Actions

Work Header

and a stain on my shirt

Work Text:

It all fucking started with a work lunch.

The thing about New York was that there was always going to be somewhere that accommodated your food allergies, if you were careful and well-prepared enough. Specifically, there was an overpriced juice bar a block from Eddie's work that got gluten-free vegan wraps from a reliable supplier, and Eddie had established a reputation as a generous tipper, so the staff took all the precautions they needed to make sure he didn't die. The same strategy had served him well at the handful of restaurants near their apartment that he and Myra frequented, or ordered delivery from, so usually he didn't need to worry too fucking much about dying from what he ate, but fucking Brian from Client fucking Development insisted on taking him and Priya to a lunch of appreciation with this piece of shit hedge fund that Eddie had recommended against insuring because he'd had a feeling they were cooking their books. Eddie was fundamentally against Client Development, because, as he saw it--as he'd run the numbers for it--what happened was Client Development got friendly with the clients who were willing to spend lots of money to land coverage, so they could go on to commit insider trading and yacht fraud later and then it was Eddie's fucking firm that paid. But Client Development somehow still managed to outrank the people who did the actual work, so here Eddie was, in this high-ceilinged, pearl-colored place with a handful of guys in expensive suits, and Brian was getting drunk, and Priya was pretending she wasn't offended by all the dumb shit the clients were saying, and Eddie was picking through his salad for forbidden foods. Although having an allergy attack might at this point be preferable to sitting through the rest of this lunch, but thankfully the check finally fucking came, and Brian scrawled his signature under the firm's card, and everyone shook hands, and Eddie hurried off to the restroom to wash his hands because who the fuck knew where these finance bros' hands had been, and on the way there he stepped in a puddle of soy sauce.

Except right as Eddie went to wipe off his shoe, he saw it must have been a trick of the light, some weird shadow or optical illusion. (Or maybe a prawn had slipped through and he wasn't getting enough oxygen to his brain, and now he was hallucinating it.) He washed off his hands, used a paper towel to open the door so he didn't pick up any germs from the handle, and then Brian was there, stumbling past him to puke in one of the pristinely maintained toilets.

"We're going to have to get him in a taxi," Priya said, sipping her water, and Eddie hated everything. The bathroom with insufficiently heated taps, the maybe puddle of soy sauce, the menu with its gluten and seafood and cashews, the hedge fund, Client Development (hated that more than usual, anyway). But the responsible thing was to get his coworker home safely, and he'd left his car at the office, and the subway was a sewer of bodily fluids. So Eddie shuddered and helped Priya get Brian into a taxi, and the three of them took the taxi back to the office, and Eddie drove home at six, and by seven-thirty he was burning up.

"It's okay, Myra," he said, and downed a couple of Tylenol. "It was just another work function."
She started to fuss, but he wanted to go to sleep early--didn't want her to catch anything from him, but also he felt like his fever was spiking, and he was sweating buckets, and if he had to go to the hospital, he wasn't getting dragged there by his wife, he was forty and he could call his own damn ambulance--

In the middle of the night he stumbled out of his bed, in his bedroom, which he did not share with Myra, into his bathroom, which he also did not share with Myra, and he looked at his face in the mirror, with beads of sweat running down it, and there was something wrong with his eyes and his teeth, and he must have been hallucinating because he thought he heard a voice saying, YOU ARE NOT MY LOSER EDDIE, BUT YOU ARE A LOSER, EDDIE, AND YOU WILL DO.

In the morning it seemed like a bad dream, except he was still sick. He didn't tell Myra more than that he thought he got food poisoning from some bad arugula, no, it probably wasn't E. Coli but he would go to the hospital if it got worse. He was drenched in his own sweat but she didn't see him, only heard his shaky voice through the door. He also composed an out sick email with grim satisfaction: his colleagues might have made fun of his hermetically sealed lunches that varied little from day to day, and of how he was the only person in Manhattan who drove to work, but it had been one day since the unaccommodating fusion restaurant and the sticky, sweltering taxi, and he seriously could die from this.

YOU PROBABLY WON'T, said the voice from last night. BUT WE WILL NEED TO FEED SOON IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO EXPERIENCE ORGAN FAILURE.

Eddie jumped out of bed, dropped his phone on the duvet. "This is not real," he said, stumbling to the bathroom to splash water on his face, maybe take a cold shower to get his temperature down. His mother had had lots of words for people who saw and heard things that didn't exist, he remembered that now. And there was the thread of something else, something that had happened long ago when he was a child. A dirt lot, an emaciated face. Something that couldn't possibly have been real. A nightmare. A--

I ASSURE YOU, I AM REAL, said the voice. I AM IN YOUR HEAD BECAUSE MY LOSER EDDIE SAYS I LACK DISCRETION, BUT I CAN SHOW YOU THAT I AM NOT ONLY IN YOUR HEAD.

And then something fucking rippled under his skin and there were these little black tendrils curling around his forearms and his neck and Eddie guessed it wasn't just an auditory hallucination. He looked in the mirror and there was something staring back at him with eyes that were all white and with way too many teeth and it said, in the auditory hallucination's voice, HELLO, EDDIE.

And that tethered scrap of a childhood memory was what stopped Eddie from deciding that there'd been a carelessly plucked mushroom in his salad yesterday, or that his fever had blown way past 104 and his brain was boiling and Myra was going to come home and find him dead and spend the rest of her life in even more therapy. The face was part of the thing that was wiggling all over his arms, and he looked it in their face and said, "Are you fucking with me?"

NO, said the thing, their eyes going round with real shock. Eddie can fucking feel their shock in his spine. I AM TRYING TO EXPLAIN THIS TO YOU. MY LOSER EDDIE TOOK QUITE SOME TIME TO BE CONVINCED.

"Convinced of what?" Eddie's fists were balled, but since they were also this thing's fists he got a real good look at some real sharp talons.

I AM A SYMBIOTE FROM ANOTHER SYSTEM, said the thing. SOME EVIL VENTURE CAPITALISTS TRIED TO MONETIZE US, MY LOSER EDDIE AND I DEFEATED THEM, AND NOW HE AND I FIGHT CRIME TOGETHER.

Eddie ran the edge of one wickedly sharp talon across the thing's skin. There was no mark, no pain. He felt it, but it didn't hurt. "Fuck," he said, faint from the thought of it, "you're fucking indestructible."

YES, said the thing, sounding pleased.

All his life Eddie had been told to be careful. All his life he hadn't been allowed--by his mother, by Myra, by himself--to do any number of things, but he could feel this thing's power, and the idea of it, of running and jumping and falling and getting back up again without a scratch, of lungs that never quit, of bones that didn't break and skin that didn't bruise, was almost too much. It was more alien than the symbiote that was telling him all of this.

YOU ARE MUCH MORE ACCEPTING OF THIS THAN MY LOSER EDDIE WAS, mused the thing. HE FOUGHT IT FOR DAYS.

"I read a lot of comic books growing up." Eddie didn't remember most of his childhood, didn't remember any of the comics he'd read, or how he'd got them, snuck them past his mom, but he knew it was true. He never thought he'd be the one to get superpowers, though, he always thought--

The memory stuttered and the name escaped him.

"Hey," he said, "do you have a name?"

WE ARE CALLED VENOM, the thing--Venom--said. It wasn't a reassuring name as far as Eddie was concerned, especially connected with the fever: it made him think of food poisoning, not that he'd had food poisoning since college, because he was careful about what he ate, and maybe his system was more robust than he gave it credit for. But sometimes animal toxins were used to develop cures for diseases. Having Venom around meant that Eddie could, theoretically, do things that would otherwise be too dangerous. He could climb fire ladders. Jog in Central Park. Maybe he could even eat gluten.

That reminded him of something else, something Venom had said while Eddie was still disbelieving and thinking he might die. "What did you mean when you said 'feed'?"

Venom told him.

Eddie's claw-tipped fingers flailed around for his inhaler.

"Prions," he said, when he could breathe again, "have you ever heard of prions?"

NO, said Venom.

"What about mad cow disease, have you ever heard of that?" Eddie clutched his head. His brain was going to be riddled with lesions. It was going to look like Swiss cheese. He was never going to go rock climbing after all. He was never--

NO. I HAVE SEEN COWS WHEN MY LOSER EDDIE HAS BEEN IN PETALUMA, BUT THEY STRIKE ME AS VERY PLACID AND CONTENTED ANIMALS AND NOT MAD AT ALL.

Eddie wondered if that was supposed to be fucking funny, because it wasn't. "Is that what happened to the other Eddie? You ate humans and his brain turned to mush and you abandoned--"

There was a sudden psychic roar that left him staggering, clutching at the bathroom counter. Venom's talons carved chunks out of the marble as they howled, YOU DARE, and I WOULD NEVER, and EDDIE.

Okay, thought Eddie. "Cannibalism is taboo for a reason."

YOU ARE NOT EATING OTHER HUMANS, said Venom. I AM EATING HUMANS. AND BECAUSE MY LOSER EDDIE HAS MORALS, WE ONLY EAT BAD HUMANS LIKE VIOLENT CRIMINALS AND PEOPLE WHO STOP ON THE SUBWAY STAIRS TO CHECK THEIR PHONES. HE HAS NEVER HAD ANY ILL EFFECTS FROM THE PEOPLE WE EAT, ALTHOUGH HE COMPLAINS ABOUT HIS BLOOD SUGAR IF I TRY TO PUT TOO MUCH FUDGE SAUCE ON OUR TATER TOTS.

"Tater tots?" Eddie repeated. "And fudge sauce? From, like, one of those fucking plastic bottles?" He stopped. "Why the fuck do I find that more horrifying than dead people?"

I DO NOT EAT DEAD THINGS, Venom corrected him, and Eddie didn't know if that was better or worse. Eating living people was murder, but dead people would probably have all sorts of putrefaction, and--

Eddie ran back to the bedroom for his inhaler. The tendrils of black retreated as he took a puff on it, waited three minutes, and then took another. He lay down and counted his breaths, until he could ask, "So if you don't get sick, and you don't kill people, why were you hanging around looking for a new host? What the fuck happened to your old Eddie?"

Venom was silent for a minute, and Eddie got the sense that they were sulking. Maybe he'd been caught it out in a lie, though he didn't know what good that will do him. If Venom was going to kill him anyway, Eddie probably wouldn't let it kill and eat people while wearing his body. Well, maybe Sam from the seventh floor, who couldn't park for shit, always dinged Myra's car and then fucking lied about it. HE IS DOING INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING INTO THE SHADOWY NETWORK OF DONORS BEHIND THE CRUZ CAMPAIGN. HE TOLD ME TO LAY LOW FOR A WHILE BECAUSE HE MIGHT HAVE TO INTERACT WITH TED CRUZ AND ACCORDING TO EDDIE, I DON'T PLAY WELL WITH OTHER ALIEN PARASITES.

"I fucking knew it," Eddie said, and leaned back to rest his head on his half-drenched pillow.
The last thing he thought, before he passed out again, was he could not let Myra know he got a parasite from a restaurant that had gotten an A grade from the health department. She'd never understand, and Eddie kind of liked restaurant food, but not enough to fight with Myra over it.

-

Everything was even more drenched when he woke up. "Shit," he murmured. There was this sheen on his skin that looked amphibious, but he was just really fucking disgusting. He was going to need to do laundry before Myra got back from work.

Eddie changed out of yesterday's clothes and into jeans and a hoodie and shambled downstairs, then half a block to the CVS. It was about as deserted as it could be at half past eleven on a weekday morning. Everything seemed kind of blurry to Eddie. He loaded up his handbasket with rehydration drinks, grabbed a bunch of anti-inflammatories and painkillers off the shelf. Venom might be invincible, but Eddie felt like he had the worst flu of his fucking life already, and he was turning to head back to the checkout when he heard the pharmacist on duty say, "Of course, what big pharma won't tell you is that herbal supplements are the way to go."

His back stiffened. He looked over the aisles. And there was this fucking pharmabro with a goatee who probably wore fucking flip flops to work, telling this trembling senior citizen, that maybe she didn't need to take her anxiety medication, there was this all-natural alternative that was just $29.99 a month, and also had she considered the blood-pressure-lowering benefits of Kratom, and Eddie saw red. Normally he'd barge in and talk about how the FDA didn't even regulate supplements, that there weren't mandatory tests, that anyone could make up any bullshit to sell any snake oil, but he was dripping sweat and burning up and listing to one side. He looked like Patient Zero in a pandemic movie. He wasn't credible. Also if he had to keep standing for much longer he just might throw up.

Still, he was trembling in indignation as well as with chills. How dare someone who was supposed to be a trusted medical professional push someone trusting him into taking what was at best a gazebo (placebo, fuck, he really needed more potassium) and at worst shoddily manufactured capsules that contain rat droppings and shards of glass? How dare--

CAN WE EAT HIM?

"Yeah," Eddie sighed, as the senior citizen trudged to the front of the store and the slick blackness of Venom crept up his neck. "Yeah, I guess we can."

-

The cashier, when he checked out, asked, "Are you okay, man?"

Eddie was miles away, wondering where it all went. When Venom emerged, they were easily twice Eddie's height, and they just ate about two hundred pounds of human, but now that Eddie was Eddie again, he didn't feel any different. Actually, he did feel like his fever had broken and like he was able to concentrate again. "Yeah," said Eddie. "Sorry, this is just--went for a longer jog this morning than I intended."

"Okay." The cashier handed Eddie his bag. On the way from the now-empty pharmacy counter to the front of the store, Eddie had grabbed a box of saltines, because suddenly he was starving, and he barely waited to get out of the store before he was tearing a sleeve open with his teeth, and washing some of the crackers down with a rehydration drink that tasted like at one point it was in the same room with a piece for fruit for five minutes, but not very close to it.

He felt better, though, good enough to take the stairs up to his and Myra's apartment, and once there he stripped off his sweaty clothes, loaded them and his sheets into the washing machine, and stepped into the shower. "Is that all you needed?"

IT'S BEEN A FEW DAYS SINCE WE ATE, Venom admitted. AND YOU ARE A GOOD HOST. Eddie actually hated having people in his space, especially people who'd been on planes recently--oh. I AM A SYMBIOTE, NOT A PARASITE. WITH THE RIGHT HOST.

"What happens with the wrong host?"

There was an embarrassed silence while Eddie washed his hair, until Venom finally admitted, I EAT THEM FROM THE INSIDE. I WOULD NOT HAVE DONE THAT TO YOU. I PROMISED MY EDDIE I WOULD LOOK FOR A SUITABLE TEMPORARY HOST, AND YOU WERE ANOTHER LOSER NAMED EDDIE, AND ALSO VERY ANGRY. WE ARE VERY COMPATIBLE.

"Fucking great," said Eddie.

THERE WAS ONLY A TWO PERCENT CHANCE I WOULD NOT TAKE, AND I WOULD HAVE LEFT YOU BEFORE I DEVOURED YOU. I DO NOT WANT TO DISAPPOINT MY EDDIE.

Eddie sighed, rinsed off, stepped out. Now that he no longer felt virulently ill, the reality of what he's doing was setting in. He wasn't a superhero. He wasn't a vigilante. He was a loser, and he always had been. "How often do you, you know. Need to feed."

WEEKLY, said Venom. APPROXIMATELY. I WILL LET YOU KNOW IF I AM GETTING HUNGRY.

"Great," said Eddie. "Fucking great."

I CAN EAT MORE OFTEN THAN THAT.

What if there were cameras in the CVS? Sure, all they would catch was a blur, an oil slick of eyes and muscle and teeth, the pharmacist there one second and gone the next, but still--

EDDIE. The symbiote stretched its way from out beneath his skin, formed a face. DO NOT PANIC. WE WILL BE FINE. I WILL MAKE EVERYTHING FINE.

"Okay," Eddie said, quietly, more out of habit than anything else. The symbiote'd been a symbiote for a while, he guessed. He'd only been host to one for twenty-four hours.

GOOD, said Venom, and pulled themselves back into Eddie. LET'S GO TO CONEY ISLAND.

-

Venom being hungry, Eddie found, wasn't what he has to worry about, so much as Venom being bored. Venom's Eddie was an investigative journalist when he wasn't out patrolling with Venom. Eddie had absolutely no intention of jumping around the roofs of Manhattan like he was Spider-Man, and told Venom as much, and Venom sulked and pestered Eddie when he was at work.

WHAT ARE THESE STUPID DOCUMENTS? they demanded, staring at Eddie's monitor. Eddie had his own office and he usually kept the blinds shut and the door closed, so Venom's tendrils wriggling out from under his collar and cuffs to prod the computer monitor weren't seen by any of his coworkers, thank god.

"They're financial statements," explained Eddie, "and schematics, and--"

THEY'RE BORING.

"They're my job." The other Eddie, the investigative journalist, must have to dig through files for evidence from time to time--

THAT'S NOT ALL HE DOES, said Venom. ALL YOU DO IS STARE AT A SCREEN AND GO HOME AND EAT DINNER WITH MYRA AND SLEEP. YOU'RE BORING.

"Fuck you." He'd been running in Central Park. Last weekend he went to Brooklyn--Brooklyn!--and Venom had declined to eat a hipster. "This is my job, and I have to do it. I'm going to be stuck with this long after you go back to your Eddie, so you're going to have to deal with it."

Venom's tendrils snaked into Eddie's pocket and pulled out his phone. Eddie hated when he did that, it fucking tickled. FINE, they said, I WILL WATCH NETFLIX.

Eddie was glad he and Myra had separate profiles--her complaint about his watching the Trashmouth special messing up their recommendations had definitely backfired: Eddie knew she wanted him to stop watching what she considered filth, but since she wouldn't come out and say so, he was going to keep watching it--or he would have to explain to her why he was apparently bingeing Call the Midwife and the Alien movies while he was supposed to be at work. It was a stopgap measure, though, Eddie knew: Venom yearned to be out and about, either mauling muggers or trying to convince Eddie to gorge on cotton candy and corn dogs.

They didn't know why Eddie thought that was a bad idea. Venom, Eddie was coming to understand, was a relative newbie to the whole human experience. It didn't understand Eddie's work, or the concept of insurance. It didn't understand stand-up comedy, which would make it Myra's natural ally, should Eddie ever allow the two to meet, which he decidedly never would. Venom had watched some of Richie Tozier's work, on account of it showing up on Eddie's Netflix, and his YouTube page, and pestered Eddie about it. I DID NOT KNOW YOUR KIND HAD PUBLIC CONFESSIONALS, they'd said.

"Uh," Eddie'd said.

THEY CONFESS THEIR TRANSGRESSIONS AND THEY ARE LAUGHED AT, TO DEEPEN THE SHAME.

Eddie had checked his phone and its history. "That's, uh. More of an entertainment," he said, and he fucking blushed, not that Venom could have seen it.

I SEE, Venom had said. THE HUMILIATION IS FOR THE PURPOSES OF TITILLATION. IT IS SPECIALIZED PORNOGRAPHY. MY EDDIE IS INTO--

Eddie really didn't need to know what the other Eddie jerked off to, and let Venom know.

The worst part about it was that Venom wasn't actually wrong. Eddie didn't feel great when he watched the Tozier specials, the interviews, the cameos in bad movies, and touched himself. But that wasn't anything he was prepared to share with Venom, and besides, Venom liked Jersey Shore. It was a stones and glass houses sort of situation.

Venom slinked back under Eddie's skin as he went to the break room to grab his lunch. HAVE YOU CONSIDERED QUESADILLAS? Venom asked, because Venom didn't understand gluten. THEY CAN BE MADE WITH CORN TORTILLAS, CAN THEY NOT?

Eddie didn't reply. Some of his coworkers were there. He nodded to Jenny and Conrad and by extension Susan, the resident anti-vaxxer idiot. He tried to avoid her as much as possible, and it wasn't like he'd ever told her to her face that her deeply misinformed and dangerous ideas about vaccinations should disqualify her from a job in risk management, but he was glad they were never on the same team. She must be expounding on one of her favorite conspiracy theories because Jenny was wearing a polite grimace, and as Eddie pulled his wrap out of the fridge he could hear Susan talking excitedly about an interview she was looking forward to tonight on Fox News, with one of her idiot anti-vaxxer heroes.

WE SHOULD EAT HIM, Venom said

"Probably." Eddie headed back to his desk, tore into the wrap. Myra was always chiding him to watch his blood sugar, he got so snappish when he didn't eat. (It had nothing to do with when and what he ate.) "We could pretty much eat anyone on Fox News and leave the world a better place."

THAT IS GOOD TO KNOW. Venom took out Eddie's phone again. EDDIE. EDDIE.

Eddie sighed and looked away from his computer, again. "I'm not shelling out for Hulu, okay? Deal with it."

WHY ARE THERE LESS THAN TEN REAL HOUSEWIVES IN EVERY MAJOR METROPOLITAN AREA? IT DOES NOT SEEM CONSISTENT WITH THE MOST RECENT CENSUS DATA.

Venom didn't understand reality TV. It put them in a foul mood, which put Eddie in a foul mood, which was only partly assuaged when Venom grabbed Susan's herd-immunity-endangering dipshit hero and ripped him into bite-sized pieces. It was gross, it was gory, and Eddie was really hoping no police officer or private security heard the screams and decides to investigate. He wanted his inhaler.

No one came to see what was going on and he didn't have his inhaler. Eddie got home late with a lie about working at the office and takeout from the Eritrean place that has figured out gluten-free injera.

"Eddie-bear," said Myra, "I hope it's not too spicy. You don't want to get heartburn."

"A little heartburn never killed anyone," said Eddie.

She looked at him then, over the glasses of red wine they both allowed themselves five times a week because it was medically advantageous and also Eddie suspected they might not stay married if they were sober the entire time, as if she was going to reach across the table and take his temperature. She still didn't believe his fever from a few weeks ago went away that fast. What if he'd had an infection? she wanted to know. What if it was Lyme disease? What if it was Lupus? (It was never Lupus.)

Eddie tore off a piece of injera, and spooned some Alicha onto his plate. When he'd gone to pick the food up, the patrons were all eating with their hands, but Eddie was pretty sure that if he'd tried that in front of her Myra might have him committed.

"Are you sure you feel okay?" she asked.

He had an alien intelligence living inside him and he'd killed four people. They had been terrible people and the world and the flow of traffic was better off without them, but he was still a murderer, or an accessory to murder.

DEFINITELY AN ACCESSORY, Venom opined. EDDIE, YOUR COHABITANT MIGHT BE RIGHT, THIS SUSTENANCE IS VERY SPICY.

Eddie scooped some of the okra onto his plate, took another piece of injera. "Yeah," he said. "My back isn't happy with the long day at work, but all things considered, I feel pretty good."

EDDIE. Eddie chose to pour himself a little more Pinot and ignore Venom, and also Myra telling him he should get a more ergonomic desk and chair and readjust his keyboard. EDDIE.

Venom didn't understand about Myra. MY EDDIE TOLD HIS FRIENDS ABOUT US, they had chided Eddie after one of his rare fights with Myra.

"She's not my friend," Eddie had replied, "she's my wife."

He'd thought that might put an end to it, but Venom had said, pensively, I THINK MY EDDIE MAY HAVE EXAGGERATED THE BONDS OF MARRIAGE. And it was really not a good fucking feeling when an alien pile of goo was judging your marriage. Eddie got enough of that from other humans.

-

For the first time since February, Eddie felt sick.

At first he thought it was guilt over snapping at Myra that he liked spicy food, that it didn't give him indigestion. And then he woke up a little more and realized he was sweating again. His bedside clock said it was a quarter after midnight.

Luckily, Myra slept with earplugs and a face mask: she wasn't going to hear him if he ran to the bathroom and--

EDDIE, moaned Venom. EDDIE, I DON'T FEEL WELL.

And his stomach was fine. But he was sweating, and his muscles ached, and last time when he'd been ill because Venom had been bonding to him, Venom had felt fine.

Now Eddie really didn't feel well. Venom was indestructible. What could hurt them?

I THINK I HAVE MAD COW DISEASE.

"You don't have mad cow disease," said Eddie. "First of all, you said prions weren't a concern for you, and second, as dumb as anti-vaxxers are, I don't think their brains are literally rotting."

IF A COW FELT LIKE I FELT, IT WOULD BE MAD, Venom argued, and then let out a big psychic burp.

"It's just indigestion," Eddie told Venom, secretly relieved, but he was still sweating.

IT WOULD BE FURIOUS. IT WOULD BE HOMICIDAL.

"I think it's supposed to be the British definition of mad--"

Venom's tendrils whipped out over Eddie so fast he didn't have time to protest, and then Venom had taken over his body, and was diving out the window and running down the side of the fucking building and hunching over in the alleyway and vomiting.

Eddie hadn't given that much thought to Venom's digestive system beyond wondering where it all went when Venom retreated back into Eddie's body, but the smell would make him puke if he wasn't already. Bits of bone came up, and something that looked like half a liver, and glistening yellow fat. The stomach acid surrounding it all started to eat through the pavement in the alleyway. Eddie tried to urge Venom backwards, but Venom was busy hacking up what looked like a very ugly hairball but was actually the cheap toupee of the man they'd eaten earlier that night.

Venom stood there, talons gauging chunks out of the apartment building's wall, as they tried to get their breath back. But they were already feeling better, Eddie could tell.

"So," said Eddie, "next time we spit out the toupee." It was sitting there in the puddle of sizzling gore and concrete, but somehow not dissolving. It must have been made of plastic.

THAT WAS REVOLTING.

"He was a pretty revolting dude," said Eddie. "Let's get rid of the hairpiece, in case anyone goes looking for him."

Venom picked the hairpiece up using a plastic bag like it was a dog turd. At Eddie's suggestion he dropped the hairpiece down the sewer, and the bag in a nearby trash can.

I HAVE NEVER HAD TO DISPOSE OF EVIDENCE BEFORE, said Venom. YOU ARE GOOD AT THIS, EDDIE.

"I just don't want to get into trouble." Eddie suddenly felt small and tired and defeated. He wanted to go back home, eat the leftovers from tonight's takeout, and go back to bed, and not wake up until Sunday.

Venom was quiet as they climbed back up to Eddie's apartment. It was a lot less disorienting than it'd been going down, because even though Venom was fast, he was climbing like a human might climb a cliff, or a tree. He wasn't walking on a vertical surface with his feet dug in, like gravity was an afterthought. Eddie washed his hands thoroughly, showered again, got out a new pair of pajamas, and rolled himself in blankets, and tried to fall asleep. What if he got caught? What if he'd accidentally touched parts of the corpse or Venom's stomach acid? Did they have enough Purell that he could fill the tub halfway and bathe in it, because after what he'd seen in the alleyway, he felt like bathing in it.

DON'T BE SCARED, EDDIE. Venom really, really didn't understand Eddie. I WOULD NEVER LET ANYTHING HAPPEN TO YOU.

"Okay," said Eddie quietly, and somehow it was that that allowed him to sleep.

-

He and Myra had bought the Cadillac for peace of mind. It was a tank of a car, twice the size of almost everything else on the streets of New York. Sure, it didn't get great mileage--but they didn't drive very far--and trying to find parking in it was a pain in the ass, but it was safe.

Of course, when the taxi rammed into him, Venom shifted to cover him milliseconds before the impact, so Eddie could have been driving in a rusted AMC Gremlin with his seatbelt off and the airbags disabled and he'd still have emerged all in one piece.

WHO IS MIKE? Venom wanted to know. WHAT IS DERRY? WHY DID YOUR HEARTRATE SPIKE IN FEAR LIKE THE TIME MYRA GREETED YOU IN THE LIVING ROOM IN HER NEGLIGEE?

"I don't know," Eddie whispered, and it was the truth.

Mike, it turned out, was an old friend that Eddie had somehow forgotten, despite the fact that they'd hung out together for five years. Other names came back, sometimes with faces attached. Bill, he remembered. Bill had always known what to do. And Beverly. Beverly was the bravest person he'd ever met.

Derry also slowly came back to him: the movie theater, the quaint, sidewalk-less streets, riding his bike without a helmet. Eddie couldn't believe he'd ridden his bike without a helmet. All those pills he'd taken, all those doctors' visits, and his mom had just let him ride around with his skull unprotected. It was insane to think about now.

"We made a promise," Mike said. "I need you here, back in Derry."

"Okay," Eddie's mouth said, before checking in with Eddie's brain.

Venom thought it was a terrible idea.

"They're my friends," he said. "Mike is my friend. If he needs my help, I'm giving it to him."

YOU ARE TERRIFIED OF DERRY, countered Venom.

"Why would I be scared of my home town?" asked Eddie, because he was, and he didn't know why, but if he couldn't say why, he had no excuse to not go back. "Also, I thought you said you weren't going to let anything happen to me."

IN NEW YORK. YOU ARE NOT TERRIFIED OF MANHATTAN.

"I am of the subway."

I CAN PROTECT YOU FROM THE SUBWAY. Venom liked to tell him stories about him and his Eddie and riding trains in California, sometimes on top of trains, or clinging to the ends of trains as they go into tunnels, or clinging to the roofs in really crowded trains while all the passengers below stare at their phones, oblivious. Apparently even before he got Venom, Venom's Eddie rode a motorcycle.

Eddie felt kind of bad about that, because clearly the other Eddie needed Venom way more than Eddie Kaspbrak, risk analyst with a giant car and no dangerous hobbies, did. The New York primary had been last week, but the other Eddie was presumably still following the Cruz campaign around, and not for the first time he wished Venom would have memorized their Eddie's phone number so Eddie could text him and check in.

"Well," said Eddie, "I'm going to Derry. If you don't want to come, you can stay at the apartment with Myra and wait for me."

YOU SUCK, EDDIE, said Venom.

-

Maybe, thought Eddie, as he drove up through New England and his memories grew stronger, he had such a negative reaction to Derry because it reminded him of his mother. It wasn't that he hadn't loved his mom, everybody loved his mom, but she'd been constantly acting like danger was around every corner in Derry. Like he would get a rash from poison ivy, or trip over a rock in the Barrens and break his bones, or one of the many drunk drivers on the edge of town would get him, or the Soviets would bomb some shithole in rural Maine and not an actual city. And if you were constantly told these things about the place you lived, of course you'd feel a deep anxiety about going back there, of course you'd keep your inhaler close at hand on the drive up, of course you'd feel like your insides were writhing. Although Venom could actually be writhing.
FORGETTING ALL OF THAT CANNOT BE GOOD, Venom said, approximately once every hundred miles. IT IS NOT NORMAL AS I UNDERSTAND HUMAN EXPERIENCE. EDDIE. EDDIE.

Eddie alternated popping Tums and peanut butter cups. He gave Venom a peanut butter cup now, and pulled into the parking lot for the Derry Townhouse.

YOU CANNOT PACIFY ME WITH CHOCOLATE AND PEANUT BUTTER, said Venom, but Eddie thought he'd been doing a pretty good job of it so far.

He was still hungry when he showed up at the Jade of the Orient. Myra was usually right about his blood sugar, but Eddie had needed to get packed and get to Derry in his rental car fast. He could have chosen some so-called healthy junk food at the vending machines along the way, but the truth was, Eddie kind of liked peanut butter cups.

Mike looked good. It was reassuring to Eddie, in the instant he hugged Mike and felt how solid he was, how healthy he smelled, that Mike was okay, that Mike had lived these last forty years in a town Eddie, for no concrete reason, thought of being the most dangerous place on the planet, and was still okay.

He was also surprised that Bill was so short. He wouldn't have expected that, Bill being short. Bill being famous, on the other hand, didn't surprise him. They'd all expected Bill to do great things.

EDDIE, said Venom, THEY HAVE LIVE FISH.

Eddie had no idea what this had to do with anything.

WHEN I WAS FIRST MELDING WITH MY EDDIE, BEFORE HE REALIZED WHAT WAS HAPPENING, HE FED ME BY CLIMBING INSIDE ONE OF THOSE TANKS AND EATING LOBSTERS. And before Eddie could say anything, before he could object that what if they didn't need to eat people after all, Venom added, SEAFOOD IS NOT AS SUSTAINING AND I HAVE HEARD YOUR MYRA REFER TO CRUSTACEANS AS THE COCKROACHES OF THE SEA.

"Are you o-okay, Eddie?" Bill asked.

"Yeah," said Eddie, trying not to start arguing with Venom about how they were wrong, it wasn't appropriate to refer to Myra as Eddie's, that she wasn't his property, she was her own woman, they weren't like Venom and their Eddie, they could do just fine without one another. "Just looking at the fish!" Would his old friends be able to tell that there was something off about Eddie? Not that what was off was an alien living under his skin, because that was objectively crazy, but that there was something not quite right. He couldn't let them know, any more than he could let Myra know, he couldn't--

The gong banged behind them. Eddie turned, glad to have a distraction, and there they stood, Beverly, and Ben, and--

IS THAT NOT THE PUBLIC SELF-SHAMER YOU MASTURBATE TO?

-

In a way, Eddie was kind of grateful for a bunch of monsters erupting from the fortune cookies, for the reminder of what had really terrified him about Derry, because it meant Venom wouldn't be bugging him about Richie.

Richie Tozier. Fuck. He was packing his bags in the Derry Town House and took a second to breathe in and run his hands over his face. Everything had fallen back into place, with the six of them together, eating Chinese food and catching up, and it'd felt so natural, like they'd never even left, but it'd hit Eddie. The memories of curling around Richie's side to share a comic, and the way Richie had grabbed his face in the kitchen of the house on Neibolt Street and said, Look at me, Eddie, look at me. Mike had explained how the forgetting was part of it, part of the curse of Derry, but Eddie still couldn't believe he'd forgotten Richie. Arguably he never had, considering he'd sought out Richie's dumb standup online ever since he'd become aware of Richie's career, and known, somehow, that Richie didn't write his own material. On some subconscious level he remembered Richie. That had to be important, didn't it? On the other hand, he'd been jerking it to a guy who he's known since he was eight, a guy who was still making jokes about fucking Eddie's mom, and he should definitely get a therapist so he could call said therapist about this.

THERE IS A MALEVOLENT FORCE THAT IS ABDUCTING AND KILLING PEOPLE, MOSTLY CHILDREN, Venom reminded him. I PERSONALLY HAVE NO SENTIMENTALITY REGARDING YOUR SPECIES'S YOUTHS BUT MY EDDIE DOES. ALSO THE FAVOR YOUR FRIEND MIKE IS ASKING IS TO HELP HIM DESTROY THIS THING THAT SCARED YOU SENSELESS.

"Yeah," said Eddie, "but we're leaving, right?"

Venom was silent for a second. WE DON'T HAVE TO.

"Yeah, we kind of--"

WE KILL BAD PEOPLE, said Venom. WHY NOT KILL A BAD MONSTER?

"Because it's--"

I AM VERY GOOD AT KILLING.

It wasn't that Venom was wrong, but back in Derry, remembering Pennywise, remembering the way it had taken the form of Georgie, remembering Bill's devastation, the leper hunched over Eddie, the way Mike spoke of his parents' death, Beverly's dad's face on the clown's body--Eddie can't do that. He couldn't let his friends know that he was a monster too.

"I'd let them know," he said, aware that Venom got it. "If it wasn't for the fucking clown--I'd let them know."

I COULD HELP YOU, Venom protested.

Eddie shivered. "This thing, this thing we're up against? It's not evil like the people we've killed."

NOT EVEN LIKE THE GUY WHO DROVE WITHOUT USING HIS TURN SIGNAL AND HAD A "MY OTHER CAR IS ALSO A TESLA" BUMPERSTICKER?

"And it's not evil like the symbiotes that you and your Eddie fought. It's... it's old. It's deep. It's wormed its way under this town, into this town, and how do you fight an entire town?"

DERRY IS NOT A VERY BIG TOWN, Venom suggested. They were not helpful. Eddie picked up his bags and started to head downstairs, and that was when Beverly told them they were all going to die.

Eddie didn't want to die. He didn't want the other Losers to die. He'd just remembered that they were his closest childhood friends and already he was mourning Stan. Nothing was going to happen to any of the rest of them, not if he and Venom could help it.

Venom approved. I HAVE NEVER EATEN A CLOWN BEFORE.

"Once again," said Eddie, taking a painkiller and a very watered down vodka from Bev, "you'll probably want to spit out the wig."

-

Venom stopped him, digging their talons into the basement walls. GET A GRIP, EDDIE.

"But," Eddie said, "but--". He was covered with filth, with disease, with the leper's rot--

Venom's tendrils snaked around him. For a second Eddie was confused, and then he realized he was being hugged.

YES, said Venom. IT IS A CALMING ACT AMONG YOUR SPECIES. IT ALSO WORKS ON COWS, ACCORDING TO TEMPLE GRANDIN'S TED TALK.

"What is your deal with cows?" Eddie asked, but the hug was nice. It was like he has a living weighted blanket stretched all around him.

YOU KILLED THIS LEPER. WHILE I AM WITH YOU, YOU NEED NOT FEAR INFECTION.

Oh, Eddie thought. That made sense. Venom had protected him from everything else, and it wasn't like Eddie had had any open wounds. Sure, the slime had gotten into his mouth, but the human mouth was prepared to deal with things like that. His saliva would take care of--

Slowly, Eddie leaned forward and vomited on the pharmacy basement's floor.

BETTER OUT THAN IN, said Venom, almost cheerfully. LET US GO BACK TO YOUR ROOM AND SHOWER, EDDIE. YOU WOULDN'T WANT THIS TOWN TO SEE YOU FLUSTERED, WOULD IT? YOU WOULDN'T WANT YOUR ENEMY TO THINK YOU SCARED.

"A shower sounds good," said Eddie.

Of course, when he got to his bathroom at the Town House, calmed by Venom's presence, coming to grips with the fact that he wasn't actually drenched with goo, it was only in his mind, and thinking that maybe if he could defeat the leper on his own, he could be brave enough to stand up to the clown itself, Henry Bowers was there with a knife, and Henry Bowers stabbed him in the face.

"What the fuck," Eddie said, although it hurt to talk with a knife through one cheek.

Bowers just grinned creepily. He looked really bad for a forty-year-old, and it wasn't just the mullet. "Kill them all," he whispered, giggling to himself. "Kill them all."

It wasn't really a conscious choice on Eddie's part when he gave Venom the wheel and Venom ripped Bowers's head off. It was something Eddie had wanted to do since he'd been ten years old, and he shouldn't enjoy it, but he did.

And then Venom returned Eddie to himself and they were staring down at Bowers's headless corpse. Eddie touched his cheek, which was a waterfall of blood. "He stabbed me," he said. "Ow."

PUT SOME NEOSPORIN AND GAUZE ON IT, said Venom, and Eddie could feel the tendril sprouting Venom's face rising from his back to stare over his shoulder. EDDIE.

"I don't want to eat Bowers," Eddie said. "That's just gross. Besides, you ate, like, the day before we left New York. You can't possibly be hungry again."

IF WE DO NOT, THERE WILL BE A CORPSE IN OUR ROOM AND NO WAY TO EXPLAIN IT. DO YOU WANT THE CLEANING STAFF TO COME ACROSS IT? Eddie already felt bad for hotel cleaning staff, they were exposed to a ridiculous amount of germs and bodily fluids without having to deal with an actual dead body. OR YOUR FRIENDS?

Eddie shut his eyes. "Okay, fine. But you'd better not throw him up anywhere anyone can see you."

I ALREADY ATE HIS MULLET, said Venom. THE REST OF HIM CAN'T BE ANY WORSE THAN THAT.

Thankfully, the rest of him didn't take long to eat, and Eddie didn't have to feel too sick as he staggered down the stairways. "Bowers was in my room," he told Ben and Bev, who were shocked and appalled. Bev tried to squeeze his cheek wound shut. It hurt. Ben ran into Eddie's room, which was blood-splattered but Bowers-free. Thankfully he'd left the window open, and Ben came back to where Eddie was disinfecting his own face to say, "He must have gone out the window."

"Shit," said Eddie. "Wasn't he supposed to be in jail?"

"I hate this town," said Beverly.

"Also," said Ben, "I think Richie's gone."

AND YOU NEVER GOT TO FUCK HIM, said Venom.

"Shut the fuck up," muttered Eddie.

Ben looked stricken, and Eddie realized that Ben thought he was talking to him. "I meant in an 'I don't believe it' kind of way. He's really gone?"

Beverley and Ben exchanged a look. "He came back from looking for his token really upset," said Beverley. "I think It tried to get him."

"It tried to get all of us," Ben said, looking down at his shoes. "That's what It does. --Richie told me he was going to stay."

Beverley put a hand on Ben's arm. "Honey, he lied."

"We're going to have to tell Mike," Ben said, "and Bill." He didn't say it out loud, but Eddie could hear him thinking that Mike and Bill were going to be so disappointed in them. Eddie felt the same way. Like Bill might yell at him. Bill hadn't yelled a lot when they were kids, and mostly he'd yelled at Richie, who could take it, but Eddie wasn't not Richie. He couldn't take it.

They piled into Beverley's car to drive to Mike's apartment. Eddie leaned his aching head against the window and tried not to backseat drive, tried not to think that Richie might really be gone. I could've talked him into staying, he thought.

YES, said Venom. HE IS POWERLESS AGAINST YOUR MOUTH.

Eddie was fairly sure that he was blushing and the blood rushing to his cheeks was making the wound bleed more.

ALSO DO NONE OF YOUR CELLPHONES WORK?

Eddie jumped, grabbed his from his pocket, and texted Mike that they were on their way, that they thought Richie left, that they were sorry but it wasn't their fault.

Richie's here with me, Mike texted back. But I haven't heard from Bill since this morning.

YOU TRULY ARE LOSERS, Venom said.

"Yeah, thanks." Eddie cleared his throat and gave Ben and Bev the good news that Richie hadn't deserted them after all. And it was good news. When he saw Richie again, Eddie couldn't decide if he wanted to hug him or kill him--not that that wasn't a familiar feeling, when it came to Richie--so he tucked his hands into his pockets to stop them from going around Richie's throat, which was a mistake, because he couldn't hold them up to stop Richie from pouncing on him.

"What happened to your face, dude?" And he touched it. Of course he touched it. It fucking stung.

"Bowers, with a knife, in the Townhouse bathroom," said Eddie.

Behind his glasses, Richie's eyes went wide. "Shit," he said, "shit, Eddie, I'm so sorry, I should have been there."

"It's okay." It was not okay. He remembered all the times when they were kids, when Richie stuck up for him, when Richie put himself between an advancing evil clown and Eddie, when Richie saved him. And sure, Eddie was currently capable of turning into ten feet and three hundred pounds of alien killing machine, but he wanted Richie to be there. To keep him safe. To hold his face, to be the last thing he sees.

YOU SHOULD TELL HIM.

Eddie ignored this.

EDDIE. EDDIE.

"It's not okay," Richie said, exasperated. "You've got a hole in your face!"

"Everyone has a hole in their face, dickbag," said Eddie, and let himself lean into Richie. He'd gotten so fucking tall, it was completely unfair. "It's called a mouth."

YOUR FAILURE OF A MARRIAGE TO MYRA IS MAKING SO MUCH MORE SENSE NOW, continued Venom.

"You have a hole in your face where you shouldn't have a hole in your face," said Richie.

It was really unfair of Venom, who'd once told Eddie that the four food groups were organ meat, high fructose corn syrup, potato starch, and Mountain Dew, to be calling them idiots right now. Or maybe not so unfair, because Bill chose that moment to call in and declare his intention to storm 28 Neibolt Street all by himself. HE WAS YOUR LEADER? Venom probed, as they piled back into Bev's rental car. It was a sedan and there were only five seats and Eddie ended up sandwiched between Richie and Mike, his entire left side pressed against Richie's, their knees knocking painfully into one another at every single turn the car took. MIKE IS THE ONE WHO KNOWS EVERYTHING AND BEVERLY IS THE SCARY ONE. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND HUMANS.

"He was more impressive as a kid," Eddie muttered under his breath.

-

Venom got a display of how fierce, how inspired Bill could be soon enough. Unfortunately he got it while Bill was yelling at Eddie and Eddie was trying to keep Venom from showing their teeth to Bill.

"Please don't be mad at me, Bill," he said, and it wasn't really a lie. He didn't want Bill to be mad at him. He could have stepped in and smacked the Stan-spider away from Richie, only... only he'd have to be Venom to do it. And if he turned into Venom now, and his friends saw him do it, they would be mad at him. Eddie'd decided to make a temporary partnership with something that had, at the very least, a superficial resemblance to the thing that had killed Georgie. To the thing that had killed the skateboarding kid just to get at Bill tonight. and his friends would be mad at him because he'd done it, and because he was lying to them about it. Eddie didn't like lying to people, he especially didn't like lying to his friends, but he could do it, and he could do it well, because it had been the only way to keep him out of trouble with his mom, and with Myra.

"Lay off him, Bill," said Richie. "Are you okay, Eddie?"

"Yeah," he said, exhaling shakily. "Yeah."

I LIKE HIM. HE TAKES YOUR SIDE IN EVERY ARGUMENT AND HE WEARS BEAUTIFUL SHIRTS.

"Oh, no," Eddie groaned.

ASK HIM WHERE HE GETS THE SHIRTS. MY LOSER EDDIE'S WARDROBE IS VERY DULL.

Richie squeezed his elbow. "It's gonna be okay. Just stay with me."

"Okay," said Eddie, with a quiet prayer to Venom to shut the fuck up, which went, if not unheard, then unanswered. Venom disapproved of the ritual, the lair, the Pomeranian. EDDIE'S ANNIE'S CAT TRIED TO GET US TO EAT ONE OF THOSE ONCE, they reminisced. I DID NOT KNOW THEY TURNED INTO MONSTERS.

"That's only this one," Eddie muttered under his breath, and got a strange look from Richie while they were running through the dark, trying to escape It's arms. Legs. Claws. Whatever.

Everything was loud and chaotic and scary, and Eddie finally ran out of the caverns to find Richie hanging in the air like a marionette, slack-jawed and empty-eyed. Eddie eyed the fence post he still had clutched in one hand. This kills monsters, Bev had told him.

YOU KNOW WHAT ELSE KILLS MONSTERS, said Venom. US. WE KILL MONSTERS. EDDIE. EDDIE.

"Shut up," Eddie said, and threw.

It got the clown-slash-spider right through the face. Pennywise reeled back, screaming. For a second, Eddie couldn't quite believe it, and then he was moving.

BEV KISSED BEN OUT OF THE DEADLIGHTS, Venom reminded him. YOU COULD HAVE DONE THE SAME THING.

"I had a shot to kill It," said Eddie, as he ran to where Richie had fallen, "and I took it."

AND YOU WERE AFRAID THAT THE DEADLIGHTS CONTAINED RADIATION, POSSIBLY GAMMA PARTICLES. Venom sounded very disapproving. YOU ARE FIGHTING FOR YOUR LIVES DOWN HERE AND YOU WERE AFRAID OF CANCER AND HOMOPHOBIA.

"Yeah, well, those two things have killed a lot of people."

YOU CAN KISS HIM NOW.

Eddie chose to ignore that, since he was nearing Richie now, he was practically on top of Richie, and Richie's eyes were still blank and white, and it was more important to wake him up than to tell Venom to mind their own business. "Richie," he said, "Richie, I got it, I think I killed it--"

Richie was waking up, thank fuck, Eddie could see the pupils of his eyes again, and he said, groggily, "Eddie?"

"I think I got it, man--"

UNFORTUNATELY, and Venom shifted without even asking Eddie, THAT IS NOT THE CASE. Venom grabged the claw that It has sent their way, wrenched it, and ripped the entire limb from its socket.

Eddie could feel himself about to have a panic attack. That claw was like three feet long! It was sharp! It could have skewered him in all the vital organs! He would have died without ever properly ranting at Myra's friend Alex that almond and cashew milk weren't interchangeable!

PRIORITIES, EDDIE, Venom said, and threw themselves at It.

"What the fuck?" said Bill, far down below, no stutter at all.

It slashed at Venom with another claw, and Venom ripped that limb off too, and whirled it around to smack It in the face. Pennywise staggered backwards, nearly stepping on Ben before Beverly pulled him out of the way. "Sorry!" Eddie yelled, as Venom used Pennywise's own detached limb to rip a wound down Its face.

"Eddie?" said Richie, somewhere far behind him.

And then Pennywise's awful, bleeding face split into a leer. "Oh, little Eddie Spaghetti brought a friend," It said, and then It opened It's mouth and makes the most horrible screeching noise like an MRI turned up to eleven, and Venom dropped to the ground. It hurt him, more than the indigestible toupee had. It hurt Eddie too, but it was Venom suffering, Venom being flayed from Eddie's back.

"A symbiote," said Pennywise, and smacked its lips. "Oh, I haven't had one of you in ages. You puling little liquid, did you think you could defeat me? I'm the eater of worlds. I am older than you can possibly imagine. I don't make friends with food." It came stomping over to Eddie, with enough limbs left to make the floor shake. Venom was recovering now that It's stopped making that noise, but not fast enough. "I am--"

"A bully," Eddie spit out. "You're a fucking bully." He got to his feet, even though Venom was huddling around him, trying to shape themselves back together again. "And we kill bullies."

Pennywise jerked back in shock.

"You kill bullies?" Beverly asked, from across the cavern.

"I, uh. Bowers didn't actually make it out alive. Venom ripped his head off and ate the body."
Pennywise brought his forelegs down, but Venom was back, and slinging Eddie under that creepy spider belly. There was a thud as someone--Richie, Eddie thought, it must be Richie--threw a rock at Pennywise, who screamed in rage and pain.

"You ate Bowers?" Richie said, hurling another rock. "Gross, dude."

"It's called disposing of the evidence, fucknuts."

"It doesn't matter!" shrieked Pennywise. "Bowers was a mere mortal! He was a--"

"A bully," said Mike, very calmly, and threw a rock. "Just like you. You chose to work with him because he was just like you."

Beverly let out a laugh that verged on hysteria. "Right down to the bad hair," she said, and the look on Pennywise's face was just priceless. "You fucking clown."

Venom decided they want to throw rocks too, and tossed a boulder at It's face that It barely managed to dodge.

"Because face it," said Ben, a rock in each hand. He definitely lifted. Eddie was not looking forward to whatever Richie has to say about Ben's biceps. "Just because you're the biggest bully around doesn't mean you're not a bully. For all we know, you're only on Earth in the first place because the rest of the galaxy is sick of you."

THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED WITH TED CRUZ, Venom interjected.

"You're only as big as we think you are," said Mike.

"Also, your jokes really fucking suck," said Richie.

Venom reached out with his tendrils and snagged Richie out of the way, reeling him to safety as Pennywise stumbled around the cavern, smashing into stalagmites and putting It's legs down everywhere.

"And you," Bill said, wiping blood from his mouth with the side of his hand (which was so unsanitary, they'd been wading through sewage and the Neibolt house looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the nineteenth century), "are so very small."

It was. Small, and getting smaller.

"Smaller than the leper," Eddie said.

"Smaller than the old woman," Beverly said.

"Smaller than burning hands, trapped behind a door," Mike said, and reached into It's chest. He pulled out It's heart. "And just as helpless."

Bill put his hand over the heart, and then so did everyone else. Venom retreated enough to let Eddie reach out with his own skin, his own fingernails, and watch with his own eyes, but the dark skin and rippling tendrils still covered most of his torso.

"You're just a fucking clown," said Ben, and they crush It. The heart folded under their hands, and It deflated and withered and died.

"So, guys," Richie said, breaking the ringing silence, "I think I may have a thing for tentacles."

Then the cavern started to fall apart.

-

"What the f-f-fuck, Eddie," Bill asked, when they were back standing outside what used to be the house on Neibolt Street.

Beverly's shirt was stained pink with blood. Ben had a small cut across one cheekbone. Mike looked relaxed, like something that had been weighing on him for twenty-seven years had just been taken off his shoulders.

Richie was to Eddie's left, still tangled up in Venom's tendrils. Eddie kept looking over at him, like sooner or later he was going to realize he was covered in alien goo, but he seemed completely fine with it. He looked a little dazed; maybe a rock got him in the head as they were getting out. Eddie should check him for a concussion--

"Oh," said Eddie. "Guys, this is Venom." Venom had their face formed up on Eddie's right side. "Venom, these are my friends."

HELLO, LOSERS.

"It's okay," said Eddie, seeing Bill taking umbrage, Mike bracing himself, "Venom's a loser too."

"Losers have to stick together," said Beverly, and actually fist-bumps one of Venom's tendrils. She was much calmer about this than Eddie had been expecting. Maybe if Bev was okay with this, he thought, it would all be okay.

"Literally?" Bill asked, gesturing at where Richie's still tangled up in Venom's tendrils.

Eddie stepped in before Venom, or, god forbid, Richie could say anything. "It's okay, Bill. Venom only kills bad people."

"Like Bowers," said Ben, at the same time Mike said, "Like people who try to watch porn in the library."

"Venom would have died, if I hadn't," said Eddie. He could hear himself and it sounded like he was whining. Like when he'd tried to convince his mom to let him have his friends over. They weren't going to get germs everywhere and even if they did, they were his friends. "And he saved our lives down there."

"He's right," said Beverly.

"He had a twelve foot tall killing machine inside of him all this time, and he only br-br-brought it out at the very end," said Bill.

Which, fair.

Richie chose this moment to speak up, and instead of supporting Eddie, instead of being calming and understanding and pointing out that the Losers didn't exactly have the greatest history with fanged killing machines like Ben or Mike would have, the fucker said, "Like, inside him inside him, because--". He poked at one of the tendrils holding him and watched it disappear into Venom's being. "--this stuff seems pretty malleable--"

"Beep fucking beep, Richie." Eddie was fucking furious. Venom was a sentient being, not a sex toy, and also, how dare Richie like Venom more than him, if Eddie had only known--

I AM SPOKEN FOR, said Venom, confirming Eddie's speculations about the other Eddie, BUT THIS EDDIE WOULD FUCK YOU AND WOULD LOVE TO KNOW WHETHER YOU'D FUCK HIM.

"Gah," said Richie.

It wasn't a no.

"Well," said Bill, somewhat hysterically, "maybe we should discuss this over brunch."

"Gah," said Richie again.

"Maybe," said Beverly, tugging at her blood-drenched clothes, "we should clean up before we roll into IHOP looking like we survived that gangster shootout in the thirties, the one Ben did a way too detailed report on."

"Stan was right," said Mike, looking both a bit impressed and sad.

"Quarry?" said Ben, who was still holding Beverly's hand.

"Quarry," Bill sighed.

Eddie had an open wound on his face and they expected him to go swimming in the quarry. Great.

YOU WILL BE FINE, Venom told him. They thought he was acting like a big baby. WE THINK WE BROKE THIS ONE'S BRAIN, THOUGH.

"Not much to break," said Eddie, reflexively, and snapped his fingers in front of Richie's glasses. "Rich? Hey, Rich?"

Richie blinked. He poked at Venom. "Am I still in the deadlights? Or did I take candy from a stranger in Chicago and this whole thing is just one bad trip?"

"Any trip to Derry is a bad trip, fucknuts," said Eddie, and Richie seemed to accept that and let Venom tug him along. He slung his arm around Eddie's shoulders as they trudged after Ben and Bev to the quarry, Venom mostly back under Eddie's skin until they decided that canonballing into the quarry was the best idea ever.

WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO THIS IN THE INDOOR PUBLIC POOLS, they said. AND MY EDDIE SAYS THERE'S TOO MANY PEOPLE AT THE BEACHES. WE DID ONCE JUMP INTO THE LAGUNA HONDA RESERVOIR BUT EDDIE INSISTED ON SHOWERING FOR TWO HOURS AFTERWARDS. AND FLOSSING OUR TEETH. They surfaced and swam towards Richie, shedding back into Eddie as they went, the traitor.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey," Richie said. He stopped watching Bev dunk Ben into the water for a moment. "I feel like I'm losing this wet t-shirt contest."

DO NOT WORRY, Venom said. EDDIE STILL LIKES YOUR SHOULDERS.

Eddie should have left this motherfucker in the fish tank at the Jade of the Orient. He'd known from the second Venom laid eyes on Richie that nothing good could come of this. Richie was kind of frozen, his glasses off as he cleaned them with his own wet and still fucking filthy t-shirt. Sure, Venom might have saved Eddie's life, but for what? For Richie to give him shit for the rest of it? (No, Richie wouldn't do that. He would make some awkward jokes about it, let Eddie down gently. Eddie was pretty fucking sure that it would feel like a giant spider claw through the chest after all, because that was what it felt like, looking at Richie now.). But now that Venom had brought it up, and kept bringing it up, Eddie couldn't not say anything.

"Look," he said. "Yes, I find you attractive. No, I haven't been hit on the head or blinded recently. It is what it is and I would fucking appreciate it if you could just handle it like an adult and not with some shit about how you will only ever love my mom."

"Uh." Richie looked like he'd been hit on the head. "When you say handle it like an adult--"

"You know what, fuck you--"

Richie grabbed him before Eddie could storm off to the shore. "Hey," he said. "Hey, I just. This is a lot to take in."

THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID, said Venom, upon whom Richie had been a terrible fucking influence.

"That's what she said," said Eddie, because Richie was looking at him, and if it was in pity, if there was the slightest hint of pity, Eddie was going to hold him under water until he fucking drowned.

Richie snorted. "Oh my god." He looked off to the side, where Mike was probably doing laps or something, and then back at Eddie. "I, uh. May have been in love with you for about thirty years. Didn't think I'd ever have a chance. So for your squishy friend to just unload all of that on me--"

Eddie grabbed his dumb shirt. "What the actual fuck, Richie?"

"I'd love to fuck you too?" said Richie, floundering.

"What the fuck, you're fucking straight," shouted Eddie. "I've seen your routine!"

"I don't write my routine!" shouted Richie back. "I don't have a girlfriend, and if I did she wouldn't catch me masturbating to her friend's picture on Facebook unless her friend was a dude!"

"You never specify that the friend is female."

"What would you know, you haven't watched my--". Richie stopped, stunned. "You've watched my entire catalogue."

"Not for the jokes," Eddie said, because he did have some pride.

"You really do like me."

Eddie sighed. "Yeah, dipshit, that was what I was trying to say."

Richie tried to shove his hands into his pockets, but they were below the waterline and he had to squirm them in after the splash. It was such a dumb Richie thing and Eddie felt his heart contract. "I love you, man. I wouldn't lie about it." He stopped, and took his hands back out of his pockets, and ran them through his hair, because he was absolutely disgusting. "Okay, I would, and I did, because I had no idea you ever felt the same way, and I'm a dumbass, but now that I know you're not going to run screaming from me, I, uh. I love you. I carved our initials into the Kissing Bridge when I was thirteen, if you want, like, hard evidence."

Eddie's heart was beating way too fast and he almost lifted his fingers to check his pulse before he realized. "Oh." He felt faint anyway. "Nah, I'll take your word for it."

FINALLY.

"Seriously," he hissed at Venom, "I am trying to have a moment here." He looked at Richie, helpless. "It's like having a peanut gallery in my head, wherever I go."

"I think he saved your life back there," said Richie, "so I kinda like him."

"Shut the fuck up, Richie." Eddie turned. The earlier shouting must have caught his friends' attention, but they were all conspicuously not watching him and Richie in the water. Eddie found himself blushing and not giving a single solitary fuck about it. "We're going back to the Townhouse to shower, guys!"

"But you have blood all over your bathroom," Ben said, clearly confused until Beverly elbowed him and whispered something in his ear. Then he turned bright red. "See everyone later?"

"Brunch is canceled," said Bill. "We'll get pizza."

I LIKE PIZZA, Venom said. EDDIE, MAKE HIM ORDER EXTRA FOR ME.

Eddie was about to argue but Richie had his arm around him and if he was going to be completely honest with himself, he might as well admit it: he had never actually been allergic to gluten.

-

Much later, they were all gathered in Bill's room at the Townhouse. Bill and Mike looked well-rested, Ben had a giant hickey on his neck and couldn't stop stealing glances at Beverly, who looked smug. Eddie would judge them but Richie's fingers were twined in his and he looked even dopier than usual.

DO YOU NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE? Venom asked. Eddie didn't want to know and it wasn't really any of Venom's business anyway. Despite what Richie had convinced them to do earlier--

Eddie was blushing again. He ducked his head and he could feel Venom being smug in the back of his mind. Venom's knowledge of human anatomy didn't come from eating people, and Venom felt absolutely no shame about it.

Bill's phone buzzed and he headed downstairs. Eddie took the opportunity to grab the remote and turn on the TV, less because he wanted to watch it and more because he didn't want everybody looking at him. This thing with Richie might have been almost thirty years going but it was also new, and Eddie, Eddie had a tendency to find the worst case scenario and latch on to it. He grew up with a bomb shelter in the basement and his earliest memory was his dad's funeral. His mom was always convinced there was danger lurking on every street corner, in every dimly-lit space, in any food she hadn't bought or made herself. If Eddie couldn't find something to distract it with, his brain would start thinking about all the ways this could go wrong. It wasn't going to go wrong, though. It wasn't.

"Okay," Bill says, back with the pizza. "We have one pepperoni, one sausage and mushroom, one Hawaiian, one feta, sundried tomato and garlic, and one anchovy, corn, pepperoncini, olives, and extra anchovies. Hey, is that PBS?"

"Don't worry," said Mike, "WCBB had their pledge drive last month."

"Who wanted anchovy and corn on pizza?" Ben asked.

ME, said Venom. They formed a head and inspected the box. WE WANTED KALAMATA OLIVES BUT THESE WILL DO.

Eddie caught Beverly's mouth quirking, and a change in the air pressure next to him that meant Richie was about to say something stupid. (That was a lie. Richie was always about to say something stupid.). "You wanted pineapple on pizza, you can't even judge."

"I like PBS," Ben said. "I'm a monthly donor to them and NPR."

Eddie didn't have too many feelings about public television one way or the other, except fuck them for getting Venom hooked on Downton Abbey, but he wasn't a creative professional like the rest of his friends, he was going to have to go back to work soon, and he couldn't assess risk if he didn't know what was going on in the world, so landing on the Newshour had been fortuitous.

"Nerds," said Richie, and grabbed a slice of sausage and mushroom and two of the Hawaiian. Everyone seemed to be politely ignoring how Venom was working their way through the anchovy pizza. Bits of it were flying everywhere, like videos of piranha attacks Eddie watched on YouTube when Myra tried to convince him they couldn't go to the beach.

They were catching up on what was actually going on with all their lives: Bill's career worries, Bev's godawful marriage, Richie's terror of coming out of the closet, Mike's desire to go anywhere that's less than ninety percent white, when Venom took a break from destroying the pizza to say, EDDIE.

Only the second Eddie looked up, he knew, instinctively, that Venom wasn't trying to get his attention. On the TV, Judy Woodruff was talking with one Edward Brock (covering the Cruz campaign for Buzzfeed News).

He wasn't what Eddie had been expecting. The way Venom went on about his Eddie, he'd been picturing someone like Pierce Brosnan, or maybe the Rock. Eddie Brock looked pretty ordinary. He had light hair and a wide face, was maybe about the same age as Eddie, but looked more busted. It could have been the setting, but he didn't look like the kind of guy who rode motorcycles and jumped on top of commuter trains. He wasn't even wearing a leather jacket.

"--not really," said Venom's Eddie. "The kinds of criminality these people tend to engage in are standard Republican shady tactics like spreading misinformation and voter suppression. They've clearly benefited from his disappearance, but at this point the most plausible explanation is that Trump did, in fact, owe money to the Russian mafia, and thought he could stiff them like he does contractors or Deutsche Bank, and so the mob had him abducted or killed to teach him a lesson. And, if it's the latter, I would like to editorialize: good riddance to bad rubbish."

"And has any proof been found for your Russian abduction theory?" Judy Woodruff pressed.

"No," said Venom's Eddie, "but we're digging through the financials--"

"Boring," said Richie, but Eddie felt vindicated. Venom was going to have to go back to their Eddie while Eddie was poring over bank statements!

And on that note, Eddie pulled out his phone, Googled "Edward Brock Buzzfeed phone number" and, predictably, didn't get a number. Of course not, the dude's a reporter and probably attracted all kinds of conspiracy theorists, and nothing in Eddie's, Edward Kaspbrak's, that was, life was ever that simple. He did, however, find a twitter account after scrolling down, and after some badgering, got Richie to send Edward Brock a DM.

It read: We have a mutual friend who is currently devouring an anchovy and olive and corn pizza and misses you. Venom, when it ate people, was a messy eater, took huge bites, scattered blood everywhere, but when it came to the pizza it was extremely fucking dainty and didn't drop a kernel or drip any sauce. Eddie snapped a picture of Venom's mouth stretched around a slice, crust sticking out, and included his phone number.

It didn't take long for the other Eddie to call.

EDDIE, said Venom, wriggling back to perch on Eddie's shoulder, their tendrils wrapped around Eddie's right arm as it forced their face between Eddie's and the phone screen. EDDIE.

"Hey, pal," said Eddie. "How have you been?"

WE DEFEATED AN INTERGALACTIC CLOWN BULLY, said Venom, AND HAD A THREESOME WITH RICHIE TOZIER.

A slice of pepperoni slipped off Ben's pizza and fell to the floor. Eddie really should have made this call from his own room.

"Who?" asked Eddie Brock, and Bill snickered and punched Richie in the shoulder.

"They miss you," Eddie said. "They also don't have your telephone number or your legal name memorized."

The silence on the other end of the line was enough for Eddie to realize what a dumbshit he'd been. Venom could keep track of the labyrinthe plots of every soap opera available, they knew things about Manhattan even Eddie didn't know after living there for eighteen years, there was no way they wouldn't have contact details for Edward Brock, not when they lived with him and could unlock his phone.

I HAVE HAD A VERY EDIFYING EXPERIENCE, said Venom. I CAN RANK ALL VEGAN CHEESES FROM LEAST TO MOST PALPATABLE AND WE HAVE RID THE WORLD OF SEVERAL FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTORS.

"Should have rid the world of more," Eddie muttered.

"I can take up where you left off," said the other Eddie. "Where are you now? I think I've got as much out of the Cruz story as I can, and if I stay here any longer I'm gonna pour some rock salt on him and SETI's already pissed at me for the whole symbiotes thing."

"We're in Maine," said Eddie. He didn't specify the city, no one knew where Derry was.

"What are you doing there?" the other Eddie asked. "I left Venom in New York."

Eddie shut his eyes. "It's a long story."

"You can say that again," murmured Bill, and there was this note in his voice and fuck, if Bill turned this into a book Eddie was getting Venom back and eating his fucking oldest friend.

"All right," said the other Eddie. "Send me the address and I'll get up there tomorrow or the day after."

"Okay," Eddie said. "See you then." He hung up and felt oddly bereft. Venom had been with him only a few months, and had been a pain in his ass for most of that time, but it'd been nice, having someone with him, someone who made him feel safe. He'd climbed up and scurried down building walls with Venom, and fought several people and one alien clown to death, and ate all kinds of dangerous things, and yet he'd felt more safe than he had with all of his mom's or Myra's directives. He didn't know what he was going to do once Venom was gone.

He felt Richie's hand in his before he realized Richie had moved: Richie's fingers were slotted between his and his palm was pressing against Eddie's tightly. And Eddie, Eddie felt safe, even if his friend wasn't some indestructible pile of alien goo. He leaned his head on Richie's shoulder, and made Richie get him a slice of non-disgusting pizza. Maybe, even though the likelihood that he'd ever feel this way had always been low, things were going to be all right.