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The Clownfish Dilemma

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Eddie remembers learning about symbiosis in middle school. Clownfish and anemones, birds and rhinoceros, macro and microorganisms; even humans and their pets, the professor had said, benefited from a sort of mutualism. As a child, Eddie never paid much attention in class, so all he retained from that lesson was the impression that it sounded neat. As a teenager, whenever the topic popped up in biology class, he half-heartedly jotted down the details and reluctantly memorized them for the upcoming test.

By the time he was in college, journalism had become his main focus, and with it a thirst for deeper knowledge about… well, anything. Once, writing about the booming clownfish sales after Nemo hit the theaters, he reflected on the subject briefly. He thought, absent-mindedly, that as cool as the whole business of symbiotic relationships sounded, he was glad he could handle life on his own. Without the clownfish, the anemones had no defense against predators; without the anemones, the clownfish were left at the mercy of the Great Blue. It sounded like a scary, chained-down life.

With Anne, he realizes now, the relationship had been far from mutually beneficial. They had loved each other, built a life with each other, hands joined against loneliness and San Francisco real estate prices. But Eddie still remembers the surge of adrenaline as his fingers tapped the keys of Anne’s computer, digging through files that he never should have opened, locking her desires in the back of his mind and throwing away the key as he pursued his own. He had felt guilty at the pain he’d caused, later, had felt miserable thinking of how much he’d lost – but in the end, when it really came down to it, Eddie knew who he was.

And the truth was, he was selfish. He was never made for sharing; had never been comfortable with needing and being needed. Put in the position to choose between freedom and survival, Eddie would throw away his life in an instant.

And so he did. Without question, without second thoughts.

He wondered long and hard about what this meant. If the future would only ever yield loneliness and disappointment for someone like him, someone who did not play well with others. Someone who was not made for symbiosis.

Eddie.

Eddie mumbles incoherent words into the pillow.

Eddie. We’re late.

“Five m’re minutes…”

He feels his body slip out of the covers and stumble gracelessly into the shower. “Aight, aight, ‘m awake,” he yawns as his hand moves over the handle, because he knows that if he doesn’t, he’s looking at a cold spray in the face. “G’morning to you too.”

As he’s rinsing off sleep and shampoo under the blessedly hot water, his stomach grumbles.

We want pancakes.

“Yeah,” he murmurs under the rush of running water. “Yeah, we do.”

 

***

 

Anne watches from behind her coffee as Eddie pauses between one sentence and another. He blinks and, after a moment, murmurs ‘sure, dear,’ adding a concerning amount of chocolate syrup to his mochaccino.

She hides her smile behind the rim of her cup.

 

***

 

Compromise between their needs isn’t always easy. For example, Venom needs to wine and dine on brains every once in a while, and Eddie needs to avoid prison.

Luckily, their wants are rarely out of sync.

Eddie finds a moment to feel surprised at how easily he acquiesced to the whole cannibalism (although technically not really?) thing. Truth is, part of what made him choose investigative journalism was realizing how unfairly tipped the scales were – and wishing to do whatever he could to tip them back into balance. Holding big, rich corporations accountable for their actions; exposing dark secrets behind high-ranking government officials; giving a voice to the voiceless.

He could’ve been a cop. He could’ve joined the army. Could’ve become a public defender, like Anne is now, or a social worker, or even a more by-the-book kind of reporter. Instead, he chose to play a dirtier game – one made up of uncomfortable question, disguises, and smelling out the blood in the water. He decided that, rather than bring the worst of humanity to justice, he preferred the idea of plunging them into absolute ruin.

Because bringing people to justice? That’s what heroes do. And Eddie has never, not once, thought of himself as one of them.

He’s aware his moral compass is royally skewed. But he could never bring himself to care, although for the longest time he did try. In the end, Eddie guessed, you can’t change who you are. And pretending to be someone you’re not – that only leads to more ruin, more pain.

So, as Venom’s teeth – their teeth – sink into the neck of a dirty cop with the hobby of lighting homeless people up like fireworks, Eddie feels no remorse. No guilt.

Only hunger.

 

***

 

Since Venom wants what Eddie wants, it only takes a few tries before they find someone they both like well enough to stumble into a dark, foreign house with.

(Okay, maybe more than a few. Eddie can’t tell if it’s because he’s still reeling from the break-up with Anne or if Venom is just that picky of an alien, but in the end it doesn’t matter.)

They haven’t been together that long when it happens, only a couple of months. Still trying to study one another, find out what makes the other tick.

No tentacles, he murmurs in his mind as he pushes the guy into the wall of his own bedroom. Venom hums an agreement through his veins.

Is this a “you” thing? he asks after a few minutes, low voice rumbling inside Eddie’s head. It takes a while for Eddie to answer, between the trail of wet kisses he’s leaving on the nameless stranger’s collarbone and the actual thinking he needs to do.

He can feel the symbiote’s full attention on him, every inch of his body and sensations under scrutiny as the stranger helps him shed his clothes and drags him onto the bed, pulling Eddie on top of him. In the moonlight, Eddie can only make out a few of the features that grabbed their attention at the bar: short brown hair, asymmetric jaw, lopsided smile.

They share a long, sloppy kiss that’s all tongues and teeth, and suddenly Eddie is back in the forest, lips pressed hard against alien skin.

No, he finally replies as the stranger’s hands slide past Eddie’s waistband, making him sigh. No, it’s not.

It feels like it does sometimes in dreams, like he’s watching through his own eyes and, at the same time, watching himself from the outside. Eddie’s entire body shivers as he flips the stranger over and starts pressing inside tight, slippery heat.

He can feel hungry eyes in the darkness, drinking in the sight of him. When he pushes in, it’s slow and deliberate, each movement challenging the silent observer to tear their gaze off. It’s not rational or reasoned, not in any way, but Eddie does it all the same.

The strange feeling of being observed heightens, intensifies across Eddie’s spine and down his thighs, follows all the way up to his nape and locks in the spot between his shoulders. As the pace grows faster, Eddie thinks he feels something wet trailing down his back. It’s only plausible deniability that allows him to tell himself it’s just sweat, even as he trembles with the thrill of it, his heart hammering wildly.

Eddie bites into the stranger’s shoulder, pleasure making its way across each and every nerve of his body in waves; as his teeth sink into soft skin, he feels a mirrored sensation just to the side of his neck.

They fall over the edge with a cry, darkness all around them.

 

***

 

One day, Eddie takes them to an empty parking lot and tells Venom to take the wheel. In this instance, it’s both literal and figurative, since he’s teaching the symbiote how to drive.

As Venom makes the mental equivalent of a question mark, Eddie laughs and takes a step back into their consciousness, pushing him to the forefront of their mind.

C’mon. You’re old enough to do this, right?

Venom stretches his knuckles around the motorbike’s handles, feeling lost. “Why do I have to learn how to drive?”

You don’t have to. It’s just fun, that’s all.

Confused, but not wanting to back down from a challenge, Venom lets Eddie explain everything from ignition to acceleration, turns, brakes, traffic lights, stressing the point on road safety. The symbiote knows all of this from Eddie’s memories, but listens anyway. It couldn’t hurt to be a little overprepared if he’s going to win this thing.

Not a race, Eddie quips, but there’s humor in his voice – and fondness, a sweet taste on the tip of Venom’s tongue.

It proves a bit frustrating, at first, but once he’s slipped inside the bike to analyze each and every component, he finds it is, predictably, little more than child’s play.

Whoa, easy! Eddie shouts as Venom speeds up and zigzags across the Golden Gate Bridge like Valentino freaking Rossi. The symbiote grins smugly.

Show-off, Eddie huffs. His voice sounds resigned, but the fondness doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.

“You were right, Eddie,” Venom shouts over the wind in Eddie’s voice, grinning. “This is fun.”

Then he crashes them into an empty Starbucks.

 

***

 

The fact that their wishes align doesn’t mean there are no disagreements. When it happens, it’s usually because Eddie is remembering some measure of self-restraint, something Venom fails to see the appeal of.

“Buddy, we can’t keep living off chocolate and tater tots,” Eddie says, pulling out a salad from the shopping bag. “Sometimes, greens are a necessary evil.”

We fight evil.

“Not this time,” Eddie replies, emptying the bag into a bowl. “This time, we die like men.”

Eddie should’ve known to be suspicious the second he didn’t hear Venom argue back. He’s learned to beware whenever his mind gets too quiet. Following this train of thought, he swirls around and manages to grab the chocolate sauce out of Venom’s slimy grasp right before it ends up as salad dressing. Sadly, it does end up as Eddie dressing.

“Motherfuck–”

Give it back!

Eddie will never deny that occasionally, very occasionally, he can get somewhat competitive. He stares Venom’s floating form dead in the eye and, slowly, pours the rest of the chocolate all over himself – face, arms, and even torso, right down the neck of his soaked shirt. Then he crunches up the empty bottle and, without breaking eye-contact, drops it like a mic.

“Whoops,” he shrugs. “Guess if you really want it, you’re gonna have to come and get it.”

Almost immediately, Eddie realizes his mistake. A row of sharp white teeth grins at him mid-air, and Eddie wonders how he could’ve forgotten that Venom can simply reabsorb himself into him and take every drop of chocolate sauce with him–

But that’s not what Venom does. Instead, he edges closer, forming a humanoid shape in the process.

It’s a flicker of realization, a spark across their bond, and that’s all the warning Eddie gets before two tendrils lock his wrists against the counter and a hungry tongue starts lapping up the chocolate from his skin.

He licks his arms clean first, lingering over the sensitive, already chocolate-free spots on the underside of his wrists, mapping out bones and veins. Then he moves on to his neck. There, he leaves a trail of half-kisses, half-bites all the way down his collarbone. Eddie shivers as he realizes who he must’ve learned it from.

By the time he starts inching downwards, shirt falling to the floor torn in half by a single, slow, sharp claw, Eddie’s rapidly forgetting how to breathe.

And while he forgets, he remembers the forest. Remembers the dark room of the nameless stranger. Remembers hungry eyes and tongue and teeth.

Mine,” the symbiote growls against his skin, and Eddie sighs, wondering if it should feel any kind of wrong. Rationally, he knows it should.

But they want as one – they are one – so it comes as no surprise, really, when it doesn’t.

No tentacles?” Venom whispers into his ear, a smug note rising out of the thrill and anticipation. Tendrils move away from his wrists to draw idle shapes along the line of his jeans.

Eddie sinks his nails into Venom’s shoulders. “Don’t you dare,” he says, hoarse and breathless.

He doesn’t need to clarify what he means.

 

***

 

When Eddie suggests a hunt for some fresh skulls and Venom declines, pushing him against the wall instead, Eddie wonders, briefly, if he should be concerned. But then he’s being enveloped in delicious heat and spread open and touched in all the right places by a thousand black tendrils, and the thought falls almost as quickly as his zipper does.

However, it keeps happening. Eddie, while delighted both at the new routine and the new diet, can’t help but worry himself sick over the sudden change. So he does what any reasonable person would do: he swallows his pride, minces his words as carefully as he can, and asks their doctor.

Dan isn’t sure what it is exactly that Eddie is trying to ask the first three times. So, on the fourth try, he swallows his dignity along with his pride and stop mincing his words altogether.

“Oh. Oh!” Dan says, coloring a deeper shade of purple than any human should. “L-Let me see what I can find out.”

When he goes a full week without being pestered for chocolate refills in their mochaccino, Eddie texts Dan with cold sweat on his palms, asking for updates. Venom, for his part, doesn’t seem very concerned, offering as his sole explanation We can do whatever we want, whenever we want – usually while he’s buried so deep inside his host that Eddie can’t think to do anything but nod, blissfully distracted.

When Dan asks him to meet for coffee, he takes the opportunity to demonstrate. He clears his throat and says, a little too loud to be solely for Dan’s benefit: “Well, no chocolate syrup today. Gotta keep healthy. Right, V?”

Sure.

Eddie gesticulates frantically at that, whisper-shouting “See?!” and forgetting entirely that Dan cannot hear Venom’s voice in his mind. Dan kindly avoids pointing out the fact, managing to fill the gap on his own.

“So, uhm,” the doctor starts to say, under Eddie’s expectant gaze. He opens and closes his mouth a few times.

Then decides the written word will handle this way better than he ever could.

“Here,” he says, pushing a file into Eddie’s hands. The scrawled writing on the cover reads Phenethylamine. “As you’ll see, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s… a good thing, actually.”

Eddie spends the evening deciphering medical jargon. Three times he starts over; three times everything seems to point to the same conclusion.

Venom is curled sleepily inside him, only half awake.

“So…” Eddie begins, feeling his cheeks going red. “Love you too, I guess?”

 

***

 

If Dan believed his troubles were over, it lasted very little. Three weeks, to be exact.

He’s meeting Anne for lunch after her appointment with the vet for Mr. Belvedere – or at least, he was. Now he has Eddie doubled over in the parking lot, blackness falling in and out of his skin. With one hand he keeps him upright, and with the other he texts Anne.

Never in her life would Anne have thought she’d end up being her ex fiancé’s improvised doula. However, that’s only in retrospect: right now, Eddie looks like he’s about to split in half and not a single one of them has a clue as to why. The way Eddie clutches his chest, breathing hard and gritting his teeth in unbearable pain, reminds Dan of a heart attack, which he refrains from saying out loud.

“Look,” Dan says with urgency in his voice, ushering them all in the first free room he can find – which is, incidentally, the MRI room. “I think it’s better if you guys separate. Just…” he continues quickly with his hands up, on the receiving end of a combined death glare, “…so we can figure out which one of you is actually sick.”

It’s sensible, Anne thinks. It’s reasonable.

It’s also never gonna happen.

We are sick,” they say with one voice. “Help us. Please.

Anne places the pet carrier with Mr. Belvedere on the floor, careful not to make any sudden movements. A pang of sadness goes through her chest as she glances briefly at the huddled form of her beloved cat. He’s been ill for a few months now, and the vet has confirmed her worst fears just this morning. She’s almost glad for the chance to take her mind off of it, although she would’ve preferred pizza and beers to her ex clawing at his chest and cursing off the calendar.

Anne is almost considering pulling the trick with the MRI again, when a ball of blackness comes rolling out of Eddie’s – Venom’s? – sternum.

Apparently, having never given birth – ‘spawned’– inside a human host before, Venom did not know how to tell the symptoms apart from impending death. A reasonable misunderstanding, in Anne’s opinion. Uh-huh. Never mind the crazy, impossible situation of the alien inside her ex spawning a child: Anne is going to cling to whatever sense she can find in all of this.

Eddie looks shocked, but not too shocked. Relieved, mostly, that neither one of them is going to die. It’s almost sweet, if not for the flashes of understanding that occasionally cross Eddie’s eyes and make them go as wide as Anne’s and Dan’s as Venom shares his intuition with the rest of the class. Anne suspects that, by now, Eddie has learned to file away anything that might compromise his sanity in a drawer labeled “Do Not Process”. She also has a hunch it might look like the ones at his desk: overflowing.

While they’re all distracted by, well, everything, the gooey ball rolls quietly towards Mr. Belvedere’s carrier. The cat, tired and weak, does not even flinch. Eddie catches sight of it with the corner of his eye, but by the time he does it’s already too late.

Suddenly, Anne’s cat has black fur, bright yellow stripes, and the vitality of a kitten.

Eddie ends up taking him home. He apologizes profusely for the incident, but Anne shakes her head. She was getting ready to kiss him goodbye – now, at least, it’ll be a happy goodbye. Like sending a kid off to college.

“So,” Eddie asks, plopping down onto the couch as he lets former Mr. Belvedere free in the apartment. The prospect of unplanned parenthood is certainly made easier by the fact that the new member of the family looks, acts, and meows like a regular housecat. Way less terrifying than an actual, alien-looking baby. He can deal with cats, can’t he? He can definitely deal with cats. “What now?”

Venom seems to ponder for a moment.

Now we feed them brains.

Eddie runs a hand through the cat’s – child’s? Alien’s? – fur, curling his fingers behind their ear. Like with everything else that has happened over the past year, he decides to do what he does best: shrug and roll with it. “Seems fair. How do you feel about mice, little pal?”

 

***

 

 

It’s a quiet night in. They’re all curled up on the couch – him, Venom, and Sleeper (formerly Mr. Belvedere). As Eddie flips through the channels, a documentary on clownfish comes up.

He feels himself smile, and leaves it on.