seriously, he was a pararescue for a respectably long while, and civilians aren’t usually… like that. “State of shock, maybe?”

“I’m all right. Maybe it was naive to think they wouldn’t come back for me.” He looks only a little worried by that. “Aren’t they SHIELD?”

“SHIELD’s corrupt,” Sam says impatiently. “Like, come on. We blew up three carriers over this. You’d think the public’s attention wouldn’t shift that fast.”

“I did know that,” Lewis admits, as if to himself, before giving Sam a more considering look. “Not to sound ungrateful, but who are you, then?”

“Name’s Sam Wilson.” Everyone knows who Captain America is, few people understand who Romanov really is, and nobody knows Sam Wilson—well, they know his awesome winged silhouette from afar, just not his face. Sam likes it fine that way. “I’m here to take you to your fiancée.”

Lewis startles. “My what?”

“Your fiancée? Anne Weying?”

Lewis blinks at him.

“O-kay,” Sam says. “So this is awkward.”

 

*

 

Natasha is very angry at herself. No matter how she looks at it, the last two days have been nothing but one long neverending amateur hour.

The problem, of course, is Rogers. Ever since DC happened—ever since Barnes happened, and then unhappened—he’s been more and more closed up. Not that Captain America had been winning prizes for his openness and emotional availability before, and that’s coming from an ex-KGB operative. Of course he kept up appearances, saying that no news were good news, that Barnes likely hadn’t been recaptured, that he was sure to resurface eventually. But who were they all kidding? It would have been so easy for Hydra to fish their confused, terrified Asset out of the Potomac and execute him before he could do any more damage. Natasha has vanished human bodies before; she knows how easy it gets with the proper equipment at hand.

Sam lost hope almost right off the bat. Natasha never had any in the first place. Steve had, which made it all the worse as it slowly dwindled over time. Luckily—in the larger meaning of the word—going after the lost Asset also meant going after Hydra bases and methodically cleaning them out. A way to keep busy, keep Steve’s head off things. Which led them to San Francisco.

And San Francisco’s led them to this.

“Run!” Natasha shouts over her shoulder at Barnes. She’s the only thing standing between him and the monster and he’s not moving. “Will you fucking run!”

She shoots at the alien some more; it doesn’t do much except sting, apparently, but that’s still enough to keep it from pouncing for a second longer, flinching and growling in annoyance.

“Run and draw it away from Steve!”

That works; Barnes snaps out of his suicidal fascination and books it to the stairs. The alien snarls again, grabs Natasha’s gun and simply snatches it out of her hand; then, before she even has time to wonder if she’s going to die, it gets through her—literally, squeezes past and around her in a horrible slick drag of oily living matter—and throws itself after Barnes, letting out an ear-splitting shriek.

“Oh,” Skirth gurgles on the floor where she’s fallen, “God.”

Natasha strides over to her. “How do I take it down?”

Skirth’s shaking her head. “Fire,” she says, “Fire and—and loud noises, but—”

Natasha curses; she doesn’t have access to either of these, not in any significant way. She picks up her gun and runs to the stairs anyway—she’s going to have to improvise. Some of her handlers used to say she was good at it, before she murdered them.

 

*

 

“…but I guess that’s for her to sort out now,” Sam concludes into the phone.

Nothing much answers his devastating wit, except for a few distant curses in a woman’s voice and an odd slick gurgling sound. Then the call cuts off. Sam blinks at his phone, then at Lewis, who’s standing there on the beach with his white coat and checkered shirt like he’s modeling for the hospital brochure.

Lewis just says, “Maybe we should go in?”

They climb the concrete steps leading into the bunker. “Any idea what that was?” Sam asks, wiggling his phone.

“Well, if I had to assume,” Lewis begins, which is when Sam pushes open the door and sees an enormous monster smash into the wall rounding a corner in pursuit of Barnes.

Barnes, who was understandably heading for the exit at full speed, sees them and takes a hard turn left instead—right into the room where Steve’s been spending his coma. The monster shrieks, exhibiting nightmarish fangs and an even more nightmarish tongue, latching a dozen tendrils onto the walls and ceiling to steady its course, then throws itself after Barnes.

Sam’s weapon is out so quickly it’s like he summoned it. “Sweet mother of fuck—”

“No!” Lewis claps his hand over the barrel. “Don’t hurt him!”

“Don’t hurt him?” Sam yells.

“Listen, I know how it looks—” Lewis interrupts himself, taking a second look at Sam’s gun. “And besides, that won’t do much.”

“Excuse me?” Sam says, somehow offended in his masculinity.

Another shriek reminds them there’s no time to chat; both of them run towards the noise, which part of Sam’s mind insists are the actions of an insane person with no sense of self-preservation. Just as they get to the concrete doorway, Romanov appears at the top of the stairs and almost beats them to it; they all stuff themselves into the room at the same time, raising their weapons—or in Lewis’ case, raising his arms in front of them to try and keep them from shooting—and freeze.

Rogers is still unconscious. Barnes is standing in front of him, deadly pale but staring the monster down, nostrils flaring. Unimaginably, it looks like it's working. Sam shoots Natasha a glance, but she doesn’t seem to understand either.

Lewis blinks at the massive alien. “Anne?”

Sam belatedly notices the monster’s body is vaguely shaped after a woman’s, and the implications make him cold to the bone.

Natasha cocks her gun. Lewis startles, raising a hand to guard her again. “Don’t shoot! Just don’t.”

“This isn’t the woman you know anymore,” Natasha spits, which yeah, that should be pretty fucking clear to everyone in the room—

“It is, though—she’s just inside.”

“I know you want to believe she’s still in there somewhere—”

“No, I mean she’s literally inside,” Lewis insists. “Can we all please calm down?”

As if on cue, the alien roars right into Barnes’s face, who doesn’t budge an inch—obviously because Steve’s behind him. Sam kind of hates the guy for putting Steve through two years of increasing hopelessness in the first place, but right now he’s got to admit he’s holding up to his own legend.

Why isn’t the monster tearing into Barnes, at that? It’s not like it’s lacking teeth. Or claws. But every time it snarls as if in prelude to some animal violence, it just—doesn’t follow up, like there’s something inside warring with its instincts. Sam’s intuition confirms itself when the monster puts its clawed hands to its head and let out a massive ragged wail.

Then, just like that, it starts receding into the body underneath.

“Uh,” Sam says.

This has got to be Anne Weying, and contrary to all expectations, she hasn’t gone raving mad from what just happened to her; she’s waiting calmly for the alien’s slimy mass to retreat inside her, blond hair falling on her shoulders, absurdly untouched. She’s wearing heels.

“—there,” she’s saying as soon as her mouth is free. “Thank you.”

Barnes looks like he’s one burst balloon away from cardiac arrest. Sam isn’t faring much better, really, nor is Natasha; the both of them are still aiming at the monster, only the monster is now a woman in a pantsuit.

“Oh, darling,” she says in compassion. “It’ll be okay.”

Is she talking to Barnes? She can’t be talking to Barnes.

“I know,” she answers to nobody in particular. “Darling, I know. But look at him. All he wanted was to protect the man he loves, too.”

Barnes represses a flinch.

“Anne?” Lewis dares to ask.

She turns around at once, eyes going wide. “Dan!”

They run to each other without the slightest regard for all the guns around them, which is starting to be a little frustrating. “I was so worried,” Anne says, holding his face, “hon, are you all right?” and there’s that heart attack Sam was just talking about, because there are black tendrils pushing out of Weying’s body to wrap around Lewis; but Lewis only smiles and hugs all of her back, tendrils included, which—sure, why the fuck not.

When they’re done embracing, Lewis furrows his brow and asks, “Honey, where’s Eddie?”

“Downstairs,” Weying says. “Venom says he made sure Eddie could hold up on his own before he jumped into me, but—I think we’d better go check on him.” And then she raises an eyebrow at the Black Widow. “If that’s all right with the rest of you?”

“Don’t,” Barnes says quietly.

They all turn to him. He’s still very pale, trembling a little, still standing in front of Steve’s bed.

“Don’t let that thing near Brock again,” he says.

“Eddie needs—”

“It raped him.” In the silence that follow, Barnes adds, “I saw it happen.”

An expression of deep shock and horror doesn’t appear on Weying’s face. Next to her, Lewis has the grace to seem at least faintly embarrassed.

Wow,” Natasha says, incredulous. “So that’s what you meant by partners.”

“What?” Sam protests, because that cannot mean what he thinks it means—“What?”

“Didn’t look like partners,” Barnes says, but with a hint of uncertainty.

“Look, you don’t see me scrutinizing your sex life,” Weying tells the Winter Goddamn Soldier.

Okay,” Sam almost yells. He really doesn’t want this conversation to keep going, and anyway, there are more important things at stake here. “Can someone explain to me why it stopped?”

“Because Mr. Barnes here got in front of Captain Rogers,” Weying answers with a nod towards him. “Apparently, Eddie did the same for Venom not long ago. It got to Venom—enough that he started to listen to me.”

Barnes blinks at her. Then he says in his slow, raspy voice, “You… you can just call me Barnes.” He swallows, looking warily around the room as if to make sure he hasn’t missed a cue from everyone else’s faces; then his eyes land on her again. “If you’re sure that thing really wants to help Brock, you should probably bring it back to him. Can’t imagine he’s doing okay.”

 

*

 

They all file out of the room—save for Barnes, who just sits on the edge of Steve’s bed and waves them out. Maybe his legs are threatening to give out, or maybe he doesn’t want to leave Steve’s side. Anyway, it’s good to have someone stay there.

The basement is just as damp and unpleasant as before. Dr. Skirth watches them all come back down with wide eyes; Lewis greets her in a slightly surprised voice, and Sam hurries to her side to help her get back up. Before Natasha can point out that Barnes probably holds the only key to Brock’s makeshift cell, Anne Weying kicks in the massive door seemingly without effort.

Inside the little room, Brock twitches; he’s only barely conscious, eyes glassy and unseeing, arms wrapped around himself.

“Oh, my God, Eddie,” Anne says, going to him, crouching down. “Here, come here—”

He crawls blindly into her arms. She squeezes him tight, and Natasha sees it happen—black oily matter flowing from Weying’s body to Brock’s. As he absorbs it, his breathing gets easier and he looks less ill by the second. Not a minute later, his eyes blink open again, much more focused this time, if a little wet.

“Annie,” he stammers, looking at her like she’s the seventh wonder of the world. “Annie, you—you came—”

“Of course,” she murmurs. “Eddie, of course.”

“I’m so sorry, I—” A sob bubbles in his voice, “I didn’t know how to tell you—”

“Hey, bud,” Lewis says, crouching next to them.

“Oh, Dan,” Brock says wetly, and Lewis gets wrapped into the hug as well. It would be very heartwarming if not for Natasha’s intense awareness that there’s a goddamn predator alien in the mix. When she squints, she can actually make out a suspicious ball of black slime held tight between the three of them.

Behind her, Sam’s helping Skirth get up and back upstairs; he gives Natasha a very pointed we’re-going-on-a-tropical-holiday-after-this-or-so-help-me look before saying a few more reassuring words to the doctor. She looks shaky, but also intensely relieved—and bewildered—that no one got hurt.

Natasha turns to the weird trio again. “Hey,” she says. “You, in the slime. Why didn’t you kill Barnes?”

The black stuff slowly coalesces into a floating head with milky white eyes. Natasha doesn’t blink, but it’s a close thing.

“ANNE MENTIONED IT WOULD NOT BE SUCH A GOOD IDEA.” Its voice is surprisingly deep, a booming growl that rumbles in Natasha’s stomach.

“Told you. He listens to me,” Weying says, then pokes Brock in the face. “Unlike Eddie here.”

“Ow—hey, c’mon,” Brock protests. His voice is still rough with emotion but he looks like he’s mostly gotten over himself. “I didn’t know what to do, I—”

“Yeah. If only you’d had a lawyer around to ask for advice,” Weying says flatly.

“That’s unfair, we—Dan, don’t you think she’s being unfair?”

“Actually,” Lewis says, “I’d like to take this opportunity to request that you guys never ask me to pick sides when you’re arguing.”

Weying grins at him. “Now that sounds more than fair, hon.”

Natasha is a very patient woman. “Ms. Weying,” she asks, “why did you ask the alien not to kill Barnes?”

Brock is the one to answer. “Because we never meant to hurt Captain Rogers. Or—or anyone on your side.” He extricates himself from his friends and stands up—they get up with him, obviously to give him support if he needs it; he’s wobbly, bracing a hand against the cement wall, but he’s still in excellent shape for a man who got shot with an assault rifle and poisoned with botulinum not five hours ago. “You’ve got to believe me,” he pleads. “We’re—Venom and I, we’re good guys. Or—we try to be. We didn’t mean for all this to happen.”

The alien reassembles over his shoulder and adds, “ROGERS ATTACKED US. WITH NO WARNING.”

“Yeah—he—with no warning!” Brock emphasizes. “Also, we got shot. And our apartment got trashed.”

“I’m pretty sure those last two things were actually SHIELD’s doing,” Weying says.

“And SHIELD is really Hydra,” Lewis adds. “Which is, I think, a fascist organization?”

“Yes,” Natasha says, disbelieving. “Didn’t my speech to the Congress make that clear?”

“Oh, I never had time to watch it. Mostly I just read the headlines, when it comes to news,” Lewis explains.

“Yeah, me too,” Brock says.

Weying looks at him. “Eddie, you’re a journalist.”

“So what? I write the news—doesn’t mean I watch ‘em all the time. Did you watch that speech? Really, the whole thing?”

“Okay,” Natasha cuts off. “Well. Good to know the public is informed.” She very badly wants to rub the bridge of her nose, but she’s done that once already today. Twice would be a definite sign of weakness. “Could you think of anything that would’ve prompted Steve to attack you?”

Brock clears his throat.

“We… we kind of…” He looks around at Weying and Lewis, who don’t help him. “We… uh… we ate someone?”

“I’m sorry?” Natasha says politely.

“Well. Venom did. After we got shot.”

“FUEL IN THE TANK,” the alien says, helpfully.

“Right. That.”

Natasha manages to say, “Was it at least the same person who shot you?”

“No-o,” Brock says. “But, I mean, they were prepared. They’d brought a sniper. They must’ve had a ground team ready to pick up the body. So… maybe he was part of that. In any case, he was also a Nazi, if that counts?”

It’s getting hard to know what to do with her face. “Didn’t you just say something about being a good guy?”

“Yeah, but—and besides, I—hey, look, you kill people too!” Brock flounders. “All of you upstairs, you’re vigilantes, and it’s not like you have a no-murder code. We, we kill people and—and at the very least we recycle them. If anything, we’re—we’re better than you.”

“Wouldn’t bet 25 to life on that defense, Eddie,” Weying mutters.

“Look,” Lewis says, putting his hand on Brock’s shoulder. “We have no reason left to harm one another. Surely we can sort this all out.”

“Steve’s still dying,” Natasha says. Her stomach twists like it does every time she allows the thought to enter her mind.

Lewis looks at Brock, then back at her. “Well. Maybe we can sort that out, too.”

 

*

 

Behind him, on the bed, Steve’s ragged breathing keeps fucking with his brain. It’s bringing back up memories he hasn’t even really retrieved yet—asthma attacks, urgency and panic, just breathe, just breathe with me, all of it pulled forcefully to the surface. Steve’s breathing wasn’t ever supposed to sound like that anymore.

It’s hard making sense of anything when it’s possible to be unmade as a person, to still be young at ninety-nine years of age, to kill without knowing why. In this cesspool of chaos James’ woken up in, Steve was a fixed point. Too enticing—and because of that, terrifying. James knew he couldn’t bring the scaffolding of himself too close to Rogers, lest it leant on him too hard, lest he rebuilt himself entirely around him. He needed to pull himself together first, almost literally. Have something to show for himself. Something like a person.

He spent some time abroad, but soon enough—much too soon—he found himself back in the US, following Steve around. He knew he was making him suffer, staying away like that; but he was just too scared to make contact. He still needed a little more time. It was obvious Steve would look for him forever, which was selfishly comforting. James really could take all the time he needed.

He really, really should have known better than to believe that.

A scraping sound makes him look up; Wilson and Skirth are coming back out of the basement. They give him a quick glance but don’t try to talk to him, for which he’s grateful. Not a minute later, Romanov follows with Brock, Weying and Lewis in tow. The alien isn’t anywhere to be seen.

“Truce,” Romanov tells him.

James shrugs a shoulder. He doesn’t have any anger left; he’s spent it the day before, and it’s made no difference. Anger never does.

“Where’s the thing?” Wilson asks, wary. “You know. The black Flubber thing.”

“Back inside Brock,” Romanov says. “Do you know, I think they really do love each other.”

“How sweet,” Wilson says with a face like a man finding roadkill under his wheels.

Brock’s not listening to either of them. He takes a few wary steps closer to James, as if afraid he’ll spring to his feet and attack him.

“Hey,” he says. “I’m—I’m Eddie. Brock.”

James looks up at him. “I know.”

“Right.” He’s fidgeting, makes himself stop, braces himself. “I just wanted to say I’m really sorry about how this all went down. I—uh, I know we kinda nearly killed Rogers, but I never meant to hurt him.”

“You know,” James says slowly, “I can relate to that.”

Wilson twists his lips as if to say Yeah, I bet you can. Steve’s breaths feel like they’re tearing James’ own chest. He’s so, so tired.

“Oh, come on, Eddie, you’re just being dramatic for the sake of it,” Weying interjects. “You can fix him right up!”

Everyone freezes. James looks at her. She did mention before, but—

“No,” Brock says.

“What?” Weying exclaims. “Why the hell not? This fixes everything! It’s the only option!”

“It’s not an option. I’m sorry,” and he really does look sorry, “I wish we could fix it, I really do, but—but it’s done now. And Rogers’ immune system is too strong. Venom nearly died just from a few seconds in there doing indiscriminate damage. If it lingers inside his body, for any reason, it’ll be death for sure.” He shakes his head and repeats, “I’m sorry. It’s not happening.”

James didn’t really believe they could heal Steve; and their proposed solution is disturbing enough that he’s not sure he would have allowed it anyway. And yet, when he hears it won’t be happening, some faint trace of hope he didn’t know was there withers and dies. Steve’s still breathing, he tells himself. He’s breathing. They’ll find another way.

Weying looks like she wants to answer something, but before she can find her words—slowly, so slowly it’s almost hard to notice at first, James’ brain dismissing it as a trick of the light, a moving shadow—strands of slick black slime pour out of Brock and twist together to form a huge white-eyed head. When he notices it, Wilson jumps and curses and almost takes out his gun again; Romanov’s eyes widen by a fraction.

“WILL YOU SHOOT US AGAIN IF WE HELP YOU?” the alien asks.

James belatedly realizes it’s talking to him. “No.”

The milky-blind eyes narrow. “EVER?”

“Ever.” The next words forming on his tongue sound ridiculous, but he says them anyway. “I never wanted to shoot anyone.”

“Venom, no,” Brock protests. “You don’t owe me that. What happened wasn’t your fault, and I won’t risk—”

“SHUT UP FOR A MINUTE, EDDIE,” and Brock gets unceremoniously gagged by black oily strands. “YOU. YOU CAN HELP.”

Following its gaze, everyone turns to Dr. Skirth, who had obviously been trying to blend into the concrete walls. “M-me?”

“YES. BACK IN THE LAB.” It grows a little more out of Brock; its teeth catch the light. “AFTER I KILLED MY SECOND SUBJECT, YOU INJECTED THE THIRD ONE WITH SOMETHING. I DID NOT UNDERSTAND WHY BACK THEN, BUT I DO NOW.”

Skirth swallows. “The… the symbiosis wouldn’t take…”

“YES, SO YOU SLOWED DOWN HER IMMUNOSYSTEM. WHATEVER YOU GAVE HER ATTACKED HER MARROW.”

“How come the man-eating alien’s so goddamn articulate?” Wilson mutters.

Lewis, who had thus far seemed content to watch and listen, perks up. “Oh, I’m giving him anatomy classes. He’s very involved—he’s made a lot of progress.”

Weying’s already two steps ahead. “Is he talking about chemotherapy? That’s a good idea, isn’t it? Just destroy Captain Rogers’ immune system beforehand—it’ll give Venom more breathing room.”

Brock frees his mouth with a hard shake of his head. He looks very worried. “V, are you sure this can work?”

“WE HAVE TO FINISH THIS,” the alien says. “THIS IS THE ONLY WAY.” It jerks a little, maybe by way of shrugging. “THAT OR EATING THEM ALL.”

“Now hold on just one goddamn minute,” Wilson says. “You’re all assuming we’re going to let you do this.”

“Is there another option?” Romanov asks idly.

Wilson looks at her with wide eyes. “Are you crazy? They destroyed Steve from the inside out. You want to let them finish the job? You want to take down what little defenses Steve’s got left, pave the way for that thing to eat him whole? It just fucking said!”

“THAT WAS A JOKE,” the alien says, then licks its left eyeball. “MAYBE.”

“Hey—hey, now,” Brock puts in. “I understand you’re all worried. I would be, too. But—if we wanted to hurt you some more, we could just… fight. Right now, I mean. We wouldn’t be talking about this whole complicated medical gambit. Y’know?”

Romanov’s not taking part in the debate. She’s looking at James.

It’s his choice to make, apparently. It’s also, probably, his punishment for thinking he could just keep Steve at arm’s length for his own convenience. He doesn’t want to let that thing inside Steve. He doesn’t want to let anyone get near Steve. He wants to curl up around him and close his eyes and wake up with him in 1936.

“Let’s do it,” he says quietly.

Wilson looks around wildly, like he’s got another friend somewhere who might side with him—but that friend is Steve, and Steve’s not available. He scowls and crosses his arms tight across his chest. “Yeah, and how do you propose we do it anyway? We don’t have access to SHIELD facilities anymore, and we can’t just ask the nearest hospital to help us out.”

“Sure you can,” Lewis smiles. “Just say please.”

 

*

 

“…I think we’ve achieved neutropenia.”

“Already?”

“He metabolizes faster than anything I’ve ever seen. Venom, if you’ll proceed…”

“Be careful, love. All right? Just—”

“Eddie, leave him be. He knows what he’s doing.”

“Yeah, but—”

“BE BACK IN A MINUTE.”

Steve’s eyes blink open to a white ceiling.

He knows the sounds, the smell. It’s a hospital. This again, he thinks. He doesn’t even remember what he did to land himself here. No doubt it’ll come back to him in a minute, and won’t be pleasant. For a moment, he feels so discouraged he wishes he could just sink back under.

Then he looks to his side and zeroes on Bucky sleeping in a plastic chair.

He pushes up on his elbows, eyes wide. “B—”

“Don’t you dare,”—and Steve turns to the other side to see Sam, who hisses, “Don’t you dare wake him up.” Then he considers Steve and adds, very deliberately: “Dickhead.”

Steve blinks. “What?”

“Just where do you get off going after monster aliens on your own without so much as shooting us a goddamn text?” Anger and relief are fighting in his voice. “I can’t believe you. Jesus H. Christ, Rogers.”

Steve’s brain is still trying to spell B-U-C-K-Y with his synapses; he concentrates with a huge effort. What happened? Right—the long walk in the night, the distant gunshot, the much closer impact noise, and then the muffled scream, the tear of flesh, Steve breaking into a run, getting onto a roof and spotting down in the alley a huge slick black thing—

“There—there was no time, Sam. It had eaten somebody—”

“Again: it was a Nazi,” says a guy coming into the room with four cherry cokes lined up on a hospital tray. “Didn’t imagine Captain America would take issue with that.”

Steve just stares. This—looks a lot like the alien guy.

Sam scowls. “Aw, man, cherry coke?”

“Trust me, it’s the best they have here.” This is definitely the alien guy. “Romanov and Dan will just be a minute. Anne’s stayed with them—she’s got a lot of practice drawing up nondisclosure agreements.”

“And Romanov’s got practice filling in the superhero-special blanks. Yeah.” Sam open his can, which fizzes in his hand. “We never really do think about all the paperwork involved for that kind of aftermath, do we?”

“Sam,” Steve says.

“You, shut up. You’re a dumbass, and I’m not talking to you.”

“Sam.” Steve would get out of bed, only he doesn’t want to jostle Bucky. “Sam, this is him.”

Sam sighs so deeply it’s almost performance art. “We know, Rogers. Get with the times.”

“Just catch him up,” Bucky mutters without opening his eyes, startling everybody. “He’ll just keep asking if you don’t.”

 

*

 

Sam stretches his legs and leans the back of his head against the wall and wonders why he’s still awake. They’ve all been up for well over forty-eight hours by now. But there are no available beds, except for the other one in Steve’s room, and he’s been locked in there with Barnes for a while. Sam peeked through the window one time and saw them holding hands. He didn’t peek again.

Across from him in the hallway, Eddie Brock’s dozing off in a chair, with his arms wrapped tightly around himself. He looks rough, his sweater torn up at the shoulder, blood stains over his jeans. Piled up in his lap are the wrappers of literally twenty-one candy bars he scarfed down first thing after getting out of Steve’s room. Something about chocolate. Now he’s presumably sleeping off his sugar rush while the alien recuperates from foraging into very hostile territory. Sam’s seen some weird shit over the past couple of years, but those two are something else.

He knows he’s guarding them, technically. But he also knows there’s not much he’ll be able to do if Brock decides to just up and leave.

Just when Sam wonders if they’ve been abandoned here, Weying comes back. She nods at Sam and sits across from him next to Brock. “Eddie?” she says, gently shaking his knee. “Paperwork’s almost sorted. Dora went home. It’s nearly over.”

Brock wakes up, blinking, then scrubs a hand over his face. “Annie. Hey.”

“How are you feeling? How’s Venom?”

“V’s resting. We’re both okay now.” Brock leans against her side, a little, and closes his eyes again. “God.”

“You can say that again.”

“Told Dan I would solve this thing,” Brock adds, without reopening his eyes.

“Oh, you solved it, huh?”

“Yep. All on my own, too.”

“Uh-huh, impressive.”

Sam isn’t good at staying on the sidelines. “Listen—you don’t gotta pretend like I’m not here. I mean, Christ, I know it’s awkward, but right now I feel like we’re waiting for the death row jury to come back.”

“Aren’t we?” Weying asks. She’s very steady, very calm. A lawyer and a surgeon—Brock could have worse friends. “Eddie’s killed a lot of people.”

“Only bad people,” Brock mumbles, half-asleep. “S’our rule.”

“It’s very nice of you to pretend,” Weying goes on, without breaking eye contact with Sam. “But I can’t imagine you’re going to let Eddie walk just because he’s saved Captain Rogers. Especially not when he was the one to injure him in the first place.”

“He did save him. Not in the way you think,” Sam says, glancing at the closed door. “You don’t understand how badly Steve needed Barnes to come back.” Then, because he can’t answer her questions and would rather change the subject, “Hey, how about that fiancé thing anyway? You sort that out?”

Brock cracks an eye open. “What fiancé thing?”

Weying’s going red, glaring at Sam. “Nothing. Nothing happened—we haven’t talked about it.”

But Brock’s fully awake now, sitting up again. “Anne? Did you and Dan… Did you guys get engaged?”

No. Jesus. I called him my fiancé without thinking, that’s all.”

“Oh,” Brock says. He’s got a complicated expression on his face. “Oh, okay.”

She licks her lips, chooses her words carefully.

“How would you feel? If… if I thought about asking him?”

Brock blinks. “Annie, I’d say—I’d say go for it. Christ. Annie, he’ll be over the moon.”

She looks at him with unmistakable relief. “Really? You mean that?”

“Of course really. Will you guys—” He hesitates for the first time. “Would you invite me? To the wedding?”

“Oh—” She cups his cheek and kisses him, deep and sweet. When they’re done, she says, “You’re always invited, Eddie.”

He smiles at her, kinda goofy, looking embarrassed and happy all at once.

“Hello, I’m sitting right here, and I’m very uncomfortable,” Sam says. “Also, I don’t understand fuck all to your relationship.”

“Right, uh, sorry,” says Brock.

“Seriously, why are bad guys always entangled in some weird decadent orgy type deal?”

“We’re not decadent,” says Weying, at the same time that Brock protests, “We’re not bad guys.”

They still scoot apart; the chocolate bar wrappers fall off Brock’s lap, making him curse softly and bend down to pick them back up. As he goes, tendrils leak out of his arms to help. Sam’s proud of himself for not reacting visibly to that.

“Oh, hey,” Weying says. “Feeling better, darling?”

“MUCH,” says Brock with a goddamn Sauron voice. “THANK YOU.” When he sits back up, Sam nearly shits himself; he’s got shark teeth and milky-white eyes. “WHEN CAN WE GO HOME?”

“I don’t know yet, darling. We’re waiting on—ah, here they are.”

Lewis and Natasha appear around the corner. They seem to be chatting amiably, which might just be the weirdest goddamn thing Sam’s seen all day, aliens and all. Once you get to know her, Romanov is actually rather dorky and truly charming and sometimes bizarre—but that’s after two years and too many times saving each other’s lives. Of course, she can put on personalities like Steve puts on size-small shirts, but right now she looks genuinely interested in whatever Lewis has got to say.

“—give me a call,” he finishes. “My schedule’s much lighter now, and I kind of miss moonlighting from my internship days. Is that weird?”

“Not weird at all.” She stops in front of them all and announces, “Okay, various nurses and ambulance drivers have agreed to nondisclose our little chemo session—it’s all wrapped up on our side. Are Barnes and Rogers done?”

Sam snorts. “Ask again in six months, maybe.” But what they keep forgetting is that super-soldiers have super-hearing, and there’s the noise of a drawn-back chair from inside the room; seconds later, the door opens on Barnes, who looks—well, Sam doesn’t know him enough to interpret the look on his face. He does look around five years younger, and his eyes are a bit red.

“We’re here,” he says, his voice soft and hoarse.

“We’re all going to have a nice long chat, the four of us,” Natasha says, eyeing him. “But first, we have to dispatch the cast of Alien here.”

Weying raises an eyebrow. “Does that make me Ripley?”

“Come on, I’d be Ripley,” Brock says—then he really hears what Natasha said, and looks up in worry. “What do you mean, dispatch?” He gets up before she can answer, raising his hands preemptively. “Whatever you’re gonna do to me, leave them out of it. They’re just—they’re good people, they—”

The alien boils out of him again and fuck, how are Weying and Lewis not even flinching?

“NOBODY WILL DO ANYTHING TO ANYONE,” it says, then points a tendril at Barnes. “WE HAD A DEAL. NO MORE SHOOTING.”

Barnes opens his mouth, then stops himself and he looks over his shoulder, because the door’s opened a bit more and Steve’s appeared.

His eyes are a bit red, too, but otherwise he looks good—really good, for the first time in a long while, despite the paper gown. Sam hadn’t realized how contracted his features had become. He wants to yell at him some more, but for a long terrible moment there, he truly thought Steve was finished. Relief’s buried his anger over like a few feet of cool, merciful snow.

“Hey, Rogers,” Natasha says.

“Hey.” Steve gives a little apologetic smile. Then he looks directly at Brock and the alien, standing right there in the middle of the hallway like they don’t care who sees them. “Venom, right?”

The alien rumbles assent.

“I guess I should start by saying thanks,” Steve says.

Brock buries his hands in the pocket of his hoodie. “Yeah, well. You know. Least we could do.” He glances at the alien’s floating head, then back at Steve. “What happens now?”

Steve looks at Barnes. “Buck? Any input?”

“No,” Barnes says. “I did give my word I wouldn’t ever shoot at them again if they saved you. I’m Switzerland now.”

Steve looks like he’s repressing a smile. If he keeps beaming this much now, Sam’s gonna need sunscreen. “And you guys? Sam? Nat?”

“The fact of the matter is,” Natasha says calmly, “we cannot contain them.”

She shrugs when they all turn to her.

“I’m just being practical. Where would we put them? For how long? How would we keep them prisoner?”

“So, what,” Sam says uncertainly. “We just walk away? I can see that’s what we all want to do, but—they do kill people. Just gotta put it out there.”

“OH, CRY ME A RIVER,” the alien growls, which is just the kind of idiomatic phrase you don’t expect to hear out of a tongue-and-fangs nightmare. “YOU ALL KILL PEOPLE. YOU ALL FOLLOW YOUR OWN RULES TO DO IT.”

“Legally speaking, you have no authority,” Weying says—but she doesn’t say it very loud; she’s clearly well aware if the law is on anyone’s side here, it’s not hers.

The alien bubbles out further and envelops Brock completely, which has Sam taking a step back, because it’s much bigger this way—and much more solid, thicker and more muscular than it was around Weying. Its tongue twists into the air. “I WILL PUT IT IN SIMPLER TERMS. BARNES PROMISED NOT TO SHOOT AT US. NOW WE,” it tells Steve, “CAN DO A REMATCH IF YOU WANT. OR YOU CAN ALL LEAVE.”

Sam’s not 100% positive Barnes’ newfound neutrality would last two-thirds of a second were Steve under attack. But Steve looks at the massive alien and says simply, “You’re right. We’re outmatched for now.”

And to hear him say it—somehow it seems obvious. There’s nothing they can do.

“We’ve got a lot on our plate,” Steve goes on. “We came here for HYDRA, and they’re still our priority. They’re going to remain our priority for a little while. And on the personal side, I think I have a few apologies to make.”

The alien narrows its eyes. “SO—”

“So, I’ll see you soon, and this time I’ll be better prepared.” Steve’s gaze somehow hardens without his face changing at all. “If I hear you’ve been attacking innocent people, I’ll see you sooner.”

The alien grins, which is disturbing. “WE HAVE NEVER EATEN AN INNOCENT PERSON IN OUR LIVES.”

Maybe it means they really are trying to be heroes. Or maybe it means nobody’s really innocent.

 

*

 

The sun is shining bright over the parking lot; spring’s coming, for real this time. Handshakes were given, goodbyes were made, everyone’s limping back to their cars—but Natasha’s not quite done.

People keep wondering at the Black Widow’s presumed omniscience: she always knows everything there is to know, always a step ahead, always at the finish line before the race even began. Usually they chalk it up to spy without even thinking further on the mechanics of it. The truth isn’t a revelation—Natasha has friends. Lots and lots of friends, everywhere, all the time.

It’s definitely worth leaving those very interesting people her phone number, this time around.

“Hey,” she begins to call, jogging after Brock’s little group, but she slows down because something odd’s happening—Brock got inside the car alone, leaving Weying and Lewis outside.

Even from afar, Natasha can hear them. She’s not exactly a normal person herself—maybe she’ll tell Steve one day. Now that she thinks on it, it’s probably what kept the alien from invading her body back in the bunker, all these times she wandered close to the door.

“Dan, look,” Weying is saying. “About that fiancé thing—”

“Oh—honey, don’t worry,” Lewis answers. “I’m sure it just slipped out. You had a lot on your mind.”

“Yes, I did.” She takes both his hands in hers, and draws a deep breath. “But now I don’t anymore.”

Lewis is looking right at her now, looking almost vulnerable for the first time in three Hydra-filled, alien-powered days. “Anne?”

She smiles at him. “I don’t have a ring. But…”

“Anne,” Lewis repeats.

Natasha shouldn’t be listening to this, but she really does want to give them her contact number, and also, well, she’s only human. Sort of. Eavesdropping befits a spy, anyway.

“I—yes,” Lewis says, with a shaky smile. “You know, I didn’t imagine I’d ever get to ask someone.” He squeezes her hands. “And I never dreamed someone would ever ask me.”

Natasha looks away while they kiss; she’s got some notions of savoir-vivre. She wonders what the mood’s like in the other car, with Sam waiting for her at the wheel while Steve and Barnes radiate intensity at each other in the back seat. To think they’ve all mistaken those past few days for an alien horror movie, when really it was a soap opera.

Eventually, Lewis and Weying part, though their arms stay around each other. “Honey,” he says. “This might sound like an odd question, but—”

“What about Eddie?” she smiles.

“Yes,” he answers, sounding relieved.

“Well, he’s the one who convinced me now was a good time to ask. And I was thinking maybe he could be your best man.” She grins at him. “That way I get Stacy.”

Lewis kisses her again. Natasha’s not sure she understands everything as to the nature of their relationship, but it looks—sweet, for lack of a better word. Also, the moment doesn’t seem ready to burst yet, so in the end she walks around the car and knocks discreetly on the passenger side.

Brock, who was dozing off again, startles awake. “Oh—it’s—” He remembers she can’t hear him, or so he thinks, and lowers the window. He’s looking wary, like maybe she’s come back to shoot him after all. “It’s you. Hey.”

“Hey.” Natasha hands him his number. “Don’t mind me. I wanted to give you guys that. You know—just in case.”

“Oh. Thanks.” He takes it, then blinks. “You wrote it on a napkin?”

“I’m a classy gal.” She glances up to make sure Lewis and Weying aren’t coming back just yet, then adds, “Looks like he said yes.”

When he gets what she’s talking about, Brock gives a small tentative grin. “I knew he would.” Then he frowns. “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask—what about those Hydra guys? They might not be after me anymore, since my death scene’s got a million views on Youtube, but they’re gonna figure out I’m still around eventually. And they went after Anne and Dan.”

“Oh, yeah—don’t worry. Assuming they didn’t run away the moment Barnes showed his face, we’ll round them up. We’ve got practice. And that’s why we came here, originally.”

He winces. “Yeah. Um. Sorry again. You know. For everything.”

“No hard feelings, Eddie.” Natasha steps back and says before turning away, “Maybe don’t invite us to the wedding.”